Blast Premier World Final 2022: What does it take to become a Counter-Strike champion?

As the game's best players compete at Etihad Arena, we speak to those chasing glory and a $1 million prize

Russel 'Twistzz' Van Dulken is a member of FaZe Clan, the favourites to win the Blast World Premier Final. Photo: Blast Premier
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Cementing the UAE’s rising status in the world of esports and competitive gaming, Abu Dhabi is set to host the Blast Premier World Final 2022 this month.

This weekend, the world’s best Counter-Strike: Global Offensive teams will compete for a $1 million prize pool at Etihad Arena. Ahead of the event, we spoke to one of the star players from the highest-ranked team FaZe Clan. In May, they became the only international team to win a major Counter-Strike event, the PGL Major Antwerp 2022 in Belgium.

Russel "Twistzz" Van Dulken is one of the most recent additions to the team. He started playing Counter-Strike in 2014 and rapidly rose through the ranks — going pro the next year and joining the best North American squad, Team Liquid, before moving on to join FaZe Clan in January last year, who he describes as “the best international team to ever exist in Counter-Strike”.

“We start practising at around 11.30am or 12pm, then we go over stuff as a team for an hour or so.” After this, the team plays five “scrims”, or practice rounds, against other teams.

“Then, usually there’s individual practice afterwards too, playing whatever you can really in Counter-Strike and then probably going to bed somewhere around 1am or 2am. Obviously, there's food in between — we're not robots."

However, for pros at the highest level, there is no strict cut-off point. “It's however long you make it. Some players simply just practice with their team, and that's it, they don't do anything else but practice routine. So it depends on where the work ethic is at.”

Though it sounds gruelling, Van Dulken says motivation is not a struggle “when you actually love your job and you're passionate about it”.

One of the challenges of being part of an international team is a lack of physical headquarters. “When we're not at an event, we're all practising from home. And then when we have an event, they’re often very long, so it can be seen as a kind of boot camp. We make the most of it while we're together.

“Luckily, there's tonnes of esports locations that want to help supply players with a boot camp facility, and we can still usually get around three boot camps per year.”

First released as a fan-made modification to the hit first-person-shooter Half-Life in 1999, Counter-Strike was later incorporated into the series — to become one of the most enduring and competitive online video games of all time. While there are other gamers who have been playing for longer, Van Dulken says there are a few important details that separate great casual players from top-tier professionals.

While great players might generally just wake up and play all day for fun, for teams like FaZe Clan, he says it is a “constant grind”. Van Dulken adds: “We have to work to stay on top, especially when you become the number one team. It's much harder to keep the number one spot than it is to get there in the first place. And the special part about Counter-Strike is that it's an ever-evolving game.”

Gamer Russel 'Twistzz' Van Dulken says tournaments can be physically and mentally gruelling

There is a $1 million prize fund on the line for the competition at Etihad Arena. The top teams, which also include NAVI, Team Vitality, Outsiders, Heroic, G2 Esports, Team Liquid and OG Esports, not only practice “scrimming” but “anti-stratting” — studying one another’s play styles, looking for weaknesses and figuring out how best to exploit them.

“You purely want to counter your opponents in as many ways as possible, while trying to play your own game still," says Van Dulken.

However, he says that among the elites, the edge comes down to psychology.

“You have to be able to adapt on the fly, not be afraid of using new ideas,” he says. “There’s obviously five finals in this game, and you have to play a potentially very long match with a lot of stressful moments. So it's really just about how your body reacts to it. Maybe for some people, it's extremely exhausting. Maybe you get really tired, maybe the adrenaline isn't enough to keep you keep you in the moment.”

Van Dulken’s coach, Robert "RobbaN" Dahlstrom, is a veteran of the game. Having started playing Counter-Strike in 2000, he went pro a few years later and played at the top level of competitive esports during its formative years for more than a decade. He’s been coaching FaZe Clan for five years now.

Going into Abu Dhabi as the favourite is a double-edged sword, Dahlstrom says. “We know that every team is studying us, and looking into how we're playing all the positions, how to distract us when we're playing.

FaZe Clan's coach, Robert 'RobbaN' Dahlstrom says: 'We know that every team is studying us, and looking into how we're playing all the positions, how to distract us when we're playing.'

“We have to make sure that we're not repeating habits all the time. Because when you play so many matches, and you win so many tournaments, there will be patterns in some of the positions you play and people will try to abuse this.”

While it’s one thing to reach the top, it’s another entirely to stay there. Dahlstrom says this is something that requires dedication and “extreme motivation” across the entire team.

He adds: “It's a lot of work outside of what people see. We have a lot of tactics, there's a lot of talking about theory. You need to focus, most of all, you need the will to win, and you have to work for it. And if you work hard enough, you will get it.”

Coaching, he says, requires a totally unique skillset from playing. “Now my job is to be a leader for the boys, to get them prepared and have their playbook ready for everything. Also, I make sure that everyone is 100 per cent confident going into matches.

“When I was a player myself, my only job was to play well. These days, people have way more staff behind the teams. We have analysts, we have sports psychologists, we have managers, we have amazing support. We even have fitness people helping us.”

When Dahlstrom started out, he says there would be only 15 people watching local network tournaments — a far cry from Etihad Arena. “It was just a dream back then that we could play in stadiums and fill arenas with 50,000 people. No way. It’s a dream come true.”

The BLAST Premier World Final will be open to the public at Etihad Arena, Abu Dhabi on December 17 and 18. Ticket prices start at Dh115 per person, with a discounted rate of Dh50 for students. More details are available at etihadarena.com

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Updated: December 19, 2022, 7:38 AM
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