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How Brazil fell in love with Counter-Strike

MIBR in a group huddle. Photo by Bart Oerbekke

MIBR were dressed in their electric yellow synthetic jerseys every time I saw them at IEM Katowice. Even if this was your first Counter-Strike tournament, even if you were walking into an esports hall completely blind to the culture, the national allegiance of the six young men on stage was aggressively clear. On the Brazilian flag, that yellow symbolizes wealth; it lit up the uniforms the Brazilian soccer team wore during each of their five World Cup titles, too. Last year, when this team switched parent companies from SK Gaming to Immortals, they resurrected a familiar name: MIBR, Made in Brazil, sheathed in the same colors that have delivered glory to their countrymen so many times before.

We want to represent our country, we want to make our country proud of us.

Marcelo David

According to Marcelo "Coldzera" David, a player who at times has been the best Counter-Strike marksman in the world, that christening was a no brainer.

"We create a brand for Brazil. That's why we brought back MIBR, we want to represent our country, we want to make our country proud of us," he says. "To create a legacy. A Brazilian legacy."

The first teams fielded under the MIBR name date all the way back to 2003, during the Counter Strike 1.6 days, a time when esports was still largely underground and punk rock. As a nation, Brazil was in the halcyon stages of an economic boom, and its citizenry was falling in love with first-person shooters. "Since I was young Counter-Strike was always in the LAN houses. It was a game that didn't require an extremely good computer at the time," says Augusto César, a fan swaddled in a Brazilian flag, in the IEM Katowice food court. "For us it was a very simple game to play."

Two decades later, the country fields one of the best CS:GO squads in the world. The modern incarnation of MIBR captured a major title last year at the ZOTAC Cup, and five premieres and an additional major in 2017, under the SK banner. They represent a glacial power shift in the fabric of esports. Scroll through the attending teams at Katowice, and you'll see that between the Americans, the Ukrainians, and the French, MIBR is the only organization representing South America. 

Coldzera playing at IEM Katowice. Photo by Jennika Ojala.

Coldzera playing at IEM Katowice. Photo by Jennika Ojala.

You could feel it in the air. MIBR's success is an exception to the global rule. The fans know it, the scene knows it, and it summons up a one-of-a-kind passion. Katowice is a dinky Polish mining town at the southern end of the country, and the Spodek Arena is a communist-era UFO-like relic built in 1971 that serves hockey games and B-list festivals. Still, miraculously, the Brazilians showed up in droves for the boys.

They dotted the seats and the outer hallways, and most, like César, brought with them their national colors. That makes sense; if MIBR is going to wear a patriotic yellow, then it behooves their supporters to follow suit. But their loyalty took on a different texture than any of the other esports organizations at IEM. Sure, the Danes root for the Danish wunderkinds in Astralis, and it was genuinely heartwarming to see the underdog Finns in ENCE make a deliriously joyful run to the finals, but MIBR are the only ones to literally emblazon what they're fighting for in their name. Brazilians hear that call no matter where they are.

"I didn't play Counter-Strike for a while, I wasn't interested in it until Brazil started to get big. Like, 'Oh, Brazilians are really nice at this game, I need to play it too,'" continues César. "It's what got me into esports. Brazilian teams succeeding. I think most Brazilians are like that."

One of the things I love most about sports—the local, tribal pride, and its corresponding politics—has always been de-emphasized in competitive gaming. The Overwatch League's home cities may be slowly changing that. Generally, teams take their identity from an overarching brand or sponsor—we pull for our favorites the way 14-year olds pull for LeBron, regardless of what team he's currently playing for. But MIBR is a different beast.

The kinship is closer because of the sheer rarity of other Brazilian role-models in pop culture. Since 2016 the majority of the headlines coming out of the country have focused on either a beleaguered Olympics bid, a troubling presidential election, or mounting corruption scandals, but when Neymar Jr. joins Coldzera on Dust II, all of that fades away.

Photo by Bart Oerbekke.

We're always named as a third-world country, that we don't have any potential, so anyone who can change that misconception, in any sport, it's very important to us.

Rodrigo Guerra

"Brazilians like to cheer for Brazilians that could win. It happens in soccer and basketball, when we have a chance to win a trophy, Brazilian blood heats up. One thing we miss in Brazil is someone who can represent us and show our good side," explains Rodrigo Guerra, a journalist who covers MIBR for ESPN Brazil. "A few decades back we had a famous driver, Ayrton Senna, and everyone woke up at four in the morning to cheer him. Because he's carrying our flag, he's showing how we can be one of the best. We're always named as a third-world country, that we don't have any potential, so anyone who can change that misconception, in any sport, it's very important to us."

I was left with one lingering question at Katowice: Why Counter-Strike? What is it about this game in particular that's found such a home in Brazil? Sure, you can catch a few stray Brazilian squads in DOTA, and fighting games represent one of the true international scenes on the planet, but when you look at League, or Overwatch, or StarCraft, you rarely find much star power outside of the European and East Asian strongholds. I'm not the only one who's noticed that, either.

"Since the beginning of esports in Brazil, everyone was playing Counter-Strike," says Guerra. "StarCraft, or League of Legends, it's not natural to us."

Everyone I posed that question to returned to the same core point. Counter-Strike was, and is, a fixture of the LAN cafe scene in Brazil, and its resonance in the games culture grew out from there. It just stuck. It's an answer that's about as arcane as anything else in the esports industry. I mean, why do South Koreans excel at StarCraft? A variety of historical accidents, that eventually coalesced into a national heritage and sense of ownership. This isn't an exact science. Coldzera, at least, is able to take a unique perspective, since he admits to me that he does keep a League of Legends habit during off-hours.

"League and Dota are amazing games, but the difference between our sport and them is that they're more mechanical," he says. "In Counter-Strike, you have to factor in the randomness. You can kill someone blind, you can spray and kill one more. That's why the game is so great. Things can be going really good, and it can be destroyed in one round. It gives you adrenaline. That's why I think Counter-Strike is the best game ever." 

Coldzera tells me he hears a lot of the same stories from people like César; Brazilians who loved video games, and loved their country, and were brought into the fold by the team's collective excellence. Coldzera himself has a great respect for the first incarnation of MIBR. Today, casters have even coined a term for the team's deliberate, slow-paced gameplay. "The Brazilian Style." You know you've made it when you're part of an institution.

MIBR lost in the semi-finals to Astralis, the eventual champions. When you look over the roster, you begin to see the glimmer of change on the horizon. Coldzera is 24, and both team captain Gabriel "FalleN" Toledo and Fernando "fer" Alvarenga will be 28 at the end of the year. They are still young by every conceivable measure except for esports, and while Counter-Strike is generally more friendly to the stringent burnout problems compared to other games, eventually a new generation of Brazilians will need to take up the banner.

It's a hope that MIBR welcomes with open arms. None of these players would ever give up their spot without a fight, but throughout the weekend, I noticed that they displayed a remarkable solidarity with FURIA, another Brazilian Counter-Strike team who made it into the qualifying Challengers bracket. (#DiaDeFuria, they tweeted, just before Valentine's Day, during one of their first matches of the tournament.)

Furia showed well, but didn't finish with enough wins to move on to the next level where they may have had a date with MIBR.  "They just need more experience. They have a long road, but they're on the right road," says Coldzera. "It's nice to see a new face for Brazil. … It's crazy to see how they [get better] every tournament."

Given that MIBR is the effective stand-in for Brazil's national team, I asked Coldzera what it'd be like to someday go against a Brazilian team in a major tournament—to have the throne challenged by someone in their backyard. As much as he cares for the future of his country's Counter-Strike scene, would it feel any different when he was staring that future in its eyes?

"That's gonna be nice," he laughs. "Brazil wins, no matter who wins."