Delivering Antwerp: The talent getting their first shot at a major
Sjokz PGL Major Antwerp
Provided by PGL

Delivering Antwerp: The talent getting their first shot at a major

Sjokz, Scrawny, Mauisnake and zarx are among the CS:GO talent working their first major

Eefje “Sjokz” Depoortere’s first experience at the Sportpaleis in Antwerp, Belgium was a Spice Girls concert. The British girl group’s 1998 Spiceworld Tour was a sci-fi, Disco-infused experience that packed the venue most of the way to its 23,000-person maximum capacity and left a lasting impression on an 11-year-old Sjokz.

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In a few weeks, Sjokz will again be at the Sportpaleis in her home country of Belgium. This time, she’ll be part of the team delivering the entertainment. And it won’t be the Spice Girls taking the stage of the legendary arena — it’ll be the eight best teams in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Players like Robin “ropz” Kool will be clicking heads in the same spot that Scary Spice gyrated to “If U Can’t Dance,” about 24 years earlier.

There aren’t many events in esports that can lock down a venue like the Sportpaleis, but a CS:GO major is one of them. The PGL Major Antwerp 2022, which began Monday, is the pinnacle of the esport. It draws fans internationally with the allure of seeing the top teams from every corner of the globe go head-to-head in a bloody gauntlet of bullets and explosives. It’s a contest to see who’s the best of the best.

For Sjokz and a handful of other talent, Antwerp will be their first major. It’s a milestone achievement to work a major, whose prestige is on par with all the great esports events like Dota 2’s The International or the League of Legends World Championship. Majors have a history that spans decades, and even different Counter-Strike titles. The first Valve-sponsored major took place in 2013 following the release of Global-Offensive and Fnatic cemented their name in the history books there.

The sheer amount of fame and esports lore associated with majors is like an electric undercurrent to the proceedings. Fans can feel it. Players can feel it. And you better believe that the talent can feel it.

Getting ‘the call’

Sjokz got her entry into the esports world as a pro in the first-person shooter Unreal Tournament ’99, but her big breaks as a talent came in League of Legends. Since then, the 34-year-old Belgian host has grown into a staple of the scene. She’s worked some of the biggest events in esports, including the aforementioned LoL World Championship.

Despite a longstanding fascination with Counter-Strike and a background in FPS, Sjokz’s debut as a talent in CS:GO only came in 2019. Since then, she’s looked for an opportunity to work a major. A missed connection at PGL Major Stockholm in 2021 only fueled the fire. When she found out the next major would be in Belgium, her resolve to be there intensified.

“I was like, ‘Yes, I’ll do anything,'” Sjokz said. “Like, I’ll just come to, I don’t know, do hospitality and talk to the politicians about how important esports is.”

Majors are somewhat unique within esports because the event cycles through different tournament organizers. Antwerp is run by PGL, who also handled Stockholm in 2021. As talent, securing work at a major requires the TO — in this case, PGL — to take notice of you and send out an invite.

Sjokz had a decades long history in esports to dangle in front of PGL. Other first-time talent came from within CS:GO — internal hires who’d proved their stuff by working the event circuits that run throughout the year.

When Alex “Mauisnake” Ellenberg found out he’d be working as an analyst at Antwerp, his reaction was “elation.” As someone who has approached CS:GO from every angle — semi-pro player, talent and even YouTube content creator — Mauisnake knows what a major means. He knows any packed stadium event is hype, but a major is different.

“A major, just by name alone, has a built-in legacy to the past, the history of the game, the history of the esport,” Mauisnake said. “People that win a major are etched forever into the history books.”

A self-styled “Swiss army knife” of broadcast, Mauisnake has been at various points a CS:GO analyst, sideline interviewer and caster. For roughly five years, he’s worked for countless different TOs at all kinds of events, proving his versatility and mettle. At the Regional Major Ranking event ahead of Antwerp, Mauisnake said he proved to PGL he had what they needed.

Another first-time major talent is Conner “Scrawny” Girvan, one half of the beloved Scraunders (Lauwny?) casting duo alongside Mohan “launders” Govindasamy. Maybe the most impressive part of the 27-year-old Canadian’s career in CS:GO is the sheer volume of events he’s worked since he began a little more than five years ago. In spite of that, Scrawny felt like his casting abilities weren’t fully up to snuff until recently.

“For years, at this point, I would have hated to have done a major before I felt like I was ready,” Scrawny said. “Because I feel like I am [now ready], I’m just super excited.”

Conner “Scrawny” Girvan on Day 1 of PGL Major Antwerp 2022. | Photo by Joao Ferreira. Provided by PGL.

Rounding out the group of new major talent is another iconic casting duo who were involved in the StarLadder Berlin Major 2019 (though only in a small capacity): Hugo Byron and Harry “JustHarry” Russell. There’s also a new crop of oft-forgotten and always under-appreciated observers, who bring the action to viewers from behind-the-scene — people like Marko “shev” Krajčeski and Jake “zarx” Karakouzian.

“I literally couldn’t believe it,” zarx said of getting the invite to Antwerp. “I just sat there shocked. I’m still trying to process it now.”

Zarx got the nod thanks to his friend who already had a pre-existing relationship with PGL and put forward zarx’s name. Unsurprisingly, esports has a proclivity toward “who you know” hiring. That’s not to say zarx or any of the other talent making their major debut are undeserving, but the perception that hiring talent is a flawed meritocracy has never failed to inspire mass online vitriol from a small but vocal minority of CS:GO fans.

Good vibes

It’s the ugly truth of freelance work that when one talent is hired to an event, it’s often at the cost of a peer being there. And there’s nothing certain fans love more than twisting that knife by dissecting a talent announcement and angrily decreeing PGL have made a big mistake not hiring their favorite caster.

This made it all the more surprising when fans met the Antwerp talent announcement with generally positive sentiment.

The muted and civil reaction put into perspective how much discourse surrounded last year’s announcement of the talent at Stockholm. Some levelled early criticisms at PGL for the absence of women and the decision to bring back on-air talent who had taken a step back from CS:GO in recent months. The drama didn’t end there, either. There were internal spats among the talent at Stockholm, much to the delight of drama-mongers.

Mauisnake said it’s unlikely we’ll get the same theatrics at Antwerp.

“What the fans are going to see on social media and in podcasts after the major is about how hunky dory everybody was — fingers crossed, of course,” Mauisnake said. “I might just start [drama] for fun. It’s gonna be like fake rap beef… I’m just going to do that with launders. We’re just going to start fake drama and then have a charity concert at the end of it all.”

Alex “Mauisnake” Ellenberg on Day 1 of PGL Major Antwerp 2022. | Photo by Joao Ferreira. Provided by PGL.

Still, there are some exceptions to the general aura of positivity that has surrounded the talent at Antwerp. Sjokz said she anticipated people being critical of PGL giving her the chance to host at the major in lieu of another more ingrained CS:GO talent.

“I get if people would feel that way, because it makes sense,” she said. “But hopefully, through my work, it will show that I really do love the scene and that I’m excited to do it.”

And despite the flak she received from a select group of fans, Sjokz said the other talent have been nothing but accommodating.

“I think that, like any other group, they will react well to someone who puts in the work and really wants to be involved,” Sjokz said.

Talent at Antwerp

The talent pool in CS:GO runs deep. That means not everyone can get a shot at a major. Decisions must be made and not everyone makes the cut. The notion that the new talent at Antwerp represent an overall shift away from the “old generation” is one all the talent are deeply averse toward.

“One event doesn’t define a new generation,” Scrawny said.

The beauty of CS:GO’s open competitive structure is there are events aplenty. The year is jam packed with opportunities for prospective talent to strut their stuff. That means those who worked Stockholm aren’t simply gone because they didn’t get Antwerp.

And, in spite of a few past petty squabbles, there’s nothing talent love more than directing due attention to up-and-coming peers. Mauisnake pointed to Adam “Dinko” Hawthorne and Alex “Hawka” Hawkins as great additions at an upcoming major.

“They’re the clear next-in-line for me,” he said.

CS:GO talent, fans and players are fiercely protective of their game. Sometimes that manifests in ugly ways. But more often than not, it comes out as a shared love for everything majors represent, what Scrawny describes as a celebration of Counter-Strike.

The talent getting their first opportunity to work a major are undoubtedly benefitting on a professional level — the exposure granted from a major, where hundreds of thousands of fans will tune in, is undeniable — but the much more pervasive feeling is a solemn responsibility to deliver the best event they can possible deliver.

“At the end of the day, once the hiring is done and once those people are at that event,” Scrawny said, “then it’s their turn to take care of Counter-Strike.”

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Coby Zucker
Coby Zucker is Upcomer's resident CS:GO writer. He's also played League of Legends at the collegiate level and is a frequent visitor in TFT Challenger Elo. He's a firm believer that Toronto should be the next big esports hub city.