Gambit Esports’ five players and coach filed into the room, subdued, for their post-VALORANT Champions press conference. Nikita “d3ffo” Sudakov had a somber look on his face. Ayaz “nAts” Akhmetshin’s “good luck” panda doll was facing him on the table.
Gambit had just suffered a grueling 2-3 loss to Acend. At that same moment, Acend were in the middle of their winning interview onstage, huddled around the Champions trophy. Meanwhile, Gambit’s players were backstage, processing their loss. It certainly wasn’t the first time they’d ever lost to Acend, but this time, the stakes were the highest by far.
“When we started playing together, we knew that it would be a long path to create a team that could play with every region and every team,” said team captain Igor “Redgar” Vlasov. “We learned a lot from this year. It was not the best performance from us in this tournament. We made a lot of mistakes, so after this tournament, we’ll continue improving ourselves and we’ll try to show a better performance next year.”
Coming into Champions, Gambit set high expectations. They had won Stage 3 Masters: Berlin, after all, and looked dominant toward the end of that tournament. They topped their group in Champions and made it into playoffs fairly painlessly.
Playoffs were a bit tougher for Gambit, particularly their nail-biter of a semifinal against KRÜ Esports, but they made it to the grand final by the skin of their teeth and prepared to stare down their longtime rivals, Acend.
The two teams had had a history of facing each other in the Europe, Middle East and Africa Challengers. Most recently, during Stage 3 EMEA Challengers playoffs, Acend was the team to send Gambit to the lower bracket. However, Gambit hit back when the two met again in lower bracket final, getting their revenge and eliminating Acend to make it to the grand final.
Thus, going into the Champions grand final, the two teams were quite familiar with each other — both as competitors and as peers. The two teams traded jokes and poked fun at each other all through the series, even while it was wholly unclear which team would eventually come out on top (At one point, while Gambit was dominating their map pick, Acend player Patryk “starxo” Kopczyński initiated a game of rock paper scissors with d3ff0 from across the stage).
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“We played versus Acend, we know each other really well,” Redgar said. “During the game, it all depends on your nerves and what you prefer to do to create the environment in your team. For them, they like joking around and screaming, those kinds of things.”
This time, in their most important matchup so far, Acend emerged victorious. Gambit looked totally confident when it came to their map picks, Breeze and Fracture, but looked unsure at times on the other three maps. Star turns from Acend players Mehmet Yağız “cNed” İpek and Santeri “BONECOLD” Sassi proved too much for Gambit to deal with, even fielding a pair of superstars of their own in nAts and Timofey “Chronicle” Khromov.
“I don’t know what to say,” Chronicle said. “I can’t explain my performance in this tournament. I just feel that I’m playing good and playing for my team and [doing] everything to win every match. That’s all.”
Gambit have never been the most polished team, nor do they have to be. Today they clawed back round wins through explosive individual clutches and instinctual synergy between players. However, this bold playstyle comes with drawbacks, and Acend repeatedly found and punished Gambit’s weak points in the grand final. According to Redgar, while Acend played well, Gambit’s own mistakes were a big factor in the match’s outcome.
“The main opponent for us was ourselves,” said Redgar. “They played good, but I can’t point at someone who was the toughest one.”
All year, Gambit have proven themselves one of the best teams in the EMEA region. That hasn’t changed, even with this loss. And while the players are sad about the loss, they aren’t too disheartened in the grand scheme of things. They’re confident in their own abilities, and ready to make 2022 even better.
“All of us are excited about what’s going to be in the next year,” said nAts. “Next year is gonna be hard as well, but all of this was historical. We’ve done some incredible things. We might have played better today, but what’s done is done. For all of us, it was just a huge experience that we could participate against international teams, and next year we’ll show something interesting.”