Near the end of February, I received an email I couldn't ignore.
Riot Games, the developer of the most-played game on the planet, League of Legends, was launching their newest competitive title, a first-person shooter that at the time was simply known as "Project A." Riot was inviting me to a two-day boot camp in March in Los Angeles for pros, influencers and press to get a hands-on look at their game. After covering League of Legends for almost a decade and watching it grow from a dozen people playing in a haphazard corner at a gaming convention to selling out China's National Stadium in Beijing, being on the ground floor of Riot's latest creation was impossible to pass up. I had to be there.
Well, I didn't get to go, and neither did anyone else. Riot canceled the event due to the coronavirus pandemic, saying the health risks weren't worth it. Instead, they promised to find a way for all the invitees to play the game together in a healthy environment, not under a single roof.
Less than two weeks later, Riot kept their promise, announcing a three-day online boot camp for its now-officially titled VALORANT.
Thus began what would become the most ambitious crossover event in esports history.
Thursday, March 26
I'm ready. I'm determined. It's a day before the boot camp kicks off with a series of online video presentations before finally getting to play the game, and I'm all set. The client has been downloaded, and my ID has been approved. The only thing keeping me from playing the game is Riot opening up the servers.
An hour before I had to go on-air for ESPN on a livestream, I checked to see if my client was fully installed for the games in the morning. This time, though, the game didn't lead me into a maintenance page but into a loading screen, my eyes checking over my shoulder to see if my non-existent roommate was seeing what I was seeing.
Before I knew it, I was in. Although only the tutorial, I began playing, telling myself that I was only doing this to make sure all my settings and controls were set for the morning.
OK, I just wanted to see all the guns to make sure they worked correctly.
Then I just needed to try a few characters, dubbed agents, to see what they were all about before logging off.
Five minutes before I was supposed to be setting up for the livestream, I was still playing, entranced by the game's flashy operative from the United Kingdom, Phoenix, aptly named for his ultimate ability that lets him resurrect himself. While I was unmoved by VALORANT's in-game graphics heading into the boot camp, seeing firsthand the slickness of Phoenix's movements and the character himself along with the other agents sold me.
By the time I returned to VALORANT following my show to "test" the game some more, it was gone, taken away from me. It was on for a few hours by mistake, Riot announced to the boot camp participants.
Needless to say, I went to bed extremely early that night.
Friday, March 27
Video conferences with 10 people can be chaotic. What happens when you have over 300 people, including some of the most famous streamers in the world, all on the same video call, counting down the minutes until the official VALORANT presentations begin?
You get the best stream of 2020 without anyone able to stream it.
The participants were a smorgasbord of professionals in multiple FPS titles and other streamers who have been wanting something new in the shooter genre for a while. To give you a taste, here are just some of the big names that were in the crowded call: Tyler "Ninja" Blevins. Jack "CouRage" Dunlop. Michael "Shroud" Grzesiek. Félix "xQc" Lengyel. Ben "DrLupo" Lupo. Imane "Pokimane" Anys. Tim "TimTheTatMan" John Betar. Jaryd "summit1g" Lazar. If you name an FPS enthusiast with more than 100,000 followers on Twitter, he/she was likely in the room and getting ready to play.
With a collection of top personalities and pros all cooped into a small, digital space waiting for the boot camp to begin, some of the senior streamers riffing and holding court as Riot set up to begin their showcase of the game's agents, maps and everything they wanted to present before letting everyone play their first games. One streamer would make a joke, and another would follow, the crowd reminiscent of children on Christmas Eve, eagerly awaiting their turn to unwrap the present they've been wishing for all year long.
When the presentations officially started, the jokes and freestyling came to an end, microphones muted and all eyes toward the videos on the main screen.
Over the course of an hour, the VALORANT development team went over their philosophy of the game. Riot wanted to create a first-person shooter with a rock-solid foundation and then have the agents, the specialized characters that personify the game, bring a creative freedom to let players try to bend the foundation to their will.
Riot didn't want the players to just think outside of the box when playing these agents: They wanted them to break it wide open.
During the visual showcase, the same streamers and pros who combine to entertain millions worldwide resembled their own chats, exploding with excitement whenever something new was announced.
Almost everything drew a reaction, from the promise of VALORANT being a game that might be so competitive-focused it could turn off casual players to the character physics and movement in the game. The energy was palpable, even with muted mics.
The closing of the presentation almost felt like the final bell ringing on the last day of school. It was finally my moment. My first game. Everything had led up to this. Loading into my first game along with two of my ESPN colleagues, this was where I would begin my professional career as a VALORANT pro.
Yeah, no, I was destroyed. Although I grabbed a few kills here and there, the narrative for all of the opening games in the boot camp was crystal clear: Each team would have one or two experienced pro players or high-level streamers with the rest of the team filling in as cannon fodder.
Immortals content creator and experienced FPS player Sheila "Pterodactylsftw" Weidman was our carry in Game 1. Our opponents had their fair share of media and dead weight, too, and had streamer Tucker "Jericho" Boner, who specializes in FPS games, as their leader.
It became a war of attrition, with the two racking up the kills left and right. Pterodactylsftw endied up with more than 40 kills in the 25-round battle, with our team eventually coming up just short.
"I was coming into the game with a want to love it already," Weidman said in an interview after the boot camp. "I thought the graphics were really smooth and clean. I didn't find any frame/lag issues other than when some characters use big ultimates; however, I think that's intended as effects. It was pretty easy to pick up, considering I have an FPS background, but I think even someone new can kinda get the hang of it easy."
Throughout the day, although still a minnow compared to the sharks fighting each other in higher-ranked matches, I found myself discovering the same thing. The positions on the map began to make sense, along with where to watch when trying to overtake a site for offense or what avenues to take if you need to retake a lost territory on defense.
As a non-FPS gamer, I still was lagging behind, but I was starting to understand things. And more importantly, going to bed that night, the last thing on my mind before drifting off was what I would do the next time I loaded into a fresh game.
Saturday, March 28
It didn't take long for the wolves to reveal themselves among the sheep of the boot camp.
By the second day, rumors were flying about which players were putting up the biggest numbers in their lobbies. Although Counter-Strike pros were unsurprisingly the bullies of the playground, slapping around pros and streamers from other popular esports titles, a few names not from the CS world emerged as heavy hitters in the North American side of the boot camp.
Apex Legends player Brandon "Aceu" Winn was one of the first names to come up. An American FPS player already famous on social media for his slew of viral highlight-reel clips, his mechanical play led to a quick assimilation to VALORANT.
Another former Apex Legends pro, Coby "Dizzy" Meadows, also came up alongside the Counter-Strike giants. Once arguably the face of Apex, Dizzy recently retired from the game, announcing on social media before the boot camp that he would be directing his attention toward the Riot Games shooter.
The player who got the most buzz, though, came from a pro scene that is often disregarded when it comes to skill. Jake "POACH" Brumleve was a former Fortnite pro for Team Liquid before moving away from the game following the boot camp, setting his sights on the competitive horizon that is looming with VALORANT. Team Liquid has found major success in Riot's flagship title, League of Legends, and is sticking with the 21-year-old as he shifts gears from the world of Fortnite to his new destination.
"I'm really excited for the future of the game," POACH said. "I think I grasped quickly because I had been preparing for a while by aim-training in CS/KovaaK'ss and had a lot of motivation to play/compete in a competitive shooter like this. A lot of people know me as a Fortnite pro, but before Fortnite I logged about 5,000 hours in CS and played a lot of other FPS at high levels."
While the low-rankers like me continued to queue for games and test the waters, in-houses (custom games between the top pros and streamers) began to surface. VALORANT developers and lucky spectators would get a small glimpse of what the future of the game as a competitive title has in store, only scratching the surface of what's possible in a game where every new agent brings another chance to paint the canvas of VALORANT's maps a fresh color.
Sunday, March 29
Sunday was a lot like Saturday, with one key difference: It was the last day of the boot camp.
As the day went along, the impending doom of the game being stolen away was lurching closer and closer, until the call was made for the final custom in-houses to be played. Some members of the boot camp begged for more time, wanting just one more game before it went away until the closed beta on April 7, but their pleas were ignored.
Once the event came to a close, I ordered an upgraded PC and gaming setup for the closed beta. As someone who dislikes being sucked into games and obsessing over them in my free time due to the fact that video games are my life -- socially, personally, and work-wise -- I couldn't stand not improving in this game.
At the end of the most ambitious crossover in esports history, there was no sense of closure, no epic final battle between the nominated best players of the boot camp.
It ended somewhat as it began, with everyone from low-ranked press members like myself to the future pros of the game thinking the same thing:
When can I play VALORANT again?