The Valorant Champions 2022 grand final was the perfect redemption story. After securing a 3-1 victory against North American representative OpTic Gaming, Brazilian side LOUD finally paid its fellow team in green back for the 3-0 defeat it had sustained at its hands back in April’s VCT Masters Reykjavik grand final.
As LOUD secured the first map of the series, Ascent, after a nail-biting back-and-forth in overtime, the Volkswagen Arena fully sprang to life. Among those watching the bitter struggle between 2022’s biggest rivals from the stands was a captivated Alex ‘Goldenboy’ Mendez, who I felt a great deal of guilt towards as I pulled him away from the arena, and outside into the cool Istanbul evening for a chat.
Although I had already gone hoarse from shouting at the scenes unfolding in front of me, the veteran host’s dulcet tones remained unhindered as we conversed to the ambient bass of muffled commentary, and the excited chattering of fans roaming around inside.
Having spent the past two years making a name for himself in the Valorant scene after making the jump from Overwatch, Goldenboy finally had the opportunity to show his stuff on the game’s biggest stage, in front of the 2,000-strong Turkish crowd, and he certainly revelled in it.
“This experience has been really fun,” Goldenboy tells The Loadout with his trademark, infectious grin. “I had no idea what to expect, but everyone was telling me the game pops off in Turkey. I’m not shocked – the turnout’s been unbelievable, and it’s been a wild ride these last few weeks.
“What was even more impressive to me was, for Copenhagen, we had the crowd come out for the final few days. But here, we started it as soon as the playoffs started. So I wasn’t really sure what to expect, as far as attendance [was concerned], and every day we were filling out.”
It wasn’t just the Volkswagen Arena that was heaving, either. According to Esports Charts, a mammoth peak of 1.5 million viewers on western broadcasts was recorded, smashing last year’s numbers by a country mile. In fact, 44.7% more people tuned in, on average, than when Acend faced off against Gambit in the 2021 VCT finale.
“I think it sends a very strong message that Valorant esports is here to stay,” Goldenboy says. “It’s going to continue to grow and be impactful. I even looked during game one, and we were already at 250,000 viewers on Twitch alone on the main channel.”
And why should the viewership have been any less? After all, the fires of LOUD and OpTic’s rivalry – which were sparked all the way back at VCT Masters Reykjavik 2022 – have been continuously stoked over the course of the year. But it’s easy to get swept up in the searing flames of such a narrative, and Goldenboy has other storylines in mind which he feels have burned brightly in their own right.
“If you look at the competition, I don’t think a lot of people were expecting BOOM to be impactful”, Goldenboy says. “But they had a lot of great games, and took one off of OpTic.” Meanwhile, EDward Gaming, which had been forged in the fires of the underground Chinese Valorant scene, was “coming in hot” to the point that “there were so many people going as far to say that it could go to the finals.
“It just goes to show the growth and scale of Valorant esports in such a short amount of time, which has been unbelievably fascinating to watch.”
When probed for his standout stars from the tournament, alongside the obvious in Jaccob ‘yay’ Whiteaker, Goldenboy notes the “incredible” Vicente ‘Tacolilla’ Compagnon from Leviatan, a “standout talent” in Paper Rex’s Jing Jie ‘Jing’ Wang, and Zeta Division’s Koji ‘Laz’ Ushida who “was single-handedly” pulling his team over the finish line at points. Then, of course, there’s LOUD star Gustavo ‘Sacy’ Rossi.
“I think everyone looks at older players in the game and they’re like ‘oh yeah, they can’t really frag again.’ You look at game one [against OpTic] and Sacy was top fragging – not only can he perform, but he calls too.”
Considering Valorant’s “bonkers” talent pool across the board, Goldenboy championed all 16 teams in attendance at Champions for a shot at VCT glory consistently throughout the competition. The personality says he was thrilled to see an even playing field on a global scale – a rarity considering the regional disparities in most major titles: “Even in our top four, we had four different regions represented. – I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.”
Additionally, each of VCT’s major LANs so far have been won by a different team – a far cry from the multi-event dominance shown by teams like T1 in League of Legends, and the San Francisco Shock in Overwatch. Of course, the scene is young and the consistency isn’t there yet for most teams – something Sacy himself noted during the post-match conference – and the move to a partnership system for 2023 may give rise to that one monolithic entity, but for now that ‘anyone can win’ mentality is a major proponent of the VCT’s charm.
Now two-years-old, Valorant has experienced a rapid ascendancy in popularity across multiple markets. Back in August, it even surpassed Overwatch to become the sixth-most played game in PC bangs across South Korea. As of September 20, it is the third-most played game in Korea’s LAN centers.
While both Overwatch and Valorant are competitors in the competitive FPS game sphere, Goldenboy notes that there has been a huge amount of crossover between the two, and not just from players like Andrej ‘BabyBay’ Francisty and Ha ‘Sayaplayer’ Jung-woo making the switch from Blizzard’s hero shooter to Riot’s tactical one, but at all levels of Valorant’s development.
“I really do feel like games like Overwatch pave the way for games like Valorant to exist and succeed”, Goldenboy states. “When Overwatch was dropping and everyone was going crazy, the hero shooter craze was out of this world with games from Battleborn to Paladins. So I think as a result of that, Riot made a really smart decision as they were developing this game to really capitalise on the part that Overwatch fans didn’t necessarily resonate with.
When Widowmaker fell out of the meta, it really felt like a lot of people stopped enjoying the game, or when Tracer fell out of the meta, it’s not exciting to watch. You had GOATS, and even though GOATS was not a bad meta, structurally it felt more like a MOBA and less like a shooter – people wanted the shooter. And that’s where Valorant swooped on in and said ‘hey, we’re gonna take elements of Counter-Strike, and implement the parts of Overwatch you enjoy’ – it was honestly a genius move.”
Riot clearly hasn’t only catered to a broad audience during development, either. A remarkably diverse cohort of fans, influencers, and pros turned up to witness the VCT grand final, which Goldenboy says is a “credit” to executive producer Anna Donlon and her team. “They’ve been really passionate about that [diversity] from the start of the game’s creation, so now I truly believe that Valorant is a game that can be and is for everyone.”
From the cosplayers spending hours perfecting the attire of their favourite agent, to the fans finding creative ways to support their favourite team – one had even created a cape out of five fan signs which read ‘O-P-T-I-C’ – the extent to which Valorant, both as a game and as an esport, has captivated audiences worldwide within its short lifespan is impressive. Though, one may argue this has always been Riot’s wheelhouse when considering the sustained fan fervour for League of Legends.
“I know it sounds really shilly and salesman-like,” Goldenboy says, “but I looked at it from the outside in, and I was seeing the growth happening within the community, and the way that the fans have taken to this game has just been unbelievable to watch.”
With the jump to a quasi-franchised, partnered league system coming up in 2023, Riot is going to be giving Brazilian fans their opportunity to show their stuff when the VCT 2023 Kickoff Tournament arrives in Sao Paulo in February. When asked cheekily if he was hoping to get the call up for the event, Goldenboy says he could only really look to the end of this one, as the long slog had taken a toll on both himself and his fellow talent
“What a lot of people don’t know is they [the events] are very, very taxing and draining for a lot of the talent. Being away from home for this long, especially being so close to one-another, was something that I definitely think none of us were really prepared for.”
Fortunately for Goldenboy, he was close to some of his fondest friends in the field, including fellow Overwatch League alumni Brennon ‘Bren’ Hook and Josh ‘Sideshow’ Wilkinson, as well as all of the other casters at the event. “I think we have a great crew of people who like to be around one-another”, he smiles.
Of course, chums and colleagues can’t completely compare to the creature comforts awaiting Goldenboy when he gets home – namely his dog, Stella. The saving grace is that a major piece of home, his wife Cynthia, made the journey to Turkey to be with him.
“Thankfully whenever I do these international shows, my wife usually comes for the last week,” Goldenboy notes. “She’s more of a Halo girl, not a Valorant person. But she watches when I’m on camera, and she’s always there to critique me and guide me – she’s always great.”
Now Champions is over, Goldenboy, his fellow talent, and everyone involved in the event’s production can finally take a well-earned rest. However, with the recent VCT 2023 partnership teams announcement sparking the long-awaited rostermania, Valorant esports is about to get even more hectic as we hurtle towards October’s early roster submissions.