To Rise Up: Acend Are The Inaugural VALORANT World Champions
Call it poetic justice or life imitating art, but living up to your namesake will always find ways to crack a smile. This time it is Acend, the team with “rise up” embroidered on their joggers, who have survived crashing waves and gale-force winds to earn the right to call themselves the inaugural VALORANT world champions. Surprising even themselves, Acend survived the final bosses imposed by the masses and showcases a fortitude rarely rivalled.
How colourful was their rise from the waves, what does their success say about expectations, and are we all sleeping on the mental side of competition?
The context of Acend’s eventual rise to the top highlights how beautiful esports can be.
Nearly since the start of the year, the world knew how strong Acend could be. Their victory over Team Heretics at Masters 1 established their names in the zeitgeist of the competitive VALORANT ecosystem. However, that success would be underlined by a string of false starts. After coasting to victory at VALORANT Champions Tour (VCT): Stage 3 Challengers 1, Ascend was potential untapped.
VCT: Challengers 3 saw Acend upset by Turkish representatives SuperMassive Blaze in the upper bracket final and be handed a bronze medal by Gambit Esports in the losers’ bracket.
Masters Berlin saw them advance from Group A, but as the second seed, after suffering a fairly convincing loss to South Korea’s Vision Strikers. Their international hopes would be dashed by North America’s 100 Thieves shortly after the commencement of the playoffs.
Even at Red Bull’s Home Ground 2, Acend came just shy of capturing the title, losing to Team Liquid in the grand final.
The community could not shake their inconsistency and fixated on star duelist Mehmet Yağız "cNed" İpek as the sole reason for the team’s success. Spawning the “cNed and friends” meme, Acend - the team - had to emerge from the shadow of their star player. Each of them had moments in the sun, but something needed to cement themselves.
Podiums were nice, but this was a world-class team that was on the brink. Acend were due for a title.
To start the VALORANT Champions festivities, Acend was nearly upset on day one. After dropping the first map to Brazilian representatives Vivo Keyd, fear began to set in that the initial narratives seemed to cement. Initially, Acend would lose the series, 1-2 however after a competitive ruling from Riot Games officials, the match would eventually have to be replayed with Acend with a significant advantage. Questions lingered around the EMEA team, could Acend be a threat towards the top or would their inconsistency sweep them under the current? The eventual world champions would not look back until the grand final, sweeping Team Envy, Team Secret, and Team Liquid.
Two teams stood at the top of the VALORANT esports world; Acend and Gambit Esports. Both were familiar with one another, but one was deemed a final boss and tournament favourites.
It was hard to bet against Gambit Esports’ pedigree.
Gambit were the reeds, unbreaking, swaying and bending in the wind. Dropping rounds, maps, climbing through seemingly insurmountable deficits, and emerging through the storm intact. Anyone familiar with the VALORANT space can see the echoes from their VCT: Masters Berlin victory. Everything, their form, the storylines, the odds, they all pointed towards a Gambit victory like it plastered throughout the arena itself - and yet here we are.
It only felt right that it was Acend to finally break them, and it was only felt right for a darkhorse to trot to the top of the VALORANT world.
To call Acend underdogs would be disingenuous, this was a team of amazing players, but to undervalue where they stood in the hierarchy prior to the event would be just as shortsighted. The fact of the matter was that the wider VALORANT world had their eyes fixated on other teams.
Gambit Esports was riding a high of their recent Masters Berlin victory and a form that looked difficult to match.
Fan favourites, Sentinels were lauded for their dominance in North America and strong international performances.
Even Fnatic and Team Liquid were early shouts for deep playoff runs. Plenty of teams prior to the tournament were pushed and praised from EMEA, but Acend quietly persisted. There was a shroud of uncertainty draped over them coming into VALORANT Champions. Was Berlin simply an underperformance? Would they showcase the firepower we knew they had all along? Was this team just a one-note symphony? Pundits and experts alike were undecided.
Comparing that narrative to where Acend now stands, makes this victory for Acend that much sweeter.
Responding to praise from Santeri "BONECOLD" Sassi for his leadership skills, Aleksander "zeek" Zygmunt spoke poignantly on what kept them moving forward after going the distance with Gambit Esports in the grand finals.
“What can I say, man? BONECOLD - he said the truth. [...] After that horrible Fracture, I was the first one to just run out, hit the guys, [and go] ‘focus guys, it doesn’t matter, we forget about this map, and now we’re going to our playground. The next two maps are our playground.’”
“And - you see? We did it,” zeek said. “We kept our mental strong - I don’t know if that was my part, of course, it is not only me, everybody here just stepped up.”
It’s that fortitude of the mind the sets champions apart from their peers and has across multiple esports.
The mental and emotional side of esports is often ignored, yet time and time again we see select world-class teams and players from around the world, across numerous titles, explore this realm and find massive success.
Astralis, one of Counter-Strike’s most prolific modern teams, has employed the services of sports psychologists and performances coaches like Mia Stellberg and Lars Robl.
Harvard trained psychiatrist, Dr. Alok Kanojia, has worked with Evil Geniuses DOTA 2 team throughout The International (TI) 10 as well as The Singapore Major and the WePlay AniMajor.
Other names like Lukas Schenke and his work with SK Gaming and Weldon Green’s time with a number of League of Legends teams only further this trend; esports has a need that is nearly equal to traditional strategic coaching. And just because VALORANT is the new kid in class doesn’t mark the budding esports title as exempt from this realm.
As Acend now stands tall over their peers, it seems they have not ignored their performance, both mental and phystical, in the slightest.
“I think we’ve been doing well,” Acend head coach, Laurynas "Nbs" Kisielius, said during the post-game interview. “I think the progress shows. I feel like our preparation was also good. I think that we focused on the right things that needed to be focused [on]. We didn’t dive too deep into strats and all that. We [kept] our playstyle, which is super adaptive.”
“We adapt to what we see, we evolve, we play every game different. Big thank you to our organisation and the MVP for the whole year is our mental coach. I think that a lot of people are underestimating the power of that. A good mental coach is what you guys need, it’s insane, and I think everyone in the team will agree.”
Mentally tough and packing some of the most skilled players in the world, Acend now relax on the beaches of success. Surviving the cycle of doubt that undoubtedly waxes and wanes like the tide throughout the year, outlasting the favourites for VALORANT Champions, and after nine months of gruelling practice and dedicated review - Acend are now the inaugural VALORANT world champions.
It doesn’t get better than that.
It was Riot who asked us if we remembered the first time we saw the impossible - and the world witnessed that this week. The immortalisation of a team who took a chance on each other and themselves. The rise of a truly great team. The artistry and symbolism, intentional or not.
It doesn’t get better than that.
There can only be one ‘first’.
There can only be one world champion.
There can only be one Acend.