Why the SMEAG is a product of Darwinian evolution.
Despite their low numbers, it keeps happening. For the last couple of months, they've been part of the majority of top tier VALORANT tournament finals in North America. Instead of slowing down, they are picking up speed — all while increasing their numbers. Even the pros from big brother Counter-Strike are struggling to keep up. Why are Overwatch pro players adapting to VALORANT so well, and why does every other sentence on your timeline contain “smeag” in caps lock?
It turns out former Overwatch League players aren't just built differently, they have been selected differently too. Simple Darwinian evolution, really. Help me peer-review this scientific hypothesis, will you?
Comparing games - Similarities, but not like you think
The most tired argument brought up as an advantage of Overwatch players is the overlap of game mechanics when it comes to abilities. Surely, if one game is all about ability usage and management, the best players would be able to transfer this skill to VALORANT, right? You boring, half-right fool.
While not wrong, the weight given to this factor is over-valued and misunderstood. After all, most abilities in VALORANT resemble Counter-Strike utility, from area-denying Molotovs, to sight-stealing Flashbangs, to information-denying Smoke Grenades. These effects aren't absent in Overwatch, but make up a negligible amount of the toolkit of the average hero. In VALORANT, they are the bread and butter that make up the strategic structure of the game, with other abilities adding flavour.
More importantly, the aim-style required especially by DPS players in Overwatch is one that doesn't let you get away with impeccable pre-aim onto a specific location, and relying on your reflexes to do the work for you. For an archetypical FPS hero in Overwatch like Widowmaker (the sniper-class), Soldier:76 (track-aim), or McCree (Marshal-ish revolver aim without movement penalty), aim happens in all three dimensions, requiring flexible crosshair adjustments onto headshot hitboxes of different sizes, flying in from different angles and heights, or complete directions every second of gameplay. Aiming in Overwatch is like playing into run-boosted opponents on every other angle. This skill is becoming increasingly important in VALORANT too, requiring much more rapid and reactionary crosshair movement.
Another new reality former Counter-Strike professionals have to get adjusted to, and Overwatch League players have been selected for by environmental pressure, is the number of frequent changes that their former games required of them. In order to be able to keep up with the competition under these volatile circumstances, it often means grinding upwards of 60 hours a week for months for Overwatch League players, never getting a breather to rest on their hard-earned skillset, as it might be rendered ineffective by the game in the very next week. Even the laziest Overwatch League player doesn't get to keep his job for long on day-job hours of practice during the season. The speed at which Counter-Strike decays your skill is much more gradual, with the game remaining mostly static in its mechanics barring yearly-or-so changes to weapons.
The result of the ever-changing landscape of the Overwatch League is the natural selection of elite talent like the group FaZe clan have assembled, filtered through by the Darwinian pressure of having your entire progress soft-reset via the introduction of new heroes, heavy-handed balance patches, and hero bans every (other) week. You can be sure that whoever survived the jungle of the Overwatch League, especially in season 3, is close to the top of the talent food chain in competitive gaming, multi-talented, flexible, resistant to frustration, and able to grind without churn.
Player profiles - They are sending some of their best
When looking at the players that made the jump from Overwatch esports into VALORANT, it’s important to note that they aren’t only sending washed up slackers of by-gone eras, with arguably all of FaZe clan having had a guaranteed spot in Overwatch League season 4 in 2021 too.
Unlike most of the players that came over from CS:GO, the relative quality of the Overwatch League professional is noticeably higher, with the best players of their roles and even MVPs finding their way into VALORANT. For players from other titles, but especially CS:GO, it is often the hard-stuck professional who hit a wall in their career and can’t make the jump into tier 1 Counter-Strike even after several years of trying.
On the side of the aisle, the uncertainty of Blizzard Entertainment’s FPS title has made the decision for talent like Corey "corey" Nigra and Andrej "babybay" Francisty much easier, with the opportunity cost immeasurably lower.
Corey had come off a RoleStar award (the best player in their role) in 2019 and didn’t skip a beat as one of the hardest carries in Overwatch in 2020 before switching to VALORANT mid-season in May. While arguably not as dominant, Babybay too had a great season, displacing top-tier rookies at the Atlanta Reign for a starting position and playing the best Overwatch of his career. Neither corey, nor babybay switched because they had to but because they wanted to.
In short, while the average CS-turned-VALORANT-pro had to confront a brick wall of their own capabilities, former Overwatch pros didn’t have to ask themselves if they would be in the game next season, but rather if there would be a next season for their game.
Will this trend continue? - Conclusions and predictions
As with every very serious scientific hypothesis based on sparse empirical evidence, the best (read: only) way to prove understanding of the matter is to make accurate predictions about the future while wearing a white coat.
Much like Darwin predicted the existence of a moth with a proboscis long enough to reach the bottom of an extremely elongated nectary of a rare orchid, I think that players like Seonchang "ANS" Lee and future Overwatch League players of his level will make the jump will inevitably become some of the best players in the world, frequently being considered as top 20 players in the world still in 2021, and going into 2022.
Moreover, it follows that a bunch of Overwatch players will fall off as the world opens up and VALORANT starts going on the road. With this, the previous CS:GO player selection for being able to maintain high competitive standards while travelling across the globe becomes a skill of utmost importance, displacing Overwatch talent which has largely been either cooped up in Los Angeles or travelled only limited amounts due to the global pandemic in 2020. Likely at least until then you will have to deal with the SMEAG.
Image via Blizzard Entertainment