Yam talks about his past, present and future as Chiefs coach

Nicholas Taifalos
April 23, 2020

From pioneering Australasia in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive with his move to North America, to a stint in Europe with Turkish squad Space Soldiers, Yaman ‘yam’ Ergenekon’s career is as expansive as it gets. Now, he widens his repertoire in esports at The Chiefs Esports Club as their new CS:GO coach. Yam caught up with Here’s The Thing writer, Nicholas ‘Taffy’ Taifalos, to talk about his new role at Chiefs and take a brief walk down memory lane.

It was tougher than expected for The Chiefs in last week’s DreamHack Spring Qualifier, but their win over Rooster marked what is hopefully a return to form for one of Australia’s longest-running lineups. For new coach Yam, it’s a sign that pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall together.

“When they play those guys [Rooster] they always have mixed results. We're just going through changes and readjusting the way they play in order to win. It’s a bit of a change in playstyles that they’d been working on before I joined, and now there’s a few more since I came onboard.”

Yam was at a crossroads heading into 2020 as to whether competing professionally was still a viable option for him as a career. And while he believes he still can, it was a coaching role he was looking at to ease back into the scene – a decision he made very recently.

“I had been deciding on whether I should keep playing or not – I definitely still think I have what it takes – but I thought that coaching would be a good change, I think I’m more fit to be a coach right now. I was testing the waters with a few teams here and there but I’m happy to come together with Chiefs in this role.”

“I still think I can play at a high level but I feel also I can offer quite a lot as a coach to these teams.” - Yam on coaching and playing in 2020.

Longevity in an Oceanic CS:GO lineup is unique, especially given that the Chiefs squad has remained together not just for over a 12 months now, but as a core five without a single roster change. A big part of their early success was the team’s cohesion – a massive element involved in Yam’s decision to take on the new coaching role.

“Obviously [the Chiefs lineup] feel like a small family already – they’ve been together for well over a year, and have reached a point where they are comfortable playing with each other staying in the same team.”

Yam with Team Immunity at 2010’s MSI BEAT IT Finals. Source: HLTV

The ultimate dream is for a team to qualify for a Valve-sanctioned Major. With huge prize pools and CS:GO immortality of having your signature in game, it’s the chance to leave your mark in esports’ history. Yam achieved that through Renegades at ESL One: Cologne in 2015, but it’s not a main goal of his with the Chiefs in the short-term, particularly given the climate surrounding how CS:GO events will progress with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think making it to the major would be a pretty big step for the team. The upset potential is definitely there, it’s there for any of the top four teams who can potentially beat each other. Renegades would maybe need to drop the ball quite a bit but nothing’s impossible in Australia. In the short-term it’s honestly just about improving in all aspects as a team. 

“These guys are still quite young, they’re still improving and that’s kind of what I’m helping the most with. It’s not about waking up the next day and it’s all fixed - it’ll take time. Road to Rio starts in a couple of weeks so we’re going to be preparing a lot for that and we’ll have to see what happens.”

Many in the local scene have seen the introduction of ESL’s IEM Sydney that sparked the flame beneath Oceania and its development over the last three years, but for Yam it’s been a natural progression that has taken time to build.

“I don’t think it was any one event [that kick-started the region]. OCE has had a lot of players for a long time, so it just took time, especially when you don’t have any of these opportunities to go overseas and play against better teams. Australia’s always had talent dating back to 1.6 – we’ve had CS players for a long time but I think it’s about sticking to the game. 

“It’s also about getting financial backing as well, which is a big motivator, [players] can focus on competing a lot more compared to when we were on Immunity and Vox Eminor back in the day. Back then there were very, very few teams that would pay teams anything at all really, outside of prize winnings. Having a salary now where teams can focus more on their gameplay has helped massively.”

“They like the game, they enjoy the game, they want to be the best at the game and they want to keep striving to be better and that’s why we’re now seeing teams starting to step up.” - Yam on Oceania’s rapid progression in CS:GO

Yam’s journey began well before Global Offensive, but the key moment came in early 2015 when he departed Team Immunity to join Australia’s elite squad Vox Eminor, led by the enigmatic Chad ‘SPUNJ’ Burchill, followed by the squad’s move to North American-based Renegades. The change in organisations also brought about a change in scenery in an unprecedented and historic way – the first Australian-based lineup to go full-time in esports and move overseas.

Yam & Renegades manager Gomez at iBuyPower Cup 2015. Source: HLTV

But between the 12,000 kilometre move to a downtown Las Vegas casino and the accomplishment of a long-thought pipe dream, it wasn’t all blinding lights for Yam and the squad after the initial moving period.

“It was essentially in the old strip of Vegas. We were in a hotel, we got introduced and everything was all flashing lights, ‘you’re all rockstars’ treatment which was sweet. But then, you know, after a couple months we were just in any other hotel room - other people would come into their rooms late at 1am yelling and screaming. People go to Vegas to party and have fun and when you’re in the middle of it trying to play CS and work and it’s out of a casino, it’s rough.”

“It wasn’t just us -  you can see the tweets from a lot of professional players who have expressed their anger and dissatisfaction that they are away from home for like three weeks or four weeks - they’ll be spitting chips.”

For a lot of these teams, ‘away from home’ meant a four hour flight across states, and a normal period would be a month or two at the most. For Yam’s Renegades squad, months rolled into seasons and finally, almost a year was spent cooped up in the same place, where their homes were only accessible via a phone call.

“For myself personally it was more what happened in the last few months in the team [in late 2016/early 2017]. It was a little after SPUNJ left the team - we were just struggling a lot with the team internally, then Rick got replaced and we were basically just stuck without a fifth for a very long time. 

“It was just rough and a lot of things were starting to take its toll on me personally. I was IGLing, and at this point we had moved into a proper team house, but we were still living in the same space which I didn’t really want for the amount of time which we were doing it.”

“At the end of the day when you’ve finished your shift from 9-5 you want to go home and chill right? Not being able to was definitely a contributing factor.” - Yam on the impact of living and competing under one roof.

Through different ownership and a move to Detroit, Yam and the Renegades began making headway but despite it all, the move and living conditions had taken their toll for far too long. Following the departure of Ricardo ‘Rickeh’ Mulholland, Yam evaluated his position in the lineup and finally, in March 2017, made the call to depart the active lineup.

“I’m all for moving into a team house and bonding to build synergy and getting to know one another and so on and so forth, but after that point it’s like you actually need your own space. I don’t think it’s great for teams to be living in the same house for months upon months continuously.

“We really couldn’t get a consistent fifth and it had just been a year and a half since we had joined and I just said ‘I need a bit of space and just chill’ so that’s when I made the call.”

There wasn’t any one particular event that stood out the most to Yam - to him, the realisation of a long sought-after dream and the move to compete overseas full-time was the highlight of the entire experience, and to be among the first to make such a move.

Yam with Smix at DreamHack Open Winter 2016. Source: HLTV

“I think it’s got to be the overall move that said ‘we made it’ more than any one event. The whole move initially was just a massive thing - us leaving our jobs, leaving our studies and just actually moving on. That’s essentially the dream when you’re growing up and you want to go pro. You want to play on the highest level, you want to do it for a living and that’s essentially what it was.”

Four months away from the game allowed Yam some time to decide on his next move, choosing to sign with Tainted Minds in September 2017 and after a period of sporadic results, the team kicked into gear at CGPL 12, claiming a 3-0 victory over Grayhound Gaming.

However, despite numerous highly-rated group and playoff performances at crucial event qualifiers and LANs, Tainted Minds failed to claim an event victory or a greater regional qualifier spot, falling in seven grand finals to Chiefs, ORDER and Grayhound.

“That team was...it was very rough because we definitely had the potential to win and be the best. We had a lot of series where we were ahead and we would lose... that was a rollercoaster team.” - Yam on Tainted Minds in 2018.

“We would win a heap of the main event matches but when it came to the grand final or qualifier playoff match...we were choking. It was very disheartening. That was basically the end of the road for the project, that’s when the team split apart - INS joined ORDER and I once again reassessed what I wanted to do.”

There was still another first to obtain for Yam, and the opportunity presented itself after another break following his departure from Tainted Minds in 2018 - a move overseas to Europe and compete with Turkish squad Space Soldiers.

“I pretty much reached out to them, and they wanted to give it a go, ‘it’s probably not a bad idea’. It went well, I felt I was a good fit for the team but we still failed as a team overall.”

However, it came at a terrible time for the team - ever-popular rifler XANTARES had just departed the organisation and roster for a contract with German side BIG, and after their own contract negotiations went south, the Turkish lineup left their organisation.

“[The ex-Space Soldiers team] kind of put it on themselves a bit. They had been without an org for a long time at this point but in saying that, that ex-Space Soldiers team was a pretty high ranked team in the world at the time, they really should have had an organisation. 

It made no sense for them to be orgless at that time and they didn’t want to get bitten in the ass by signing another shitty contract, but they took too long and XANTARES joined BIG. He was very instrumental for the team’s success.”

Yam with ex-Space Soldiers at the 2019 IEM Katowice Europe Minor. Source: HLTV

The team took a relatively high HLTV ranking through 2018 and 2019 but results never came for the lineup. In online practice and matches Yam and the squad managed solid results but they couldn’t convert their success offline.

“[XANTARES] was a massive loss - he was really their hard carry. When I joined we weren’t that bad but at LANs people weren’t consistent with how practice went and we fell apart. MAJ3R eventually moved on, he ended up leaving the team and that basically sealed the deal for the team, and me essentially.”

“I definitely enjoyed scrimming much more in Europe. I think overall the teams and the playstyles [we practiced against] had more variety - it made it a lot more fun. I definitely enjoyed that in Europe a lot more, just a lot more to learn.”

Yam remained in Europe following his departure from ex-Space Soldiers but returned to Australia in late 2019 and after time to reconfigure, now returns to the esport in his new coaching role at Chiefs.

As for a possible return to competing?

“I guess drastic things would have to change in my life for me to make that decision to start playing again. At the moment I’m very happy coaching, and if I was to play it would be filling in for one of the Chiefs boys if they were unable to for whatever reason. I want to continue if I can and keep working on coaching and improving with these guys.”

Yam’s Chiefs return to action at the all-important Road to Rio qualifier on May 7 - stay up to date on their qualifying journey as well as news, recaps and more at HTT.