Daniel Zvi

The Athletes Who Are Putting Israel on the Map

Credit: Twitter @TeamVitality
Israeli Counter-Strike Superstar - Lotan "Spinx" Giladi

It seems that all of Israel is in a sense of euphoria and filled with national pride with the unexpected success of the U-21 Israeli National Soccer Team. The team’s monumental victories as underdogs in every game paved the way for them to compete in the Olympic games! A truly historic achievement and a monumental statement which showed the dedication of the young players. Their huge wins against some of the strongest youth teams in the world made the entire squad superstars overnight in Israel and honorary ambassadors for the country abroad. They allowed the Israeli public to feel something they haven’t felt for far too long when it comes to Israeli sports – hope. Hope that Israel is destined for more than constant disappointment and heartbreak on the pitch. Hope in a time where the Israeli public desperately needs a collective win and a reason to remain optimistic for the future when so much division has been sowed and tensions couldn’t be higher. 

Credit: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile via Getty Images

However, this op-ed isn’t about Soccer (Or Football to avoid offending anyone!) Instead I’d like to make your attention known about some different Israeli superstars you’ve probably never heard of, but are known by many worldwide. A sport probably only your children are aware of, yet a sport with international tournaments which fill giant stadiums of spectators and are watched by millions across the globe. A different sport, where the future is even brighter for our country, where we already have a reason to be filled with national pride and hope. In this sport Israel is considered a global powerhouse with some of the best young talent of any region! A sport where we already hold the title of the best in the world. This sport is, of course, Counter-Strike.

Credit: Steam, Valve Corporation

Before diving into that, let’s get some common misconceptions out of the way. Electronic sports, or as it’s more commonly referred to, Esports are competitive video games which are played professionally. Now you must be thinking to yourself, video games? What could be competitive in video games? These people couldn’t possibly be considered athletes. Or maybe you’re thinking, I’m an expert at Mario Bros or Candy Crush, I’ll just become a professional video game player too. And of course, you’d be completely misguided in thinking that. The most popular esports games are League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2, games which all require a very high level of mechanical skill, tactical prowess and strategy which take years to master. Esport athletes devote themselves to their craft and train just as hard if not harder then traditional sports athletes with a typical day of practice and scrimmages for a top team being as long as 12-14 hours a day! Not to mention the significant economic impact of esports with the market being worth $1.1 billion with projected growth expected to bump that number up to $1.6 billion this year. In addition to large investors in the field, organizations which field esport teams also benefit from financial sponsorships from some of the largest companies in the world, such as, Intel, Samsung, Coca-Cola, Red Bull and even the US Air Force. This of course is also reflected when it comes to player compensation, top esport athletes earn millions in prize money on top of salary numbers which will make any parent reading this think twice before ordering their child to turn off the game and go to sleep tonight.

Credit: Team Liquid Organisation

Which brings us back to my personal favorite esport, Counter-Strike. Counter-Strike is a game which has had many different iterations over the years, since its original version in 2003, with the latest game in the series being Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or simply, CS:GO. The game is a multiplayer first-person shooter and is played in two teams of five players with one side being the attacking side and one the defending. The objective is quite simple, even though the game itself is far from it, the attacking side must plant a bomb and the defending side must either defuse the bomb or prevent it from being planted. The game is a giant commercial success with having sold over 30 million copies, and the peak number of active players online being a whopping 1.8 million players at once which was recently recorded with growth expected to continiue. Counter-Strike has a rich and vibrant competitive history with tournaments filling out huge arenas in Europe & America with over 60,000 in person spectators and more than 2.7 million (!) viewers tuning in live to watch the games. And to the victor goes the spoils, these tournaments usually boast prize pools of well over $1 million to the winners leading to a highly competitive professional scene saturated with talent from all across the globe.

Credit: PGL esports

This leads us to the protagonists of our story, the unsung heroes of Israeli Sports. Lotan “Spinx” Giladi, Shahar “FlameZ” Shushan, Guy “NertZ” Iluz & Dorian “xertioN” Berman. These 4 Israeli athletes play on the largest stages the competitive Counter-Strike scene has to offer and have won some of the largest calibre trophies, each on their own respective teams. These talents all have a few things in common in terms of playstyles – raw aggression, immense mechanical skill, precise aim and immeasurable potential as they’re all in their early 20’s. Their young ages and still being at the beginning of their esport careers means they have plenty of time to get to their high skill ceilings they can all reach. Every one of these athletes are star players in their own right, but I’d like to focus in on one player in particular, the player who has found the most success and even recently won the most prestigious tournament Counter-Strike has to offer, the Major (think Champions League in Soccer, Grand Slam in Tennis or the Super Bowl for us Americans). This player is, of course, Lotan Giladi, or rather as he’s known by his online alias “Spinx”. 

Credit: Twitter @TeamVitality

Spinx is only 22 years old, but has already conquered the top stage in Counter-Strike by winning the Counter-Strike Major in Paris back in May together with his team, Vitality. A team he joined back in August 2022, a team which was so impressed by his abilities in the game, all the other players agreed to take a salary reduction in order to snag him from a rival squad. A decision that they no doubt do not regret in the slightest since it seems that the Israeli was the key to unlocking their success, finding so many wins that they are now ranked as the second best team in the world! If that alone wasn’t reason enough to become a Vitality fan, Vitality has recently added arguably the second best Israeli player in the scene to their roster Shahar “FlameZ” Shushan. Essentially turning the team into a Israeli/Danish/French mix squad with a large international fanbase. Which leads me to the final point and my inner motivation for writing this piece, these players deserve recognition for the public diplomacy work they’re doing for the State of Israel. 

Credit: Twitter @TeamVitality

Spinx and FlameZ are superstars both inside and outside the game, they boast large individual fanbases with 45k and 30k Twitter followers respectively. Compare that to the current most notable Israeli Soccer Star, Manor Solomon at 25k, with Manor recently making large waves after signing to Tottenham Hotspur F.C. This is in addition to the fact that their is a lack of controversy of countries and politics which has a tendency to plague traditional sports in Counter-Strike. In fact, it is quite common to see curious international mix teams with players from “conflicting” countries (Israeli players who play with Muslim players, Ukrainians who play with Russians, Serbs, Bosnians & Croatians all play together in harmony, etc). It would seem that the virtual world of Counter-Strike has the ability to fill divides which exist in the real world. The final piece of the puzzle comes into place when you take into account that the demographics for the player base and fans of the game are both young and diverse, and most importantly, constantly growing with a new iteration of the game coming very soon and exponential growth expected to follow.

When these young Israeli athletes make their entrances into the packed international stadiums draped in the flag of our country, a global audience of young adults roar and cheer their names. Other country leaders and politicians celebrate their local esport heroes, even being cheered on by traditional sport heroes like Neymar does for his favourite Brazilian Counter-Strike Team. While esport athletes in Israel remain unofficial and unrecognised ambassadors of the state (Perhaps until recently, when an Israeli Fifa team earned a chance to play at a tournament in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia). Spinx, FlameZ, Xertion & Nertz have all done far more in terms of normalising the State of Israel to the future generations of the world. In my humble opinion, they have had more impact then any diplomat, ambassador, “special envoy”, member of Knesset or government official that I am familiar with, perhaps only coming second to the Israeli Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot.

They have been ignored and unknown for far too long and have earned some well deserved recognition and thanks for all the work they have done and continue to do for our country.

Credit: Twitter @mouseesports
About the Author
Daniel Zvi is a recent graduate of Reichman University with a B.A. in Communications & Public Diplomacy. Currently a Project Manager at Israel Living Lab, Daniel is particularly interested in Public Diplomacy and the untraditional ways Israel can use its soft power. He is also an avid Counter-Strike fan & player.
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