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Following a series of qualifiers to get into even more high-stakes qualifiers, we’ve finally made it to the main event: the ultimate qualifier. Eight of North America’s best VALORANT teams who’ve survived the earlier rounds will now battle in a five-day event. The three teams who finish on the podium by the end of the tournament will be on flights to Germany to represent North America in the upcoming VCT Masters 3 in Berlin. The losers will be left with nothing but to watch the festivities on their computers.

Before everything kicks off, Upcomer’s VALORANT experts have come together to preview and answer some of the biggest questions surrounding the North American teams heading into the final runup to VCT Masters 3 Berlin.

There is a stacked lineup of teams playing in this tournament. Out of all the first-round matches and possible matchups to come later in the week, which series do you want to see the most?

Tyler “Fionn” Erzberger: This is a tough one since many of these combinations could lead to some exciting slugfests. Just looking at the opening round, 100 Thieves and their structured, sometimes defensive (aside from maniac Peter “Asuna” Mazuryk) tactics against FaZe’s fast and furious playstyle should be a treat. Not to mention TSM and Envy, which is shaping up to be an absolute war.

But, really, for me, there is only one correct answer, and it has to be TSM vs. Sentinels. The NA VALORANT scene wouldn’t be where it is now without these two teams and their epic rivalry filled with trash talk and antics back in 2020. Nothing would excite me more than getting to see these two once again deliver us a memorable chapter in their rivalry.

Danny Appleford: Over the course of Stage 3 we’ve seen new teams rise to the occasion while others were pushed into the background. Outside of 100 Thieves, Envy and Sentinels, the organizations that have been considered top ten teams change by qualifier. Any matchup that involves Sentinels will be interesting in my opinion, but they’re also almost guaranteed a spot at Masters 3.

The matchup that I’m looking forward to the most? TSM versus Envy in the opening match of Challengers Playoffs. I think it will show what TSM is truly capable of after their dominant run to qualify for Playoffs. On the other side, Envy recently acquired Jaccob “yay” Whiteaker from ANDBOX to replace Anthony “mummAy” DiPaolo. Since we haven’t seen yay play with the squad, and we haven’t seen TSM perform against the top teams, it will be a good judge of what team is the real deal.

Zain Merchant: With so many top tier teams in Stage 3, it’s hard to choose one specific matchup to look forward to. Obviously it’s always amazing to see Sentinels destroy teams in their path, but a key match of the tournament will be 100 Thieves vs. FaZe Clan. Both teams have high expectations of them with FaZe recently signing Hunter “BabyJ” Schline and 100 Thieves stacked lineup of former Counter-Strike players. One of these teams will fall into the lower bracket while the team that survives has great odds against the winner of XSET and Luminosity. While some teams can pull off an under bracket run, the situation puts intense pressure on the players and gives the winners momentum to perform even better in their next matches. Whichever squad wins this opening match will definitely be one of the teams representing North America at VCT Masters 3 in Berlin.

Pick one player you’re going to be keeping a close eye on in the tournament.

Erzberger: I want to see how FaZe’s Corey “Corey” Nigra does in this event. For the longest time, I’ve felt he’s been in the upper-echelon of not only entries but all players in North America. Though he’s been consistent in his frag counts, this could be the week where he goes from star to superstar to the community-at-large. Corey’s aim and mechanics are already world-class, but it’s going to take FaZe making it to LAN in Berlin for him and his team of in-your-face fiends to solidify it.

Appleford: With so many players in Challengers Playoffs it’s hard to pick one or even two players to watch throughout the event. For this event, I’m going to be keeping an eye on TSM’s latest addition to their roster, Aleko “Leviathan” Gabuniya. Leviathan joined TSM shortly before his previous team, Noble, stepped away from VALORANT completely. Since Leviathan joined the team, the roster has looked more consistent. I’m curious to see if this was just Leviathan/TSM having a great tournament to make it to the Challenger Playoffs or if Leviathan really is the saving grace for TSM.

Merchant: Following a broken wrist, Kaleb “moose” Jayne is back to Luminosity Gaming’s active roster. While some may assume he is more hungry than ever to win, many players come back from injuries and surgeries unable to return to their previous form. A prime example is Valentin “poizon” Vasilev, the AWPer for Complexity’s Counter-Strike team. After the best year of his career in 2020, poizon returned in 2021 after an emergency surgery and was unable to reach his previous skill level. Keep an eye on moose to see if he suffers the same fate, or puts up even better numbers than he previously did.

Which team or player do you think is under the most pressure to deliver this week?

Erzberger: There’s a lot of good answers for this one. For some teams, their season will end if they don’t accrue enough circuit points to make the Last Chance Qualifier. In the case of Jaccob “yay” Whiteaker, all eyes will be on him following the whispers of Envy dunking on top-level competition in scrims.

I’ll go with 100 Thieves, though, since I think this has to be their time to make it to an international event. 100T is an organization that hasn’t settled for a second since entering the VALORANT space and has made bold roster moves to prove it even after landmark victories. If they don’t make it to Berlin, they still have a chance to advance to Champions through the Last Chance Qualifier. But this starting-five wasn’t built to scrape their way into the world championship at the last minute. They formed to win trophies, and anything but going to Berlin will be a massive disappointment.

Appleford:  I’m going to be keeping an eye on Josh “steel” Nissan and 100 Thieves for this tournament. As the in-game leader for 100 Thieves, his performance sometimes takes a backseat. With so much talent on the 100 Thieves roster, I think steel is going to have to step things up if they want to qualify for Berlin. The last important event for 100 Thieves was First Strike back in December of 2020.

Since then they have come close to the top spots but have often fallen out too early from the competition. I’m not saying that it all falls on steel’s performance alone, but he isn’t as “cracked” as Spencer “Hiko” Martin and Peter “Asuna” Mazuryk. Like Tyler, I think if 100 Thieves miss out on Berlin it’s not going to go over well. Especially with where they sit on the bracket.

Merchant: FaZe Clan are known for their fast paced explosive game style that allows them to dominate almost every team in their path. However, this style would be impossible without Andrej “babybay” Francisty’s Jett. As one of the team’s duelists, he leads the charge into sites to make space for the rest of the team and allow their explosive style to work. While many analysts believe he’s been at the top of his game recently, babybay will be under immense pressure in making sure his team can successfully execute sites. In FaZe’s most recent match, with babybay at the bottom of the scoreboard, FaZe crumbled with almost no sign of resistance. To qualify for Berlin, babybay is going to need to be the best in the server and show no signs of weakness.

Which agent do you think will be the make-or-break element for teams this tournament?

Erzberger: Jett or Sova would be the simple answer, but I’ll choose the Australian animal wrangler herself in Skye. We’ve seen Skye transform from a supportive scout early on in her life to now, with recent changes, becoming a quasi-duelist where she’s bursting onto sites. Flex specialists such as Hunter “SicK” Mims and especially Yassine “Subroza” Taoufik have found a liking towards the bird-flinging agent. With more time to practice on her, I expect even more games decided by which team can deploy her the best.

Appleford: KAY/O. KAY/O. KAY/O. There’s no other answer for me. Now that KAY/O is playable at events I think that he will be just as viable as Astra was before Masters 2. His kit allows for additional smokes, information, and the ability to take (or retake) a site with ease. We saw how hard teams (*cough* 100 Thieves) struggled when they didn’t play Astra before Masters. I would argue that KAY/O is easier to slot into team compositions and gives more benefit to play overall. From the four teams that didn’t have to play through another qualifier before Challenger Playoffs, we also haven’t seen them practice with KAY/O at all. Some of teams that had the advantage of qualifying earlier may surprise the other squads.

Merchant: Viper plays a key role in team compositions and is especially useful for teams on Icebox, Breeze and Split. Additionally, with more teams finding creative walls and lineups for smokes, the need for a Brimstone or Omen has been greatly reduced. This has allowed teams to add other key agents to their comps. While Viper’s lineups didn’t play a large role in VCT Stage 2, more teams have been utilizing her snakebite to win almost every post plant. Without a Viper on those three maps, teams would be lacking utility to take on their opponents. It is essential that each team has her.

You thought we’d let you leave without giving us some cold, hard predictions? Give it to us: which three teams from North America are flying to VCT Masters 3 in Berlin?

Erzberger: This feels almost impossible to put together. I’d love to sneak out of here by saying that everyone has a shot, but I don’t think my editors will let me do that.

Fine. First, I’ll be boring and say Sentinels will be globetrotting off to Germany. For the other two spots, I’ll buy into the El Diablo hype with Envy and then take a flier on FaZe to brag about if I’m somehow right. Andrej “babybay” Francisty appears to be in peak form from his games in the previous qualifier. I think their bracket and possible matchups line up nicely for a team that, once they start rolling, is almost impossible to stop.

But really, this is the most difficult tournament to predict since I started covering the game when it was back in beta. Let the fireworks begin.

Appleford: At this point in the competition, any three teams could make it to Berlin. We were all shocked when neither 100 Thieves nor Envy made it to Masters 2 alongside Sentinels. Version1 were the best team at the tournament leading up to qualifying, but no one really predicted they’d be able to do it.

But, I can’t just make a blanket statement like that and think I’ll get away with it. Without a doubt, Sentinels will qualify for Masters 3. Whether they win the whole thing or not will be determined later. Who will join them though? Well since Version1 can’t, I’m going to say that Envy and 100 Thieves will take the other spots. 100 Thieves arguably have the easiest pathway to Masters 3 throughout the bracket and I’m really banking on them to finally get their stuff together to qualify. With Envy, I really think it’s a tie between them or TSM, but ultimately I think whoever wins their head-to-head matchup will be the third qualifier.

Merchant: Each and every team in this bracket could qualify for Berlin, and it’s already a given that Sentinels will go. Given the bracket and the seeding of said bracket, Sentinels, FaZe Clan and TSM look like they have the best chances of qualifying. While others may bring NV or 100 Thieves into the conversation, both have very high chances of getting knocked into the lower bracket and being prone to mistakes that may cost them their lower bracket matches. If FaZe can make it past 100 Thieves in the first round, their qualifying chances are amazing.

Finally, TSM may have to take on a lower bracket run if they fall short against Sentinels, but with the introduction of Leviathan, the squad has been looking solid and can definitely pull it off.