Two French GOATS & the art of war

Ceb after winning The International for a second time (image: The International)

Two things happened this year that, unless you’re especially engaged with them, you probably don’t know about. Both are about sports — multimillion dollar, international sports at a very high level — except what’s interesting about them isn’t really, it’s about dragging yourself out of something deep and sticky and hauling yourself, hands and knees and clumsy with slime, to the top of what you can be.

On paper, the main thing Jean-Eric Vergne and Sebastien Debs share is being Parisien and having won the highest achievement in their respective sports twice each, back to back. They’re also both in their late twenties, have reasonably strong views about French cuisine and travel a lot.

You’d be well within your rights to not know who either (or even both) is. Both are better known by other names; Vergne is JEV, an acronym it’s rude not to use, having been what he calls himself for well over a decade and Debs is Ceb, his gamer tag and (sort of) the Cyrillic spelling of his name.

JEV drives fast cars for a living, Ceb plays a game where he pretends to be wizards or monsters or whatever. Two very different masculine fantasies but nonetheless, pretty decent ways to become well-respected millionaires and becoming champion in anything is pretty cool, of course. Let alone doing it twice, back to back.

Ceb and JEV probably don’t know each other exist and the number of people keen to compare the two is a Venn diagram I suspect entirely covered by ‘people who follow me on Twitter’ but as Reva gave me the prompt, there’s a genuinely good comparison here; two title campaigns, twice over, from out of ashes and mistakes and no small amount of drama. Two sports you have to win technically and strategically and accurately on the field and before that, in your own mind.

JEV on the podium at the Berlin Eprix (image: ABB Formula E)

The method for losing

Like most people, I hate sucking at things. Actually no, I probably hate it an abnormal amount to the point that I really struggle to learn because I can’t cope with being bad at things and therefore, never actually start new stuff. If it doesn’t come naturally — and most things don’t, I’m not especially young and my standard for doing anything ok is now not only base-level unrealistic but stupidly expert — then I get upset and embarrassed and don’t know how to encourage myself onwards without having a minor meltdown.

Which is mostly manageable. Fine, I can’t knit; I was probably never going to be one of the world’s great knitters, it’s ok. But when it happens with things I know I’m already good at, just because I cannot make myself cooperate and some mental saboteur gets a real thick fog to hang in the way of me writing or throttles my brain with nerves in an interview, then that’s an entirely different situation.

Fortunately, when this happens the worst thing to come out of it is some heated exchange with an editor who would really like me to file the damned copy. It’s embarrassing and I hate it and I wish I would stop mucking up my own career like this but at least it’s no one else’s job to commentate on it.

But listen, if 1,000 people tell me how rubbish my article is in the comments then actually, that’s all good engagement and might get me another commission because we live in the upside-down and for my own ego, at least tells me they did read it. I’ve never had entire online communities analytically, surgically, tear apart why I’m over as a writer, past my best and should be booted for being a failure.

I’ve definitely never had live commentary have to broadcast my screw-ups. And they don’t ask my boss or my colleagues about them on-air afterwards. No one’s ever written a feature about how actually, the rational thing is to promote someone over me or for me to slip out of my role because the numbers don’t lie so that’s just being fair.

It’s pretty good being the side of sports that gives it out but doesn’t take it. JEV and Ceb are the other. And it’s all smiles now — greatest of all time, extraordinary achievements, both firsts in their field to become double-champions, let alone back-to-back. If anyone ever doubted them then that’s carefully swept to, oh, the third or fourth page of Google results now.

That wouldn’t have been the case in 2014, somewhat ground zero for either’s career nadirs. JEV, at the time, was a Formula One driver — if you’re not familiar with motorsport, this is different from Formula E by being older, much more boring and infinitely up its own arse. For some reason, like an uncaring parent, we all still desperately want its attention and for any professional driver, the now-20 seats on the grid are the top spots, the self-proclaimed pinnacle.

Until about November 2014, JEV was one of those favoured children. At the back of the pecking order, for sure and rarely included in the Christmas round robin letter but still, you can’t be an F1 driver if you’re not one of that number and he was. It’s just that, then, after three years of looking variously promising and frustrated, he suddenly wasn’t.

“Getting dropped,” is how it’s called in motorsport, almost as though it could be an accident but making it clear gravity is only taking you one way. “Kicked” is esports’ word for it, a little more deliberate and any injury less blamed on your own landing.

JEV last season (image: ABB Formula E)

In 2014, Ceb had already fallen out of the favourite children by quite some considerable distance — having definitely never got quite as close as JEV did. He’d been to The International, Dota 2’s biggest tournament and the biggest tournament (financially) in all of esports but his 2014 had been a scrappy mess of mixing teams and getting kicked repeatedly. He’d end 2014 in any sportsperson’s most ignominious role: the former professional commentary analyst.

So half a decade ago, Ceb and JEV are both fired. Neither, at the time, has set their respective worlds alight — many people have, at this point, quietly disappeared to do something less glaringly public, where their notice of departure isn’t shredded into gleeful scraps by jackals everywhere from solemn broadsheet analytics to chatwheel catcalls.

One of the problems that both of them have is that they have tempers. Ceb, although analytic and passionate, has a reputation for viciously flaming people including his teammates. This is the sort of thing that when mixed with wild successes makes people describe you as a sort of insane, tyrannical genius. When mixed with the analysts’ desk it makes them call you a loser and sore with it.

I have always really liked JEV (who I work with a lot, now) but when I first got into motorsport journalism there was a clear warning about him: he is a moody bitch. That’s an unfair assessment and doesn’t really cover the layers of shifting, catlike complexities about him but in a world that both demands drivers are individuals and then gets offended if they don’t all react identically to things, that’s the blunt way it gets wrapped. He got described as grumpy and difficult to work with, difficult to speak to, the implication somewhere in there that that’s probably why he lost his seat and that it would only be a matter of time before he lost any future ones.

JEV is more complicated for lots of reasons (and maybe so is Ceb but I don’t know him as well and none those complications matter to this) but whatever the case: they were both angry. At losing, at being mucked around, at not knowing what they wanted to do. Ceb was going to go back to university, JEV ended up in Formula E without knowing what it even was.

Some things are self-perpetuating; when you are fighting to prove yourself, if you’re in a field good enough to actually let you prove it then you won’t get anywhere half-cocked. You don’t get to be good at anything without sucking first — and you don’t improve, don’t come back from knockbacks without being prepared to suck again.

If, like me — or 2014 Ceb or JEV — you can’t handle that, if every breakthrough is a tripwire not a step up, there’s a strong chance you are not going to become a double world champion. Or do anything much good at all apart from tread increasingly horrible water until everyone says you’re not what you’re cracked up to be. And what you were cracked up to be wasn’t all that headline-worthy.

OG qualify for the TI finals this year (image: The International)

The buyback

JEV is easy to pick out in this; he’s a racing driver who drove his car to win more than the other guys in his championship, twice in a row. That’s him. But Ceb is part of a team — it takes five to Dota and whatever Ceb’s own business, it would actually take OG’s then-not-captain N0tail fishing him out of obscurity to ask him to coach the team, sidelined for another season.

Not that JEV was entirely in the spotlight from 2014 onwards, obviously. If a simple shift to a new series had solved his problems then I’d be writing about five-time world champion and this other guy who is also quite good at what he does.

Ceb might have literally been out of a seat in Dota in the sense he wasn’t expecting to come back from coaching; JEV was double-jobbing Formula E with miserable background roles in F1 where you can look at but not touch the sport itself. He was still working out where to commit and it’d take two seasons of nearly to get anywhere close. He didn’t win a race until the final gasp of Season 3.

The stories don’t pan perfectly, in time or substance. Dota and Formula E are different sports and the exact specifications of them don’t matter to the synergies; the point is that at some point if you’re going to stop losing you’re probably going to have to win.

Everyone thought Ceb was shit and JEV wasn’t capable of keeping his head together. Possibly including them. By the time they took to the grid or the main stage for their respective first title chances they’d been not almost-rans but nowhere-nears for some time. Not a threat, not even worth really counting.

Start of Season 4 of Formula E was in 2017 and everyone was still talking about the fight that dominated the previous three season. I say that like you should be eyerolling at it — but of course they were, that’s how it had always played out before. Same as when OG scraped themselves off the floor, in Ceb’s Parisien flat, to regroup and go through open qualifiers for last year’s The International there was no way they were actually going to win. Frankly no one was sure they’d qualify.

Maybe that’s the trick; bounced from one unsatisfied team situation to another, both of them had ended up building their own. Ceb out of the ashes of a blown-apart OG as the team tore itself like a wet tissue; quietly and with catastophic effects, in a Birmingham hotel room just months before TI. JEV out of a situation where he could no longer stay at the team he’d been on and had to, aged 27, decide whether he was going to buy another entry out to make his own seat.

Ceb, too, had to stop moonlighting. It was him that pulled the remnants of his team back together, stopped coaching with one leg in a seat and stepped in full-time (to the derision of many — how desperate could they be) and then once they’d finished shaking out what they were sure about, both of them had to win.

Which is easier said than done.

Talking to JEV in Berlin this year (image: Rebecca Jod)

Last year at TI every game OG didn’t lose felt like it must not quite be real. No one had come through open qualifiers like this, ever.

Equally; JEV had never been the previous three Formula E title fights. In fact he hadn’t been in a title fight at all for years at all, his F1 career not in a team that could fight at the front. Only four drivers in Formula E ever had been and for two seasons it had only really been two of those. You can snatch a win, sure but proving you’re capable of a fluke doesn’t get you the title.

Fluking was what people kept saying OG were doing, as they progressed through the Upper Bracket (TI has double elimination — it doesn’t matter what that is, just that they were on the better side of it) and eventually, almost bafflingly, through the final to win. An impossible Cinderella story, sometimes sport is feel-good.

And same; JEV came back from some of the lowest possible mental lows for any racer, any sportsperson and shakily — like he couldn’t believe it was happening, could barely trust himself on it, refusing to rate his chances down to the last— held his nerve for the whole season where others bottled it or fell short for too long, found it too late. I started writing a piece at the end of the season that was about how this was the sort of sporting story we desperately, desperately need in hopeless times.

But that’s assuming it’s a fluke. A moment when the stars alligned — when anyone who writes about sports knows it can’t be. You can fluke a single win, not a gruelling week-long tournament or a whole season. You can’t cling to a lead while everyone tries to take it off you by accident.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that you can do it again.

Ceb (and the rest of OG) doing it again (image: The International)

The Combo

There’s a thing about the second championship. Especially when no one has ever had more than one before. The first is something that can be caught up with. Anyone at the start of something could be the winner, no matter how mathematically unlikely.

It’s funny because that first one seemed more like a team effort for JEV. Dragging Techeetah from disorganised to strategised, pushing and pushing until the part-ownership was probably the only thing stopping someone hitting him with a spanner. And putting himself back together in the process, realising what setups he needs to not fuck up.

But that’s all experimental, isn’t it? Going race-by-race, as OG went game-by-game, you’ve got the expectation to try but if you fail it’s not cataclysmic, it’s not proof all the rest was fluke. It’s a good effort.

Once you’ve got the first one, teetering on a pedestal everyone’s desperate to knock you off, it’s not about stopping losing and stemming some terminal flow. It’s about building on the structure you’re under siege in; everyone wants a piece of you now and just not screwing yourself up won’t be enough to hold them off.

OG’s charge through TI this year was in some ways the opposite of JEV’s second championship; instead of coming through a chaotic upheaval that saw everyone a little scattered, they arced through their opposition with a brutality it was hard to believe at times. The sort of play that leaves an opponent conceding with “ok” — we get it, we shouldn’t have dared look at the throne.

JEV’s second championship was a rollercoaster of survival, avoiding clashes and suddenly-rising rivals enough to come into the final with a lead. But the mechanics barely matter, it’s the nerve-holding that does.

Both Ceb, with N0tail and OG and JEV, with Techeetah (no one goes racing on their own) have turned dead ends into double titles these past two years. Their rivals didn’t change, especially but they certainly did in stepping up and into big boots, the second set of an entirely unknown creation.

Being the first anything is difficult; doing your first is harder but taking the momentum-crash of a win and juggling it back into line for a second is a wholly different type of ownership. Of yourself, your sport, your team. People have been champions, no one’s stayed one.

JEV told me after the first he celebrated, then went back to work the next day. A big mood, for a freelance journalist — and not quite true according to his Instagram but it’s easy to see how the discipline works.

And what do you do now? Both are clear they want the triple, which is an entire new territory to break again.

Sport changes year on year — tactics, techniques, opponents, circumstances. It’s what keeps people coming back to prove they can do it again, that that wasn’t some sort of accident the first time. It’s what keeps idiots like me chasing it around the world and writing thousands of words about it.

It’s exciting to see the process of cracking those variations in action. The same as Formula E’s high-speed recalculations or Dota’s endless, whirring combinations. It’s what we all flatter ourselves with, the ability to think that fast, to catch that luck, to be the one that does it.

It doesn’t make them magic. Their opponents — internal and external — will be back next time out. But there’s a lot to be taken from two cases pulled back from the brink of failure, from criticism and chaotic circumstances, to be amongst the greatest of all time in their fields and to have done that with such precise self-development, the one thing in sport you can actually control.

GOATS for now. For everyone else, it’s started again already.

(If you’ve wondered why I’ve been quiet on the writing front for a bit, I am taking this inspiration — more soon)

Professional motorsport journalist who puts things here when I know nowhere will really take them but think they need writing.