Sayf: A long and odd path to the top
In 2015, there was a small, weekly king-of-the-hill tournament series called, “QPAD King of Nordic” where a number of grassroots, Nordic mix teams would get together and scrap it out for a small cash prize and some hardware. It was a light, off-the-cuff style of event meant to help grow the immense talent already in the Swedish and Nordic CS scenes. On the sixth week, a new mix team called Trepunktnoll qualifies for the event and goes on a 4-week win streak.
On this team, there are two players who will have two very different careers for a very curious reason. One Hampus "hampus" Poser and the other, Saif "Sayf" Jibraeel.
“It just happened to be GeT_RiGhT”
In 2015, Swedish CS is beginning the latest—and perhaps last—of its golden ages. Few esports scenes in the entire world have been this blessed with the kind of talent Swedish CS saw back then (and still sees today). Before too long, a Swedish Fnatic squad would come to rule Counter-Strike. But in that moment that Sayf lives in, it’s GeT_RiGhT and Ninjas in Pyjamas still loomed the largest.
GeT_RiGhT and f0rest are perhaps the greatest overall CS players in history—and they both played on the Swedish-born team Ninjas In Pyjamas. In 2013, they were a duo so dominant that they racked up an 87-map win streak on LAN. The generic comparison might be to something like Jordan and Pippen or Neymar and Messi. But in reality, the two at their height might have been more like Johnson and Bird or Messi and Ronaldo being on the same team.
That 2013 era was about the time Sayf began to play CS—and the time he’d looked to GeT_RiGhT. But Sayf is quick to acknowledge that the lure was more than GeT_RiGhT. If anything, Sweden had won so much in CS that the FPS was now a cultural force.
“In Sweden, it was very popular to play video games competitively. CSGO was on the rise there and we had NiP. So esports kind of grew into the culture and I just got carried with the movement, since I was young.”
In Sayf’s own words, the culture mattered more than any singular person or influence. “I think it could have been anyone else,” Sayf notes, “it just happened to be GeT_RiGhT at the time.”
When Trepunktnoll had their own little era in that grassroots weekly, Sayf was only fourteen years old. That was how deep the CS roots ran in Sweden—and also how deep Sayf’s own talent and interest ran.
In a few years, Sayf would establish himself as a prodigy that could compete at the regional level of a very stacked Sweden. Sayf and Hampus both would still need to grind for years to even get a shot at tier 1 play, but they both had promising trajectories.
Sayf got pulled into the scene by Dipparn—a veteran of Sweden’s regional scene who vouched for Sayf and brought him into some prominent mixes.
The most notable mix was probably fightclub, a squad that centered around Swedish IGL robiin, leading a rotating cast of upcoming talent. (For CS fans, the most notable name to come through was probably Jackinho, who would play on Fnatic for the majority of 2021.)
“They faced me before and then they asked me to play a qualifier—like a stand-in. We ended up winning the qualifier we were playing so obviously it made sense to get me.” Sayf chuckles.
The qualifier he mentions was for the 2017 GeForce Cup—a B-tier event according to Liquipedia’s ranking system. With Sayf onboard, fightclub finished at the top of the closed qualifier, one spot over Hampus’s mix team. (Not to be outdone for long, Hampus’s squad would get signed by Red Reserve and outplace fightclub by one spot at the main event.)
Fightclub did well enough to be signed by Gatekeepers, a tier 3 Norwegian organization, and then again by Singularity, a tier 2 Danish organization. Sayf says these orgs weren’t on the [same] scale” as Guild or Liquid, but they are a step up from mixes in most cases. Going from fightclub to Gatekpeers to Singularity, Sayf and company were making the slow climb up one of the most competitive ladders in esports in the form of European CS. The team consistently made C and B-tier events and occasionally put some of the bigger teams through tough battles.
Singularity’s journey might have peaked at CSGO.Net Cup 2, where they were only a few rounds away from upsetting an AVANGAR team led by Jame—a CIS legend. Although, Sayf surprisingly wasn’t a part of that near-win. A 17-year-old at the time, Sayf only played in the team’s group stage matches and was sidelined due to personal issues unrelated to the game and replaced by Plopski.
This is the moment where Sayf’s career splits paths with Hampus. Both players were climbing the same long ladder of EU CS, going from mix to tier 3 to tier 2 team. When Sayf was benched for Plopski, it came as a bit of a shock because—according to HLTV—Sayf was Singularity’s best-performing member in terms of individual rating. Sayf was doing this while, according to him, flexing roles and playing secondary AWP—not exactly a star position. Moreover, Sayf seemed pretty well-liked and welcomed within Sweden’s tier 2 scene.
From here on, Sayf would remain locked in the tier 2 scene, never called up to Fnatic or NiP like Hampus, Plopski, or Jackinho were. Sayf—nor any European CS player—is guaranteed a good shot at tier 1, but there was no denying that he was putting up good numbers, shooting above his experience, and playing well enough in tier 2 to be noticed like Hampus was. So, his arrested development seems odd. In the end, though, the reason was simple. It really came down to 6 letters:
Early into playing CS, Sayf received a VAC ban for using cheating software at a very young age. A VAC ban doesn’t disqualify a player from most pro circuits—or from playing the game itself—but it did disqualify players from playing in Valve-hosted Majors. Until as late as last year, this turned any kind of VAC ban into a hard ceiling for a pro player. They could survive in their regional tier 2 scene, where teams usually didn’t expect to make it Majors, but they’d never make it to tier 1, where the Major was always the goal. For a tier 1 team, these players would be stand-ins at best.
“I knew it was impossible,” Sayf says of making it tier 1, “ but I played because that’s what I enjoyed doing.” Sayf chuckles. “I played for the joy of the game, I never played for more than that.”
As Sayf talks about the reasons he stayed, it sounds very simple and very pure. A love of the game, much like Jamppi had. But it’s not a reason that the entire CS community would readily accept. For a vocal minority in the CS world (and FPS world), if you’ve cheated once, you’re always a cheater, and you’re likely trying to cheat again.
“I had this ban—it was from a very, very long time ago—and you just carried it with you your whole life. You weren’t really going to be happy, walking around with that sign on your head, everyone chasing you around with pitchforks. [...] I’d had enough, basically.”
Due to that stigma—and to an odd flick on the AWP—even Sayf’s benching on Singularity came with a quiet controversy. Sayf, some opined, was taking the time off not due to the personal reasons stated but to avoid detection. A flick of his in a C-tier tournament lined up close to someone behind a distant wall and looked unnatural. The observer hadn’t caught much of the context either, so there was a lot of space left to fill. In that space, there came a lot of doubt and a decent amount of accusations. The clip itself would resurface constantly over the next year or two in HLTV threads and general mentions of his play.
More than anything, Sayf resented the blanket disrespect and disregard that came with the VAC ban. “I think people treated you differently. I think you didn’t get any respect—doesn’t matter how long ago [it was, or] if you did or didn’t do it.”
Sayf’s fightclub core had other VAC banned teammates as well, so he saw how indiscriminate the disregard could be. “Robiin, for example, he had a ban for 5 years which was false and he got unbanned for it. But he was still labeled, you know? Everyone looked down on him. You were useless, basically, as soon as you had that label on your head.”
It may have been robiin’s own VAC ban that made him comfortable to team with players who had run into similar troubles—accidentally or otherwise. Unfortunately, it also gave that fightclub core a negative stigma and earned them a lot of focus from a subsection of the FPS community that has eyes peeled for cheats. Subreddit /r/VACsucks is a prime example, most posts taking snippets of professional play that look suspicious and throwing them up for examination. The community at VACsucks is hyper-suspicious—a number believing that cheats are to the tier 1 scene what steroids are to football or bodybuilding.
The subreddit represents an extreme subsection of the community, but the wider FPS community also cares a lot about cheating—and with good reason. Anyone who grew up with the FPS genre will have a handful of stories of egregious cheating completely ruining an individual match—and sometimes an entire game. (You could read a great deal of literature on Team Fortress 2’s botting, and how it might be what finally kills the game.)
Cheating doesn’t stop short at matchmaking either. Since Counter-Strike is an open circuit with a lot of grassroots organizers and a tier 2 scene rich with bettors, there is plenty of room for all kinds of more involved cheating. Even in a scene as heavily regulated as Valorant’s, even in a game where the anti-cheat controversially has always-on kernel access, it still feels like you run into occasional cheaters in-game and cheating scandals in the esport.
Putting all these factors together, you can see how suspicion can quickly compound into paranoia. And how a lot of people in FPS communities adopt a “once a cheater, always a cheater” attitude. But, looking at the cases of robiin, Sayf, Jamppi, v$m, and others, it’s also clear that a blanket, permanent ban—and the attitudes behind it—might cause the CS scene more harm than good.
What’s more, it’s really only the peanut gallery that’s calling for VAC bans to be this draconian. Within the wider competitive scene, most players want to see Valve be more flexible and responsive with its punishments—rather than the all-or-nothing approach the company takes currently. Almost any CS (or Valorant) fan knows the outcry that Jamppi’s ban received, but Sayf had a similar, smaller movement behind him too.
“There was a movement behind me, in Sweden at least. I think the majority of everyone that was in the Swedish scene at the time, they really wanted me to play and compete. And everyone was on my side. They saw me as our Black Sheep, kinda thing. It was cool.”
It must have been something else to get that kind of support in what is still one of CS’s strongest regions—and Sayf does recall it fondly. Even when he left, he says he “loved the game equally” to when he first entered the scene. But the love’s a bittersweet one.
“I’m not satisfied,” Sayf says of his CS career. “I feel like I didn’t quite finish up.”
“I had nothing to do at the time when Valorant was starting off, and I sat there, I was still being a stand-in for teams, and I told myself, ‘you know, I've played for eight years and nothing has changed. What says it will change this year or the next? I might as well start something new and compete because I like competing.’ I started my redemption arc from there.”
Sayf leans a little on those words. “Redemption arc.” From a Valorant fan’s perspective, you would probably not see it that way. The new game and the new scene wash away a lot of the old stigmas players had—so much so for Sayf that he emerged on the other side as one of EMEA’s strongest flex players. No more, no less. But for Sayf, after years of having his stats, flicks, and performances scrutinized, there was an element of redemption.
Watch me win on a game that has kernel access. Watch me win under Riot’s heavy gaze.
Sayf made a solid entrance into the game’s earliest beta days as one of the best duelists—particularly on Phoenix. Valorant analyst and former Liquid coach Sliggy rated him as the best Phoenix in EMEA.
“I definitely agree that I was a good duelist, but then again it was the early days.” Sayf is flat in his agreement. “I do feel like I was one of the best, at least on Phoenix. Yeah. Had my era.”
Sayf speaks flatly, likely because it was the beta and things shifted quickly. Before long, he would become a dedicated flex player. He would play Cypher, Viper, and a number of agents that veered sharply away from Phoenix’s entry fragger role. It was an extension of the identity that he had in CS but it was also a measured move at relevancy in a character shooter.
“In the beginning of the game, I told myself that I'm not gonna settle down for one or two characters, and then call it a day. [...] So I kind of always tried to keep the mindset of I need to understand these roles, and I need to be able to play them as well, because that's where the future lies in this game. And that's the path I opted for.”
In this case, Sayf’s pathfinding was pretty spot-on. In taking up the flex role, he would—at least up to my writing this—always have the one thing he couldn’t get in CS: A spot in tier 1 play.
Though, in the beta days of Valorant, there wasn’t a tier 1 to speak of. And so, if anything, Sayf’s new team in Valorant would very much resemble his old ones in CS: a group of friends fighting for small pots, the love of the game, and the desire to grow.
NiP Valorant had a revolving door roster at the time that Sayf had joined. They started off by moving over their championship-winning Paladins roster to Valorant. In June, with the Paladins roster experiment not going well, they’d swap out for another core and then continue swapping players in and out nearly every month of the year.
This was already going on before Sayf joined but he was pulled to the team both by its legend and also by troubles within BONK that suggested that grass could be greener somewhere else.
“We had a lot of disagreements in terms of the team vision and what direction we wanted to go. There was a lot of tugging between me and another player and I decided that it was probably best for this team if I'm just not a part of the tugging anymore.”
Not long after joining, Sayf was quick to work his way out of NiP and doesn’t mince words about it. “I feel like I realized, who was leading the teams in the org, and I understood what kind of people I'm working with and I wanted to get the fuck out.” Beyond that Sayf is reticent to say much more. NiP would try to compete in European Valorant for about another and then moved to Brazil, where their rosters did see more stability and success—though they ultimately did not make franchising.
Sayf would move back to his old BONK teammates, now under the Guild banner, but given the past “tugging,” it wasn’t quite as simple as a “welcome home!”
“We had a long, long talk about all this. The disagreements were kinda… We had kind of figured things out between us. It wasn't like an instantaneous, ‘we're back together!’ That kind of thing.”
Sayf would end up staying with Guild for just about two full years and with two very different rosters. The first roster was that group of friends that had nearly climbed to the top during the beta—and would never get quite that close to the top again.
This first Guild lineup was one of the better teams in EMEA and more than anything was characterized by a consistency of “good but not quite great.” In 2021, the team was frankly more consistent than Team Liquid, never suffering some of the bizarrely bad losses we did. But they also never reached the heights that Liquid did either and never got to an international LAN.
Sayf saw what the results told: That Guild was capped out. Only Sayf saw it as less due to talent and more due to stubbornness.
“I feel like it went as well as we allowed it to go. Most of the time, people never look at some core issues, which begin with yourself. And I feel like, we had so many good qualities about ourselves that could probably make us even better. But we were also what's kept us from being that good because we were a little too stubborn.”
When I press for specifics, Sayf points to communication in terms of both roles and gameplay. Pressing even further, he gets more specific.
“I think it was a role issue at the end, like, we didn't want to follow into the meta a lot. We had a very antique way of approaching the game and thinking about the game. And we didn't want to think in a different path because that would have meant some discomfort for us. And that's ultimately what became our downfall.”
Even deeper than that, though, Guild was also being held back by the thing that had propelled the team to tier 1 in the first place.
“Sometimes being good friends leads to behavior that you wouldn't see in a normal workspace environment,” Sayf remarks on the comfortable, friendly atmosphere inherited from BONK. “It becomes a little too friendly, I guess. You lose your professional sight of things.”
You might expect a team like this to sizzle or to explode, but the reality for BONK-era Guild was even more bizarre—and more fitting to the off-kilter career Sayf has. Instead of swapping the team out during the offseason, Guild told the players that they would be looking at roster changes while the season was still going. Guild would have to play through the Last Chance Qualifiers knowing they were a dead roster walking.
Somehow, some way, they’d end up playing some of the best Valorant in the organization’s history during that last run.
“We had enough of the shit that we put each other through throughout the year. And we all knew that if it's gonna be one last time—because everyone had mutual respect for each other—if it was gonna be one last ride, we might as well make it count. And I think that really boosted everyone.”
Guild would clear through SMB, Oxygen, Futbolist, and G2 to make it to grands of the LCQ. Across the entire tournament, they would only lose to Team Liquid, who double-eliminated them. At the time, Team Liquid had recently added Nivera to the roster and was playing so hot that they would enter Champions as one of the favorites to win it all.
Guild fell short, but in their final run they had done a lot to honor the funky little Swedish mix team they came from.
“We said, ‘fuck it, whatever happened, happened.’ And if we want to have one last good time together, let's show it out there.”
The pains of becoming good
When Guild rebuilt, they rebuilt big. They put together a roster that very quickly put up results and absolutely cruised through their first qualifier. Guild went 19-1 in maps on their Season 1 Challengers run and in multiple interviews, Sayf chalks up their single loss to Rebels Gaming as a result of the match going way past schedule and the team being unusually fatigued.
If you watched those qualifiers at the time, you may remember the slowly mounting hype around what was rumored to be a Guild super team, how every co-streamer eagerly searching out the next Guild match. For once, Sayf was at the center of the hype. For the first time since his Phoenix days, he was back on duelist—the star firepower in a super team. For a player stuck in the tier 2 trenches of CS by a VAC ban, it was a new world full of new follies.
“I had never gotten attention from anyone for any role I've done. Even if it was attention, it was never a lot of attention. [...] Switching to the duelist in that roster, I guess a lot of people saw my value. And with that came added pressure. I kind of lost the perception that it was a new role that I was playing. I was still learning, and you cannot forget that.”
The weight of expectation is genuinely unlike any other and when the time came, Guild’s new super team would collapse underneath it. Not only Sayf, but most players on this Guild roster had long gone underrated and only the veteran IGL Koldamenta truly had the experience to handle the feeling when the analysts swing the other direction and sing your praises. Our own coaching staff at the time put Guild as favorites to win the EMEA split. Instead, Guild just narrowly avoided getting grouped and then fell swiftly out of playoffs.
“I think it just got too real, you know? When you actually start realizing that you're good, you've never been good before… You can kind of feel it, all the time, [that] you're able to win, you're able to be the best. I think it got too real and people cracked. You needed the experience with that [expecation], that's why we got better and better every time we played.”
That’s not idle boasting from Sayf, either. When the next split came around, Guild performed up to the expectations they’d had originally. They topped their group and then beat M3C (formerly Gambit) to qualify for Masters: Copenhagen—the organization’s first international Valorant LAN.
“We pushed ourselves to be that good. We got over our honeymoon [...] that's when you kind of weed the grass, like you need to put in more work for things to function, for the ship to keep running.”
“We did a lot of new anti-stratting, which we didn’t do before. I felt like we had a better player-coach relationship. Vod-reviewing, a lot of [the] more analytical side of the game.”
Having geared up their processes and dealt with the pains of becoming good, Sayf and Guild would head to Copenhagen.
“I would like to say I am a LANimal, yes. It’s not even comparable. I’m not even a human version of myself at LAN. I turn into a demon, it’s not fair.”
Sayf had to play a great deal of Valorant to finally make it to a LAN with a crowd—as did a lot of players. Once he had made it, he and a lot of fairly young competitors with under-the-radar careers in CS would field many questions about LAN readiness. For Sayf, that was never a worry. Though most didn’t know it, Sayf had been competing since 2015 and went to his first LAN five years ago. The tier 2 CS scene prepared him pretty well.
“I come from CSGO LAN type beat. It's not the best computer, it's never the best desk… If you played in the worst of the worst [LANs] then it’s kind of where you belong. You don’t mind then.”
Sayf also thinks, more than just experience, many players will shrink from their style and selves at LAN. “I think people are just scared of doing what they would normally do at LAN and some people,” Sayf pauses a beat, “have very big balls. That's the difference.”
Sayf showed no fear of playing to his normal caliber. If anything, he played above it and helped Guild to mount an impressive run at Copenhagen where they managed to beat Optic, take Paper Rex to overtime, and take FPX to a final map. Unfortunately, Guild has never had the best bracket luck and so the team went out in 7th—eliminated by the 1st and 2nd place teams.
Guild’s 2021 and 2022 rosters ended up being something of opposites to each other, with the 2022 edition peaking in the middle of the year and falling apart in the end. Going into the LCQ, there was every reason to put Guild as one of the favorites. They performed well at Copenhagen against some of the hardest teams at the tournament and looked capable of winning clean matches and pulling out miracle clutches.
The problem was that the team lost a player (Russ) and their planned stand-in (Twisten) right before the LCQ. Russ took a break from competitive play following Copenhagen and planned not to play until Champions was over. While Russ tended to get outshined by Guild’s other players, he held his own as the solid role player that Guild needed. With him gone, they looked to Twisten—one of the most exciting young prospects in EMEA—to fill the spot. Guild initially thought the Twisten loan would go through and had even worked out strategies with the young star—only to find there was a miscommunication and Riot had denied the loan. This meant Guild needed to pick another player up from the free agent market—which ended up being Yacine—a part of the team’s 2021 core.
Given the circumstances, Guild played about to expectations and got eliminated early. It was the complete opposite of the emotional, one-last-ride ending that 2021 Guild got. In 2022, it was a highly professional lineup ending abruptly off of a very “professional sports” type of snafu.
It would also be, for Sayf, the end of about 2 years on Guild. It might sound scant in the world of traditional sports, but in the fast-paced world of esports, 2 years basically made him a franchise player. When I ask him what kept him on Guild for that long, the first word he says is, “comfort.”
“I think knowing I had helped build the house, you know, for myself. It was kind of like my home. I didn't have any other proper, proper home that I felt comfortable with and [that] took care of me. I felt comfortable. I felt happy where I was. And Leo being there, even after the rebuild, there was always my mate since the beginning.”
Liquid, roles, and emotions
After all of it, Sayf is on Liquid. I could craft narratives for why it was Liquid over Guild but the truth is that Sayf and Leo both might still be on Guild had the organization made franchising—literally becoming franchise players. The reality is that every player in this massive offseason was seeking the best, most competitive team they could find. It’s not biased to say that Sayf found one of those teams in Liquid.
For Sayf’s part, he tries not to mind the names on his jersey much.
“Sure, Liquid is a big step up but I live by the philosophy that it doesn't really matter who I'm playing under. It's amazing that you can be provided with so much resources to help yourself become the best but you have to always not see it bigger than what it is because it becomes more of a performance thing.”
“You don't want to think that you're playing for Liquid, because that's just unnecessary added thoughts.”
I think this philosophy of Sayf’s is partly a survival tool, gained from his long, long path to the top. He’s played under a VAC ban, in janky LANs, in “band of brothers” mixes, in revolving door rosters, in professionally scouted super teams, and done it all while touching nearly every role in Valorant. Across that space, he’s been largely consistent. Shockingly consistent.
To have that consistency, it seems to me that he tries to get rid of unnecessary weights, thoughts, and even certain ideals about the game. You can see this most clearly in the way he approaches roles.
“I've never felt comfortable or not comfortable on a role. I just see roles as roles. I don't define them as how other people have. [...] For me, that's not the important thing. You just need to understand the role you're playing and how you affect your team when you're playing that role. I would never say I was more comfortable or less comfortable in any role.”
When I ask if he thinks this is what makes him a good flex player, he replies that this is, “just what makes me a good player in general. Because that's when you stop making these stupid decisions that are only based on how you feel. You just see the game for how it is. [You] don't color the game. I think it becomes very black and white but it's the correct way of playing.”
When you look at Sayf’s entire career, you can also see the process of him coming to this conclusion. In January, Sayf tells Yinsu Collins that duelist is the role that’s natural to him—the role he should’ve had.
Now, Sayf chalks most of that desire to be a duelist up to past hangups with roles, teammates, and emotions. “I would say that playing Skye, and flex roles has always been more fun than playing duelists [for me]. The duelist [switch] was only because I didn't find any duelists that I deemed fit to be my duelist.”
“I think a lot of duelists don't understand what their role is in a team, or on a specific map what they can do to maximize win percent—what space they have to take, or what timing they have to break. They don't understand how to draw up a match image in the enemy's head. They don't know how to condition their enemies as duelist. [...] I feel like every duelist we played with was on a mission to rush it into their spawn or overheat.”
When Sayf tells me this, my mind immediately jumps to Jamppi, one of the most aggressive duelists in EMEA. When Sayf joins Liquid, he’ll be playing flex-initiator and he’ll need to have total trust and a complete bond with a player that has at times embodied “overheat.” I’m too curious not to ask how he plans to go about the relationship. How comfortable it really is.
“I’m gonna put this man on a leash,” Sayf jokes at first. “I mean he is good. [But] he can always develop—that’s the thing, that’s the difference. The people that make it are also the people that are always seeking change. That’s one thing that I’ve realized about Jamppi: he really wants to learn.”
In Sayf’s response, I do see the inevitable test for this roster. For, really, any of the top rosters coming into franchising. Can these players meld their disparate views of the game? But for as absolute as he may read, Sayf does stress the “I” in each of those sentences above. I think he and Jamppi both have a proven willingness to learn and desire to adapt to a team.
And according to Sayf, everyone in Liquid is at very least aligned a vision centered on consistency. “Why I even wanted to join Liquid to begin with was because they shared the same mindset as me. I want to have a consistently consistent team. I'm not gonna sit and dwell about trophies 24/7—even though they're nice—but I would like to reach a level of consistency where that is within your grasp, you know?”
Given the many turns in his career, it’s hard to blame Sayf for seeking consistency. It’s easy to see why Jamppi and Soulcas want it too. But if Sayf’s time in Guild tells you anything, it’s that a consistent team is one thing—and a consistent contender is another, much more difficult thing.
For it to all come together, it will take every ounce of emotional intelligence Sayf has accrued over the years. He is a 21-year-old professional walking out of what may have been EMEA’s most consistent squad—and right into what has been perhaps EMEA’s most inconsistent one.
It’s not all heedless optimism to think that he might be what this roster needs. But it’s not all baseless cynicism to question if his experience and steadiness will be enough. It’s most natural of all, after retracing his long and odd path to the top, to simply wonder where it leads.