As much struggle Team Empire has had of late, the Russian squad can always hold its head high with the knowledge that it is one of two teams that effectively had an era of domination.
Starting with its Challenger League appearance in Season 8, Team Empire would take a third place at DreamHack Winter 2018 before blowing past all other competition to make it to the Six Invitational 2019 Grand Final against G2 Esports.
They would immediately join the Siege Hall of Fame, playing the longest map in top-flight play at 22 rounds (thanks to the infinite overtime format) to kick it off. While they would lose the series, Team Empire would win its first international trophy in its debut Pro League season, pulling off an incredible comeback victory against Evil Geniuses at the Season 9 Finals.
Their run would go on, as the Russians went to Raleigh with fire in their bellies, eager for revenge. Favourites G2 Esports lost their first Major in four, as the Empire struck back, collecting its second trophy on the trot.
Their era, however, would be short-lived. The team, like many others across the world, would falter in Season 10 and fail to make the Pro League Finals, before crashing out in the groups in the 2020 Six Invitational.
'Too much rigidity' and 'an outdated play style' were the reasons attributed to this sharp decline, a decline that had come almost as quickly as the team's rise.
The team struggled through most of 2020 after its third place in Season 11 of the Pro League, even losing Season 4 of the Russian Major League to Virtus.pro. A fifth place overall in the 2020 season of the European League then followed and memories of Empire's heroics were beginning to fade from the public conscious.
The team did manage a small rally, winning Season 5 of the Russian Major League as well as the more coveted Six Major November in Europe, but as the meta shifted once more, the Russians found themselves left behind again.
While the Empire reigns supreme in Russia, even over Virtus.pro, it languishes in second-to-last in the EUL at the end of Stage 1. Just one regular-time win, two overtime wins, and one overtime loss make up the eight points for the Russian team, leaving them 12 points adrift of the lead.
As revealed by Danil "JoyStiCK" Gabov in the final Stage 1 play day's post-match interview, after the team recorded its first regular-time win of the season (against the similarly dire Team Secret), confidence is lacking amidst the Russian squad.
Nicknamed the "Soviet cyborg" and once described to be playing "Terrorist Hunt" in a top-flight Pro League match, the lack of aggression and confidence with which JoyStiCK used to enter in-game buildings on the backs of live drones has been notably missing.
The rest of his team, too, boasting the names of the "Russian clutch machine" Artur "ShepparD" Ipatov, Season 9 Finals hero Danila "dan" Dontsov, as well as the toxic-babe toting Dmitry "Scyther" Semenov and young gunner Dmitry "Always" Mitrahovich, is excellent on paper. However, they, alongside coach Oleg "RayzerGM" Kuchin have found it difficult to impose their law in Europe of late.
To understand more, SiegeGG spoke to JoyStiCK ahead of next week's Invitational.
Your team had a rough 2020 for the most part, recovered well to win the November Major, but has been struggling since. You mentioned issues with confidence, is that the key reason why?
Yes, confidence is the most important part of this game. Communication was not on point and we made too many mistakes during our games. In a Bo1 (Best-of-One), even one mistake can cost you three points.
Previously, your team would be very aggressive on the attack push, following drones in immediately, as you mentioned. Why is it not any more? Is it due to the meta shifts?
When we had just started playing, there was a gunfight meta where you could just go inside the building and start fighting with your enemies. Then, it was the shield and 20-second meta.
Now, it is kinda 50-50; some teams can play passively behind shields or can go roam with five people. So, it is hard for us at the moment to understand how to fix our play style, but we are working on it.
Despite the issues in EUL, your team is doing well in RML. Where does the difference in form come from?
The level of teams is different, plus confidence. RML, for us, is the opportunity to try something new, work on our play style to be more aggressive.
Analysts and other observers have pointed out that your team is often too rigid. Do you agree with this criticism? Why or why not?
I agree, but every team has their defaults and plays the same all the time and begin rotating only during the rounds. Same as we do.
You will, for the first time since the Season 9 Finals, not be the favorites at a LAN event. Is that underdog status going to be something you will enjoy? How are you guys preparing to improve in the lead-up to the event?
I mean, who is the favorite? Any team can beat any team now. So, I cannot say that somebody is the favorite. We made many improvements during the EUL stage and we will continue working as hard as we can during these two weeks.
What is your opinion on the changed format for the Invitational and how do you rate your chances in the group?
Yes, its looks very cool and balanced; the same system was at The International in Dota 2. I like it, as I wrote above.
I think that now, each team can beat any other, so it's hard to say anything, especially when there were no LANs for a long time and we did not play against other regions.
What is your goal for the Invitational and how confident are you that you'll achieve it?
I think that we, like every other team, have goals only for the Top 1.
We are now at the boot camp to gain this confidence and correct the mistakes that we made earlier, so I think we have a good chance.
Is there anything you want to say to your fans and maybe your competitors?
We love all our fans and would like to say thank you for supporting us.
Catch Team Empire next in action on the 11th of May at 11 AM CEST (UTC+2), when they take on Team Liquid live from Paris.