Korea's first Valorant dynasty looks beyond the local leagues
Valorant, the 2020 tactical first-person shooter from Riot Games, has yet to attain significant popularity in Korea and it's unclear if it ever will. Internationally, however, the title has been a massive success from day one and has birthed a young and vibrant esports scene. Many Korean squads have formed in the hope of becoming the world's best.
Until a month ago, Vision Strikers led that pack by a mile. The gap between them and all other competitors was so large that the team had become virtually synonymous with Korean Valorant esports.
Since its foundation in June 2020, the organization has won 16 out of the 17 tournaments they competed in. For the first ten months of the team's existence, they went without dropping even a single match, amassing a mind-boggling 102 wins before tasting their first professional loss this April.
A dynasty by any conceivable measure.
Kim "stax" Gu-taek, speaking to the Korea JoongAng Daily last Thursday at the team's facilities in Bucheon, Gyeonggi, recalled that their initial dominance was so absolute that they "literally forgot what it felt like to lose" during their first few months.
"In the early days, we straight-up never lost, not even in scrims," stax said. "It actually felt weird sometimes, how the other teams couldn't seem to beat us at all, ever. I think it was largely because we had been playing together for a long while since CS:GO, and had a dedicated coaching staff."
Head coach Pyeon "termi" Seon-ho, best known for his playing career in Counter-Strike 1.6 as a mainstay on the famed project_kr roster — which at times went by eSTRO or WeMade FOX — confirmed that the team had "pioneered the meta" and hovered close to a "95 percent win rate on every single map" in scrims for a long while.
But no team can stay invincible forever.
"As other teams imitated our strategies and improved, the gap continued to close," termi said. "By the time [Stage 2 Challengers] started, I felt that we very well might not [win] this time."
First to draw blood from Vision Strikers was F4Q, a not-exactly-professional squad made up of popular Valorant streamers. While F4Q's players were undoubtedly very good at the game, their primary reason for competing in the Valorant Champions Tour wasn't to take on the world in earnest: It was to farm highlight clips on stage for their YouTube channels. They were commonly referred to as "the clown team."
It was an upset of titanic proportions.
"We went into the match thinking a team of streamers wouldn't be hard to beat, regardless of how good their aim was," recalled Goo "Rb" Sang-min. "But F4Q had practiced a lot for the match, and we weren't ready to deal with the new meta. We were taken completely off guard."
While Vision Strikers still managed to advance to the playoffs despite the loss to F4Q, it was obvious — not only to onlookers but also the team themselves — that their run as an unstoppable juggernaut had ended. When they fell again in the semifinals to Nuturn Gaming, a rising squad led by termi's former CS 1.6 teammate Kang "solo" Geun-cheol, it wasn't as much of a shock.
The warning signs had been there for some time, termi explained. "The meta was in chaos at the time, with new agents joining pro play and all, and we as a team lost our footing. I honestly think we all knew deep down that we might end up dropping out early this time."
"Yeah. For some reason, I felt we'd lose," said stax.
The team's lifetime record still stood at an imposing 104 wins, 4 draws, and 2 losses, but they had lost when it counted most. Nuturn Gaming, not Vision Strikers, would become Korea's first international representatives and head to Iceland for Valorant's first-ever global LAN event, Stage 2 Masters.
A 'god-given opportunity'
Yang "Can" Sun-il, CEO and co-founder of eDreamWork Korea — the parent company of Vision Strikers — admitted that from a purely business perspective, the organization missing out on the game's first-ever international LAN event was a huge blow.
Yet from a competitive perspective, he said the loss almost felt like "a god-given opportunity", as it gave the team a much-needed chance to scrutinize previously latent weaknesses, as well as the chance to bolster their ranks with a pair of great players that just happened to be on the market — Yu "BuZz" Byung-chul and Kim "MaKo" Myeong-kwan, two of Korea's better individual talents.
Had the organization made it to Iceland despite their flaws, Can explained, there would have been neither the time nor the justification to rebuild the roster before the more important Stage 3 began.
COO and co-founder Im "Dopani" Hyun-suk, best known for his stints as head coach of MVP Ozone (2012-13) and MVP Phoenix (2014-16), agreed.
"In a way, going undefeated for so long was robbing us of opportunities to improve," Dopani said.
Can was confident that with the new additions, the team would be able to reach new heights in the coming months.
"If Vision Strikers' previous power level had been 100, the new roster will be 150, minimum," he said.
International ambitions were also a consideration for those changes, termi explained. "Right now, the top European and North American teams have better aim across the board [than Korean teams]," he said. "But I think our rebuilt squad will be able to compete with them on equal footing."
According to termi, Korean Valorant "doesn't lack players with fantastic aim." Yet because there are way too few teams willing to scout and pay for such talent — as of current, only Vision Strikers and DWG KIA have access to professional-grade organizational support — most have yet to be brought to the fore.
Nuturn Gaming's performances in Reykjavik have provided invaluable, if limited, information on how the wider Korean pro scene might stack up against other regions. However, much can and will change until Champions, the premier world championship set to take place at the end of the year. Vision Strikers are keen to seriously contend for the crown come December.
Popularity is relative
One curious aspect of Korean Valorant esports is that it might be the first league in the nation's competitive gaming history to have a predominantly foreign audience. VCT Korea's English broadcast typically pulls in somewhere between three to seven times more viewers than the Korean stream.
Some may be tempted to spin it as the local scene's global popularity, but this gap primarily stems from Valorant's domestic viewership being emphatically lower relative to other regions with a Riot Games-supported circuit.
Yet Vision Strikers are not too concerned, largely because their members hail from scenes which enjoyed even less popularity in Korea. The team's original players and coaching staff used to play Counter-Strike: Global Offensive as MVP PK, while upper management have years of experience in titles such as Dota 2 and Arena of Valor, released in Korea as Penta Storm.
"Having been a CS:GO coach before transitioning to Valorant, I can confidently say the domestic player pool is at least twenty times larger," termi said. "I also noticed that the game is on a rebound, and is catching popularity among middle and high schoolers in particular. I'm very optimistic."
Rb and stax agreed wholeheartedly.
"I didn't have any fans when I played CS:GO, not a single one, almost," said stax. "But after coming over to Valorant, I finally got to feel what being a 'real' pro gamer was like. For so long, I could only envy how players in games like League of Legends and Overwatch received presents from fans all the time. When I got some myself, it felt unreal. I'm incredibly happy with how things are."
"My CS:GO stream never really got any Korean viewers," Rb recalled. "Valorant was different. After switching over, I soon started getting more viewers than I had ever expected. It was almost dizzying at first. I hadn't ever imagined being in a situation where I couldn't read the chat because it was scrolling up too quickly."
Korean esports have enjoyed wide international recognition for nearly two decades, but its teams have rarely, if ever, catered to foreign fans at a level commensurate to their popularity.
Back in the 2000s, the lack of global marketing was fully understandable. The overseas StarCraft: Brood War fan base may have been fiercely dedicated, but it was way too small and geographically scattered to constitute a genuine commercial target. The very concept of esports had yet to be widely recognized in many parts of the world. YouTube and social media had not even been invented.
The same could not be said now. League of Legends Champions Korea regularly pulls in millions of viewers from around the globe, with the foreign audience easily trumping the domestic in size. There is real money to be made from esports, too — numerous organizations were happy to pay a whopping 10 billion won ($8.98 million) just to buy a franchised spot in the league.
Yet despite the massive influx of capital, most efforts to connect with the Anglosphere still range between amateurish and nonexistent. Aside from the few global organizations with branches in and leadership from North America — T1 and Gen.G — communication quality remains largely wanting.
Many organizations rarely post announcements in English, and when they do, the copy is often littered with nonsensical errors. Those errors can usually be reproduced word-for-word by throwing the Korean text into a web-based machine translator — Naver's Papago seems to be the favorite.
Having a robust English social media presence is naturally impossible for such teams, most of which don't even bother to attach properly proofread English subtitles to their video content.
In this regard, Vision Strikers is an anomaly.
The team is by no means swimming in money, nor are they competing in a league as popular as LCK, but they have still made it a priority to maintain a professional sheen on their global-facing channels. The copy is always clear of basic errors, and the social media manager is on top of the latest trends on the English web. They are also one of the very few organizations that send out press releases in both English and Korean.
Can, who has served as and still holds the post of vice president of global business at ImbaTV, a Chinese esports event organizer, said that Vision Strikers was equally proficient at navigating the Chinese web as well. The team has already started making their name in China by signing Jang "Moon" Jae-ho, a legendary WarCraft 3 player with over a million followers on Weibo, this January.
The organization feels that there is no reason to be discouraged by the unfavorable outlook of the domestic market, when there are so many more fans to connect with overseas.
Can explained that the company viewed Valorant's currently lacking popularity in Korea as a "sandbag" of sorts. Sandbags can drag you down, but they also can serve as training weights.
"Market situations aren't static," Can said. "At some point in the future, for whatever reason, these sandbags might very well suddenly fall off. When that happens, we'll be ready to fly."
BY JEON YOUNG-JAE [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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