100 Thieves have been crowned North America’s first “Valorant” champions. After four days of matches, and a sweaty, drawn-out capstone matchup, the team beat TSM, 3-1, to win First Strike North America, the game’s first major regional tournament produced by the game’s developer, Riot Games. 100 Thieves’ first place finish marks the rapid ascendance of a team that had only solidified its lineup in early October, after tearing out the floor boards and overhauling the roster around its most famous player, the former Counter-Strike professional, Spencer “Hiko” Martin.
“I think we’ve definitely set a statement now that we are one of, if not the best team in North America,” said Martin on the official First Strike stream after the match concluded.
100 Thieves will take home the $40,000 first place prize; TSM will receive $20,000. Sentinels and Envy will each get $10,000 from a total prize pool of $100,000.
The competing sides in the final shared similar player compositions: a mix of “Counter-Strike” old heads anchoring some younger, more aggressive gunners. But their styles are quite different, and perhaps best exemplified by each team’s star. On TSM, that role is occupied by Matthew “Wardell” Yu, a happy warrior known as much for his precision as for his loud and expressive competitive spirit. His counterpart on 100 Thieves is Martin, a self-described “boomer” with years of high-level “Counter-Strike” play under his belt — and a slow, meticulous style of play informed by that experience.
Six other teams — Envy, Immortals, Renegades, T1, Sentinels and FaZe Clan — participated in the final event after just over a month of qualifiers. The format of the competition, which featured two rounds of open qualifiers, created a window for new, unsigned talent to make splash. But despite some modest surprises in those events, including two unsuccessful forays by a team led by streaming celebrity and former professional player Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, the squads that ultimately made it through were mostly highly regarded esports franchises stacked with well-known talent.
For 100 Thieves, the first-place finish proves the viability of their slower, more deliberate approach to “Valorant.” Most of the teams in First Strike leaned on strategies that put a lot of pressure on individual skill. Sentinels, for example, described their vibe as “super aggressive,” an approach similar to Envy, another challenger.
Consequently, when Sentinels and Envy lost, their players blamed it on poor play and missed clutches. “We were missing our shots and we were just put in really bad situations and eventually TSM just stepped over us,” said Anthony “mummAy” DiPaolo of Envy’s quarterfinals loss to TSM.
100 Thieves’ guiding philosophy feels a bit different. Martin, who praised the game of “Valorant” for the broad potential for “synergistic” interplay between agent abilities, lamented the nascent competitive scene’s lack of experimentation and tactical skill.
“We’ve been trying to experiment a lot with new strategies, and trying to let our tactics speak instead of our individual performances,” said 100 Thieves’ Martin. “It does feel like a lot of these teams aren’t really thinking tactically. They’re thinking in that style that we’ve been talking about, of, ‘Let our individual performers run out, get all the kills, and we’ll just win the 5 v 3’s and 5 v 2′s.’ But the second they go up against a team that has the experience and that plays more tactically, I can feel that sometimes they feel kind of lost.”
“We understand how they play,” said Taylor “Tailored” Broomall, TSM’s coach. “Unfortunately it’s very effective, the way that they play. ... I think mechanically, most of the time we’re the more skilled team, but we just didn’t use it to our advantage on the rounds that we needed to.”
Still, for TSM, even a second-place finish is validation of the roster’s outstanding and previously-unrecognized talent. Many of the team’s players made the jump from “Counter-Strike,” where their proficiency was drowned out in a crowded competitive landscape.
“Players like Wardell who were clearly talented, people didn’t really see it until this game,” said James “hazed” Cobb, a player on TSM. “We in the pro or semipro scene all saw it. But there’s just not enough space in the pro scene to give everyone a chance. And I think it’s just a problem within North America.”
The loss hasn’t deterred TSM. “We’re not gonna be one of those teams that gets such a close second place and then guts our whole roster,” said Broomall. “Obviously, my team is easily in the running for the best team in the world. So is Sentinels on their better days.”
Many “Valorant” watchers assumed the final would come down to TSM versus Sentinels, in-game rivals with a history of heated exchanges on social media.
“A lot of us have been around the competitive FPS scene for a long time, so naturally, you’re not going to get along with everyone,” said TSM’s Cobb. “To be fair though, the Sentinels organization is really, really playing it up on social media.”
“I’m sure it was memes, like no one really actually cares that much,” said Jay “sinatraa” Won, a player for Sentinels and a former “Overwatch” world champion and Overwatch League MVP, when asked about the origin of the beef between the two teams.
But while TSM breezed through its quarter and semifinal games, Sentinels faced a massive uphill battle in quarterfinals in the form of 100 Thieves: Their matchup was the only best-of-three in First Strike that went to three games.
On a sadder note, a dark cloud loomed over Sentinels’ First Strike run, as one of the team’s star players, Shahzeb “ShahZaM” Khan, announced the passing of his father just days before the event began.
Yesterday my Dad passed away. He was by the far the most selfless man I’ve ever known, and the greatest Dad I could have ever asked for. There are no words for the pain I’m feeling, I miss you so much.— Shahzeb Khan (@ShahZaMk) November 30, 2020
Riot Games declined to share official viewership numbers in the immediate conclusion of the final, but an informal tabulation based on publicly available data suggests that the matchup’s audience exceeded 250,000. (The Overwatch League finals, by comparison, netted 120,000 concurrent viewers on Oct. 10). First Strike is “Valorant’s” biggest official step to date on the path toward encouraging the cultivation of competitive talent invested in the game.
One unique aspect from 2020′s unique climate: “Valorant” launched earlier this year, coinciding almost exactly with start of the coronavirus pandemic, which ultimately forced esports competitions to adopt an online format, rather than the in-person games that have become standard.
How does it feel to play online? “Sucks,” said Cobb, laughing. “LAN is kind of like, once you’ve had a taste of it, you never want to go back.”
“You can flash someone on the other team and you can look at their face to see if it’s white,” said Cobb. “There’s a lot of stuff you can do on LAN that you just can’t do online.”
“With LANs, people care more,” said Martin. “You have to perform, you have to get out of your comfort zone. … No offense, but a lot of these teenagers that are on top teams have never had to do that before. They don’t know the pressure that you get onstage when you hear the crowd cheering and you can feel the vibrations of them yelling and you have the lights flashing in your eyes. It’s a whole different beast.”
Coronavirus forced most of the First Strike NA players to compete remotely, apart from their teammates. 100 Thieves, on the other hand, opted to gather its players together at the 100 Thieves Cash App Compound in Los Angeles. Martin says it had a big impact on the roster’s ability to catch up to the rest of the competition after just two months on the scene.
“We’re able to fist bump each other, we’re able to look each other in the eye, we’re able to crack jokes face to face. We’re able to hang out and develop team chemistry and bond in person,” said Martin. “We’ve had a support staff, we’ve had a coach, we have a health, mind and body specialist that’s here with us that makes sure we stay on track and we’re feeling good and we’re performing good and sleeping well. … I don’t think that we would have been able to progress and improve as fast as we did, if we would have all stayed home.”