VALORANT's early pro scene similar to Overwatch's start

Just as Jay "Sinatraa" Won jumped from Overwatch to VALORANT, several esports pros from other games started playing Overwatch in its early days. Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

With its reveal in October, VALORANT -- Riot Games' new tactical first-person shooter, originally known as Project A -- quickly drew comparisons to Overwatch.

Overwatch's heroes and VALORANT's agents both have abilities that alter the course of any given match. Some have heals and resurrections like Sage and Mercy; others look similar like Omen and Reaper. But as time has gone on, the difference between the two could not be more apparent.

VALORANT skews closer to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a tactical shooter focused solely on having better aim than your opponent and making teach-focused macro decisions to win. Overwatch, which features several game types, centers more around ability usage, cooldowns and making the most out of each time you're alive, only to respawn shortly after your death.

The difference between the games now is apparent, but what might not be so different is their early pro scenes.

Like Overwatch in 2016, we've seen an influx of players from other titles enter VALORANT as pros. Some are ones who were unable to find success in their previous games. Others are players who are past their prime. And on the rare occasion, top players from other titles made the jump.

But if Overwatch is a blueprint, many of those players who have jumped to VALORANT might not stick around. Beta test kings and early pros alike in Overwatch left in mass, whether to return to their original games, pursue other competitive aspirations or to leave esports behind all together. With the hype surrounding VALORANT's launch, one question remains unanswered: Will early top players do the same?

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For Keven "AZK" Larivière and Lucas "Mendo" Håkansson, both who transitioned from Counter-Strike: Global Offensive to Overwatch and now to VALORANT, they see an opportunity for Riot Games to do what Blizzard did not: listen to their community.

"[Riot can] care about their competitive community, have good communication with their community in general, be it casual or competitive," Mendo told ESPN. "Their communication so far has been absolutely phenomenal. Healthy updates, swift with hotfixes if new characters are overpowered/underpowered, etc. The way they've been handling it so far is great. I just hope they change their mind on dynamic queue."

How AZK and Mendo ended up in the pro VALORANT space are different stories.

In January 2015, AZK and three teammates, then of iBUYPOWER, one of the top North American Counter-Strike teams, were banned by Counter-Strike creator Valve for match-fixing. In early 2016, AZK would transition to Overwatch during its closed beta and later sign a contract with Team Liquid. Liquid would go on to be one of the best North American Overwatch teams.

But like many players, AZK found himself with a decision to make in late 2017 when Liquid decided against buying into the Overwatch League: grind harder to find a new team, or take a step back and assess opportunity elsewhere.

"I was pretty devastated when the time came to purchase a spot into the [Overwatch League] and the organization I played for backed out of it at the last second," AZK said. "Looking back at it now, I could have tried to simply join another team with the OWL, but it didn't feel right. A lot of my former CS teammates were pressuring me to go back to them during that time as well. So with all the stuff happening with my team, and with ESL allowing us to play CSGO again, I felt like this was the way to go for me. Financially, it's a decision that didn't really make sense, but mentally I felt like it did at that time, which is why I went for it. Let's be real -- who doesn't like a good comeback story?"

Mendo, a far less experienced Counter-Strike player but competitively skilled nonetheless, made a huge name for himself in early Overwatch, notably on FaZe Clan and Cloud9.

A fan favorite, Mendo would be signed to the Houston Outlaws, who'd go on to be one of the more popular Overwatch League teams in their first season. Behind the scenes though, turmoil within the Outlaws' parent company, Infinite Esports & Entertainment, caused stress across the entire company.

Like AZK, Mendo found himself needing to make a decision. As primarily a streamer for the Outlaws, his community pushed him to stream Apex Legends upon its release in February 2019.

"I was stuck in the worst esports org in history at that point anyway, Infinite Esports," Mendo said. "Overwatch was going downhill for a while, bad patches after bad patches, what used to be the winning team has the best player on it quickly became the losing team has the weakest link. Apex was just a fun run-and-gun game that hadn't yet been ruined by bad patches and balance changes."

Both Mendo and AZK would leave Overwatch behind -- citing lack of interest at the hands of poor balance choices and lack of communication from the Blizzard game development team -- and go elsewhere in esports. Mendo would join Liquid, becoming one of their Apex Legends players, while AZK would return Counter-Strike and play on a limited basis in tournaments where he wasn't restricted by Valve's bans.

But they weren't alone. Some players would go elsewhere in esports, like Michaël "winz" Bignet. Winz was once the captain of Rogue, arguably the best Western Overwatch team at one point in the game's first two years. After leaving Overwatch, winz would join Liquid's Quake team on loan and placed third-fourth at the Quake World Championship in 2017.

Others like Brandon "Seagull" Larned and Félix "xQc" Lengyel became pro streamers. Many top players from the early Overwatch scene eventually left.

The top echelon of Overwatch players quickly became first-time esports pros.

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"It was definitely more indicative of the game changing in a direction that people didn't enjoy," Mendo said. "Back then, even Roadhog and D.Va were huge anti-skill problems that a ton of the top players complained about. Nowadays you can't even complain about it, you have [Brigitte] and GOATS meta to complain about. It kept going in the direction of less and less individual and mechanical skill towards more and more teamwide skill. Much like a MOBA [game], this is why a lot of super talented early Overwatch pros quit the game faster than others.

"I'm sure there was a fair share of players that couldn't compete at a top level, but I know a ton of players that were insane, and still are, that quit the game because of the direction it headed."

Now more than a handful of former Overwatch players are moving to VALORANT, just as some Counter-Strike and Team Fortress 2 players did with Overwatch.

But it's not just players like Mendo and AZK with extenuating circumstances. Top players are taking the leap of faith. Reigning World Cup champions Jay "Sinatraa" Won, who also took MVP honors in the 2019 Overwatch League season, and Corey "Corey" Nigra retired from Overwatch in the past two months to play VALORANT. Both cited lack of motivation and frustration with the state of the game on their way out.

"I'm confident they'll be top players. Not sure if they'll be on top teams in a year or two, but the mental strength they have built from playing Overwatch shouldn't be taken lightly," Mendo said of his former peers. "No single character can piss them off enough to quit the game or drag their focus away from competing, when they withstood Overwatch patch after patch."

The jury is still out though whether Mendo, AZK, Sinatraa, Corey or less well-known names from Overwatch will stick with VALORANT, or if they too, like Mendo and AZK, will move elsewhere or return back to their scene.

"The direction of the game can easily push a lot of people away from the game," Mendo said. "Even just having a [resurrection] or wall-hack type ability from launch is already rubbing some people the wrong way. New characters need to be unique and stand out, and with time there will definitely be mechanics that some people don't like.

"A lot of people are still playing the game like Counter-Strike in its fundamentals. Over time that will definitely shift in other directions, the question is how many of those players enjoy that direction. I think the current players all have the raw talent and skill to maintain their standings in the scene, but other things might push them away."