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POV your Valorant esports team is falling apart

"This sucks. Like, I love Valorant, but I hate my job."

Illustration by West Studio/VALORANT

Hi! I’m Mikhail Klimentov. You may recognize me from my past video game coverage at The Washington Post, like my investigation into the “culture of fear” at TSM. In previous editions of ReaderGrev, I spoke with Sentinels coach Kaplan about burnout, and wrote about video game journalism as Just A Job.

If you enjoy my work, consider joining my Patreon! For the price of one fancy coffee per month, you can support weird, wordy video game and esports journalism.

Patreon supporters can listen to an exclusive audio recording of my interview with SEN Kaplan. I’ll also be publishing a behind-the-scenes look into the article below on Patreon soon.

It’s not the team you’re thinking of. You have to remember: Most teams lose. Of course, I have no clue who you think it is. I don’t even know who you are. But the strategy I’ve chosen is deny, deny, deny.

At some indeterminate point in time, in some unspecified competitive region, at tier — What was it… one, two? Who could say? — there was a Valorant team that looked good on paper, and then quite bad in the server.  I floated a line to the folks involved. I wanted to know what went wrong.

Hi [redacted player/staff member],

I wanted to reach out and see if you might be open to answering a few questions about your time on [redacted team]. I'm hoping to talk to as many people as possible to get as clear a picture as possible of what happened.

Cheers, Mikhail

(“Cheers”? Why did I assume they’d let me waltz into their failure?)

I heard back from more people than I expected, but fewer than I needed, and it quickly became apparent that the non-participation of certain key actors would make the story I wanted to write unworkable. The conversations I had were laden with bitter feeling and backbiting. And for some of the players, engaging in any form with what had happened during their time on that team offered no upside. Why dredge up the past? Why associate your name with losing any more than absolutely necessary?

Still, the interviews I conducted gnawed at me. It can be difficult to express in non-illusory terms why a good team wins. Victory can feel like capturing lightning in a bottle. We were all in sync. We locked in. We were just better that day. Failure, by contrast, seems much easier to describe. A protracted campaign of losing breeds resentment — and a heightened attentiveness to detail. Physically you’re on the job, but in your head you’re drafting the postmortem.

Most teams lose. I wanted to show readers what that looks like. But I also wanted to be fair to the players who hadn’t spoken with me (and avoid this story being litigated via twitlonger). And so, I went back to the folks I had interviewed, explained the situation, and asked if I could use our conversations as the basis for a story with the identifying details1 (names, genders2 , dates, regions, languages spoken, identifiable roster moves and games, etc.) removed.

They said yes.

Let’s meet our cast.

L was the team’s shot-caller, or in esports parlance, the in-game leader. Players’ careers in esports trend short, so L doesn’t get along with those who waste his time. Behind the scenes, this has saddled him with a reputation for brusqueness — or earned him that reputation, depending on how you see it.

There was C. In tryouts, he was vocal and energetic. Still, the other players had their doubts. They knew C had a history of acting as though the team he was on was a mere stepping stone — something to endure until he was called up to play on a bigger, better roster. It rubbed people the wrong way. They picked him up anyway.

I could not reach C to talk to him for this piece.

Q was the big gun, the team’s star fragger. But beyond that, he’s a cipher to me. I know he had strong opinions. He was combative. But even Q’s harshest detractors could not say for sure whether his antagonism was just mean-spirited, the product of a sincere difference in vision, or something else entirely.

I could not reach Q to talk to him for this piece.

And then there was M, the aspirant. M had taken a gap year in school — with his friends’ and parents’ support — to pursue a career playing Valorant. “I kind of dropped everything to commit to this,” he told me. After a few failed tryouts with other teams, joining this roster was a coup. M was excited about the organization, and thrilled to be playing with L.

The first few weeks were a breeze. “I was kind of just sitting there like a sponge, just soaking it up, listening to everybody,” M said. There was some friction when the team would meet to review footage from practice, but M assured me: “It was nothing too insane, just normal, like, competitive team environment stuff.”

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As an in-game leader, L believed he had delivered enough teams good enough results enough times to merit some degree of trust. And yet, that trust eluded him.

“Throughout my esports career, I’ve had to prove myself multiple times. And every time, people were counting me out,” L said. So when his newest team started to win, L was pleased to find the community rallying to his side. “I'm thinking: Oh, shit. I've proved myself again. I don't have to keep proving myself over and over again.”

But as early wins propelled expectations higher, the team strained to clear the bar they had inadvertently set for themselves.

C started showing up late or vanishing during practice, often enough for it to become a thing. Each time he was armed with some new excuse. He had to run an errand. He needed to get dog food. He didn’t know there was practice. Actually, he forgot there was practice. Sometimes he was just a few minutes late. Other times it was 30 minutes or more. Several times during practice — and at least once during a match — C appeared to go AFK. The coaches, talking amongst themselves, wondered if he was getting distracted by his phone.

The disrespect grated on L. He started to suspect that C was ignoring the plays he was calling. His anxiety spiked.

“If I've requested — demanded — for the players to do something or do something at a specific time, and then people aren't doing it, I'm second guessing myself,” L said. “Was I muted? Was I not clear? Are they fighting something? Is there some piece of information that I'm missing? Like, why are they doing this?”

L worried he was being made to look like an idiot in front of other teams. Sometimes, while issuing a call a second or third time, or trying to discern what was happening around the map, he’d lose otherwise-winnable gunfights. That hard-fought sense that he had finally proved himself? Folly!

L poured himself into his work. Practices ran for ten to twelve hours each day — sometimes longer — with two blocks of scrims broken up by a few hours in a group Discord call, reviewing tape. But for L, there was always more footage to review, more concepts and strategies to memorize, more protocols to teach, more individual feedback to pass down to the players.

“In order to keep everything together, I went into overdrive,” L said. The team could only toil under those conditions for so long.

“I think everyone over the course of a few months was starting to get burned out on the long days and lots of feedback,” L said. “And then on top of it, I was getting stressed. My relationship with the other players was getting more strained from it. It was just a negative feedback loop where everything was spiraling.”

“I'm not going to lie,” he added. “I think I overworked people.”

Practice sessions started getting longer and less pleasant. In one brutal stretch, the team got dumpstered in every scrim leading up to a match, recalled M, the team’s rookie.

“You can kind of just tell when your team has it,” M said. “On some of my teams, we’ll get destroyed in scrims, and I'll know that we need to fix stuff up. But other teams, we may get destroyed in scrims but I'm like: Okay, I think we're at least doing the right things.”

“I think for that team specifically, it was a big sign that we were going to get owned,” M said. He was right.

After one particularly tough loss, M got a direct message from the team’s fragger, Q: How do you feel about L? How are you feeling about his calling? The team was starting to splinter, one whisper at a time.

While L didn’t know then that his calls were being questioned, he probably could have guessed. Arguments over strategy would spin out of control during time allotted to review gameplay footage.

“We'd watch a round back multiple times and sometimes we couldn't reach a conclusion,” M said. “Those disagreements didn't really go anywhere. It was often just Q and L butting heads.”

In one lengthy late night conversation over Discord, L said he tried to have a civil conversation with Q about how best to work together. The call left him feeling “delusional.”

“I can't ever win with this guy,” L recalled complaining to the coach. “There's always something about what I say … that Q has a problem with. I have no idea what the fuck to do.”

It’s normal for teammates to have differences of opinion sometimes, M told me. But for whatever reason, this team just couldn’t keep the things courteous.

“I think the criticism on our team wasn't very constructive,” M said. “It was very hateful toward each other.”

Later in the season, after yet another loss, M said Q sent him a 16-page document outlining what M had done wrong in the game, going round by round.

“At the time I said, ‘Yo, I appreciate it.’ I knew his intentions, I knew they weren't bad,” M told me. But the intensity of the feedback made M start overthinking how he was playing, as he was playing.

“I kind of forgot my identity as a player. I didn't really know who I was,” M said. “It was a really tough time for me.”

As the losses piled up, the team fractured into cliques. The atmosphere was corrosive. One practice game erupted into a screaming match after M asked C to warn the other players when he was using a piece of utility.

M recalled C yelling: “I'm tired of it! I'm tired the way you talk to me!” C said that M wasn’t giving him the respect he deserved.

“You act the same exact way to me,” M shot back. (He acknowledged that the language he and C used may have been more colorful).

“I don't want to say the environment forced me to be that way, but it kind of felt like it — like everyone was at each other's throat the whole time,” M said. “It was like fending for yourself.”

As the season dragged on, almost every player threatened to quit, M said. They were fed up. They didn’t want to play anymore. And every successive loss just made that feeling more acute.

That environment put M into a hole he wasn’t sure he could get out of. He wondered if his dream of going pro was already over.

“I definitely had some thoughts about like: Hey, right now, I hate my job. This sucks. Like, I love Valorant, but I hate my job. Like, how do I make this better?” M said. “And I couldn't find an answer.”

The group played out the season, and the sniping continued all the way through to the last game. There was no valedictory thawing of relations. Nobody’s heart was in it, and then the season ended. That’s it.

Most teams lose. Not all of them lose like this. But this is the story I know, because it’s the one I was told, and this is how it was told to me. Apologies to C and Q; I’m sure they’d quibble with my characterizations.

As for M, he says he’s done a “complete 180” since leaving his old squad. He’s joined a new team. They seem to be doing alright.

“I think I'm at the point where, like, I know my worth as a player, and I guess I know how good I am,” M told me. “I love my teammates. It's hard to do wrong when you're having fun and the environment is so good.”

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  1. I’m putting this footnote early in the story because I want to be super clear. This isn’t a mystery. At no point will I be doing a knowing wink to the audience. There are no clues. Kill the sleuth inside of you. I realize that this may inflame some readers’ desire to figure out the subject of the piece, but that is not the point and not a game I will willingly play. If I know you and you ask me I will not tell. If you think you’ve divined the truth from something I wrote in this piece or from a social media post, I will not validate that.

  2. I’m defaulting to he/him throughout this story because the team I’m covering here is a mixed/women’s roster and identifying the players with she/her pronouns would make discerning their identity too easy.3

  3. Consider the possibility that this may not be true.4

  4. But also, it obviously could be. I am being adversarial here; I want to widen the pool of options to frustrate your chances of figuring this out.