With Champs approaching, Dallas Empire focused on another championship run

by Andrew Kulp

How bad are the Dallas Empire this season? This was actually a debate that spontaneously broke out between members of the reigning Call of Duty League champions during an interview with Nerd Street last week.

“On the plus side, even though this is considered a s----y year, we're still in second,” started Anthony “Shotzzy” Cuevas-Castro, last season's league MVP, referring to the Empire's current place in the standings.

“It's not that s----y,” head coach and general manager Raymond “Rambo” Lussier responded, taking over the role of interviewer for a brief moment. "It's really not. It just is by our standards.”

“Ahhh, it's a pretty s----y year,” teammate Indervir “Illey” Dhaliwal interjected.

The Empire had just capped off arguably their best stage of the season, narrowly falling to the Atlanta FaZe in Game 9 of the grand finals of Major IV. And the consensus among the trio is the team has been trending up since the addition of Reece “Vivid” Drost, possibly even rounding back into championship form.

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Yet, you can forgive some of the pessimism. For much of the season, Empire hasn’t lived up to expectations -- at least not their own, however lofty those might be -- nor has the team been able to escape the shadow of the controversial decision to remove Cuyler “Huke” Garland from the lineup in April.

Huke has since landed with the Los Angeles Thieves, a move that isn’t panning out so far, while Dallas is 9-5 since Vivid entered the mix.

Still, Rambo was dogged with a question from a fan asking why the change occurred as recently as two weeks ago, even though it’s been over two months since the move.

“We were just trending in the wrong direction with Cuyler,” Rambo patiently explained to Nerd Street, even though it was probably the millionth time he was answering this question. “Bluntly, we felt like we were getting worse as other teams were getting way better.”

As far as the debate over whether or not it was wise, that one appears to be largely settled.

“We're showing off that it was the right move to make,” Rambo said.

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Huke started the year with the Dallas Empire and is now with the Los Angeles Thieves. Photo credit: Call of Duty League

So why did Empire drop Huke???

The issue, as it so often is in competitive COD, was primarily one of communication.

Again, it’s been said on numerous occasions. But between various dramas that have unfolded in the months since and a nagging feeling that something must’ve been going on behind the scenes for a top-tier org like Envy to part ways with such a high-profile player midseason, the specific reason for the move maybe got lost in translation a bit.

“The communication part, that's been the biggest piece that Reece has added,” Rambo said. “That's something that we were lacking with our previous team this year, is really someone who can communicate at the level he's doing.”

It looked for a moment that the change might’ve been a mistake.

When the Empire were initially unable to land Vivid from the Los Angeles Guerrillas, they turned to Tyler “FeLo” Johnson for the remainder of Stage 3. That version of the team failed to win a single map in two matches at the ensuing major.

“We're bringing in a new player who has to get accustomed to our fundamentals and how we play the game,” Rambo said. “And then, also, Inder had to change roles from an AR to a sub, which is a very hard thing to do this year because the sub role has a lot of intricacies that are not easy to pick up quickly.

“Given the timeline that we had, it's just a lot of pieces to move around at once.”

Once Vivid finally became available, Illey was able to slide back into the AR position he’s more accustomed to, and the newcomer started filling in the blanks at submachine gun.

For what it’s worth, Vivid has been given the stamp of approval from his teammates.

“I couldn't ask for a better fit,” Illey said. “After a couple matches, he fit perfectly right in. Perfect match, honestly, and what he brings to the table as well with his comms and especially [Search & Destroy], he's definitely helped.”

“He's literally the perfect puzzle piece,” Shotzzy added. “I couldn't ask for any other player. His playstyle is somewhat similar to mine in terms of aggression, and the way he likes playing the game is somewhat how I like playing the game -- that's definitely a plus in terms of the sub deal.

“As soon as we brought in Reece, we improved in every single game mode.”

Rambo concurred.

“Our core three were never an issue,” he said. “Having that extra piece was really what we were missing to be a successful team.”

Photo credit: Call of Duty League

The other elephant in the room

Despite everything Empire have been through this season -- and, in some respects, are still going through -- it’s not for lack of confidence. These are the reigning CDL champions, which bears repeating. Shotzzy is also a world champion in Halo, and teammate Ian “C6” Porter, better known as Crimsix, is a three-time COD champion.

They know how to win.

“Even after the Stage 3 that we had, we knew what we were capable of doing because we've done it before,” Illey said. “We weren't really too worried because we've achieved a lot in the past and we know what we're capable of.”

They also know how to beat FaZe, no matter how unstoppable CDL’s elite club has looked with an immaculate 32-4 record this season.

After all, it was FaZe that the Empire upset in the grand finals of the championship round in the 2020 playoffs. Granted, both teams are different, the game is different -- everything is different -- but they know what it takes.

It looked like Dallas had Atlanta on the ropes in Major IV, too, at one point going up 4-3 in the best-of-nine series. The only thing that comeback exposed was this is still a relatively new lineup trying to figure things out.

“Obviously, they're a good team,” Shotzzy said. “What we're gonna have to do to beat them at Champs is expand our map pool.”

“Expanding our map pool is really, really big, especially in a BO9 aspect,” Illey added. “We played two or three maps that we hardly ever played because we were only a team for one month.”

FaZe has gone on to defeat Empire at some point in all four majors this season, though that particular detail might mean little to morale.

“We don't really care about winning one tournament,” Rambo said. “It's the last one.”

Everything the Empire have done up to and including unexpectedly blowing a hole in their lineup and riling up the entire CDL fanbase has all been in service of one goal.

“We've been through some hardships this year, but given the amount of time we have left and where we sit now, we can easily get there,” Rambo said. “It's really on us to push toward getting to a point where we're comfortable winning Champs, and I think we'll get there.

“Anything less than that will not be acceptable on our end.”

Lead photo credit: Dallas Empire

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