‘Valorant’ Has Given Us An Unbelievable Underdog Story
9:47 AM EDT on July 25, 2023
The competitive Valorant scene, despite having a professional league, is still an insular internet niche and so remains often delightfully, unrepentantly unserious. That's how you end up with a commentator wearing a clown costume on broadcast: He had previously declared—with his usual fine-tuned incredulity and rage—that a team that hadn't won a single game in the regular season would never go on a tournament run, and then the 0-9 team in question, KRÜ Esports, proceeded to win the whole damn thing.
The Last Chance Qualifiers of the Valorant Champions Tour is built for an underdog run. It's not a play-in game or series between two teams that barely missed out on the Champions tournament—it's a full-on tournament between every team that hadn't qualified through regional playoffs. In the Americas region, this included both the 0-9 KRÜ and the 8-1 Cloud9. Out of the three regional LCQs, Americas felt the most decided, with Cloud9 being the heavy favorites.
It's hard to emphasize how little expectation there was for KRÜ. Even if they had improved from the regular season, the format heavily favored teams that performed better during the season. While Cloud9 were safely in the double-elimination portion of the bracket, and in a best-case scenario would only have to win two best-of-three and one best-of-five match to qualify, KRÜ would have to win two additional single-elimination, best-of-three matches before even reaching the point Cloud9 started at. The KRÜ players took advantage of the start of the offseason by taking a 20-day break. And anyway, once they got to LCQ, the fans in the Riot Games Arena in Los Angeles had a strong North American bias.
People were hunting for a special narrative for LCQ. Those narratives just didn't involve KRÜ, at least not for anything more than a bit—though, it must be said, in esports, there are many things just done for the bit. Pujan "FNS" Mehta, a current pro player who had already qualified for Champions, started hyping the 100 Thieves and Sentinels elimination game: a match-up between two teams who achieved uninspiring results during the season but were noted for carrying large amounts of internet clout. It worked—the match got dubbed the Match of the Century or El Cloutico by fans, and after doing a little bit of begging, FNS got the rights to co-stream the game from the arena along with his teammate Sam "s0m" Oh. Of course, there was a long shot that either 100 Thieves or Sentinels would be able to fix their fundamental issues, but hey, it was a month since the last time they played. Give it a whole month and anything can happen, right?
Sentinels won that match-up, but that's only an aside within the scope of the tournament. By that time, KRÜ had already beaten both MIBR and Furia to advance to the double-elimination portion of the tournament. The criticism was still there. They beat MIBR very convincingly, sure; then again, MIBR were the team with the second-worst record in VCT Americas and were playing with a stand-in. They beat Furia in a tight victory that should've been another convincing win, if not for an unfortunate lapse by KRÜ in the first map; then again, Furia had struggled towards the end of the regular season and were also playing with a stand-in.
KRÜ's next rivals were in Leviatán. This was, in many ways, KRÜ's first real match-up. There was history between the teams: two KRÜ players, Angelo "keznit" Mori and Marco "Melser" Amaro, were formerly on Leviatán, while one Leviatán player, Roberto "Mazino" Rivas, was formerly on KRÜ. Where KRÜ had spent a large part of their offseason taking a break for a mental reset, Leviatán had spent it grinding.
This was also the game where the clown incident happened.
"What happened to me? What happened to me?" Josh "Sideshow" Wilkinson asked, wearing a clown nose. "My hot take from earlier was that KRÜ weren't going to win more than double digits on the maps."
Instead, KRÜ demolished Leviatán with a 2-0 final map score, with both wins being curb stomps. This set them up to face Cloud9—who had again gone 8-1 in the regular season, just barely missed out on qualifying for Champions, and had the benefit of having a lot more tape on KRÜ's recent strategies—in the upper-bracket finals. In the first map, which was KRÜ's pick, Cloud9 won by a massive margin.
The odd thing about underdog stories is that with falling behind comes the expectation of a resurgence. So let's skip the suspense. We know that KRÜ won the series against Cloud9. We know that KRÜ came back by, in turn, demolishing Cloud9 on their own map pick, and in the process, nearly recorded a perfect map win. We know that KRÜ won the decider map, once again convincingly, which sent them to the upper-bracket finals and their opponents into the lower bracket to duke it out against Leviatán. We know that players like Klaus or Nagz, who looked liked the weakest links during the regular season, wound up being difference-makers in the series. Now KRÜ, by toppling the tournament favorites, had taken their place.
In keeping with surprises, KRÜ player Santiago "Daveeys" Ruiz gave the rare insightful post-match interview after the team beat Cloud9 in the upper-bracket finals.
"I tried to be really calm in the whole series because I don't want my mental to affect my gameplay," Daveeys said. "But for now, I'm looking forward to the final, and when I win it, then I'll of course celebrate."
Valorant occupies the same ideal part of my brain that American football does, which is that I understand enough to grasp what's going on, but not enough to have an opinion on it. But I'm hardwired to love an underdog narrative and to see what happens when a team starts to lose the benefit of one. And the answer for KRÜ was that they didn't cave when they were favored. Where Cloud9 puttered out in the lower-bracket finals after being up 2-0 in the series against Leviatán, KRÜ beat Leviatán once again in the grand finals and secured their ticket to Champions, as—and it really cannot be overstated—a team that had gone 0-9 in the regular reason.
There is always a chance that instead of being a pity win, as Sideshow initially posited, this will merely be a pity run. What KRÜ have won is the chance to actually win Champions. They're in one of the more open groups of the tournament, but it's hard to say they're favored to make it out: Paper Rex when they have their full line-up are arguably world-beaters, and EDward Gaming have proven themselves as surprise contenders as the season went on. And if KRÜ do make it out of groups, they won't be facing teams that are the best of the worst—they'll be facing dominant squads that have the benefit of more practice time and more tape into KRÜ's recent strategies. The odds of KRÜ winning it all are very low.
But, hey. Then again, stranger things have happened.