In a region that has had its playerbase ravaged during the online era due to a multitude of factors, only a few names below the upper echelon have shone through to represent North American Counter-Strike.
If one had looked at teams at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there were plenty of promising rosters – Swole Patrol, Orgless, Chaos, New England Whalers, and Triumph, to name a few. But following the release of VALORANT, the cuts to the ESL Pro League team slots, and a lack of organisational interest and support for North America as a region, those once-strong tier two contenders have had their players flock to Riot Games’ FPS by the dozens, leaving the pool of talent a fraction of what it once was.
One of the region’s few remaining experienced in-game leaders, Joshua “steel” Nissan, departed for the new esports title, and his former team Chaos, who housed two of NA’s hottest prospects and secured tournament wins over the likes of Liquid and FURIA at the end of 2020, were unable to find a new home. With that lack of financial security, the remaining players on the roster started to take their leave, putting another nail in the coffin of North American Counter-Strike.
With the team’s in-game leader, Anthony “vanity” Malaspina, departing for VALORANT alongside Nathan “leaf” Orf, and Erick “Xeppaa” Bach moving to Cloud9, a plan was hatched to make use of the Chaos ESEA MDL slot that remained. The new roster would mark the reunion of Jonathan “Jonji” Carey and Peter “ptr” Gurney, who had previously played together on Riot Squad and Bad News Bears, with Michael “Swisher” Schmid, Nick “alter” Jackson, and Gabe “Spongey” Greiner – two relative rookies, and a solid supporting pillar – making up the rest of the squad.
For the team that emerged from the ashes of Chaos, what followed was a laborious journey to arrive at IEM Cologne, one that has become a bastion of hope for the North American region: Months of grind through playing against the same teams, taking part in as many ESEA Cash Cups as possible in order to survive off the prize money, and qualification for ESL Pro League by topping ESEA Premier. They have a relentless drive to prove that NA still has it, not just for results or money to continue competing, but also to keep alive their hope of joining an organisation that can give them the chance to pursue their dreams. For Jonji, this is also the chance to bounce back after his team disbanded, and to make a grand return at the first LAN tournament since the start of the pandemic, one that he’s been watching since he was 16 years old.
“Honestly, being part of Cologne and it being the first LAN back as the world tries to get back to normal is a dream come true,” Jonji tells HLTV.org “I think the pandemic, for everyone, has probably been really rough in many ways. I think the gym closing and my team of really good friends – Chaos – dying when we were showing that we could hang with anybody, waiting for our chance to go to Europe to prove ourselves finally, made it incredibly hard for me for a while. Since then I’ve been finding new ways to cope with the stress that is being an NACS player, and experiencing something I never thought I would.”
One of the key factors behind the stress Jonji refers to is the ongoing search for an organisation. Despite posting strong results, which began with early Cash Cup victories and converted into winning ESEA Premier Season 37 to earn a Pro League spot and a ticket to the IEM Cologne Play-In, the team have found little success in earning bids. But even with the lack of interest, the 21-year-old Canadian remains hopeful that the return to LAN and consistent performances from his team can prove that they are worthy.
“I believe when DreamHack Open events and LANs come back to North America we will see more organisations either come back to CS or gain an interest,” Jonji explains. “And if not, we as Bad News Bears are trying to show everyone and ourselves that nothing is impossible and that if you really want to do something you do not need to always take the lazy route and wait for things to come, you can take it into your own hands and do it yourself.”
Those haven’t been just empty words, either. Amid the uncertainty and ahead of their Cologne trip, the team partnered with Boston-based Big Chillin, a fellow ESEA Premier organisation, to release a limited run of apparel in order to help support the players on their trip abroad.
The entire collection sold out after a little over two hours.
“The support has been unreal and this whole experience of actually trying to do something with Bad News Bears just gives the word excited a new meaning,” Jonji says. “We get to learn something new every day, practice expressing our creative sides, and learn some business/management tips and tricks.”
It was only two days later that Leetify announced they would sponsor Bad News Bears in their IEM Cologne and ESL Pro League campaigns, offering them both financial support and collaboration on future video content, something which the players were already attempting on their own.
“Leetify wanting to partner with us was just another breath of fresh air that made us feel like we were on track and doing things properly, and will always welcome with a big bear hug anyone that wants to collaborate,” Jonji stated. “The team and myself really appreciate the time, support, and energy people give us.”
With the security of a sponsorship, merch sales, and fan support behind them, Bad News Bears can now fully turn their attention to the IEM Cologne Play-In, where they will take on mousesports in their opening match. The match not only marks the team’s first chance to play in Europe, but their first true test since adding Alan “Shakezullah” Hardeman in place of alter. Their clear status as an underdog does little to unnerve Jonji, who remains confident that Bad News Bears can make their mark despite limited international experience.
“I’m not going to be one of those people who lie and say we dominated every scrim and look the best we ever have because that just was not the case,” the 21-year-old explained. “However, we took every practice match and bit of server time as seriously as we could and really just put our heads down and did not hold anything back when reviewing, even in practice.
“It means the world to me to finally get a chance to play these teams. I’ve been playing in NA and making it to a few tournaments here and there, but I think my way of coming up and having a few unfortunate maps not go in my favor taught me a lot, and turned me into the player I am now – the one who is ready to be around for longer and make a mark. I have every single bit of faith that if our team plays our game, doesn’t let the small things worry us, and we just shoot the bad guys and have fun while doing so, I think we could beat anyone. Personally, I would like to make it into the main event. I have waited too long to come here to lose a few games and be gone, that’s not why I came here, and not why we came here.”
For the community at large, expectations of Bad News Bears coming into IEM Cologne may be low, especially when one considers that they are the second lowest-ranked side in attendance, only behind ViCi. But despite being the only team without an organisation among the field of 24, spirits are high in the Bad News Bears camp, and complacency on the part of any of their opponents is something the team is looking to punish.
For the North Americans, simply getting to play in Europe isn’t the goal — it’s just the start.
“I hope we can put on a good show for you guys,” Jonji says.