In April 2020, the closed beta of VALORANT was released. The first day streams got up, records started getting broken. A combination of an entirely captive audience stuck at home during the early days of the pandemic, years of rumors building to Riot’s release of the tactical shooter and a stagnant esports scene created perfect market conditions for VALORANT’s release.
VALORANT didn’t become publicly available until June. No one knew what the game's esports structure would look like either, but it didn’t matter, players saw enough. Many Counter-Strike: Global Offensive pros dropped the game to pursue VALORANT, especially players fed up with North America’s struggling CS scene, but so did a bunch of Overwatch League players.
As of this month, May 8 to be exact, it has been one year since Corey “Corey” Nigra, an OWL player for the Washington Justice who helped lead the U.S. to an Overwatch World Cup victory in November 2019, announced his retirement.
“I just wasn’t crushing on [Overwatch] too hard,” Corey said. “Since I’ve been gone, [Blizzard] has tried to make a lot more improvements. But when I was playing it, they were updating the game once every six months, characters were overtuned for way too long.”
By our count, 17 players on Overwatch League team rosters in 2020 retired to play VALORANT. They ranged from the most high-profile players the league had cultivated to bench warmers hoping to break into the top level. Here’s the list of all 17 OWL players who retired in 2020 to play VALORANT:
- Jay “Sinatraa” Won (San Francisco Shock)
- Corey “Corey” Nigra (Washington Justice)
- Andrej “BabyBay” Francisty (Atlanta Reign)
- Shane “Rawkus” Flaherty (Houston Outlaws)
- Jung-woo “Spyder / Sayaplayer” Ha (Florida Mayhem)
- Zachary “ZachaREEE” Lombardo (Dallas Fuel)
- Damien “HyP” Souville (Paris Eternal)
- Luis “Greyy” Perestrelo (Paris Eternal)
- Thomas “brussen” Brussen (Boston Uprising)
- Jun-ki “Bazzi” Park (Hangzhou Spark)
- Sang-beom “Munchkin” Byeon (Boston Uprising)
- Benjamin “uNKOE” Chevasson (Dallas Fuel)
- Ashley “Trill” Powell (Dallas Fuel)
- Dylan “aKm” Bignet (Dallas Fuel)
- Kang-jae “envy” Lee (Shanghai Dragons)
- Seon-chang “ANS” Lee (San Francisco Shock)
When making a career-defining decision, there are always multiple factors. The most common reason that popped up in the customary retirement Twitlonger was simply preferring the game of VALORANT to Overwatch. Babybay’s retirement said, “My heart is just not in [Overwatch] anymore,” Rawkus said he still loved the game but VALORANT “hit [him] differently,” and ZachaREEE said he’s “really been loving the flow of VALORANT.”
All three players are now Corey’s teammates on FaZe Clan’s VALORANT squad.
Corey, center, and Rawkus, right, now teammates on FaZe Clan, were also on the 2019 Overwatch World Cup team that took gold. Photo credit: Activision Blizzard
“FaZe Clan as a whole, all the Overwatch guys, we think we migrated really well,” Corey said. “A lot of us had played CS in the past, but we picked up Overwatch in its infancy, it was a really fun shooter game and we fell in love with it. You end up learning ability usage, teamfights and how they play out. Coming over to VALORANT, especially in the beginning, you notice that you are way, way, way ahead of how you should use your abilities. The way we play, we take teamfights in Overwatch and just throw them into VALORANT.”
FaZe Clan’s VALORANT team has been one of the most successful North American teams so far. The team finished second in the Stage 1 Masters, losing the finals to Sentinels. Unfortunately for FaZe Clan, that top finish didn’t guarantee any special treatment for Stage 2 Masters.
When the first open qualifier for NA Challengers Finals rolled around a few weeks later, FaZe Clan ended up losing in a surprising 2-1 upset to Version1. In hindsight, that loss doesn’t look nearly as bad as it looked at the time, with V1 running over a bunch of top-tier teams to qualify for the Stage 2 Masters.
In the second open qualifier, FaZe Clan beat two teams before dropping the qualification match to T1, again with a score of 2-1. T1 then came within a few rounds of knocking Sentinels out of the bracket in Challengers 2.
The point being, despite FaZe Clan’s sudden absence from top level competition, it was more unlucky seeding than a sign that the team has fallen out of form. No one argues that Sentinels are currently NA’s top team, but that squad was also narrowly close to joining FaZe in watching NA Challengers Finals and ultimately Stage 2 Masters from the sidelines.
“Every VALORANT team saw us play in [Stage 1 Masters], then we had to do an open qualifier on the same patch,” Corey said referring to the loss against V1. “If you lose a match, you lose, you’re not in Stage 2 Masters at all, that sucks. There should be some benefit to placing high [in Masters 1]. You never know, but we felt like if we made it to Challengers we had the ability to make it to Iceland.”
That type of qualification is unique to open ecosystems and drastically different from the Overwatch League where team spots cost between $20-60 million depending on the city. All 20 teams in the OWL are locked into the league and a set schedule. In VALORANT, the next month’s slate of matches can hinge on a single map.
No esport in the game’s first year has ever had a perfect esports ecosystem. Overwatch came out in 2016, but the Overwatch League didn’t begin until 2018. That’s the timeline for a game made to be a fully-fledged esport. VALORANT isn’t likely to be much different.
As experienced esports professionals jumped to VALORANT, the shadow of League of Legends esports made an enticing promise. There’s no question that LoL is the most popular esport and has the most robust esports ecosystem on the planet. No other esport comes close to encompassing all the major regions, the overall viewership or the weight of the world championships. For VALORANT players, knowing this game was set to be Riot’s next major esport, the structure of LoL esports was a selling point.
“I’ve always had faith in Riot,” Corey said. “Riot’s always updated their games, they’ve always listened to the pros. They’ve done what they need to do to have that healthy professional ecosystem. Going over to a Riot game was a no-brainer. It is going to be chaotic in the beginning and things will get better as time goes on. We’re figuring out what we need as professional players, and Riot on the flip side is figuring out what they need to do for us to enable us to be the best we can be.”
Although the Overwatch League is established, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come without its own unique challenges.
Corey spent the 2019 OWL season and the early part of 2020 with the Washington Justice. Photo credit: Overwatch League
“The Overwatch League schedule, the time is rigorous, you’d prep for a team one day and then you’d get absolutely crushed,” Corey said. “Then the next day you have to play another team, but this one you have no prep for. You’d be like OK, well s---, we got f---ing owned, now we gotta go to the next game.’”
Naturally, some games are more popular in different countries than others, but retiring from the OWL to play VALORANT seemed like an international trend. High-profile players in North America, Europe, South Korea and Southeast Asia all retired to play VALORANT. Once the game becomes available in China, Chinese players might switch over too.
VALORANT has appealed to North American FPS players for a variety of reasons. Some North American CS:GO players didn’t want to move to Europe to compete in CS:GO. For NA OWL players, the mixed-language rosters common in the OWL added another layer of difficulty to competing in the league.
“During my time in the Overwatch League, I played with mixed rosters where sometimes I was the only native English-speaking person on the team,” Corey said. “That makes it hard to problem solve, and it can become really stressful really fast when you can’t communicate with your team. Transition to VALORANT, one of the most enticing things to me was being able to play with four other native English-speaking teammates. When I was playing with the Justice, [Yeon-joon "ArK" Hong] and [Jun-hwa "Janus" Song] would translate mid-game because they spoke great English.”
“Coming over to VALORANT, especially in the beginning, you notice that you are way, way, way ahead of how you should use your abilities. The way we play, we take teamfights in Overwatch and just throw them into VALORANT.” -- Corey
Anyone who has watched or played high-level Overwatch knows that the game isn’t one where there is plenty of time to communicate. The best way to describe Overwatch esports is strategic chaos. When ults are flying, games are coming down to the final moments and everything is flashes of movement, there isn’t time for call outs to start in English, be translated to Korean and the responses to then get translated back to English.
It’s worth noting that the Overwatch League didn’t start with most of the teams fielding entirely Korean teams. That developed after a few seasons of consistent success by Korean players. In VALORANT, if Korea’s NUTURN Gaming dominates other teams in Iceland and then two Korean teams go to the expanded Stage 3 Masters and perform well, it’s not a stretch to imagine the country becoming the primary source of talent for VALORANT esports like it has for League of Legends and Overwatch.
While FaZe Clan won’t be representing NA in Iceland, there will be some former Overwatch representation at the tournament. Crazy Raccoons, the one team representing Japan, are led by former Boston Uprising player Sang-beom "Munchkin" Byeon. X10 Esports, representing Southeast Asia, have a former Overwatch World Cup standout in Patiphan Chaiwong representing the team.
The first game VALORANT is compared to is CS:GO, and for good reason, but the former OWL players have already proved they can play among the best teams in the world. FaZe Clan’s squad is eager to vault themselves back to the top of NA in the next phase of VALORANT competition. Despite the chaos of a new esport, the players on the team are confident they made the right choice to switch from the OWL to VALORANT.