Valorant’s biggest tournament series to date, First Strike, will reach its climax this weekend, but over in North America, Cloud9 Blue will not be taking part. That’s right, there’ll be no representation for the NA giants at Riot Games’ inaugural Valorant tournament and that partially has something to do with another team – Renegades.
Most esports fans will be familiar with Renegades, but when it comes to Valorant, Cloud9’s defeat at the hands of Renegades at the Nerd Street Gamers Closed Qualifiers was a huge, huge upset. On paper, in terms of fame, prestige, and pound for pound talent, many would lean towards Cloud9 as the org that comes out on top in all of those categories. Naturally, having popular players attached to well-known organisations means having a bigger fan base and less risk of others underestimating you – something teams like Renegades have to deal with in the Valorant scene right now.
Unlike C9’s Tyson ‘TenZ’ Ngo, who was well-known in the Counter-Strike scene before making the switch to Valorant, all of the players on Renegades were pretty much unknown in comparison. The team absolutely had to pull off upsets if they wanted to be recognised and seen as a serious contender in Valorant.
Renegades coach Justin ‘coachJ’ Anzalone explains a bit more about the challenges they face.
“Gaining a fanbase while playing under Renegades has been a bit of a challenge,” he tells The Loadout. “All of us are relatively unknown in the competitive scene. We all more or less have some experience playing together under the banner of Guerrilla Tactics, which was an organisation that I founded in Counter-Strike, but never really achieved the results that I was ultimately looking for.
“So, when you sign to an organisation as big as Renegades, the expectations are high. And if you’re not meeting those expectations, especially when you’ve come from the amateur scene, it’s very easy to write the team off as a fluke or as a team that is not performing to the standard that the fanbase set. So, I’ve had to work with some of the players to tune that noise out and focus more on what we can control, which is ourselves.”
However, being less known wasn’t the only reason that Renegades wasn’t taken as seriously by the scene – it also had a run of poor results going into First Strike.
“At the end of the day, analysts can only look at the results of your last at bat,” coachJ adds. “And prior to First Strike, I would say that our last was not the best, right? If you want to use baseball terms, it was kind of a strikeout. We lost to some teams that we really felt should not have beat us. And we had to really put our egos aside and look internally at what we were doing, that maybe we were trying to emulate others, as opposed to just doing what we knew in practice worked for us.
“Some of that comes down to just tournament nerves and the experience that we’ve gained along the way. But I think some of that just comes down to some external factors that, especially for some of the younger players, drive them to perform and when their performances aren’t where they want them to be, they can get in their own heads. As head coach, my job is to help tune that noise out and bring out the best versions of each of the players.”
I didn't even think I was going to be here, I'll be honest
Of course, while Cloud9 won’t be represented at the NA First Strike Main Event, Renegades will certainly be there as the underdog team of the tournament and one many people didn’t expect to make it this far – including the players themselves at one point.
For Chuck ‘Cp2’ Proud, who recently had a role swap on the team, both Valorant and Renegades have completely changed his life. Cp2, who’s still studying nursing at college, admits that he never thought he’d be able to reach this level as a pro gamer.
“I didn’t even think I was going to be here, I’ll be honest with you,” he says. “At the beginning of the Valorant beta, I was just playing with Ryan ‘Winsum’ Johns and Devon ‘randyySavage’ Bréard for fun, just pugging. The weekend tournaments worked out perfectly with my school and stuff. But then we started winning a lot, opportunities came with Renegades, and then COVID happened and my school went online. It’s like the stars have aligned for me to compete like this. It’s been a dream. I never thought I would be paid to play videogames.”
Similarly for coachJ, who was originally a player and IGL before going on a hiatus from esports in favour of working in management and sales, Valorant has given him the level of success that he’s strived for for nearly ten years.
When you've been around for that long, and you haven't found success, you tend to have a hardened mentality
“I believe that both the game and the organisation has been a great opportunity, not just for myself, but for a lot of players who were maybe on the cusp of turning the corner, but never had the resources to get their name out there. If you weren’t a prodigy in Counter-Strike – and I’ll use an example of like Jake ‘Stewie2k’ Yip who came up in the scene as a very naturally gifted player – if you didn’t have that level of skill, it was hard to really become a mainstay within the competitive scene.
“I’ve been around competitive gaming for a long time. And when you’ve been around for that long, and you haven’t found success, you tend to have a hardened mentality. If you haven’t given up then you still believe in yourself, which I think is one of the most important things when it comes to any type of competitive sport, esports included.”
It’s not just Valorant that’s opened doors for the likes of Cp2 and coachJ but also the way First Strike was operated in North America. While the dreaded BO1 format did make an appearance early on, the open qualifiers meant that unlike the Ignition Series, any player or team had a chance in the spotlight.
“One of the great storylines of First Strike is the fact that it was an open qualifier,” coachJ explains. “Despite the fact that it was online, it really allowed for some upsets and some Cinderella storylines, ours included, as well as some of the other teams. It fits even those that didn’t necessarily have an organisation backing them to really showcase their talent and make a case for themselves as we head into the 2021.”
While making it to the First Strike Main Event was an incredible feat, Renegades has an even tougher task ahead. In order to achieve a top four finish it must take down TSM, one of the tournament favourites. However, as we saw at the qualifier, causing upsets is nothing new for this Renegades roster.
“I think if you view it from an outside lens, beating TSM would be an upset and we certainly embrace that dark horse moniker,” Coachj says. “But internally you have to believe that you can beat these teams and with the preparation that we’re doing, we’re going into this match with our confidence as high as it’s ever been.
“I think our playstyle is going to reflect the changes that we’ve seen with Valorant over the last couple of weeks. We’ve made some considerable changes to the way that we approach the game and we’re certainly excited to really put that into practice where it really counts.”