How TenZ became the biggest star in VALORANT

by Mitch Reames

Ever since Tyson “TenZ” Ngo became the first player to hit the VALORANT (now Radiant) rank in the game’s beta, he has been one of the best known faces in VALORANT. A gamer for life, TenZ began playing Counter-Strike at just 3 years old. In 2017, at the age of 15, he competed in his first LAN, but it required permission from his mom.

“When he was 15, one of his older teammates talked to me and convinced me to let Tyson go to Philadelphia [for Nerd Street’s Fragadelphia],” said Valerie Turcotte, TenZ’s mom. “He told me, ‘Your son has a future in gaming. He’s amazing, he’s going somewhere.’ Teams began approaching him before he graduated high school. So from that point I knew, this is what he was going to do.”

One of those teams was Cloud9. One of the best-known organizations in esports, few orgs in the industry are as prestigious as the baby blue org founded by Jack Etienne. Just three days after graduating high school, TenZ hopped on a flight from his hometown in British Columbia, Canada, to Los Angeles. He competed briefly for C9’s CS:GO squad before becoming a streamer for the org as the team went through a time of tumultuous roster turnover.

With the release of VALORANT in April 2020, less than a year after TenZ joined C9, an opportunity beckoned.

Opportunity calls for TenZ

“One of the things that made me successful during the beta and helped me reach VALORANT rank first was that people were treating these games like matches, not like PUGS [aka pick-up groups],” TenZ said on Nerd Street’s podcast Esports Meta. “When we were playing in beta, everyone was five-stacking. They were matches, they were like scrimming. I really enjoyed that high-pressure gameplay where everyone was trying to win, everyone was trying to reach VALORANT rank first.”

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Read more: Here are the biggest moments from VALORANT’s first year

TenZ won the race. Sometimes esports take a while to get off the ground, but not VALORANT. Riot Games’ second truly major esports title is a direct competitor to CS:GO and released at a time when North America’s CS scene was stagnant and the early days of the pandemic created plenty of free time. VALORANT’s beta was a true trial for prospective pros. Orgs were already picking up teams well ahead of the game’s full release in June 2020, so ranked became a true battleground.

“The beta period of VALORANT was really enticing from a standpoint of getting seen by orgs,” TenZ said. “If you could rank high on the leaderboard or get VALORANT rank first, a lot of orgs would look at you. That’s why so many people tried so hard and grinded during that time.”

TenZ returned to pro play with Cloud9 VALORANT, which eventually became C9 Blue with the creation of the org’s dominant women’s team C9 White. Even with TenZ’s skill, Cloud9 Blue struggled to break into the top five teams in North America.

C9 Blue failed to qualify for First Strike North America, and TenZ, whose content was already growing rapidly, decided to retire to focus on content creation. For the second time in as many years, his pro play gave way to streaming.

It begged the question whether his pro career would ever truly take off. With his Twitch channel averaging 10,000+ viewers and C9 Blue not finding the best results, retiring -- at least for a few months -- made sense. Plus, there are worse things than commanding an audience of over 10,000 viewers for 150 streaming hours in January, according to TwitchTracker.

“For me, I will prioritize playing pro over streaming if I’m a pro player,” TenZ said. “I really do enjoy streaming. I enjoy interacting with the fans, my community, they’re amazing. And for us pro players, we wouldn't have the same desire to win if there wasn’t a bunch of fans supporting us. That’s what keeps us going, and I appreciate all our fans.”

Read more: How and when teams are qualifying for VALORANT’s Masters: Berlin

Photo credit: Riot Games

Opportunity calls, again

Although TenZ was happy to keep streaming, in esports, things can change quickly. That’s what happened for Sentinels, by any metric one of the best teams in North America heading into Stage 1 Masters. Just days before the biggest tournament VALORANT esports had seen up to that point, their star player Jay “Sinatraa” Won was suspended as an investigation began into allegations of sexual assault by the former Overwatch League MVP. Sentinels needed a replacement ASAP, and C9 was happy to loan out their streamer for a stint with Sentinels.

“From the day when I stepped down, I wasn’t expecting much,” TenZ said. “I was expecting to just stay on the sidelines until whenever the time was right for me to come back to pro play. Then I got the message from Shahzeb 'ShahZam' Khan on Twitter DM and that started everything.”

He fit in nicely. Sentinels went on to win that tournament, dropping just one map. It’s hard to incorporate a new player into a team, especially one that hadn’t gone through any roster changes up until that point after the initial roster was constructed. Sentinels didn’t have any trouble.

TenZ and Sens rise to the occasion in Stage 2

After Stage 1, there wasn’t any downtime. Just a week later qualifiers began for the Challengers events that would serve as gatekeepers to VALORANT’s first international LAN. The quick turnaround was immediately apparent as none of the top three finishers at Stage 1 Masters were able to qualify for the Stage 2 Challengers 1 closed qualifier. Gen.G, who finished third at Masters, was beaten by C9 Blue. FaZe Clan, second at Masters, was beaten by Version1. But most surprising was Sentinels who were 2-0’ed by Built By Gamers.

Sentinels were able to qualify for the Challengers 2 closed qualifier but were immediately pushed to the lower bracket after losing 2-0 to Andbox. One crazy lower bracket run later and they were off to Challengers Finals. But how close the team came to never getting a shot is crazy considering what came next. At Challengers Finals, Sentinels lost maps but never touched the losers bracket to lock up one of North America’s two spots in Iceland.

Read more: Timeline of TenZ’s tenure and transfer to Sentinels

Photo credit: Riot Games

For Sentinels, when the competition got better, the team always found another level to stay ahead.

“I don’t know what it is, but I actually feel like I play better if there is more pressure in the match,” TenZ said. “I don’t really feel pressure, I feel adrenaline instead. In the grand finals [of Masters: Reykjavík], I was definitely in the flow state. Just owning with my aim.”

The “flow state,” a term used by psychologists and seen in anime alike, is a pretty fitting descriptor of TenZ’s performance against Fnatic in the Masters grand finals. Just like he did during VALORANT’s beta period, TenZ seems to reach a zen-like level when the pressure is on. Looking forward to VALORANT’s Champions tournament, much like his teammate Jared “Zombs” Gitlin, that’s a damn good Omen.

TenZ’s future becomes the focus

Within minutes of Sentinels winning VALORANT’s first international LAN (and being the first team to lock up a spot in VALORANT Champions), the story quickly turned to TenZ once again. Fresh off an MVP performance while on loan from C9, the question was whether his Sentinels career was over or just beginning.

“I was in the dark a little bit [during Masters: Reykjavík],” TenZ said. “But I knew Sentinels and C9 were communicating together and with my agent. There was communication there, but I’m the type of person where I don’t really need to know what’s going on. I just play.”

In esports, where the term “contract jail” had to be created due to sketchy contracts that players often found themselves under, it was easy to assume the worst. But the TenZ deal was taken care of amicably.

C9 CEO Jack Etienne agreed to the full contract buyout and both parties left happy. It helps that C9 Blue just narrowly missed out on qualifying for Iceland as well. Heading into Stage 3 with a new roster featuring Erick “Xeppaa” Bach and Ricky “floppy” Kemery alongside a veteran core, C9 Blue has entered the stage with high expectations.

Read more: Xeppaa chose esports over school and now he’s starting for C9 Blue

Photo credit: Riot Games

Sentinels, TenZ rise above the fray

With a new stage and a new patch came a rash of upsets as many top tier teams lost to up-and-coming opponents. C9 Blue were among them after losing to Rise Nation.

Meanwhile, Sentinels continue to roll. They did drop a map to the Susquehanna Soniqs during the Challengers 1 open qualifier but were still one of the eight qualified teams for this weekend’s closed qualifier and are on the verge of qualifying for Challengers Playoffs.

If they hadn’t made the closed qualifier, it could have been called an Iceland hangover, a callback to Stage 2 when the team also missed the first closed qualifier or a laissez faire attitude after being the only team to qualify for VALORANT Champions regardless of what happens in Stage 3.

“Honestly, it’s just amazing to [know I’ll be competing at Champions with Sentinels],” TenZ said. “The storyline couldn’t be more perfect. NA is doing well in an esport. We won Masters 1, we won Masters 2, Berlin’s coming up, we will see if we can win that. We’re always adapting, we’re always playing well together so I have faith in us as a team. Going into Champions, I’m sure we will be just as confident as we were going into Masters.”

At the same time, his performance on the biggest stage is only having a positive impact on his content. Back when he was retired in January and February, his Twitch stream averaged about 12,000 viewers according to TwitchTracker. His streams in June, immediately following the win at Masters: Reykjavík, averaged about 30,000 viewers. But on the flip side, as a pro player, he has a lot more responsibilities to his team which are naturally going to take away from his time he’s able to stream.

The balance between pro play and content is a tough one to strike in esports. For TenZ, his streaming time dropped from 79 hours in February to 36 in June. At the same time, his average audience nearly tripled. Players already have a lot of responsibilities between scrimming, VOD review, and practicing mechanics. Streaming has to be carved out of the schedule, but it does provide a big value both to the player’s personal brand and to the esports scene as a whole.

“I think having big players stream is a benefit to the scene,” TenZ said. “Because some people might watch you for who you are as a person while someone else might watch you because you are their favorite pro player. You can learn a lot from a pro player when it comes to in-game strategies, but you can also learn from the mindset. It’s just a positive thing to have pro players streaming, but it is quite tiring though.”

Content and competition are the two sides of esports. For TenZ, who only recently celebrated his 20th birthday, he’s already proved himself adept at both. Now, locked into the world’s best VALORANT roster with a team he loves and a Twitch following that quickly blew past 1 million followers, TenZ can take his career in any direction he wants. Regardless of what happens in Stage 3, TenZ will be in Los Angeles for VALORANT’s first true world title. Ending this competitive season where his C9 career began will be the perfect place to wrap up a year where TenZ became one of the biggest stars in esports.

Lead photo credit: Riot Games

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