Martin, a former “Counter-Strike” pro player, isn’t just the leader of the team that sits atop the NA region. He’s also a popular streamer, with 1.2 million followers on Twitch, and arguably one of “Valorant’s” most popular content creators.
The Washington Post spoke with the 30-year-old player (a self-described “boomer”) on the eve of 100 Thieves’ victory over TSM about the habits of successful pro players, and the differences between tactical and aggressive players.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Launcher: How would you describe 100 Thieves’ strategy and approach to “Valorant?”
Spencer “Hiko” Martin: I think something that we have that very few other teams in the professional North American Valorant scene have is we have a lot of … brains on the team. We have a lot of people that have 10-plus years of experience of being an in-game leader. I think one of the things we have going for us is that we win a lot of rounds that we shouldn’t win. We win a lot of 3 v 5′s and 2 v 5′s that really we have no right to win.
We approach the game in a very tactical way. We know the timing of when the Sova arrow has to come. We know the timings of when this person needs to run in, or when the shock dart comes or when the Omen flash is coming. We have very detailed strategies that we run.
Launcher: This fact — that you have so much combined experience — what does that actually mean when you’re playing against someone?
Martin: I think it gives us a level of confidence and a level of X-Factor that teams and players have never had to deal with. Three of the players on my team — me, Steel and Nitr0 — have competed at the highest level in “Counter-Strike.” Me and Nitr0 made a major grand finals together, major semifinal together. We were teammates for something like two years on Team Liquid back in Counter-Strike. Some of the pros that are in the game currently, at least in North America, they never even were top pros in Counter-Strike. A lot of them were semipro level players.
Take Nitr0, for example. He just switched to “Valorant” a couple months ago. Me and all of TSM and a lot of other teams had been playing the game at that point for six, seven months with the same roster. The fact that we’re able to come in with a newish roster — we made this team something like two months ago — and we’re already making it to the grand finals of the first big event that we play, I think that shows that you can’t just get a team full of young, hungry, inexperienced players. You need the experience. You need the support.
I personally think that the duelist meta is kind of boring: just fast-paced, get in your face and rely a lot on aim fights and individual performances. The second your star players or your big players aren’t able to perform, the second they’re not hitting their shots, which — you can’t be that consistent throughout every single game — they’re going to lose. And I think that’s something our team has that maybe other teams don’t. We have the two young kids, but we also have the three old guys. We have the people you want in clutch rounds.
Launcher: Are you thinking at all about the eventual transition of “Counter-Strike” pros to “Valorant?” Do you worry at all about the tier one talent coming over?
Martin: I think that the meta in the game is changing very fast. If there are top-tier “Counter-Strike” pros that switch over, sure, they have a lot of experience, but they’re going to have to start playing so much catch-up. If there is a “Counter-Strike” pro who’s going to switch, they need to do it now, or at the latest, early next year.
“Valorant” is very similar to “Counter-Strike,” but too many times have I seen top-tier “Counter-Strike” talent play this game and decide that it’s not for them. They don’t like it. They don’t like the abilities. So if they’re going to have to get used to it, and it’s going to have to be a thing where they just have to grind, well, every day and every month that they’re waiting, they’re just more and more behind. And eventually, some of these players who are current pros in “Valorant” who were maybe semipros in “Counter-Strike,” they’re going to develop the skills of a top-tier pro. So it’s a race against the clock.
Launcher: Why was the 100 Thieves — Sentinels matchup the first in First Strike NA to go to a third map?
Martin: In all honesty, that match against Sentinels could have, and probably should have, been a 2-0 either way. It’s weird. Right now, the scene in North America is so top heavy. The top two, three teams are way above everybody else. Some of these teams, if you put them in an eight-team bracket, you never really know who’s going to win. There’s like two or three or four teams that people would consider in the top four. And then outside of that, it feels like there’s a step down.
Maybe that’s not fair to say. But I do feel like once you get out of the top-tier environment, the skill level drops a lot. If you watch the lower-tier games, it just comes down to who’s getting their shots and who’s playing better. I don’t really see many good tactical teams in the lower level. It will be interesting to see how the scene looks a year from now, when everybody really has time to go back to the drawing board, especially after this tournament, especially after the next year’s circuit system.
Launcher: Does that worry you at all? My expectation for the open qualifiers was that a lot of lower-tier teams would make a name for themselves, but the only two teams I can think of that outperformed expectations were Moon Raccoons and 100 Thieves. Is that top heaviness, that steep drop-off in skill, cause for alarm?
Martin: My teammate Steel came into the scene a couple months ago, and he’s kind of notoriously known now for coming out and saying, “These teams kind of suck. They don’t really have tactics. They just kind of run around.” You can tell when you watch some of these teams, they don’t understand the fundamentals of a tactical shooter like “Counter-Strike.” So it’s alarming to a certain extent that the top of the “Valorant” scene is filled with a lot of semipro “Counter-Strike” players.
I think that right now the lower tier in North America, we scrim against them and it’s sometimes not even worth playing against them. Like we’re trying to go over strategy, or go over tactics and they just rush you — on defense and attack. They’re just “hold W,” get in your face. All they think about is getting kills, and if you get kills you’re going to win.
I think it just takes some time for a scene thing to develop, for players to mature, for people to refine the knowledge and the skill set that they’re learning right now. And while it is probably alarming for the short term, I think it’s fine in the long term. Give it some time. I’m not super worried.
Launcher: 100 Thieves is clearly a serious competitive force in the scene. You also — and I mean you personally and 100 Thieves in general — have a very comprehensive approach to content and branding. How do you balance these two facets of being a contemporary esports team: competition and content?
Martin: If you’re a part of an organization, whether they’re tier one, tier two or whatever, you’re going to have to do content. I think it’s safe to say that I’m probably one of the bigger or biggest “Valorant” streamers right now. I fall into this trap of playing for about 14 hours a day when I do a full stream followed by practice. I work Monday to Friday, that’s our practice schedule. And I stream from 9 a.m. to about 2:30 p.m. and we start practice by 4:30 and then we practice until about 11 to 12 at night. From Monday to Friday, I am literally busy from the minute I wake up to the minute I go to bed.
You have to look out for yourself. You have to have some kind of a brand you’re building for yourself because you’re not going to be with the org forever. I think it’s a thing that a lot of pros don’t understand. A lot of pros don’t do it. It’s the same problem that “Counter-Strike” had, where you have these players who never do interviews. They never stream. They never get out in front of the public. Some of them have really funny and really good personalities, but either they’re shy or they’re awkward or they’re lazy or all the above, and they don’t want to put in that extra effort, that extra time to develop their brand.
On the majority of the teams I’ve ever been on, I’ve always been the guy that’s the streamer guy, and I’m the guy that does most of the interviews, and I’m the guy that likes to speak in front of audiences. I see it as a mandatory thing that you should want to do as a pro. You don’t have a twenty-year career that you can in some other jobs.
Launcher: Do you like the content-related part of the job, or is it just a necessary grind to ensure your future after competitive play?
Martin: I think a little bit of both. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. Why even spend the extra seven hours a day streaming when I can just not? I definitely think it’s a good way to socialize. You know, I’m inside for 15 hours a day, but even though I may not be getting sunlight, I am at least socializing, interacting with other people. I shower every day, I have to shave, I have to look presentable. It keeps me honest, keeps me in check.
I get in this weird rut sometimes where I’m like, ‘Oh, man, I really don’t want to stream today, but if I don’t, people are going to be disappointed.’ I’ve become their morning or afternoon ritual, where they watch me while they eat or they watch me while they’re at work. So I do sometimes feel obligated. But I definitely don’t think I’m getting burnt out. Even working 15 hours a day, I’m still able to keep a clear mind. I take my weekends very seriously.
Launcher: Tell me more about staying away and finding space. For other esports, orgs have teams of people supporting the players. Does that professionalization of the sport exist for “Valorant?”
Martin: When I say I stay away from “Valorant” it’s more that I don’t want to physically have my butt in my seat playing the game after working 60, 70 hours in five days. But I’m still working to some extent. I have a one on one meeting with my nutritionist every week. And I have a one on one meeting with my personal trainer every week. And I have a meeting with my YouTube editor, and my Twitch editor, and my mods, and my Twitch mods and my manager. We have a manager for 100 Thieves that also helps us out or talks to us from time to time. So I have all of these different facets of the professionalization, as you said.