From VALORANT to COD, why Kansas City Pioneers are an esports org on the rise

From VALORANT to COD, why Kansas City Pioneers are an esports org on the rise

by Mitch Reames

VALORANT fans watching Stage 3 Challengers 1 saw a new logo among the top teams in North American VALORANT. The golden bronco representing the Kansas City Pioneers faced off against Envy, Version1 and Sentinels in the double-elimination bracket.

After upsetting Immortals in the open qualifier, KC Pioneers might have had the most difficult slate of opponents in Challengers 1. Heading into the event, these three opponents might have been the top three NA teams. Despite the odds, the team impressed both in results and in the stat sheet.

“We want to be the underdogs. We want to show these big orgs, these big teams that we are here to compete,” said LJ Browne, the 19-year-old founder and Chief Gaming Officer of KCP on Nerd Street’s Esports Meta podcast.

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Playing three of the top teams in North America makes wins hard to come by. A narrow loss to Envy by a score of 13-11, 13-9 led to a lower bracket matchup against Version1. Although NA’s second representative at Stage 2 Masters was missing Jordan “Zellsis” Montemurro due to a suspension, the team had Maxim “wippie” Shepelev back, who they were missing at Masters. After dropping the first map, KCP bounced back to win the next two to knock out V1 from Challengers 1. Their reward was a matchup with the best team in the world.

“We beat Version1 then we came back the next day and played the No. 1 team in the world,” Browne laughed. “We wouldn’t want to come in any other way. Now people know what we are capable of as we come into this next qualifier.”

Sentinels beat KCP 13-9, 13-5 to knock them out of the tournament, but that’s just what Sentinels does. When Riot Games released the stats from Challengers 1, Pioneers players joined familiar faces on top of the leaderboards.

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In third place in average combat score (ACS) is Chad “Oderus” Miller, trailing only Tyson “TenZ” Ngo and Peter “Asuna” Mazuryk. But unlike the other names on this list, Oderus isn’t a duelist, he plays sentinel. He’s also KCP’s In-Game Leader (IGL) which usually comes with reduced stats due to the mental burden of the role.

“[Oderus] is the definition of a true leader,” Browne said. “It all comes back to grinding the game, knowing the game, knowing your teammates. He’s just big brain. He knows where his teammates need to be, and that helps him lock in headshots and kills. I’m really looking forward to what he will continue to do this season.”

KCP is a new addition to the VALORANT world. The org picked up the unsigned roster competing under FPL-C for the last few months. It’s a core that traces its roots back to eUnited’s VALORANT roster featuring Tanner “scourge” Kages, Jason “jmoh” Mohandessi and Lucas “fiziq” Blow. Oderus played a stretch on Dignitas before being a free agent for a while and ending up on FPL-C. The fifth, Logan “skuba” Jenkins effectively began his career on FPL-C.

It's a roster that impressed in some of Nerd Street’s Summer Championship qualifier tournaments, but no one predicted the team would put together such an impressive showing at Challengers 1. Although KCP is a young org (led by a young CGO), Browne has already shown talent for picking out rosters and helping them reach a higher ceiling.

Pioneers’ success beyond VALORANT

In addition to VALORANT, KCP’s other big success was finding a Rocket League roster of Jalen “Rapid” Parker, Landon “BeastMode” Konerman and Michael “Memory” Moss. That squad reached as high as second in North American events during RLCS Season X. In May, the team was bought out by Shopify Rebellion and finished seventh in points, missing the North American finals by just one spot.

In the last few months, KCP has been on a signing spree with a few names that most esports fans will recognize. To replace the Rocket League roster, KCP signed a new team led by Cameron “Kronovi” Bills, arguably the game’s first superstar who won the title in Season 1. In Call of Duty, KCP signed Doug “Censor” Martin, a veteran CoD player.

“These guys are really good fits for our organization because we are a newer org,” Browne said. “Kronovi’s held that trophy up before. Censor has held that trophy up before. We as an org, have not. So bringing in guys with this experience, who know the game, who know the community, who know the business side, that’s crucial to grow our brand.”

Neither Kronovi nor Censor are at the peak of their playing abilities these days, but there’s a reason veteran presence is coveted in traditional sports and esports alike. Both are new additions to KCP, with Kro joining in May and Censor joining toward the end of June. Right now, Censor competes for KCP’s Call of Duty Challengers team but there are bigger aspirations for the org’s Call of Duty future.

“Any org that has roots in Call of Duty [like KCP], the Call of Duty League will be a priority for them,” Browne said. “But it’s insanely hard to get in. For most orgs its the financial impact, but they are also specific with who they want in that league. It’s on the priority list and it’s a reason we are in Challengers. It’s also a reason why you go out and get a brand like Censor who’s been in CoD for years. We want to be a part of CDL one day, and hopefully when they expand, we are one of the teams they are looking at.”

The CDL is likely to expand after this season or next. The Overwatch League expanded after its second season from 12 teams to 20. If not for the pandemic, the CDL might have already expanded. The big hurdle, as Browne mentioned, is the lofty buy-ins which started at $25 million for the CDL. During OWL’s expansion, prices increased further with some teams reportedly paying as much as $40 million for their spot. For now, the jury is still out on whether those prices are even worth it for teams, especially ones that don’t carry that same built-in fan base of an OpTic, FaZe, Envy or 100 Thieves.

Establishing a regional identity

In addition to signing one of the most famous players in Call of Duty, the Kansas City Pioneers also have the name going for them. Every CDL and OWL team is tied to a city. For most orgs, that meant choosing a namesake and setting up either full operations or a satellite office. KCP is among a group of newer orgs that went out of the gate placing a major American city as part of its identity. But a lot of the orgs in the OWL and CDL also came in with sports owners, often ones who already owned a team in that city, putting up the cash for the buy-in. That’s not a luxury that KCP has.

“We didn’t get into esports backed by celebrities or sports owners or anything like that,” Browne said. “We just had a passion and a dream and a vision. Because of that, we get to offer a more authentic feel to the community. To the Midwest, and to Kansas City, we’re the Kansas City Pioneers. We want to be that fourth premiere sports team right next to the Chiefs, the Royals and Sporting KC. We want people in this city to feel included in what we are building here.”

It’s a growing trend for orgs to stake a claim to a city on founding. Besides the teams required to as part of the Activision Blizzard franchised leagues, the Pittsburgh Knights are the other notable example of this. But search up a city and esports team combo for any major metropolitan area and chances are good you’ll find an upstart org in that city. Few have managed to make actual progress in major esports though.

There are natural advantages to this strategy similar to traditional sports. For one, it gives fans an immediate reason to root for a team. Two, it’s familiar to people who are more traditional sports fans than esports fans. And three, that familiarity can help bring in investors by giving them a tie to the city they operate in. But the name doesn’t bring that by itself, the team has to have a real, honest presence in that city too.

“We have something called our KCP street team,” Browne said. “It’s a group of our content creators and players who live in KC who go around to events, do partnerships with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater KC, where we exercise our mission of diversity and inclusion.”

In esports, there isn’t a ton of diversity at the upper levels. Even at 17, when he founded the org, Browne made sure a focus on diversity and inclusion was at the center of everything KCP does.

“It’s extremely rare to see a 17-year-old Black kid found a business,” Browne said. “There are so many different ethnicities and cultures behind gaming and we want to connect with everybody. Being able to meet all different types of people, especially at my age, I get to learn everyday at work. Being an org that not only wants to raise awareness for diversity, for LGBTQ, but is actually doing the work. It’s an everyday thing. We don’t want to post just to post because that’s what’s going on on social media. We want to help make real change and we do that by bringing people from every background into our company, that’s how you help and be authentic about it.”

In just a few years since it was founded, KCP has shown a proficiency for finding and supporting talent, attracting big names and developing a brand. According to Browne, this is just the beginning.

Lead image credit: Kansas City Pioneers

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