ISTANBUL — On Saturday evening in Turkey, Jaccob “yay” Whiteaker was riding a high. The esports athlete — whose performances have earned him the nickname “El Diablo” and frequent incredulous invocations of his eye-watering stats by live stream broadcast talent — had just led his team, OpTic Gaming, to victory over the South Korean team DRX in the 2022 Valorant Champions Tour. In the match, Whiteaker had achieved the most kills of anyone on either team, and he suffered the fewest deaths.
According to VLR.gg, a “Valorant” news and statistics tracking website, OpTic is North America’s best roster. The team has also enjoyed podium finishes in every international event in 2022, including second place in the “Valorant” world championship in Istanbul on Sunday. Whiteaker is a big part of that success. Still, fans and analysts have wondered whether the 2023 season, which will bring a dramatically different league structure to “Valorant” esports, may spell change for the celebrated OpTic roster — or even wholesale dissolution.
In a brief huddle outside of the Volkswagen Arena press room Saturday, The Washington Post spoke with Whiteaker about his status as the world’s best “Valorant” player and his hopes and expectations for 2023.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Launcher: Every time somebody asks a question like this, players answer with the caveat of, ‘I’m supported by my team, I wouldn’t be able to do this without my team.’ Statistically, though, you’re the best player at this event. Can you tell me a bit about how that feels, and how you think about that — if you think about it at all?
Jaccob “yay” Whiteaker: So, I mean, you’re right. From a statistical standpoint, I’m definitely the best player. But in terms of how I feel about that, I don’t know. I don’t know if I feel a lot. What I’ve learned is that everyone has differing opinions on who is the best; it doesn’t matter what you achieve or what you do or whatever your stats are. So I really don’t think about that too much. All I want to do is try to inspire other people. I worked really hard to try and achieve my dream, and I’m hoping that whatever other dreams people have, I can inspire them to achieve them as well.
I feel like that’s a level of humility not every athlete — and not every esports athlete — has. A big part of the performance of athleticism is ‘I’m the best.’ Can you tell me a bit about how you fostered that attitude, where that comes from?
Whiteaker: Like I said, I just think it’s almost superficial, that whole mentality. Yeah, you should be confident in yourself, and if you want to be the best, you should obviously strive to put the work in. But when it comes to how you treat other people or how you act, I don’t think you should have an ego about it.
While I’m the best player in “Valorant” … it’s just “Valorant.” It’s a video game. There are so many other talented people in so many different professions and walks of life, be it other esports, traditional sports or being a doctor, so on and so forth. I’m the best in a very specific area, but there are so many other people with incredible ability and talent as well.
The scuttlebutt among journalists is that organizations know stuff about roster moves and partnership status around 2023, while players are kept almost completely in the dark. I’m curious whether that rings true to you.
Whiteaker: I mean, sometimes. I definitely do think some orgs have a little bit more knowledge than other ones — I can think of a few in particular, ones that knew some stuff way earlier than other orgs. But in terms of what players know, it’s kept pretty tight. We don’t really know what the future holds. I guess we’ll find out pretty soon.
From a personal perspective, where would you like to see yourself next year?
Whiteaker: It depends a lot on franchising because obviously if there’s a situation in which we aren’t accepted — and even if we want to stick together, there’s a chance that buyouts might not work out — we may end up splitting up. That would suck, but sometimes that’s just how life is.
In terms of where I see myself, I hope to be with the same guys because we’ve found so much success and I feel like we’re continuing to improve and grow as a team. I’d really like to stay with the guys, but sometimes circumstances can cause some issues, unfortunately.
Pro players often talk about striking a balance between professional play and content creation for their esports career to be sustainable in the long term. I’m curious if that’s something you’re thinking about right now, or if you’re solely focused on competing?
Whiteaker: I think I’ve found a little bit of a balance. I’m not going to lie, though, it is a really rough balance to strike, because I play so much. One of the reasons I’m able to maintain this level of consistency is that I’m constantly able to play. I do agree with you, though. I think a lot of people go through [their professional careers] and realize ‘Hey, I should have done more content creation,’ which is something I recognize. It’s why I’ve started to stream a little bit more, and I’m trying to build a YouTube channel and stuff like that. But more than anything, I think my priority as a player is trying to be the best version of myself that I can be; that’s what makes me happy, ultimately. As much as I love Twitch chat, the main thing that makes me truly happy and satisfied in this life is competing. There’s nothing else like it.