Valorant Champions Tour Stage 1 Masters: A Clash of Titans
What a tournament. I kept creeping forward to the literal edge of my seat in anticipation of the next sick play. Valorant’s spectator mode has come a long way, and the Masters have had some of the best production values we’ve seen out of a pandemic esports event. There were fantastic pre-edited videos, great map flyby shots, in-depth stats and analysis, and of course, tons of great Valorant to watch. The burgeoning young esport is showing metagame depth and development, intriguing storylines, and a high level of polish that will only shine more brightly with future updates and player development.
Here, we’ll go region by region and go through the storylines that emerged during Stage One of the Valorant Masters tournament series, and also analyze the various team compositions and strategies that saw play in matches around the world.
The continent of Asia was divided into three Valorant Champions Tour regions – Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. We’ll start in Korea, where the Vision Strikers have been the most dominant team for a long time. They played against NUTURN in the Korean grand finals for the Valorant Stage 1 Masters. VS have yet to lose in 2021, since ties are allowed in the Korean VCT. The Vision Strikers are undoubtedly at least in contention for best team in the world, with absurd team set plays and coordinated, pinpoint gunplay. Backing this up is that, as of March 21, 2021, they have the highest total earnings of any Valorant team, with NA’s Sentinels in the #2 spot.
VS’s strengths are not just in their coordination, however. Their individual plays are incredible as well. When the two teams that would meet in Korea’s Masters grand finals met in Round 1 of the tournament, Rb put up an amazing ace. And though they lost the map in this clip, Stax laid out four members of NUTURN in just about as many seconds, in the biggest match of their Valorant careers thus far. The Vision Strikers capped off their final Masters match at a 3-2 set count that was about as convincing as a 3-2 can be – all of the maps they won were blowouts, and the two maps NUTURN took featured the two teams within two rounds of each other. Amazing stuff from the Vision Strikers. Be on the lookout for these beasts as interregional Valorant starts to get underway, with the COVID-19 pandemic finally starting to dissipate.
Then we turn to the Sunrise Kingdom, Japan. The favorites going into this Valorant Stage 1 Masters tournament were no doubt Absolute JUPITER. They had yet to lose since they fell to Vision Strikers in October of 2020. And in the upper bracket final, they cleaned up Crazy Raccoon 2-0. After CR had a close match against Team REJECT in the lower finals, they came back with one of the craziest upsets of the whole event. Crazy Raccoon absolutely decimated Absolute JUPITER after a close first map. It never looked doable for JUPITER after the first match on Bind was in the books. A clean 3-0, a crazy upset by a crazy team, capped off the Japanese portion of the tournament.
And finally, on this massive continent with three Valorant Masters regions, the nations of Southeast Asia duked it out in a single-elimination format. In a Thailand vs. Singapore finale, Thailand came out on top with X10 Esports triumphing over Team SMG. Their match was one of the closest in any Valorant Masters tournaments around the world, a nail-biter that went to the last map. The underdog story of Team SMG, who went the distance with each team in the main event bracket and who slid into the event through a losers’ bracket run in Challengers Three, was cut short by X10. The final round was tense, with effective crossfires being set up and perfect peek timings by X10. Pooh1Tap came out on top for his team to cap off a sterling MVP performance.
The Masters were great tournaments for Jett mains all around, as we’ll see. Pooh did them all proud.
Futbolist continues to show their dominance in their home country. They were paired with their rivals, BBL Esports, in the group stage as well as in grand finals. The only map Futbolist lost in their whole tournament came in their opening match against OtherSide Esports; that team ended up going 0-2. In Group A, Oxygen Esports came out on top, but were dispatched by BBL 2-0 in the subsequent bracket match.
The Turkish Masters grand finals featured two highly defensive team compositions, with four Sentinel characters in play on both of the latter two maps. Russ of BBL switched from Jett to Sage after a heartbreaker of a first map, where Futbolist ended up the victors of a 16-14 Overtime nailbiter. From there, the teams’ two Omens continued fragging out of their minds, culminating in the final map, with the stats seen below. Sterben and the whole Futbolist squad continue to show dominance in Turkey, with a clean 3-0 over BBL in the VCT Masters.
The Commonwealth of Independent States, ironically dominated by Russia, was more in the vein of Turkey than of Southeast Asia. In other words, the winners just cleaned up everyone in their path. Gambit Esports of Russia did not drop one map, although their matches in the final bracket were relatively close. Gambit employed at least one healer in every game they played, with Sheydos and d3ffo swapping their duelists – Raze and Jett, respectively – for Sage or Skye, respectively.
We can see in that screenshot the character pool Gambit were working with in their final match with Team forZe, which enables some very well-rounded compositions. Having only one duelist is the only unconventional part of that, but clearly, Gambit made it work. There’s no need to get too fancy, as certain North American teams have; just work with what works. Having that heal on deck is less important for the pros than it is in ranked, with such high percentages of their hits being decisive headshots, but it can still bring immense value to a team after a gunfight.
Team forZe, also from Russia, only brought out the Sage by swapping Art1st’s Sova on the last map. It was too little, too late, with both Bind and Split ending in a 13-10 by Gambit Esports.
Before we move on, this seems like a good time to mention that Omen was by far the most played Controller agent around the globe for the Valorant Masters tournaments. CrowCrowd, again from Russia, was one of the only teams in all of the VCT so far to often employ Brimstone. Clarenz of LDM Esports in Latin America North also brought out the old commander, as we’ll discuss in a bit. Viper only saw niche play in a few Icebox matches. Omen remains squarely in the meta for his late-round sustain via recharging smokes, relatively safe movement through his teleports, the high average value of his Paranoia projectile, and his incredible Ult. Brimstone may need a few tweaks. Viper probably needs a whole rework. We’ll see what Astra can bring to the Controller table once she’s legal in tournament play.
But at any rate, congratulations to Gambit Esports are in order for their dominant performance in the CIS region.
The European Union’s Valorant Masters grand final was by far the closest out of the three on the continent. Where Futbolist and Gambit swept their way to relatively easy victories, the grand final here was a pulse-pounding nail-biter, between Acend and Team Heretics. You can hear that hype in Pansy’s voice in this clip of cNed doing what he does best with Jett’s knives. ACE lost that game, but that play was a big part of what kept it relatively close on the one of their less favorable maps.
The teams then traded 13-9s on Bind and Haven. Map 4 between TH and ACE, Icebox, featured what I was talking about with Viper earlier. There, we saw one of the only Omen-free games throughout any of the Valorant Masters tournaments. Sage also seems firmly in the Icebox metagame, with high average value from her slows and plenty of creative wall boosts. She also has the ability to lock down thin hallways where vertical walls, like the mid tube up to Kitchen, require breaking all of their blocks to pass. To top it all off, Sage’s wall is perhaps the single best ability to defend either plants or defuses on the map’s Spike sites, which we saw often in this match between Acend and Team Heretics. Round 19 featured Starxo throwing up that wall and just sticking the defuse, which finished just in time to save the round for ACE, keeping them in the game at 10-9 in favor of Heretics.
Oh, speaking of ACEs, Nukkye hit something only possible if the enemy Sage uses her Ult during an Ace. There isn’t even a name for it other than 6K. An Ace Plus? A Super Ace? Whatever you call it, it’s perhaps the best individual play of the entire Valorant Champions Tour so far.
After losing the next two rounds, it looked very dire for ACE. If they lost even one more round, the series would be over and the Heretics would be the EU Valorant Masters champions. But they kept it together, all the way down to a crazy scramble involving Nukkye landing a headshot through Viper’s toxic cloud before getting traded out for the final kill, thus sending the map to overtime. In OT, one of the most intense moments of the whole tournament took place, and it speaks for itself.
Bonecold’s last-second headshot sent us to a final map, Ascent, where ACE managed to avoid another overtime and put Team Heretics away in a 13-11 upset. Twitch chat was rather rude to the non-cNed players in this match, to say the least, but European Valorant is not to be underestimated.
The Brazilian Valorant First Strike champions, team Gamelanders, had a solid run to grand finals of the VCT Masters in their country. Dispatching SLICK 2-0 and dropping only a drawn-out Overtime game against FURIA Esports, the former champs looked poised to defend their title.
But not if Team Vikings had anything to say about it. After getting slapped around by the Sharks 4-13 on Haven in their first map of the tournament, the Vikings didn’t lose even one more game. Against paiN Gaming, they ran up the score to the single biggest differential in any of the Valorant Masters tournaments around the world: 13-1, again on Haven, this time in their favor.
Their impressive mental fortitude and subsequent confidence boost from that thrashing carried them into grand finals with a swagger in their step, and though all three games were close, the Vikings took out Gamelanders 3-0. Both of the teams rocked Raze, and she did her home country proud, especially in Map 2, where both teams saw the Raze players put up MVP performances.
This win is huge for the Vikings, who are currently ranked #8 in Latin America, even after that impressive victory. Team Vikings are definitely a name to look out for in the future of worldwide Valorant esports. If they can keep this momentum going and continue honing their skills, they could be contenders to shoot way up the regional and even worldwide rankings… once LAN events become more common and inter-regional play becomes possible again, anyway.
With Brazil having enough players to warrant being their own “region,” the rest of Latin America was divided into North and South divisions for the Masters tournaments. We’ll start in the north, but first I want to say that I think the Latin American VCT format was my personal favorite. Double elimination is certainly a preferable format as a competitor, but the grand final being one-and-done is a bit rough for the team that didn’t yet lose. In other words, fighting game tournaments require the player coming from the lower bracket to win two sets in a row to take the tournament, and the format used in, for example, the North American Valorant Masters tourney is not true double elimination. Instead, the grand final is one-and-done, no matter who wins. Of course, it would be absolutely grueling to go through two game five sets in a row in Valorant, which is why the format was this way in the Masters. Even so, the Latin American format of two brackets that send one team each to the grand final is so hype. It feels very much like the NFL playoffs, with two divisions of brackets sending teams to the Super Bowl, though with the added safety net of a lower bracket for each division.
Anyway, let’s recap LATAM Norte. LAZER Clan were the clear favorites going into this tournament, but their run to the grand final was far from free. They dropped a map to the charmingly named Funkboings before handing the latter team a swift 2-1, losing just eight rounds between the two games after this loss. LAZER defeated the Border Monsters twice, losing one map the second time. LDM Esports had a similar story in their division, dropping a map against each team on their way to the final against LAZER.
In that grand finale, Map 1 showed off more high-octane Jett action and Sage’s strengths on Icebox. Dobsha and Xander were mirror image MVPs, with great movement and aim on the Korean duelist. LAZER swapped their Omen for a Viper, but went down 7-13 to LDM, who stuck with the man made out of pure edge. Caz had just a 0.5 K/D ratio, pointing to a lack of comfortability on the toxic Controller. Another contributing factor to LDM’s victory was the lack of a Sova or Cypher on team LAZER. With only Skye’s canine companion to hunt for info, it can be very difficult to find enemies hiding in Icebox’s myriad angles.
The next map, Bind, featured almost completely different compositions on both sides. LAZER stuck with an Omen-Jett-Cypher shell for the remainder of the match, swapping their other duelist between Raze and Phoenix, and exchanging Sova for a Sage on Split. This Sage did them no favors, with the team unable to pick up a single Defender round on that final map, in part due to some excellent mollies by Clarenz on Brimstone in post-plant situations. Note his position on the map in this clip he’s completely out of the fight, but still has a massive impact on it via his molly lineup for the default plant spot on B. Omen is no doubt the better character right now, thanks to the advantages I touched on in the CIS section, but Brimstone can give his team basically guaranteed post-plant round wins with molly lineups like this, especially if he has his ultimate. LDM used this strength in their biggest match thus far, cementing a convincing 13-4 victory to knock down the top dog in their region.
This brings us to LATAM South, with one of the most unique storylines for the champs. Nowhere else in the world did a team fall to lower bracket of their Masters bracket and come back to win it all, but that’s exactly what the Australs did to take the title. They fell hard to KRU Esports in round two of their divisional bracket, then pulled off a 2-1 win against 9z Team (featuring a devastating 13-2 win on Ascent to close it out) and won the rematch with KRU to go to the grand final. There, they met Wygers Argentina, who had their share of trouble along the way, dropping a map to both Stampede Gaming and Furious Gaming.
Four Australs are from Chile, and ironically, only the Wygers coach (Leazo) is from Argentina. Other than Leazo along with coach Near and Sentinel player Closer of the Australs, it was an all-Chilean final. They did their countries proud. The Australs put on a fantastic show right out the gate, running such an economic snowball in the first half that the Wygers couldn’t even buy rifles in the last round of that half. The latter team did manage to win this unconventional half-buy final round, but couldn’t get it together enough on Attack to bring it back. The Wygers went down 13-5. A similar story played out on Bind after the Wygers lost steam on their Icebox Defense. WKN notably switched to Brimstone unsuccessfully after swapping from Omen to Viper for Icebox. No matter what Controller agent the Wygers employed, the Australs were crowned the Masters of Latin America South Valorant.
This leaves us where my last article left off. I watched every region’s matches, but I’m certainly most familiar with the storylines on my home soil. And the eyes of the whole Valorant world were on TenZ and the Sentinels. How could they not be? His situation is completely unprecedented. Nowhere else could a team pick up the best free agent in the world the day before the playoffs. And it went about as well for them as anyone could have imagined.
I didn’t want to set my predictions down to writing in case I jinxed them, but now I can confirm that I speculated in private that the Sentinels would not drop a single map throughout all of this stage of the VCT Masters.
Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, I want to pick up a rather sad story thread from that last piece. 100 Thieves got thrashed by Gen G in their lower bracket match. Now… now, we start to let the questions about their roster filter in. Hiko’s still a legendary player, but he didn’t put up any of his signature ludicrous clutch finishes, and one has to look at their overall team composition. Asuna playing as the Thieves’ only Duelist, as I said in the previous piece, puts a lot of pressure on him to frag out. The team’s overall slower style yields to the immense aggression we saw from many teams in this bracket and others around the world. The Thieves also had trouble holding key map areas like A Main on Ascent. With the majority of their roster being retired Counter-Strike pros, this team of so-called “Boomers” has a lot of work to do to get back in the pack of top dogs in NA Valorant.
Gen G would go on to recover from a 4-13 Ascent loss to Team Envy with two decisive but difficult map wins before falling to FaZe Clan, as most people predicted. Gen G played well, but FaZe is just on another level.
That must mean that Sentinels are just on another plane of existence.
Speaking of being off somewhere else, the broadcast of the NA grand final unfortunately missed the first pistol round, losing it forever to the unknown ether, only a memory in the minds of the ten people who played in the match. Later, in round 18, it looked as though Zach disconnected temporarily, leaving two unfortunate technological stains on an otherwise great game.
For most of Map 1 in grand finals, it looked like my prediction was off. FaZe had the lead for a vast majority of the match. Even as SEN started to inch closer, FaZe was playing at what looked like peak performance levels. In Round 20, the latter team won an incredible last-second series of fights with absolutely no abilities to make things easier other than their positioning, timing, and aim.
A critical moment came in the next round, with perhaps the tensest post-plant situation anywhere in the Valorant Stage 1 Masters.
After losing two members early in the round after that stick by SicK, FaZe found themselves in a forced save situation, giving the Sentinels their first lead of the entire match. A few key errors by FaZe and excellent play by SEN let the latter team take the first map in the final round of regulation. Babybay and TenZ were the map MVPs, another chapter in Jett’s unbelievably good First Strike tourney. FaZe played out their minds, but SEN is unspeakably good, especially with their newest addition to the roster.
Losing that heartbreaker seemed to take most of the wind out of FaZe Clan’s sails. Nowhere is that clearer than Round 1 of Map 2, where SEN opened on a Flawless victory. This second map, Bind, featured the only Jett-free game the Sentinels played all tournament. TenZ opted for Reyna and ShahZam stuck with Sova. ZachaREEE hit a wild 4K to close out the first half 4-8, but one sick round can never win a full game. And (would you believe it?) the Sentinels opened the second half on Bind with another Flawless pistol round.
I haven’t mentioned Dapr yet, and that seems a disservice. The man’s aim was absolutely on-point, especially on this second map, and this (along with his always-impeccable movement, timing, and awareness) carried him to an MVP performance on the second map at 25 frags, with 4 of those coming in the final round. Zombs consistently provided good smokes, good info, and averaged 1.1 kills per death. And SicK deserves special mention for his heroics in Round 17, where he was the only player in a post-plant situation to not get hit by Zach’s Rolling Thunder. By getting two kills before his teammates stopped being concussed, SicK did everything he needed to do to set up Sentinels to win the round.
Bind is notably one of Jett’s weaker maps, which is why the Sentinels didn’t run her there. Babybay stuck with his main, but couldn’t do everything, especially there. As is the case with a certain 5v5 sport famous for its madness in March, a lot of pressure lies on the team’s top offensive performer to carry them to victory… but at some point, too much can end up on your plate. Not that any of the members of FaZe Clan are individually responsible for the loss, mind you, but this shows that an over-reliance on Babybay’s Jett can lead to serious problems for FaZe.
Speaking of serious problems, Map 3. Haven is usually one of FaZe’s best maps, since the three sites make rotations chaotic and aggression incentivized. But they just could not get the wheels turning here, for nine whole rounds. A big part of that is their lack of a Sentinel character; without one, Defense is immensely difficult on Haven, especially against a team like SEN. Another reason for this blowout came in Rounds 2 and 3, where SicK collected ult orbs and quickly turned it into a 6v5 game. This orb collection strategy is very strong right now, especially on a character like Phoenix, with just 6 ult points required to unleash a devastating ability like Run It Back. These orbs are one of the most unique things about Valorant, and an interesting part of the meta. But the Attackers certainly have much easier access to the C orb, and an easier time contesting the one near A than the Defenders do contesting the C one. Orb placement may be on the plate of Riot’s balance team, especially after what happened in Round 3 of this map between SEN and FaZe. It just looked like there was nothing much FaZe could do to stop it.
In a similarly unstoppable vein, Dapr and SicK teamed up for one of the most disgusting plays of the entire VCT so far. It’s another that speaks for itself, down to the bad-mannered bullets fired into Rawkus’s corpse.
FaZe didn’t win a single round until Round 10. Ouch. They would have had to be basically perfect on Attack, and that’s too much to ask against Sentinels.
This was an absolute thrashing on NA’s biggest stage yet in Valorant, ending at 13-4. The VCT Masters tournament was an absolute blast to watch, from start to finish. Sentinels are the best team in NA right now, maybe the best in the entire world. It’s a shame we may not be able to see TenZ with these new teammates on the stage in Reykjavik, Iceland for the upcoming May LAN event, since he’s only “on loan” from Cloud 9 to Sentinels.
Either way, we still have this event to hold up as the gold standard for Valorant esports events. Here’s to a long, healthy future for this game. It will be wonderful to watch the best teams from each region of the world finally compete against each other.