G2 were kings of 'Valorant' in Europe - so what happened?
By Mikhail Klimentov
For most of 2020, by just about every available metric, G2 esports' ’Valorant’ squad was the best team in the world at the burgeoning new esport. In North America, deep rivalries developed between top teams as they scrambled for the top spot. Not so in Europe, where G2's reign went unchallenged.
The five Europeans placed first at all six of the major events to which they were invited. Their postseason stats show four losses. One was a for-the-memes showmatch. At another, the winning team was disqualified for using an unsanctioned exploit, and G2 advanced, eventually winning the main event. G2 won more consistently than just about any other team, and they did so with convincing, roguish flair.
Since the game launched in June, G2 has had little trouble outplaying their opponents, often leaving the seasoned professionals they've gone up against looking like toddlers playing peek-a-boo. They are also among the most technically skilled players in the scene. Most G2 games feature several blink-and-you'll-miss-it flicks of the crosshair, kills that leave audiences (and in all likelihood, G2's opponents) stunned.
But that domination made for all-too-easy conclusion of G2's greatness, without a closer questioning of why the team was rolling up such a gaudy record. Through a more cynical lens, the squad's dominance could have been read as a sign of Europe's relative weakness. In North America, any number of teams could make credible claims to the top spot in the region. In Europe, until recently, G2 easily batted away every pretender to the throne. And until in-person competition returns, there's no way to measure G2 against any of their more-than-willing competitors in North America.
"In [North America], we have like 15 organizations that could win any day of the week, and they're only getting better," said Taylor "Tailored" Broomall, coach of the North American team TSM. "In NA, we feel that most EU teams would not be able to win an NA event. They might be able to get to the playoffs, but they would not be as good as the top five here."
The team's titanic reputation ahead of the "Valorant" scene's first major regional tournament ultimately masked an iceberg set directly in its path. G2 may be good, even exceptionally so. But what does it mean if opponents are not?
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On Oct. 20, G2 was gearing up for the day's scrimmage matches. The other team, a Turkish squad named BBL, was running late. Then, an ominous sign: A player on BBL had typed "guys" into the chat, and nothing more. An apologetic last-minute cancellation was all but inevitable.
"If it's getting canceled, I want it in The Washington Post," said Oscar "Mixwell" Cañellas, G2's captain. "The other teams are not professional at all."
Cañellas has an intense devotion to his new scene, and he keeps a rigorous schedule. He wakes up at 10 a.m., and in the two hours before practice with his team, he reviews videos. Cañellas tries to watch every tournament played around the world. When he cannot, a personal coach reviews the videos for him, providing updates on specific players flagged by the pro - what they're doing right, what they're doing wrong, and what moves are worth lifting.
At noon, practice begins. Cañellas records every scrimmage and sends the footage to his personal coach for review. (Sometimes, he'll scrutinize this footage himself after a match). His coach works in tandem with a sports psychologist to ensure that any feedback is appropriately phrased. The sports psychologist, in turn, mentors Cañellas on what to eat, how much to eat, when to sleep and for how long. (She has a background training Olympic-level athletes, says Cañellas, who was inspired to hire her after watching basketball documentaries.) With scrims, streams and individual play, Cañellas estimates that he spends between 10 and 11 hours in-game each day.
"Valorant" - the game - is a tactical five versus five shooter with teams attacking and defending a bomb site with the goal of being the first to win 13 rounds. Here, "tactical" is an important distinction. Once you die, you're out for the round, so frenzied run-and-gun encounters are only for the most confident players.
The game, unlike most shooters that make up the popular face of the genre, is deliberate and anticipatory. The core of the game is about gathering information and making bets. You're 90% sure there is not someone waiting around the corner for you, crosshair hovering at head level for you to come around, none the wiser. Do you throw a flash around the corner to hedge for that 10%? Or save it for a more opportune moment? The game's aesthetic is cartoonish and bright, but that facade belies a core gameplay loop that is shrewd calculation after shrewd calculation until you win - or die.
"Valorant" - the esport - is all of the above, just more, bolder, a bit cheekier. At the highest levels, most players are extraordinarily proficient at the simple act of moving the cursor - with exceptional speed - to the opponent's shape and clicking to fire. And so the difference between a win and a loss often comes down to reading and outplaying the opponent, thwarting their strategic intentions with smarter positioning and a better grasp of the odds.
Eventually, BBL showed up and the scrimmage began. Almost immediately, any pretense that G2 was a well-oiled machine, each unit operating in response to clear, strongly issued commands, evaporated. The boys were chatty, having fun. The voice chat was messy but not impenetrable - a crowded interstate of callouts and inconsequential yelps and goofs, but all bearing assuredly in the same direction.
"It might feel like we're joking too much, but when we're talking while playing, we're disciplined and everyone is coordinating," said Cañellas, who interjected occasionally - politely and with a word of reassurance for his teammates - to play crossing guard in the team's in-game voice chat. "I feel like actually having a good mood helps in tense situations."
G2's theory, at least back in October, was that much of the team's success rested on strong interpersonal chemistry. The squad has decades of combined experience playing "Counter-Strike" professionally, across a host of organizations, rosters and teammates - some more formative and developmentally nourishing than others. The players, with the proverbial 10,000 hours under their belts, are older, wiser and a bit more relaxed. During their scrimmages, kind words flowed freely, and even the perfunctory optimism that follows a botched round ("don't worry man, we've still got this") felt earnest.
"In 'CS:GO,' sometimes it happened that players wanted to shine and show their names more than [they wanted to] win with the team and be on the top with the team," said David "Davidp" Prins. "With this team, it's not like that. We want to win as a team. We want to win as G2."
If there was something Cañellas might glean from reviewing videos of his scrims that day, it was not evident. By the last game, the boys were feeling themselves, breaking away with an eight-round lead against the Vodafone Giants before the other team put a single round on the board. What could the Los Angeles Lakers learn from practicing against a pickup squad?
Seven months into the game's life, "Valorant's" competitive scene is deeply uneven, especially in Europe. The talent disparity is profound; half of the teams that made it to Europe's First Strike finals were unsigned - a mix of pros and semipros from other titles playing without organizational backing. And so for G2, the leviathan looming over the European scene, scrims often seem more obligatory than useful. Even when they were bested in a practice match, there was a tacit understanding: That won't happen in official play.
"I experienced this back in 'CS' and now I'm experiencing it in 'Valorant.' The things that people do in scrims, they just don't do in officials because they don't have [guts]," said Patryk "paTiTek" Fabrowski, a Polish former "Counter-Strike" pro, using a less family-friendly term than guts. "If you're able to do the play, just do it. Have the [guts] to do it."
"People are scared to play us, I can see it," said Prins.
The fear was, in most cases, warranted. Each member of G2 could be the star player on some other roster, and before being signed, many had mained "duelists," the aggressive in-game agents tasked with picking early gunfights and clearing the path for their team. G2 was notorious for playing unpredictably - happy warriors calling plays on the fly, spurred by a willingness to "just try stuff" - and for the most part, that spontaneity worked in their favor.
"We react off what the other teams do," said Ardis "ardiis" Svarenieks, a player on the team. "It's hard to counter reactiveness. Let's say I know your weakness and then you know my weakness. We'll just be like, 'OK, well, they know that we know. So we will change the fact that we know that they know.' It's like a big mind game basically."
It could feel like G2 was playing a different game than other teams. In a sense, they were.
"At the beginning of the game when they dominated . . . everyone was playing a version of 'CS' just on 'Valorant,' said Connor "Sliggy" Blomfield, the Team Liquid "Valorant" coach. "[G2] just won playing the actual game itself."
This mix - calm under pressure, generous vibes and a seat-of-your-pants style of play (not to mention a less-than-impressive slate of opponents) - yielded a prosperous bounty. But in a less charitable light, some of G2's trademark spontaneity could start to look more like a liability.
"Now, teams are figuring out that they can punish stuff like that," said Broomall, TSM's coach, of G2's tactics. "They were never really challenged."
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For most of 2019, G2 played without a full-time coach or analyst. Their rationale? Nobody had the requisite experience to coach professionals at their level. It was hard to argue with the early results.
Eventually, the team tried out Michael "Mikes" Hockom, a former analyst on the Immortal Minds "Valorant" podcast, and he was hired on a trial basis. Hockom has a flat, almost professorial affect, and an authoritative command of competitive "Valorant." Given the tentative nature of his tenure, he knew he didn't have time to institute a radical coaching regimen. Instead, he focused on broadening G2's playbook. Under Hockom's tutelage, practices became a more disciplined affair, and an opportunity to run plays over and over.
"At any time they could just go into a practice and just play it like deathmatch and just roll over most teams they play just because they're so good," said Hockom. "But they're not really learning or gaining anything out of that at some point."
To train G2, Hockom, who is based in the U.S., would wake up between 4 and 4:30 a.m. Practice would begin at 5:30 with a half-hour or so of pregame conversation, and then the day's four scrimmages would begin at 6. Between matches and after practice, Hockom would hunker down with the players to chat, scrutinizing plays and working out what to drill going forward. Formally, Hockom's days ended about noon.
"There are some days I'd wake up at, like, 4 in the morning and basically just be doing 'Valorant' stuff until 8 or 9 at night, especially if I was trying to come up with stuff for practice the next day," Hockom said.
G2's relationship with Hockom was halting and indefinite. First, he was slated to trial for a week, but his term kept extending. And then, First Strike, the season's capstone tournament, arrived. At that point, it was Hockom or nobody, so the team kept him, deferring a final decision until the event's conclusion.
The results would not favor renewal. In the semifinals on Dec. 5, G2 was up against Team Heretics in what felt like a perfunctory on-ramp to a G2 versus FunPlus Phoenix (FPX) final. G2's game against Heretics started on a strong note, with the team stringing together six successful rounds before Heretics put up its first. When the first half ended, G2 was sitting on a comfortable lead of 9-3. Then, they started to slip. In the second half, G2 took just one round, ceding what had seemed like a sure win to Heretics.
"Eventually it got to 9-9 and we called a timeout," said Hockom. "Both [Svarenieks] and I were like, 'We talked about it before, we just need to not do anything for 30 seconds. Just wait, because they'll run the clock out on themselves.' And then the next round they ran the clock out down to 20 seconds, tried to execute on B, and they had no time to do anything. So we won 10-9, and then the very next round we peaked at the very start of the round and died." G2's freewheeling approach - and absence of a clear, commanding leader - lost them a winnable first game, a precarious stumble in a best-of-three format.
One of the hazards of building a team of stars is deciding who leads. In their respective "Counter-Strike" careers, none of G2's players had taken on the role of in-game leader, or IGL, a shot-caller who directs plays and keeps his teammates disciplined. In "Valorant," G2's players opted to rotate IGL duties between maps, but this was a "disaster," said Hockom. Eventually, the burden of leadership fell to Prins.
"[Prins] gets in these moods where there are days where he gets really good calls in, but it's not always going to be like that," Hockom said. "It's perfectly reasonable for him to not just be hyperactive, calling all of the stuff all the time, because he's just not used to it. I don't think he has any real fault for it not working because there is no way, in that amount of time, that he would be able to learn how to call on every map."
"This is five Europeans, everyone speaking a second or a third language, in some cases. I think Oscar might even speak four languages," said Svarenieks, who speaks with a deep, rolling Scouse-English accent. "The comms were never going to be fantastic."
To make matters worse, the core feature of G2's ascendance - the freedom to make individual plays and just try things out - made leading more challenging. "People get ideas throughout the round and sometimes they don't [communicate] them, they just do them," said Hockom.
The first match ran nearly 50 minutes. But in their second go against Heretics, G2 showed up in expected form, winning cleanly and quickly, 13-5. In just over 30 minutes, G2 had evened the score, 1-1.
Heretics started the third and final match with an opening salvo that vaulted them to 5-1 over G2. But then, in a run of their own, G2 equalized. From there on, rounds were traded back and forth. Neither team ever gained a considerable advantage; every round was a brawl. It was incredible TV.
And suddenly it was 11-12, in Heretics' favor. Winning this round would send G2 to a win-by-two overtime; a loss would evict them from the tournament, though the symbolic weight of the ousting would be much weightier than a simple bracket elimination could convey. As the round played out, and Cañellas and Fabrowski, the last remaining members of the team, made a last-ditch effort to claw victory from the jaws of defeat, a leaden hopelessness settled over the broadcast. In the blink of an eye, Cañellas was picked off. He was not even looking in the direction of his killer. It was Fabrowski alone against three opponents. And then, he too was gone.
G2 was shocked. Jacob "pyth" Mourujärvi, the team's fifth, scanned his surroundings, face totally blank. Prins looked sheepish, even a bit embarrassed, alone in his darkened room. He sat, motionless.
Soon after, Hockom was alerted that the team would start searching for a new coach, and rumors began to circulate that two of G2's players probably would be benched. (In esports, unlike traditional sports, the term "benched" is used euphemistically; usually, it refers to organizations dropping players and opening their slots to other aspirants.) On Dec. 18, Prins confirmed that he would be looking for new opportunities. G2's IGL spot remains open.
"The only issue right now is that, as I see it, Europe has a serious lack of IGLs in general, and I don't know who you would get for that team in the first place," Hockom said. "I just don't see a route where they find an ideal that they're looking for unless there's someone that they sweep up from the depths of the EU scene who is on the come up. But I don't think they would be looking there in the first place. And it's not like the scene for IGLs is established enough where you can just throw a paycheck at someone."
Heretics' eventual First Strike win - and the general calamity of the event, in which G2, Team Liquid and FPX were all dramatically upset - picked the scab clean off a long-running debate in "Valorant." The game's alpha and subsequent launch coincided with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in much of the Western world. Esports competitions, which usually take place in-person, were off the table, and whole regions have been entirely sequestered from one another. That has not stopped players from taking aggressive stances on which region is dominant; few Europeans have kind words (publicly) for their North American counterparts, and vice versa.
Broomall, who coaches TSM in North America, says the disparity between the two scenes can be explained by the regions' respective "Counter-Strike" scenes. In North America, the scene is inert, mostly discussed in the context of speculation around its apparent impending death. In Europe, however, "Counter-Strike" tournaments happen on a regular basis; a bounty of mid- and high-level organizations make it a hospitable environment for players. In North America, talented players who did not have a shot in "Counter-Strike" made the jump to "Valorant," where they faced tons of other talented but unrecognized pros. In Europe, however, professionals had few incentives to leave the warm bosom of "Counter-Strike." G2's players benefited by making the leap precisely because their competitive peers did not follow.
In private, players and coaches have acknowledged that making generalizations about regions is no longer practical. Since the game launched, teams have developed unique strategies and styles of play. But First Strike EU has shaken some observers' faith in the region, and validated others' dismissal. It was just one loss - but at the very highest level. Now, G2's once-sterling reputation hangs in a void, unknowable and impossible to confirm until the team finds a fifth, and maybe finds a coach, and games resume.
Back in October, Svarenieks mused about which teams he thought could beat G2, and which had the strongest players. "I don't think anyone lives in a dream world where we think we will go five years unbeaten," Svarenieks said then. The future was bright. His teammates were the hunters.
The Washington Post