“You’ve been here before.”
Four simple words ran through the minds of all five DRX players as they sat at their desks in front of a Turkish crowd rooting against them at VALORANT Champions. Many around the world questioned if this would be the moment DRX would finally break their 5th-6th place curse at international events or if their Champions run would end just like the others, shy of a top-four finish.
For DRX, Tuesday’s series against Fnatic was an opportunity to finally push past a mental hurdle that had cut the team’s international runs short. They did indeed do that, as they beat Fnatic 2-1 to reach the top four at Champions. In four international tournament appearances since last year, the core of DRX has never been able to ascend past a top six finish, despite constant regional dominance.
“I think in the past, we’ve always performed well throughout an international tournament until it came down to the 5th-6th place matches,” Kim “Mako” Myeong-kwan said. “That is where our struggles really showed up most.”
Different preparation for VCT Champions 2022
As a result of their previous placements, DRX entered Champions 2022 with a different approach to the tournament compared to previous international events.
“After Copenhagen, I realized how important it was to keep your mental calm and to not get too down or upset when you are losing -- it’s very important at these global events,” Mako said when remembering the team’s previous troubles.
For DRX, losing is something that the team does not experience very often in their home region in Korea. Ever since they were known as Vision Strikers, the primary core has only ever fallen short of a first-place finish once domestically against Nuturn Gaming last year during the Korea Stage 2 Challengers. While they are clearly talented mechanically as a team, the expectation of dominance is something that can stop a team when things don’t fall into place.
DRX in-game leader Kim "stax" Gu-taek reacts after a big play against Fnatic. Photo credit: Riot Games
Mako remembered the momentous highs the team felt going into every international event and all the expectations to represent Korea well. He noted the team's strong start to international tournaments before everything would go downhill after a single loss.
“Once we had one loss, I often almost had a breakdown because of our loss and my own personal mistakes in the game,” Mako said. “This time around, I just wanted to be able to enjoy the events so I don’t suffer as much mentally when we do get our first loss.”
After a number of strong come-from-behind victories in the group stage to secure a No. 1 seed in the Champions playoffs, DRX experienced that first loss against LOUD in the upper bracket semifinals. As a result, they found themselves in a win-or-go-home lower bracket match against Fnatic. After beating Fnatic, the team revealed that the 5th-6th place curse was, at times, something that ran through their minds.
At first, those mental blocks were put on full display following a 13-7 Map 1 victory on Icebox for Fnatic. However, after that loss, DRX took a breath backstage to calm any negative thoughts racing through their minds before analyzing their mistakes from a leveled point of view.
From that point on, DRX’s focus had slowly begun to come back. In Map 2 on Ascent, DRX’s strong mental fortitude held strong as the team closed the second map in overtime to bring the series to a final map. Then, after an even 6-6 first half on Fracture, DRX made the final push to end the final map strong with a 7-3 second half and secure their spot in the top four for the first time at an international event.
“There was always that worry that we would finish fifth and sixth again this time. It was always creeping there in the back of my mind even throughout today's series,” Kim "Zest" Gi-seok said. “ But we've overcome it, and I'm really excited that we have achieved it.”
Now that DRX have finally broken the 5th-6th place curse, they will move forward into the Champions lower bracket semifinal, where they will go up against reigning Masters: Copenhagen champions FunPlus Phoenix. That match between two regional titans will take place on Friday at 1 p.m. ET.
Lead photo credit: Riot Games