Lakad Matatag, Salazar: The Hope of a Lost Region

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The young AWPer became an overnight sensation with the Filipino crowd.

It’s not an uncommon occurrence in traditional sports, and even in esports, for a community to become so captivated by an individual or group whose success holds a deeper meaning than simply achievements on paper. There’s the historic run of GamerLegion at the Paris Major in 2023, making it all the way to the grand final. Gambit and Danylo “Zeus” Teslenko’s championship-winning run at the PGL Major Krakow also come to mind, and who could ever forget when FaZe Clan blew a 15–11 lead in the 2018 Boston Major final giving NA its first and only Major in CS:GO history.

But what happens when you become an overnight sensation for a once-obsessed region that, despite facing a steep climb to get the scene back to what it once was, has never lost its love for Counter-Strike?

That’s exactly where Jason “salazar” Salazar finds himself now.

Salazar got his start in gaming at a young age, influenced by his father’s love for computers and computer gaming. He first began with another iconic shooter produced by Valve in Team Fortress 2 before exploring other titles upon receiving his first-ever PC. One of the games that stuck the most with him was CS:GO and by the time he left to attend Efterskole in Denmark at around 16 years of age, it was one of the biggest passions in his life. There, he got his first taste of competition while also learning about the deeper fundamental aspects of the game through his classes.

“We had a class called “Esport” where we had two teachers who were teaching us about CS and everything you know about CS like the academy and all the basics. After that, I really got the interest in becoming a professional in CS and I think that year helped me a lot to get to where I am now.”

He joined his first team called HDE.Hype while in the school which was a group of friends that came together to compete in all the local tournaments they could — the classic CS experience if you will. They all got together in December 2020 and competed in a number of qualifiers, took home their lone first-place finish at Fragleague Season 6, and eventually reaching the POWER Ligaen. The group moved on to a different banner with Esport Harte and continued to play two more POWER Ligaen seasons to minimal success.

A big break for salazar

The call to ECSTATIC

salazar celebrates a round at ESL Challenger Melbourne; Copyright: Luc Bouchon, ESL FACEIT Group

salazar’s big break came with Atlantic where, after a string of decent performances at tournaments such as Astralis’ Road to Nexus and NPF 2022, he got the call from his former teacher who just so happened to be a coach at ECSTATIC. “I think that was a very good thing for me that I knew him because they needed an AWPer then he contacted me and he already knew what he could get from me so you could say it was quite lucky. The IGL at that time, Marcus “maNkz” Kjeldsen, helped me a lot individually to be better, how I looked at the game, and how I wanted to play.”

His professional career took off with ECSTATIC as now the competition was even tougher than ever before, but it also came with much-needed exposure that he had previously not enjoyed. Salazar initially struggled with the sudden jump to Tier 2 and occasionally Tier 1 competition which is a common scenario that many up-and-coming players experience, but eventually found his groove towards the start of 2023. He was ECSTATIC’s highest-rated player at ESL Challenger League Season 44 EU and his squad’s second-best fragger at Elisa Invitational Winter 2023 Contenders. Though the Danes did not thrive when it came to overall tournament success, salazar’s individual display throughout the year earned him a call from one of the biggest names in all of CS come December.

Heroic was left without an AWPer after the departure of Casper “cadiaN” Møller in October 2023. With one final tournament to play before the holidays, the organization decided to field salazar as a stand-in for the BLAST Premier World Final. The experience, as salazar puts it, was one he would never forget.

“I didn’t know that they even had a look at me so when I got the text I got very surprised and happy and I think I learned a lot from that little trip. Even though we didn’t win a single match, just practicing with them, they were all experienced, especially Peter “dupreeh” Rasmussen who is the winningest player in CS. I learned a lot from all of them and had some good talks with them and with the team in general. It was a very big experience to play with Heroic and just everything we did. It was a trip I will never forget.”

Of course, it wasn’t only the Danish community that took note of salazar’s stint with one of the best teams in the world. The 19-year-old has Filipino roots through his mother and, as is the case with any successful athlete who dons the flag, the Counter-Strike community back in the Philippines was elated. It was the first time a Filipino would compete in a Tier 1 tournament, much more with such a well-known organization like Heroic.

salazar celebrates with teammate kraghen after defeating FURIA; Copyright: Stephanie Lindgren, PGL

That fanfare increased even further when ECSTATIC made their way through the grueling European Regional Major Ranking tournament and qualified for the PGL Major Copenhagen in 2024 — the first of its kind to take place in CS2. ECSTATIC ultimately failed to reach the Playoff Stage with a 1-3 record in the elimination round, cutting their dreams of playing in front of the home crowd short. Despite this, it was already heralded as a positive experience for the group especially since nobody expected them to even reach the tournament in the first place.

Salazar’s name made the rounds once again back in the Philippines as the nation’s first Major contestant in the history of the game. Seeing his influence on a fanbase driven purely by love for the game, he emphasized his desire to keep on playing at such a level so that not only his own personal goals would be achieved, but so that the Filipino crowd would finally make their way back to the spotlight. Born to a Filipino mother with a strong connection to his family and culture back in Southeast Asia, the pride and joy he waves the Philippine flag with has only made him fight harder for a cause more than his own.

“Seeing where all of this could lead to my dream is of course to win a Major and if I win a Major the Filipino flag is going to be even more visible and more people would pay attention. People finally see that there’s a Filipino guy playing at quite a high level in CS so I think that the only thing I can really do is keep doing what I’m doing now. Even though I’m not 100% from the Philippines and born and raised there, I still say I’m Filipino.”

It’s an understatement to say that the competitive scene in the Philippines has had much better days, but that doesn’t mean it has given up just yet. The nation’s leading coverage stream, Focus Fire Gaming, showed all-out support to the young AWPer by creating various graphics and streaming salazar’s games without fail. With collegiate organizations such as De La Salle University’s Viridis Arcus Esports and Lyceum of the Philippines University’s Pirate Esports providing a much-needed platform for competitive Counter-Strike at the grassroots level and tournament organizers such as FRAGNATION eager to rekindle the fire within the player base, it’s safe to say that salazar has steadily become an important pillar of hope for the Filipinos.

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