The beginning of Sentinels' story in VALORANT precedes both the game's release and the game's first public announcement during Riot Games' 10th anniversary in October. It started when the Sentinels were part of the ownership group that ran the Overwatch League's Los Angeles Gladiators.
It was in the Overwatch League that Sentinels CEO Rob Moore first met the player he would choose to build his future VALORANT team around. It wasn't a player on the Gladiators, though, but a standout from a rival California squad, the San Francisco Shock's Jay "sinatraa" Won.
When sinatraa began his professional esports career, his online persona as a disruptive and callous teenager raised questions about whether his personality would prevent him from reaching his full potential as a pro. Yet two years after his debut as an abrasive wunderkind, sinatraa stood at center stage at Phildelphia's Wells Fargo Center in October 2019, champion and MVP of the Overwatch League as the leader of the Shock. Over the course of his short time as a pro, he changed how he interacted with teammates and how he approached the game, maturing into someone peers and critics alike looked up to instead of the other way around.
Despite his success in Overwatch, sinatraa started to show an interest in Riot's new game. For Moore and the rest of the Sentinels' brain trust, the mission was clear: turn their greatest foe into the organization's crown jewel.
"We had been involved in Overwatch for the first two seasons and watched the way sinatraa competed and how he rose to the challenge of competing against the best players in the world," Moore told ESPN. "It is rare you get the opportunity to sign a reigning world champion and MVP."
The only road block that would have kept Sentinels from signing their prized free agent would be their involvement in the Overwatch League. Fortunately for Sentinels, they separated from the Gladiators in September, a month before VALORANT was first teased to the world. Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke and his newfound esports group took full ownership of the Overwatch League franchise, while the Sentinels were free to focus on other games.
Their immediate goal following their separation from the Gladiators was to aggressively look for new titles to build around. Focusing on VALORANT, a new first-person shooter game created by the developer of League of Legends -- the most popular esport in the world -- was a no-brainer for Moore and the Sentinels. Sinatraa became enamored with the Sentinels' brass and the idea of playing with close friend Jared "zombs" Gitlin. After sinatraa announced his retirement from Overwatch to pursue a career in VALORANT, the two signed with Sentinels in late April.
"Out of all the orgs, Sentinels were the one that made us all feel like they cared about us as individuals," sinatraa told ESPN. "[They] made sure everything was comfortable for us."
From the first day of VALORANT's closed beta on April 7, sinatraa and Zombs partnered with two Counter-Strike pros, Shahzeeb "ShahZaM" Khan and Hunter "SicK" Mims. With sinatraa's Overwatch background and Zombs' experience with Apex Legends, the quartet consisted of a mixture of different gaming backgrounds with varying levels of success. They were a group of FPS misfits in a sea of Counter-Strike pros making the jump to VALORANT.
As TSM and T1, two other giants in the esports world, announced rosters composed of Counter-Strike talent, Sentinels placed their bet on a more eclectic lineup despite the fact CS:GO is VALORANT's closest comparison. They thought it didn't matter that sinatraa (who has experience in CS) wasn't a former pro in the world's biggest FPS game. Sentinels thought the team's chemistry and talent would help them overcome the slew of teams with players who had thousands of hours poured into Counter-Strike.
"I think after competing at a high level in Overwatch and Apex [Legends], we had an appreciation for their skill level involved in getting the best of a character's ultimate ability," Moore said. "So I think we put a higher value on that combination than others."
In the team's first two tournaments together, disaster followed them at every turn. Sentinels experimented with different players for the fifth spot in their lineup, and the team's performance in both tourneys didn't inspire confidence in the mixed roster's ability to compete in a game modeled so closely after Counter-Strike's gunplay. To make matters worse, in their final competition in the closed beta before the game fully released, Sentinels were eliminated by an amateur team.
The fifth and final starting spot was ultimately given to another former Counter-Strike pro, Michael "dapr" Gulino, who, like sinatraa, quickly turned out to be a critical piece of the puzzle. If sinatraa was Sentinels' heartbeat, then dapr was the team's backbone, the anchor of the squad who could do a little bit of everything to turn Sentinels from a good team to a great one.
"For the first two tournaments we had not signed a fifth player, and the four players we had were in the process of moving to our team house in Texas," Moore said. "So we had little preparation time for those events. We knew that was not a real demonstration of the team's skill level. [The team] had played with a few players and evaluated a lot of the people who had taken up the game. After scrimmaging with dapr, they quickly felt he was the right fit to fill out the roster."
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The success they found in scrimmages with dapr translated to the first North American Ignition Series event, a major tournament in partnership with Riot Games, where Sentinels finished in the top six and looked like a revived team. Sinatraa's overt aggression and impatience were still there, but instead of trying to curb what makes him great, the team adopted his fiery personality, throwing players into quick one-on-one trades and executing strong pushes onto sites. If they found themselves needing to retake a site, they showed an inherent trust with one another to hit their shots.
Sentinels went from overhyped to the world's most exciting team in less than two months. Instead of playing like everyone else in North America with a focus on the game's long-ranged sniper, the Operator, Sentinels used almost every gun in the game to gain victories. Most famously, sinatraa has become synonymous with the Odin, the beefy, light machine gun which has become the bane of every player loading in against Sentinels. On the team's signature map, Ascent, sinatraa has made B site his domain on the defensive end, firing Odin shots through the paper-thin Italian walls to roll over the enemy team without them ever getting to see him face-to-face.
They'll use Frenzies, Odins, Operators, shotguns, spoons or whatever the developers throw into the game to defeat their opponents. Unpredictability has become one of the team's greatest strengths, and you never know if it's going to be sinatraa on Phoenix running at you with a flashbang ready to pop or if it'll be the team's resident support, SicK, playing his in-your-face style of Sage where he'll heal himself and grab first blood for the team to roll into the site.
At the second North American Ignition Series tournament, the PAX Arena Invitational, Sentinels beat the defending champions TSM in the semifinals en route to beating Cloud9 in the finals to win their first trophy as a team. They amassed a dominant 17-2 map record throughout the event.
On the eve of the region's third Ignition Series tournament, which starts Thursday, Sentinels are the de-facto leaders of a turbulent North America region, where seemingly any of the top 10 teams can beat any of the others. TSM, having lost to Sentinels in back-to-back tournaments, has been bantering with Sentinels over social media and post-match interviews, building up to what could be another explosive encounter this weekend.
TSM are everything Sentinels are not. They are a prototypical Counter-Strike lineup that came in together and didn't accept individual offers for fear that they would be stuck on teams with star players from non-CS backgrounds. TSM have won championships built around their Operator play with designated snipers Matthew "Wardell" Yu and Yassine "Subroza" Taoufik. Even though Shahzam is one of the better Operator players in North America, Sentinels aren't beholden to the game's priciest gun. Every player in their lineup is capable of putting up 20 kills with a rifle or any other gun they prefer.
TSM are established powerhouse, having been at the forefront of North America esports since the organization was created by founder Andy "Reginald" Dinh. Sentinels are relative newcomers, having first made a name for themselves when Kyle "Bugha" Giersdorf won the Fortnite World Cup and $3 million last summer. VALORANT is now the epicenter of their rivalry.
"I don't really think we have a rival at the moment, but if i had to pick one, it'd be TSM," sinatraa said. "Everyone thinks they're the best, [but] probably not anymore."