How Sentinels brought pride back to North American esports
When I heard murmurings that Sentinels were doing well preparing for the first-ever VALORANT international tournament, I was frightened. From players and staff I talked to, they weren’t only doing “well” but crushing opposing teams in practice. While the typical response to watching your home region’s champion round into form at the right time would normally be excitement, it still felt empty. I had been there before. Rumors and gossip of North American League of Legends teams taking games off the tournament’s top contenders. An unexpected North American underdog ready to rise up and topple everyone once the actual competition started.
It was a story I had read a dozen times before, and it always ended in laughter and misery.
Though with Sentinels, dripping with confidence, they preached this time would be different. It didn’t matter that when they arrived in Reykjavík, Iceland, their League of Legends parallel, Cloud9, were already departing home early following a frustrating Mid-Season Invitational. Behind their in-game leader, captain, carry and de-facto coach Shahzeeb “ShahZaM” Khan, they wanted to show that their predecessors shouldn’t define them.
As teams poked fun at North America’s futility in press conferences, they shot back, promising to change things. During the pre-tournament press conference, when Team Liquid ace Adil “ScreaM” Benrlitom remarked about NA’s “predictability,” ShahZaM grabbed a microphone to fire back a response.
“The [Sentinels] you saw in Masters 1 and the [Sentinels] you saw in regional finals are different from the team you’ll see here.”
In a single, concise sentence, ShahZaM put his team’s pride on the line. It’s not that declarations of confidence haven’t happened before in North America (they have, in abundance), but they’ve usually ended as the butt of a joke. It’s the arrogance of a simple man who doesn’t know they’re stepping into a ring with lions.
Sentinels, known for their bravado in and outside of the game, entered Iceland with a broad, red target on their back. They talked a big game, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, realizing the fate of if they could back it up took a long, agonizing year.
Usually, this is where I’d rundown how Sentinels, faithful to North American fashion, were scrappy. Something like how they lost to Fnatic in the opening round. Still, they crafted a heroic run through the lower bracket where they eventually end bowed out before Sunday’s grand final. Or, if they somehow made the grand final, they got destroyed by whomever they played.
That’s what North American esports is. It’s about popularity and scrappiness. Entertainers. On the odd occasion they won the big one, it would be a Cinderella story, battling from the bottom to the top. Otherwise, North American teams are the entertainers, there to make some upsets happen, give out a few good interviews and head home before the high-caliber catering arrived for the elite teams.
Sentinels rejected that reputation.
Instead of scrapping from the bottom, they ruled from the top of the upper bracket for the tournament’s entirety. A strong 2-0 opening versus Fnatic. Their next challenge, Brazil’s champion, Team Vikings, was even more straightforward. They quickly sliced through them. South Korea’s NUTURN Gaming and their extensive tactics were supposed to give them some trouble. And yet, that ended like the others, Sentinels bouncing around the map like madmen, laughing, beating down another opponent unfortunately put in their way.
The finale, a rematch with Fnatic, was set up for the last stumble for Sentinels. After going undefeated, they’d falter at the final hurdle, falling flat on their face with the largest crowd in the game’s history (1 million live concurrents) tuning in.
The stumble never came, though. On each map Sentinels were pushed to the brink, bending them to their absolute maximum. Yet they were the first to cross at the end of the line. Fnatic were the scrappy Cinderella. Sentinels, poised and unwavering, were the wall too high for the European side to climb.
Even in the tournament-winning round, one loss away from going to a third-straight overtime with only a jumble of low-economy firepower on their side, they prevailed. Sentinels were champions, hugging one another before lifting the championship trophy in the air as the undisputed best team in the world.
This wasn’t Cloud9 Counter-Strike winning the Boston major in 2018, with the sold-out hometown crowd rallying their upstart heroes to a win over the European super team of FaZe Clan. Sentinels, alone in a gigantic warehouse in Reykjavík, with no fans in attendance, ran over Fnatic.
The heartfelt, heartwarming journey of Fnatic’s captain Jake “Boaster” Howlett going from an esports YouTube vlogger to becoming a championship finalist with millions watching. The touching story of Kang “Solo” Keun-chul, 33, wanting to win the big one after almost two decades of professional gaming with South Korea’s NUTURN.
Those stories and more were ripped apart, tea bagged and danced upon by Sentinels, not dropping a single map throughout their conquest of Iceland. For the first time in history, a North American team not only prevailed at a major tournament run by Riot Games but dismantled it and everyone in the field. The team’s entry ace, Tyson “TenZ” Ngo, finished the finals with 19 first kills to his name and only fell first in a round twice.
At the post-final press conference, once the adrenaline of the victory was gone and the coronation had commenced, there was still one final question to be asked. Jared “Zombs” Gitlin, the team’s man on smokes, was asked a question probably on the mind of everyone watching: What would it take to dethrone Sentinels?
“I don’t know if it’s possible,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything — we’re just too good. We’re the best individually at each of our roles and we have the best teamwork in the game, so it’s going to take a lot.”
A week ago, with the lingering failure of C9 dropping at MSI still ringing in people’s heads, fans, even from North America, might have laughed at Zombs saying that.
No one is laughing, except Sentinels.