ISTANBUL — In front of an audience of millions, the Brazilian esports team LOUD defeated North America’s OpTic Gaming in the capstone event of the 2022 Valorant Champions Tour on Sunday, marking the first victory for LOUD on the international stage. The grand final treated fans at the Volkswagen Arena in Istanbul to a 3-1 slugfest, with multiple maps going into overtime.
Visibly emotional, LOUD players wiped away tears as they stood up from their desks, yanking off their headsets and in-ear headphones.
“I have no words about it, it’s just so amazing,” said Matias “saadhak” Delipetro, reflecting on the feeling of being cheered on by fans in the arena. “It’s unreal.”
As the winners, LOUD will take home $300,000; OpTic will receive $150,000. The third place team, South Korea’s DRX, walked away with $110,000. The event’s final weekend was a good representation of the esport’s global reach, with the final four rosters hailing from North America, Brazil, South Korea and Europe.
“Valorant” is a 5-v-5 first-person shooter in which teams compete to be the first to win 13 rounds. The game has developed a huge following: In April, the game’s developer, Riot Games, announced that “Valorant” had attained 15 million monthly players. On the live-streaming platform Twitch (which is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post) “Valorant” is among the most watched games. The title’s release right at the beginning of the pandemic likely contributed to its success; the video game industry saw a huge boost in audience interest and engagement as people increasingly stayed indoors.
Online, the grand final’s concurrent viewership peaked at just under 1.5 million (not including Chinese platforms) according to the analytics and tracking service Esports Charts, setting a record for “Valorant” esports viewership. Last year’s final peaked at just over 1 million viewers.
That popularity was evident both within and outside the venue as well: Long lines of spectators led up to the entrance, and the seats were packed when the games began. (A Riot spokesperson put the grand final’s in-person attendance at 2,200 people.) Fans cheered as the final two teams arrived in white Mercedes vans and crowded around barricades to gawk at influencers, players, Riot executives and popular Twitch streamers like Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek and Tarik Celik on a makeshift red carpet. Many of the streamers later set up in skyboxes above the venue to co-stream the games, providing unique running commentary over the game footage and further boosting viewership numbers. The singer Ashnikko also made an appearance, performing their song “Fire Again” onstage before the match began.
OpTic and LOUD have what is arguably “Valorant’s” most prominent and high-stakes rivalry. Before Sunday, the teams had faced each other five times at international events in 2022, with OpTic winning three of those matchups. At an earlier event held in Reykjavik, Iceland, in April, OpTic faced LOUD under similar circumstances, losing to LOUD in the upper bracket, then winning the grand final against them after a lower bracket run. But OpTic was unable to replicate that performance Sunday.
On Sunday, OpTic fans were in full force, with cheers of “Let’s go OpTic!” ringing throughout the space at the beginning of the matchup; the first arena-wide LOUD chant came only during map three. But as LOUD inched closer to victory, cheers for the eventual winners increased in frequency and intensity.
The day before, during OpTic’s lower final matchup against DRX, one Turkish fan, Ulas Yilmaz, fashioned an elaborate billboard out of multiple signs given out to fans, taping the letters O-P-T-I-C across his arms and chest. On Sunday, he wore the signs down his back as a cape.
“When I saw all the signs [being given out by Riot], I thought to myself, I’ve got to do something special,” Yilmaz said.
A fan of the Europe, Middle East and Africa region from Jordan, attending his first international esports event, took the opposite tack, waving an “Anything but NA” sign.
“I’m a hardcore EMEA fan. … They hate us. We hate them,” he said, smiling. His older brother, sitting one row ahead, turned around to chide him.
“We don’t hate them. It’s not hate,” he said sternly. “It’s rivalry.”
Inside the arena, the competitors sat on a stage made of screens — and were surrounding by massive screens that beamed out footage of the players’ perspectives in-game to the fans. The sounds of in-game equipment animated the venue. The floor and seats hummed in tune with the sound effects of grenades and other in-game equipment; bass-boosted gunshots could be felt and heard in equal measure. After particularly dramatic wins, the cameras cut away to the players and coaches, as crunched and compressed audio of their screams were transmitted from their headsets microphones into the crowd.
Flanking the stage and elevated above the action, casters and analysts tasked with explaining the game broadcast to an audience of hundreds of thousands of viewers on YouTube and Twitch. When they weren’t on air, they watched the feed, going over and updating their notes, working through cues and bantering among themselves. Running commentary in Turkish echoed through the arena.
Besides their winnings from a $1 million prize pool, teams will also be granted an even bigger sum: a slice of sales from an in-game skin bundle released at the start of the Champions event. On Saturday, Riot Games announced that the bundle had brought in over $16 million — with sales continuing through Sept. 21. That preliminary figure, split between 16 organizations, bumps each team’s take-home cash by $1 million. After 2021′s Champions event, participating teams netted $500,000 as part of a similar cosmetics promotion.
At a post-match news conference, OpTic’s players looked subdued, staring down at their feet and up to the ceiling. Victor Wong, a player for OpTic, swiveled back and forth in his chair.
Still, there was some spark left in the defeated roster. One reporter asked if the team’s first, third and second place finishes at international events throughout the year meant that OpTic was the year’s best “Valorant” team.
Pujan “FNS” Mehta, the team’s in-game leader, leaned forward toward the microphone. “Yes,” he said, after a beat. Then, he leaned back into his seat.
Meanwhile, at the final news conference of the event, LOUD was all smiles. Asked about how he’d celebrate the team’s win, Delipetro had one word: “Alcohol.”