Scenes from Valorant Champions

Excerpts from a reporter's notebook.

Photo by Liu YiCun/Riot Games; Foreground illustration by Sonny Ross

Hi! I’m Mikhail Klimentov. You may know me for my past video game coverage at The Washington Post, such as my investigation into the “culture of fear” at TSM, or this feature about my three days with Frost Giant, which is building a successor to StarCraft and Warcraft.

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After the final match of Valorant Champions had been played, after the crowd had filtered out of the venue, after the players had slinked (in the losing team’s case) or strutted (as the winners did) through their press conferences, after the trophy had been stowed in a big padded suitcase, and after I had said my goodbyes to the other journalists in the press room, I watched one of the players from the winning team walk out to the parking lot, get into the driver’s seat of a sedan and drive away.

He and his team had just won $1 million.

If pressed, I guess I could have deduced that some of the players must have driven themselves to the venue. But somehow I hadn’t thought about it, so seeing it caught me off-guard.

The Wednesday before the final set of matches, Riot treated jet-lagged press and content creators to a tour of its West Los Angeles campus. We assembled in the mudroom: a stark white take on Sedona’s Chapel of the Holy Cross, with flickering screens in place of candles, broadcasting concept art and promotional stills. Two statues of “League of Legends” characters stood at the far end of the room in place of Christ on the cross.

We strolled past game-themed conference rooms, cafes and murals. We stopped, briefly, in a PC bang, which adjoined a room filled with arcade cabinets (complete with a custom DDR machine; no coins required, of course). Yet another room offered a library — or museum — of games, consoles and industry paraphernalia. A 2010 “League of Legends” Game of the Year issue of PC Gamer stood propped up next to a copy of “Fester’s Quest” for the NES.

Our tour ended in a vast, park-like courtyard, dotted with umbrellas and retracted basketball hoops. To my shock, I felt my default cynicism melting away, unable to withstand the serene vibes wafting off of the folks lounging in and milling about under the midday sun. Everyone should, in an ideal world, want to work in a place like this, I thought. [Insert footnote here]

I jotted down “gives impression of high-end Disney” in my notebook. As if reading my mind, our guide then made that same comparison herself.

One of the first things Ray Zurawski volunteered to me when we met in Los Angeles was that she was on food stamps. It was offered matter of factly, without shame.

Zurawski, better known in the “Valorant” community as Razur, is a moderator for the r/ValorantCompetitive community on Reddit, which boasts more than 208,000 followers. (Slightly more than r/HarryPotterMemes, slightly fewer than r/Wisconsin). The subreddit has become the watering hole for “Valorant” fans, pros, journalists, coaches, analysts and the general esports degenerate, and for the first few years of the game’s existence, Razur says she monitored the site “practically 24/7.”

After a contract opportunity with Riot Games fell through, Razur took a step back from “Valorant” for her mental health.

“It felt like I had fallen from grace,” Razur wrote via DM. “I had achieved the greatest accomplishment of my life... [and then was] barely getting by.”

Champions in Los Angeles was the first time in over a year that Razur had fully immersed herself into a “Valorant” event. And just eyeballing it, Razur probably asked the most questions of anyone at the Champions press conferences. These were not strictly journalistic questions. But if journalists sometimes have an agenda going into a press conference (“I need to ask X question to try and fish out Y answer so I can write Z article”), Razur was a conduit for the community, asking questions that fans had submitted.

The work, Razur said, usually took 6 to 8 hours, though sometimes more — the bulk of it spent transcribing the interviews. She didn’t make a cent doing it. It was all, quite literally, for the love of the game.

Still, Razur told me: “I would do this for the rest of my life if I had unlimited resources. … I was bullied and neglected as a kid, so it's incredibly meaningful to me that I'm able to do good work and be celebrated for my efforts today.”

The question of resources is a tricky one, though. The industry’s long-anticipated death hung over Champions weekend like a thin film. It was the subtext of so many conversations, the easy punchline to win over the room or politely end a conversation.

“Did you hear what’s happening to __________?”

“I’m not really sure I can do this full time.”

“Well, that org’s not going to make it.” [Slight laugh.] [Silence.]

A friend in the industry messaged me right before my trip to Los Angeles. Earlier in the week, an esports organization had canceled its contract with him out of the blue.

“This gig was supposed to be like half money for the month,” he wrote. “Very much feels like things are falling apart.”

After the campus tour, we were corralled into the Riot Games Arena, an event space next door to Riot’s offices. During prepared remarks preceding a Q&A session, the president of esports at Riot, John Needham, described “Valorant” as “the fastest-growing sport on the planet.”

I pressed Needham on this later, and he seemed to back down from the idea that the statement was an expression of fact. It was more of a vibe, really.

A PR person caught up with me later to clarify Needham’s remarks: John really wished he had said “esport.” Anyway, I think he was talking about viewership.

But by that point, this passage was already taking shape in my head. I probably would not have written about the “fastest-growing sport” statistic if it were true. It’s a ticky-tacky, technically correct type of statistic. But if it’s not true… now that’s something. That’s actually kind of funny.

Maybe it was the coffee. Maybe it was that I hadn’t had enough coffee. Maybe it was the 5 a.m. flight. Hell, I still haven’t recovered from that. But at some point during the Q&A I caught myself looking at this PR person’s shoes. Just staring.

And I pictured him buying the shoes. I could see it perfectly: him wandering the racks of a suburban shoe store, picking something out. It was maybe four seconds of waking-thought-time.

That moment has stuck with me like an errant phrase in a conversation, the way you might dwell on having said the wrong thing to someone years ago, and the more you think about it the harder it is to forget, even if objectively the moment did not really matter or resonate to anyone but yourself, but now it is etched into your recollection of the conversation — and God knows what you were even talking about — so much so that it is now impossible to recall that day or that person without thinking of the time you misspoke, so it would feel dishonest to write a whole newsletter about that thing without mentioning it, though you just wish an editor would scratch it out, or leave a comment in the draft that just reads “???” but you’ve inserted this passage into the piece after it got edited and there’s not really anything anyone can do about it, and intellectualizing it doesn’t help either, because the smartest thing you can come up with is that the person who determines whether you can do your job well or not is just some guy, which is heartening and also not, because on the one hand it is reassuring — and even admirable — to imagine that the event you’re covering is really just a collection of people running around, making things happen, but then you also think about how obvious it is that that’s true, and so it feels stupid to write down, stupid! stupid! stupid! because, well, of course, everyone already knows that, everyone has already thought about this, and everyone has already arrived at this same conclusion, and you’re late to the party and everyone has noticed and is staring at you.

I think playing “Valorant” ranked has made me a meaner person. Certainly more irritable.

During the Riot Games Arena press session, a Riot designer came out to talk to us about “Valorant”’s new map, Sunset, which is styled after Los Angeles. The map’s authenticity, he said, was a point of pride for Riot. The team had gone on excursions around L.A. in search of visual inspiration, and local artists had been hired to create art that was then plastered around the map.

That is a really nice thing to do! It has obvious benefits and no material downsides. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that at some point highly curated and rigorously researched authenticity had become a default, first-order move in entertainment — a near-defensive posture, and a favorite of big, seemingly benevolent corporate entities.

There will be either a reactionary or liberal-academic pivot away from this. Just depends on who gets around to it first.

I always choke up at bit at live performances. Champions was not different.

Before the grand finals, Riot staged an “opening ceremony” with several musical numbers. It doesn’t quite scan on video, and I wasn’t even the biggest fan of the specific songs. But there’s something emotionally imposing about watching a group of people marshal their productive energy in service of a performance. The energy in the room is hard to describe. It’s the closest thing I think I feel these days to civic pride: tearing up, watching 20 or so people dancing in sync with one another — the result of hours upon hours of preparation and practice.

None of these people are celebrities, exactly. Some of them have garnered hundreds of millions of streams on their songs, but they don’t feel out of reach in the same way that an actor might. It is, I realize, the economic disaster that is streaming, made manifest in the form of vibes. A streaming star, I think, still lives a life approximate to mine.

Outside the KIA Forum, I watched the parents of one of the competing athletes get intercepted by an attendee. She had recognized them, she said, from earlier in the event; they had been loudly and conspicuously cheering for their son (to the great delight of the fans). The woman wanted tips, she said, on how best to support her child, who had expressed an interest in esports.

In 2021, I interviewed the original Evil Geniuses roster. The organization had entered the scene with a mixed-gender squad — the first of its kind in “Valorant.” After pitching the organization on a Washington Post story about the team, I was granted access to the players, and got to sit in on some of their practice sessions.

That roster bombed — hard. Over the year, players slotted in and out. The team changed shape, sometimes dramatically. But one person was a constant: Christine "Potter" Chi, 36, who is now the squad’s coach.

Potter is now, as far as I can tell, the only female coach to have led an esports team to a world championship victory. And reviewing the transcripts of our old conversations now, her answers take on a fateful cast. I had caught a star in the middle of its arc.

“I'm a first-generation Korean American, so my parents were very much like the stereotypical Asian parents,” Potter said. “If I wasn't going to be a lawyer or a doctor, they didn't want anything to do with me.”

“But I was an obsessed, rebellious teenager growing up,” she added, describing gaming as part of a “double life.”

“I kind of put my mom through all of it,” Potter said, “like sneaking out at night, hanging out with the wrong crowd, everything that teenagers do.”

These were the passages that stuck with me from that interview: the expectations, the rebelling, the fighting. They stood out, in particular, against the backdrop of Potter’s then-teammates, most of whom were at least a decade younger. In nearly every interview, those players recalled watching one parent or both playing video games; for some, that was the on-ramp to a career in esports.

But in reviewing the transcripts of my conversations with Potter, I realized that I had overlooked something.

“At this point, she's pretty proud of me, I think,” Potter told me then, of her mom. “I think it dawned on me a few years ago, when she texted me and asked me what my alias was so that she could tell her friend to Google me. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that's kind of cool.’”

Walking on-stage for the final match of Valorant Champions, each player and coach was announced — heralded, even — by the show’s emcee, Goldenboy. But the loudest cheer from the crowd wasn’t for any of the players. It was for Potter.

“Even though I've been full-time in gaming for five-plus years now, it's still very much like, I can't believe I'm here,” Chi told me in 2021. “I don't know how long I'll be here. It's weird, right? It's kind of weird.”

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