The blue and white confetti raining down at Agganis Arena in Boston in January 2018 marked a defining moment in Counter-Strike history.
After years of lagging behind European teams and failing time after time in the biggest moments, a North American Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team had finally done it. One had won a major.
Tyler "Skadoodle" Latham erupted from his seat after a tense double-overtime game that saw his Cloud9 overcome FaZe Clan at the 2018 ELEAGUE Boston Major. One of North America's top stars, Skadoodle had been in pursuit of a major title for a number of years and finally got to take home the most important trophy in competitive CS:GO.
Sitting back home in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Montreal respectively, Braxton "brax" Pierce and Keven "AZK" Larivière watched as one of their closest friends and former teammates achieved something they had aspired to do together three years earlier.
"I watched all of his matches," AZK said, "and there were a lot of times I'd like to be there, for sure."
Skadoodle earned the right to hoist that trophy, but brax and AZK never got the chance. Their professional CS:GO careers had ended years earlier, after theirs and Skadoodle's team, iBUYPOWER, threw an online match; AZK and brax were subsequently banned for life from competing in the game. Skadoodle, who declined to take earnings from the the most famous throw in esports history, was able to continue competing.
A lot has changed for Skadoodle, AKZ and brax in the five years since the iBUYPOWER ban. All three no longer play Counter-Strike professionally, but instead, as of Wednesday, are now pros in VALORANT, a Counter-Strike-inspired first-person shooter made by League of Legends creator Riot Games. Not only are they pros, but they're together again, practicing, competing in and winning tournaments -- like Sunday's Twitch Rivals event -- just like old times.
"It feels amazing to be reunited," brax said. "Obviously these two guys were two of my favorite teammates on iBUYPOWER, so it feels really nice to get a chance to play at a high level with them. I'm super excited for the future."
Some Counter-Strike players have made the transition to VALORANT as the game has continued to attract attention from esports orgs. But those taking that risk, for a game that released literally just last week, are mostly has-beens or never-weres. If a Counter-Strike career is shaped like a mountain, many of the newfound VALORANT pros are ones who eclipsed the summit and made it all the way to the bottom of the other side. But that's not the case with Skadoodle, AZK and brax.
Before the bans, iBUYPOWER was becoming the best North American team in Counter-Strike. The team featured seasoned veterans like AZK, as well as Sam "DaZeD" Marine and Joshua "steel" Nissan, and rising talent with enormous upside in brax and Skadoodle. Then 18 years old, brax was considered by many to be the next big thing in the game. Skadoodle, too, had built a name for himself. It seemed that despite internal disputes between some members and the departure-then-rejoining of DaZeD, iBUYPOWER would continue to ascend.
"Our potential was past the sky," Skadoodle said. "We were an insane team. We got along really well together. We were very competitive; we didn't like losing whatsoever. We were willing to fix whatever problems we had to succeed."
To understand the context of the match-fixing scandal, it's important to reflect on what Counter-Strike, and esports at large, was at the time. Today, Counter-Strike players make six-figure annual salaries. Teams are funded by some of the richest people in the world, and being a top player entitles you to a life of luxury. Back then, however, few organizations paid a wage at all, much less a living one.
So when DaZeD approached his teammates with a plan to throw a non-consequential match in an online league, it seemed like nothing. An easy way to make a thousand bucks a pop. Surely they wouldn't get caught.
But they did, and in what is still Valve's most definitive and harshest ban ever, brax, AZK, steel and DaZeD found themselves not just out of jobs but out of careers.
Skadoodle finds his home with T1
Tyler "Skadoodle" Latham has found a new home after deciding to go pro in VALORANT with T1.
AZK would eventually turn to Overwatch, where he'd play professionally for some time, but the game failed to scratch the itch he had for tactical first-person shooters, and his friends beckoned him to come back to Counter-Strike. Brax, still of high intrigue to fans, would become an influencer for Cloud9, later substituting in matches of tournaments that decided they would not conform to Valve's rules.
In the time since 2015, brax has been at the core of the conversation around whether Valve's punishment was fair. After all, when he threw, he was a teenager, and although he owned his mistakes, the argument that he was naive will always be there.
Richard Lewis, the journalist who broke the story that led to the bans, has argued in brax's favor.
"I know he wasn't a 'kid' in the way some say he was," Lewis told ESPN. "In fact, if people knew about his life, they'd know he is more grown than a lot of us because of unfortunate necessity. If people know their history of that scene at that time and the personalities within it they will know some things. They would know that brax was going to be the USA Counter-Strike prodigy because he has a phenomenal talent for FPS games.
"They would also know that he had to work hard to even play with the players he was playing with, to prove himself legitimate in the first place and earn their respect. And on top of that they'd know he was probably the best player that got the least out of Counter-Strike esports. He barely made a cent. Yet he had to try and justify what he was doing to a family that could never understand it."
While AZK and brax's paths turned away from the top levels of Counter-Strike, Skadoodle thrived. A sought-after free agent following the iBUYPOWER bans and his break from competitive play to recoup, Skadoodle signed a deal in 2015 with Cloud9, then considered one of the two best North American teams. He went on to boost his profile on the back of consistent highlight-reel plays and eventually was the finals MVP for the first and only North American team to win a CS:GO major.
Just a few months after the major win, however, Skadoodle took a two-week break from Cloud9. Upon his return, Cloud9 hit a slump, failing to make it out of the group stages at a number of tournaments, including the following major in London. He retired from Counter-Strike in late 2018 to become a full-time streamer on Twitch.
AZK, meanwhile, returned to Counter-Strike following his Overwatch stint. In mid-2017, ESL, followed by DreamHack, stated they would unban the iBUYPOWER players and others implicated in match-fixing, allowing them to compete in ESL-run non-major events. That let AZK and brax to begin competing once again, although their aspirations of achieving what Skadoodle eventually did were impossible.
Then, another opportunity opened up in a different game. Riot Games announced Project A during its 10-year anniversary event in October 2019, showing gameplay akin to Counter-Strike during a brief trailer. Esports teams around the world wanted to know more, and some, such as T1, began to meet with Riot about what the future looked like.
Eager to get a head start, T1 made the first-ever VALORANT pro player signing: brax.
The CS:GO prodigy whose career self-destructed before it started would get a second chance to be at the top of an FPS title.
He wasn't the only one. T1's second signing, albeit much later, was AZK. The team picked up two other rising Counter-Strike stars transitioning to VALORANT: Austin "crashies" Roberts and Victor "food" Wong. Finally, T1 nabbed Skadoodle, who once again earned his place as the hottest free agent in an FPS market.
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AZK and brax said they have no interest in going back to Counter-Strike. Skadoodle, jokingly, said he could see a return.
"I'm down to go back," Skadoodle said. "Let's get two major titles. Let's go."
But for now, their eyes are set on VALORANT, looking ahead at making up for some lost time and hoping to achieve what they feel they should've in Counter-Strike half a decade ago.
"[Brax and AZK] deserved a second chance in Counter-Strike, but with VALORANT, maybe they get the kind of clean slate I could never have foreseen," Lewis said. "I know all of these players well, some better than others, and know they are haunted by the bad decision they made.
"I know they will be able to show themselves to be at the highest level of skill in VALORANT because of who they are, and I hope that people will let them flourish without abuse or judgment. Five years is a long time in esports, but their transgressions happened in a time where we were still pulling ourselves out of the amateurish swamp we had wallowed in. I have faith in them all, and I wish them every success."