TenZ’s Retirement and the Importance of In-Person Events
Tyson “TenZ” Ngo recently announced his retirement from competitive Valorant to focus on content creation. Pros have entered retirement from esports before, but TenZ’s situation is unique. It’s had me reflecting on the importance of community in esports, how empty this world has felt since we became stuck inside. I meant “the world of esports,” typing that out, but I suppose it’s the rest of our world too, isn’t it?
Well, let’s listen to some age-old advice: don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened. TenZ has had an incredible competitive career. He was the first person to reach the highest possible rank, back in the closed beta, back when it was rather foolishly called the “Valorant” rank. “Radiant” is a much better name, and he sure is radiant – just look at that halo. And even before Valorant came onto the scene, TenZ was a godlike FPS player – a Counter-Strike prodigy. With countless hours in various aim trainers, his mechanical skills have been impeccable since even before his competitive debut. When Valorant came around, he got a second shot with Cloud9’s main roster, becoming the org’s first pro player for the game, and ascended to be universally acclaimed as one of the best players in the world. Valorant has lost one of its tournament stars, but we should be seeing more guides and Ranked content from him.
That “has” before “had an incredible career” is the most important word in that last paragraph, because TenZ’s career is far from over. Let’s not forget that the guy is just 19 years old. His Counter-Strike debut came at age fifteen. Barring the unforeseeable dropping of a cosmic anvil, he’s got a lot of gaming ahead of him. With any luck, we’ll see him back at tournaments when (if) LAN events happen again. Until then, Valorant esports will miss TenZ and his sick shots. The tournament scene in general will no doubt go on without him, but the rest of C9’s roster is going to have to step up to keep up with the competition.
Competitive pressure seemed to be TenZ’s downfall in his CSGO days, with his tournament performances not measuring up to his theoretical level of skill. I’m sure anyone who’s played in a gaming tournament can relate to that on some level. Playing a casual match with no consequences has a very different vibe to grand finals, even if that final set is happening at a tiny local weekly tourney. It can be much harder to focus solely on controlling your character when your ego is freaking out about what the result of the match will mean for its story about you. I can only imagine the pressure that a top player must feel from playing on a stage in front of a packed venue. Yet, that’s a huge part of what makes esports tournaments so special. It’s a huge part of what drives our passion as fans, and the passion of any competitor. Even if one’s nerves are particularly bad, those nerves point to an underlying love of the game and a desire to be the best one can.
Tournament Pressures and the Pressure to Return to Tournaments
With a crowd screaming your name, it can be incredibly difficult to focus on what you’re doing onscreen. But the resulting butterflies in the stomach and increased heart rates drive esports to be esports, and not just a hobby. People want to see players perform at the peak of human performance in any given game, with all the pressure that comes with that. There are less people who want to watch Valorant than, say, hockey or soccer. And yet, here we are, on a website dedicated specifically to talking about esports, just one part of the broader shared passion at play. League of Legends’ World Championships rake in absurd viewership numbers every year, and with good reason. The Overwatch League has been able to push merch, sell tickets, and attract Twitch numbers along with instilling that feeling of city-based tribalism that is so central to traditional sports in America (with the downside being that I personally do not have an OWL team because they didn’t include Pittsburgh in the league). Street Fighter V has appeared on ESPN, with the Top 8 of the only Evo I have attended in-person. And if not for the global pandemic, Valorant would no doubt be seeing venues full of people screaming for TenZ and the rest of the talent showing their stuff in the Valorant competitive scene.
The main reasons TenZ listed for taking a break from competitive Valorant in that first link of this article were his experiences during COVID-19 and his desire to perform onstage. With around 60 ping on average, it’s hard for him to play his best, and lag will grind anyone’s gears. Doing long streams helps TenZ’s mental state – interacting with chat, creating content, and sharing a passion for games are fun ways to stay engaged with the world in these dark times. Streaming is easier than tournament play, at least when you have 60 ping.
Pretty much every competitor needs occasional breaks, even in the Before Times, back when large gatherings of people wouldn’t probably spread a potentially deadly disease. When competition, training, and streaming are all happening from the exact same spot, burnout becomes all the more likely. It’s just not the same as traveling to compete in your favorite game.
I can speak from personal experience that netplay simply does not capture the experience of being in-person. It never can, and never will. My preferred game, Super Smash Bros. Melee, now has rollback netcode, the best in the business, a product of fan passion. And yet, even with this impeccable netcode, my passion for playing Melee competitively has plummeted. I call it “Diet Melee,” because no matter how good the netcode gets, it’ll never hit like that sweet, sugary, real Melee, crowded around a CRT TV. Training for and going to tournaments intertwined personal improvement, improvement of team coordination with my longtime doubles partners, and the social aspect of seeing friends and rivals come together to share passion for our favorite game.
We just can’t do that right now… and the longer the pandemic goes on, the more I wonder if we ever will again. It’s not looking good, to say the least, even if we do get corona under control.
Until then, this unbearable quarantine will keep draining our collective mental health. I wouldn’t blame anyone for pseudo-retiring until events can take place in-person. Some players, of course, do prefer being online. There’s nothing wrong with being introverted and enjoying competition from the comfort of your own gamer chair or whatever. I’m a pretty introverted person, myself… but there’s no denying that some of the gravitas of esports has been lost now that everyone on stream plays from their own rooms. It’s also much harder to be an engaged member of the crowd when the crowd is represented by a little number underneath the stream and the… uh… “discourse” that you see in Twitch chat.
The coronavirus pandemic has given esports the unique advantage of being able to be played safely, of course. We had that edge over traditional sports, at least until the major leagues decided that the show must go on, albeit without big crowds. Some of the magic is still undeniably gone, for both the electronic and traditional variants of sport – the magic rooted in the shared excitement of fans. TenZ is not the only player feeling burned out and seeking retirement, and certainly not the only one who wants to compete in-person and is tired of entering events from his own place. International play is… rough over the web, to say the least, and so we are unable to construct narratives about who “the best in the world” is right now, for just about any game. And without people watching in-person, esports has felt much less like a branch of sports.
The Magic of the Crowd
To use the same vague language as before, the vibe is just totally different as a player when competitions are all online. There are some benefits – you can use your own restroom, eat your own food, relax in your own chair or bed, and the pressure of the crowd is gone. But so is the magic of the crowd, the feeling of not just playing, but performing, creating art in motion on a stage.The esports with staying power are those that allow this kind of art to be created, those that make possible incredible moments which are boosted by the crowd, by the stakes, by the memories they create. I won’t beat the dead horse of Evo Moment 37 into the ground any further, as I did in this article.
But I will ask each of you reading this to remember your favorite moment from your favorite esport. The most hype ace clutch, the most ridiculous sequence of shots, the craziest combo, the most unbelievable comeback, whatever it may be. What almost all of those moments you just imagined have in common with each other is the roar of the crowd. That roar represents the shared emotions of thousands of people, gathered together in space and time to share a passion for peak performance in gaming. The Internet can preserve these moments, make them present to us again and again through digital archives, and can broadcast them to a wider home audience around the globe.
But there’s nothing like being there, nothing like hearing top-notch sound effects from hardworking developers being played over loudspeakers, nothing like seeing your favorite player or team celebrate after a victory over a rival, nothing like being on that stage and performing for a crowd of hundreds and an audience of thousands.
There’s just nothing like the magic of an in-person tournament, other than a playoff game in traditional sports. We can’t tap into that magic for now. Here’s hoping we can get back there safely and soon.
What Can We Do?
To be abundantly clear right off the bat, I’m not advocating for disregarding public health guidelines and pretending that the virus doesn’t exist. However, I will say that my partner and I took a trip to Chicago a few months back and were allowed to participate in an “escape room” together after just a temperature check. Not exactly an essential business. It’s not illegal or even a bad idea for healthy individuals to exist together. We are social creatures, after all. No one’s sanity can survive extended isolation, even with electronic drugs like television, smartphones, and computers available in most homes to lessen the feelings that come with solitary confinement.
Invitationals will no doubt be the first in-person esports events to return, with heavy precautions like testing and a weeks-long quarantine for players and other attendees before the event. Smash Summit X was held over netplay but featured a small group of in-person commentators in the old venue, giving it a great sense of legitimacy when compared to most other tournaments that have happened online since the pandemic began. I think that, as vaccines are distributed with as few hiccups as we can expect in the boring dystopia that we inhabit, and as infection numbers hopefully continue to decline due to various factors, we will be able to see a return to form for esports by this time next year.
Maybe that’s an over-estimation; maybe it’s an under-estimation. Who knows? I do know that living in isolation and fear has been an absolute nightmare, even with a loving partner to share the nightmare with. I can only imagine how rough it’s been on everyone else.
And as I said before in that paragraph you might have skipped (feel free to do that again, if so), it would take a heck of a lot to get us back in harmony with the natural world, which is necessary if we want to survive. And I don’t just mean “survive viral outbreaks,” but “to survive, in general, for at most a few hundred years longer.” But what can one individual do, here and now? Well, check in on friends and neighbors, old and new. Keep your immune system strong. Eat healthily and sustainably. Support policies that protect this beautiful, wonderful, dazzling garden of a planet which birthed and nurtures us. If you feel sick or test positive for COVID, stay home. But stay human and social, even in this quarantine; don’t let your passions and friendships fall by the wayside.
On the esports side of things, keep supporting your favorite players, streamers, publications, content creators, and teams. We can get through this, together.
The Light Vaguely Near the End of the Tunnel
As you can tell by the title of this section, things probably aren’t even close to going “back to normal,” if “normal” is even a word that accurately describes our lives before this pandemic. But there is hope for players like TenZ and esports spectators who are clamoring for LAN events: On the first day of March in 2021, the same month in 2020 that marked the beginning of quarantine for most people, the VALORANT Champions Tour Twitter account announced that the VCT Stage 2 Masters will be the first international Valorant LAN, ever.
Along with another awesome trailer from the Valorant team, we’ve got a reason to be hype for an in-person esports event for the first time in what feels like forever. This VCT event, scheduled for May 24-30, will take place right after the League of Legends midseason invitational, which is set to happen in the same place. When I first started writing this piece, as evidenced by what I said about international play, I was completely with TenZ in wishing that we could build a narrative about which region was the best in the world for Valorant. There’s no greater prize than being #1 in the world, and again, we just haven’t had the ability to form that narrative since the game’s release with COVID spreading out of control. There are no Esports Olympics (yet) but each game has its own version of that elusive healthy national pride that does not seek to elevate one human or group over another, except on the podium at the end of a competition. In other words, peaceful competition transcends divisive national borders, and gives us a reason to cheer our loudest when teams or individuals from our home soil do well.
VCT Stage 2 Masters will give Valorant that wonderful feeling for the first time ever. Not only that, but it’s a promising sign for more LANs in the future, more opportunities to cheer, watch the best players from around the world, and construct narratives around who the best players and teams on Earth are.
Wrapping up With a Homegrown Event From My Hometown
I’ve been to a lot of gaming tournaments, from locals with less than ten entrants to an Evolution event in Las Vegas with more than five thousand. Almost all of these tourneys have taken place within the kind of buildings that disrupt natural ecosystems, the kind with only humans and microorganisms within them. This is the last bit of bemoaning the state of the Earth, I promise. Time and again in recent months, as I have walked through the concrete jungles of Pittsburgh, the eerie thought Nothing visible is alive anywhere around me has passed through my mind. As much as I love tournaments, I can’t ignore how macabre that fact is, and how prevalent its truth is in most venues. I can no longer ignore the mass death we leave in our wake. But there is one set of events that I have helped run with a special place in my memories for how it has transcended that global pain.
Homecooked is a Pittsburgh original “Smash” “tournament” series in which we rent out an outdoor pavilion with electricity and then eat, drink, and play the day away. Side events include cornhole, flip cup, and catch. Venue fee goes toward the pavilion and food costs. We’ve attracted a fair number of out-of-region attendees, but Homecooked has the feel of a friend group gathering together for fun, food, and games under the sun.
There is always a Melee bracket for singles and doubles, which I’ve run (don’t let my lack of crediting as a TO on that smash.gg page fool you). For Homecooked 2, we accidentally didn’t put one of the teams into the online doubles bracket, and so I enlisted the help of a friend who goes by “Pharaoh” to re-draw the bracket from scratch, with an extra round for the newly-added team. Far from the most professional bracket ever run for an esport, but we had a fantastic time with it. It fit the atmosphere of the event perfectly. With a smile on my face, with a can in one hand and my controller in the other, I directed the bracket redraw while occasionally glancing around at the trees dancing in the wind or at the cornhole tournament taking place in the middle of the pavilion.
That bracket mishap is the one hiccup I can remember that happened at a Homecooked, other than the last one being a tiny gathering of friends due to COVID. Never before had I played Smash in a place where I could look over just a little to see the beauty of the trees, unseparated by glass or concrete.
There have always been tournaments at Homecooked, but the winners and losers don’t matter anywhere close to as much as the atmosphere, the food, the friends, the fun, the outdoors. I miss seeing top-level performers like TenZ work their magic onstage in front of thousands upon thousands of people like he did before his retirement. But even more than that, I miss human connection, shared passion, and fun without fear.
I hope that I can experience all of that again, sooner rather than later. I also hope that more esports events take a page out of this little local Homecooked book, and put the players and spectators in shelter that doesn’t separate us so completely from our fellow living things. Stay healthy and stay sane. We can see some light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.