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Timofey “Chronicle” Khromov was streaming on Twitch, sitting in his Saint-Petersburg apartment wearing a white T-shirt and a blank face. Thousands of viewers were watching him mess around in VALORANT and Genshin Impact.

The 19-year-old Russian, fresh off a VALORANT Champions Tour victory in Berlin, was doing what most esports professionals do on their time off after a huge victory: playing more of the game he’s committed his life to, while answering all sorts of deep questions from viewers.

“How is your aim so good?” Chronicle read as his Twitch chat rolled on with questions from viewers all over the world.

“I don’t know,” he said, sometimes jumping between Russian and English. “I play the game a lot.”

Like his fellow teammates on the VALORANT super squad Gambit Esports, Chronicle had just returned home after beating Team Envy 3-0 at the VCT Masters Berlin tournament. The Russian team had become the second team to win a major event in VALORANT after the reigning champions Sentinels fell early.

Life after Berlin

Gambit win masters berlin
Gambit Esports’ Timofey “Chronicle” Khromov, Ayaz “nAts” Akhmetshin and Igor “Redgar” Vlasov after winning VCT Stage 3 Masters  Berlin. | Photo by Colin Young-Wolff. Provided by Riot Games

Chronicle stood on the stage in Berlin, Germany, holding the heavy USB-like trophy alongside his teammates as hundreds of thousands watched on Twitch and YouTube. For someone who had been on his high school swim team before the beta launched, this victory was a shocking 180. He said that he felt amazing for those short moments on stage, but that everything returned to normal as he flew through Istanbul to get back to his apartment.

“Nothing changed,” he said. “For me I literally don’t feel like I’m a major champion or something like that. I just want to grind more and win another title.”

Other Gambit players, like the team’s IGL Igor “Redgar” Vlasov and Russian Terminator Ayaz “nAts” Akhmetshin have reached a whole new level of fame after the major event. It was one of the few chances that fans had to see players together on stage, quirks and all.

Redgar, like the rare Whooper Swan that was spotted in Russia for the first time in a century, was leaning so far forward that he could smell the players on the other side of the stage. Casters, fans and even other players didn’t shy away from sharing their worry for his spine.

“Hi Redgar,” Doctor Matthew Hwu said. “If you ever have any issues I gotchu.” Redgar plans to get his alignment checked out soon, but hasn’t had time while visiting friends after returning from Berlin.

“I played like that for seven to eight years and I don’t feel any pain,” Redgar said. “Maybe because I’m working out at the gym.”

An intense practice schedule

Gambit Esports, who have commanded the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region, only had one international berth in their lifespan. The team didn’t waste a second of preparation time leading into those matches in Berlin. Scrimmages were treated like the real thing.

Coach Andrey “Engh” Sholokhov sees to that by leading a relatively structured schedule during practices. It can differ based on what they’re working towards, but it always resembles something like these three stages:

Training Block 1

  • The team discussing what they’d like to tackle during practice
  • VOD Review of mistakes from past matches.
  • Durations 30-70 minutes

Training Block 2

  • The team hops into VALORANT for any number of matches, which vary based on what’s happening in the VCT:
  1. Light – four sessions
  2. Medium – five sessions
  3. Heavy – six sessions

Training Block 3

  • VOD Review of current practice/other matches
  • Sometimes not needed depending on what types of mistakes were made

Gambit went full throttle before Berlin and slowed down for a 10-day vacation after the tournament. They picked everything back up again on Oct. 11, pushing for a heavy amount of scrimmages and play time.

The Berlin tournament is a memory; it has no impact on their journey going forward. Everyone starts on the same footing during Champions.

Unlocking Gambit’s full potential

gambit holding trophy at Masters 3 Berlin
Gambit Esports poses with trophy in hand after victory at the VCT Stage 3 Masters Grand Finals. | Photo by Lance Skundrich. Provided by Riot Games

“The only thing I felt [is different] after Berlin is how other teams are practicing with us,” Engh said. “According to my feelings, many teams at the moment in practice are trying to win against us and play to the fullest. This makes each of our practices useful for us, even if the opponent is not a Tier 1 team.”

It may be the Last Chance Qualifier for all regions, but Engh is still pushing his team to put everything into their practices ahead of the final tournament of the year in Dec. Now that everyone is trying to face them, they realize that some bigger changes may need to come to their playstyle.

“At the moment, most likely, we will make small changes in our game,” Engh said. “Closer to Dec., we may change something in [our] preparation.”

Gambit players and staff don’t feel increased pressure at the moment, but Engh said that it could mount closer to Champions. It’s all part of the process though, even in a relatively new esport like VALORANT.

“This is normal,” Engh said. “Many teams will want to win and look at us as the team they want to beat, and we will try not to let them do it.”

According to Chronicle and Engh, life for every player on their team — from a 23-year-old gym rat to a Genshin Impact-loving swimmer — hasn’t felt different, despite the big flux of attention from fans and the media. Each player gained thousands of followers on social media, including viewers on Twitch. They’ve all put hundreds of hours into competing in VALORANT. That sort of commitment doesn’t change mid-season, even after a victory.

Redgar said he believes his squad is only playing at 60% of their potential right now. According to him, the grind towards realizing Gambit’s full potential is still in full swing, although it could take years to see it realized. After all, VALORANT is still a young esport.

“I guess it’ll take one to two years to get there because we have to change the attitude of the players to get more serious,” Redgar said. “It’s like starting at university when teachers give you 15% or 20% of the information. The other information you should find yourself.”

Every player on Gambit has committed a formidable chunk of their everyday life to Riot Games’ shooter, but several of them are barely 20 years old. They may need some time to come into their own; to let their maturity and situational awareness catch up to their head-clicking skills. Redgar said he hopes the team can make it to a point where they aren’t playing with a specific team style, but with a flexible approach to the game that can match any opposition.

“If we’re talking about hours I dedicated to this game, it’s definitely a big number,” Chronicle, who went straight to streaming VALORANT after returning from Berlin, said.

The FPS has eclipsed other esports in viewership and attention, making it the game that players from all sorts of other shooters are grinding.

“It obviously changed my life,” he said, “because, two years ago, I didn’t even imagine that I would be on a LAN stage, competing on a high level.”

We’ll see Gambit Esports again when they return to Berlin for Champions on Dec. 2. They’ll be joined by Fnatic and Acend as three of the four representatives from Europe.

Aron Garst looks at esports from a different point of view by tackling the ways games are molded and broken by players around the world. He covers Call of Duty, Fortnite, Super Smash Bros, and everything else for Upcomer. You can read his previous work at WIRED, Rolling Stone, ESPN and elsewhere. Rise up red sea.
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