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EMEA wouldn’t be the strongest VALORANT region in the world without a good dose of close competition; something that was on full display today as FunPlus Phoenix (FPX) took on Masters 3: Berlin 2021 champions Gambit Esports.

Both teams are based in the CIS region. While Gambit qualified to the VALORANT Champions Tour automatically, based on their 2021 performance, FPX came up through CIS qualifiers to earn their spot in the tournament.

FPX had a rough 2021. Their failure to make any international competitions put a damper on the hype surrounding them, and there wasn’t much improvement in their results towards the end of the year. But in late 2021, the team picked up two new players, Dmitry “SUYGETSU” Ilyushin and Ardis “ardiis” Svarenieks, hoping it would help them bring the team’s performance to a new level.

In 2022, the change was noticeable. FPX topped qualifiers coming into VCT, buoyed by excellent individual play, particularly from ardiis on Jett. They won their first VCT game against BIG Esports. Although they faltered on the first map, Bind, they swiftly won the next two. But defeating Gambit still seemed like too tall an order for FPX. Gambit had just defeated Team Liquid, who were perceived to be their main group rivals, with a 2-0 scoreline. Expectations for FPX were tempered.

FPX, however, showed up to the match ready to prove that they were a team with new strategies, new players and a new approach to the game. Their unpredictable playstyle took Gambit off guard on Map 1. FPX quickly racked up 12 rounds while Gambit lagged behind at three. The rounds were close but FPX were coming out on top more often than not.

“I’m not saying we were that much better than Gambit, as the score [said],” team captain Kirill “ANGE1” Karasiow said. “But we were winning clutches — 2v2s, 1v3s — clutch situations which can go either way. Every round was close. Then we had a pause at 12-3 where our coach, [Erik “d00mbr0s” Sandgren], told us to focus and not to be nervous … which was exactly the point we started to become nervous.”

ANGE1 clarified that he wasn’t blaming d00mbros for the pause, of course. The break in FPX’s momentum had simply served to remind them that they could still throw it all away. And sure enough, Gambit, not to be outdone, took the game to overtime. However, FPX eventually triumphed and closed out the first map 17-15. ANGE1 acknowledged that it had been a rough situation, but it was all a matter of confidence in the end.

The next map, Bind, was not as close. FPX hadn’t refined their strategy there and only managed to win six rounds in total, while Gambit took the map win. It all came down to Map 3, Icebox; a map that both teams have a 74% winrate on, according to VLR.GG. Fittingly, it was yet another evenly matched affair. Both teams went 8-4 in their defensive halves. The map went to overtime once again, where the unthinkable happened: FPX won both overtime rounds, capping off their upset victory against Gambit.

It was a victory born of FPX’s unique playstyle and smart late-game adjustment. Their Icebox composition consisted of no Duelists, with ardiis playing Chamber.

In the post-game interview, Andrey “Shao” Kiprsky stated that the composition was meant to make their defense more consistent; something that paid dividends for them.

Towards the end of Icebox, Gambit looked uncharacteristically disjointed, not playing with each other or moving around the map as fluidly as they normally do.

Despite the monumental upset, ANGE1 isn’t fully satisfied with where the team is right now.

“We’re in terrible shape, I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “On all three maps, it was lose-able. I never saw us losing [so many] advantaged situations.”

Still, it’s a statement victory for FPX, and one that propels them higher in the conversation for best team in the CIS region. Gambit has held that title for a long time, but this match has called it into question. Going forward, FPX will still be looking to win every group stage match that they can, but their 2-0 start bodes very well for their chances at qualifying to playoffs. Their confidence will be their biggest asset, both in game and out.

We were not afraid of Gambit at all while we were playing, despite us not being in good shape,” ANGE1 said. “We never doubt we can win.”

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