Doing well is always the goal for every Rainbow Six team, with CYCLOPS athlete gaming (CAG) no exception, but its analyst Riccardo "Hybrid" Massimino Font is well aware of the dangers of the pressure that his team has invited upon itself after its Stage 2 performances.
"Towards the end of the Invitational (this year), yes, we were better than Cloud9... probably also Giants," he begins.
Arguably, CAG had been the best APAC team at the Six Invitational 2021 despite a 5-7 loss to Cloud9 that saw it eliminated in the group stage. After a shaky first day, the Japanese recovered to take down Team Liquid and Team oNe on the second day, before pushing the far European giants of BDS Esport and Team Empire to Round 15 in a valiant attempt to leapfrog Cloud9.
Comparatively, Cloud9’s only other victory had been a 7-2 over FaZe Clan, though it had also forced DarkZero Esports to maximum overtime.
The early elimination just spurred CAG on, however. A lossless Stage 2 in APAC North, where the closest result was just an opening 8-6 win over Fnatic, was pulled off in parallel to an incredible 12-0 run to the inaugural Japan League title.
But this means that APAC’s hopes and dreams largely rest on CAG’s shoulders, especially since the APAC South stage champions Knights will not be in attendance.
"Right now, for this event, we have way more pressure than the Invitational," he admits. "Last time it was like, 'whatever we do, it's fine'."
However, even though the team had gone into the Six Invitational with no expectations, Hybrid shared that the team had still succumbed to the pressure on a disastrous first day. Then, CAG had lost to DarkZero Esports (7-3), Cloud9 (7-5) and FURIA (7-1).
Still, Hybrid is confident that his team is now the best team in APAC. All his players have to do, he says, is not crumble under the pressure.
CAG's first international tournament had been the Six Major Raleigh, which began nearly two years to the date, on the 12th of August, 2019. Four players remain from that team, who had described the sudden lurch to international competition as a "shock".
Now, they believe they can put bigger teams to the sword, even in a best-of-three.
Hybrid also spoke to how the lack of changes have helped the team become stronger, explaining that issues that had cropped up had been fixed internally. Issues that would see other teams drop players, he said, "don't affect" CAG now.
As a result, since the December 2019 change that saw Taiyo "Ayagator" Hirayama join the team, CAG has largely performed well.
A run that started with a first place finish in Season 11 of the ESL Pro League also saw a Top 3 placement in the August APAC North Major, a second-place finish in Stage 2 last year and Stage 1 this year, and qualification to the Six Invitational 2021.
However, the team has not been free of missteps, faltering to a sixth-place finish in Stage 1 of the 2020 season, crashing out in fourth at the Stage 1 APAC Playoffs this year, and failing to progress from the group stage at the Six Invitational 2021.
"The goal is to be more solid," answers Hybrid when asked about where the future of the team lies. "A problem that we had [...] was closing out matches. But, we started doing pretty well (when we fixed it)."
Sure enough, at the Invitational, CAG had let slip a 3-0 lead against BDS Esport and two even more impressive 5-2 and 7-6 leads against Team Empire. But come the opening day of Stage 2 of APAC North, CAG had stopped a Fnatic comeback from 4-2 down to 6-5 up dead in its tracks and had instead taken the win 8-6.
But despite agreeing with Invictus Gaming captain Glen "Lunarmetal" Suryasaputra that the generic APAC play style cannot match up with other regions' play styles, Hybrid is not looking to try to change how CAG currently plays.
"As as European, I had always pushed [...] for a more European, or more 'standard' kind of play style," he explained. "But after that second play day (at the Invitational), I think a switch was triggered in our minds."
Hybrid explained that he had initially felt that CAG had been "way too aggressive" and the team had planned to "fix it" when playing international teams. But when a more measured style at the Invitational led to three opening defeats, he realised that the answer lay in the opposite direction -- even more aggression.
"Our play style is different from even the APAC play style and is even more different than the international play style. But are we moving on from that? I don't think so," he continued. "Yes, it's risky and I nearly have a heart attack every single match, but if they can win like this, so it is."
And win CAG has, thanks in large part to its players coming up with strategies and deciding upon the necessary level of aggression amongst themselves. Knowing themselves well, the players make full use of their gunfighting abilities, sometimes going for a four-man spawn-peek on some maps or fighting off spawn-peeks in unorthodox ways.
"Who would counter spawn-peeks with Glaz by throwing down a smoke and pushing? Nobody would. But they did it," elucidated Hybrid. "And it worked out, they didn't get spawn-peeked."
Nevertheless, he is well aware of the gap between CAG and title-contenders such as Ninjas in Pyjamas.
"It's not just being (plainly) ‘aggressive’, but it's being unique (that will help us get there)," he explained. "That's a goal that will see us shoot to the top or see us sink completely to the bottom. It's high-risk and high-reward, but I think that can help us go far in the tournament."
CAG’s uniqueness is certainly true and is possibly even seen as foolishly risky by some, with the Japanese opting to amp up the aggression in a meta where others, such as Team Empire’s Danil "JoyStiCK" Gabov, have described the meta as a balance between all-out utility clear and all-out aggression. But Hybrid and the team feels it necessary to be able to become a title contender.
That is, of course, on top of the very vital experience that teams in APAC need to keep pace with those in other regions.
"APAC basically joined two years after the rest, while even LATAM joined two seasons before APAC," said Hybrid. "So APAC has to recover two years of experience that they never had."
But recovering that experience is not straightforward.
"You can say, then, 'how much time is that (recovery going to take)?' Two years? We have already passed that, yes. But it's not just two years, because the teams (going to the international events) change."
COVID-19 also hurt the APAC region the worst, with the lack of an ability to play and practice against other regions stunting its growth. And practicing a more international play style is tough in APAC.
"If we want to practice with a play style that is similar to international teams, we can't do it, because for that we need to play Fnatic, Cloud9, and Invictus every play day," said Hybrid. "Other teams, they're not going to play with an international play style. They're going to play with their play style."
Working around this limitation, explained Hybrid, is why CAG plays with as much aggression as it does.
"That's why we came out with a super-aggressive play style, because it cuts the time down. We don't need as much experience, we can be dangerous to top teams from other regions right now."
And that's what CAG is aiming to do in Mexico.
"I think we can beat all of them," answered Hybrid, when asked about his team's chances in Group A. "The goal of the players is to win, but being realistic, I hope for a semi-finals appearance... but I would be happy just making it to the playoffs or even just a strong performance in the groups."
Catch CAG in the Six Mexico Major opening game against Team BDS, set to be played on the main Rainbow6 Twitch channel on the 16th of August at 10 AM CDT (UTC-5).