Valorant EU First Strike — the contenders (Purple Cobras, nolpenki, Prodigy, Heretics)
UPDATE, November 27th: EU First Strike used a similar model to NA/other regions, but not identical; as best we can tell, seeding applied for the teams from the first qualifier, and then each was randomly assigned one of the teams from the second qualifier. The upshot is that the bracket is:
#1 G2 vs Prodigy (now known as Orgless)
#4 Liquid vs Heretics
#2 FPX vs nolpenki
#3 SUMN vs Purple Cobras
In terms of the article, the Heretics/nolpenki stuff hence all still applies.
On Purple Cobras: as mentioned, they are the weakest team in the tournament on paper, and while SUMN will be a little easier than G2, it’s still hard to see them making much noise there (they seem like very similar teams in a lot of ways, and SUMN should just have the slight upper hand across the board).
On Prodigy/Orgless: tendency would be to think that G2 is going to be far trickier for them than SUMN would have been (the sheer aggression is potentially going to be very difficult to deal with), and tend to expect less both in absolute terms and with regards to the stylistic matchup.
Other than that, 99% is the same, so haven’t edited anything else inline. One other note to be 100% clear — Prodigy = Orgless, they’re just going under the Orgless banner for this to make absolutely clear that they are currently unorged and looking.
Small note to begin: this is a preview piece on EU First Strike. The operational assumption with regards to seeding for the main event is that it will be similar to the NA model, which puts the four teams from the second qualifier at spots #5-#8; this could be inaccurate and/or the tournament could reseed teams compared to their closed qualifier seeding, but if it holds, the bracket will look like the following:
#1 G2 vs #8 Purple Cobras
#4 Liquid vs #5 Heretics
#2 FPX vs #7 nolpenki
#3 SUMN vs #6 Prodigy
All stats via VLR.
#8 Purple Cobras
Purple Cobras are, in their essential form, a proxy for figuring out if somebody knows what exactly they’re talking about with regards to the EU Valorant scene. If somebody tells you that this was some monster run out of nowhere and that nobody expected Purple Cobras to be there, they’re full of it. Equally, if somebody tells you that this isn’t a surprise at all and that it was entirely expected that Purple Cobras would make it, they’re also full of it (albeit, maybe, a little less so).
As an EU Valorant brand (yes, I know where the name and logo come from, I can dodge a wrench), Purple Cobras go all the way back; they were regulars in a lot of the weekly tournaments in the beta and immediate post-beta period, and while they never really won much of note, they were always there making up the numbers. In summary, a top-20 team, but not — never — much more than that.
Despite/because of that, the old lineup did not last through the summer; in the event, only two players (plus coach Fields) would carry over, with oKKo, KEJAN, and eventually team captain veazyy (the original Purple Cobra — his 2018 PUBG stacks had been the ones to initially use the branding) all departing. veazyy’s compatriot Hugstar (an entry player and Raze main, albeit perhaps more in the style of a bzt than a Yacine/Zyppan) and British support player fanCy, along with Fields, would hence serve as the starting point for what was to come next.
As it happened, they would end up being joined by another pair of beta warriors in the form of VlaDéDé and M4CHINA. Of the two, VlaDéDé had the longer CV (he had been one of those players consistently in those interminable French mixes that dominated every tournament numerically in April/May, mostly playing with LoWkii, and had won what was technically one of the earliest cups in the form of the Gdolph Showdown), but M4CHINA was the scene-watchers’ choice.
Although he never really played on a big stage (a North African First Strike event where he and bramz rolled over predictably weak competition excepted), he formed something of an eye-catching duo along with future SUMN star doma on a lineup that played for a few qualifiers under the CR4ZY banner, and although notably inconsistent, he had shown off hints of something special as an AWPer in particular at times.
While not prolific in the same way as some teams have been (SUMN being the obvious retort), we have seen a little of Purple Cobrasaround the tier-2 circuit over the last few months, and results have been decent if not spectacular. The headline result was a win in September in RIX Cup (over a field mostly comprised of those PC-like teams in EU/CIS constantly on the tier-2/tier-3 line, as well as SUMN, who fell in lower bracket without meeting them), but they also showed up decently against a field of similar standard at epic31, including putting up two respectable Bo3 performances against Oxygen (a team that would have been favoured to make it to main event if they were playing in European First Strike).
The team did go on from there to make a small change — Honeybee, a British Cypher main who had been playing with neph and misf1t’s stack previously, was drafted in to fill the fifth spot after the departure of nixoon — and the First Strike roster was hence set.
There’s a tendency among analysts at the top of the scene to think of their route to the tournament here — winning over two long-standing names in the form of NiP and NMDM — as not being surprising, and perhaps not even really being an upset. That, to my mind, takes it a bit too far; apart from anything else, it relies extremely heavily on the proverbial scrimbux, and we all know what the hit rate on those sorts of predictions tends to be.
However, this is hardly some hyper-dark horse run either; they were seeded #15 in the first OQ, and #6 (i.e. #10) in the third, in both cases actually above NMDM. I think it’s probably fair to say that they were on the whole considered underdogs (albeit slight, especially against NMDM) in both matchups, but they haven’t come from nowhere.
Purple Cobras’s body of work probably put them coming into First Strike in similar territory to Opportunists, eXiLe, HSDIRR, and maybe one or two others —proven as challengers to more proven teams and individuals, but not tested against said teams; and, while we remember the teams in that regard who have succeeded like NMDM, there is of course heavy survivorship bias to that, and plenty of teams have made it to that level and just fallen off in the past.
The expectation (not confirmed) is that PC should match up with G2 in the first round, which is unfortunate for them; it actually feels like their puncher’s chance would probably be against FPX, who have tended to find their trickiest matchups in the past against more cerebral teams as opposed to pure run-and-gunners.
In any case, this is probably just going to be the sort of Bo3 that goes down as a learning experience more than anything else; even a repeat of the NMDM Ascent game for M4CHINA probably isn’t enough against mixwell/ardiis, and while Honeybee in particular has done well, this doesn’t feel like a team with the top-to-bottom firepower to compete on Ascent/Haven against G2. PC are good, and the potential is there to grow into something better, but anything better than a nice (but ultimately insufficient) lead on Bind or the like would be a significant surprise.
Like Purple Cobras, the nolpenki brand is an inheritance; however, it’s an inheritance of a different kind. This one instead comes from an older Valorant lineup, one of the few orgless teams to really distinguish themselves in the early days of post-beta — a Lithuanian five-man led by PUBG crossover vakk (and managed/coached by Nbs, an esports Renaissance man with achievements in SC2, LoL, and most recently PUBG). The original nolpenki had a number of good showings, punctuated by an Ignition Series main event cameo at WePlay, and were probably best known for their sheer consistency — they were one of those teams that played every qualifier and seemed to win every Bo1, which was rewarded most prominently with a win at the $5,000 Trovo Challenge in July.
As an all-national lineup (albeit from a nation that’s punched far above its weight in Valorant in general), it was always hard to shake concerns re: upside, and in the end, the nolpenki project did not really even make it to the end of Ignition, with four of the five players featuring in different lineups at LVL Clash 2 (vakk and Boo with Prodigy, Cho and Destrian with VALORANDO). There was an odd intermediate period after that in which a substantially similar lineup played with one player or another switched (cNed and future eXiLe Dreamas among the names to slot in), but in the end, the team effectively disbanded in September, with three of the five — l0udly, cho, Destrian — eventually forming a new team at All Day Long, and a fourth — Boo — joining and sticking with the latest iteration of pipsoN/Happy’s stack.
What remained was vakk, and what coalesced around vakk was one of the more ambitious multi-national projects that we have seen to date — a core comprised of vakk, celebrated Turkish AWPer and all-around megaprospect cNed, and zeek, a versatile rifler who had built a reputation for doing a lot with a little on THOSE GUYS and who was far more sought-after by teams and orgs in Europe in those June and July roster-building days than is probably immediately obvious.
The team was rounded out with Aron, recently departed from Bonk, and JESMUND, a true beta veteran who had gotten his start with all-Finnish lineup 2G4L (as one of the original notable ‘Raze mains’) before showing up decently for a few stacks afterwards, most notably Mattistack (alongside niesoW and Taimou among others).
As with the old nolpenki, this is a team forged in fire, by which we mean a team forged in a million Bo1 qualifiers. The new lineup has played a larger portion of post-Ignition small tournaments than probably any non-Spanish team, even winning one — TOURSTAT Summer Clash — that, in their own words, “was expected to be a scam by many and it was” — and while having the odd loss (including one probably extremely crucial one; the loss to BIG in Open Qualifier 3 forced them to come through Open Qualifier 4, and hence knocked them down from what could have been a #5 overall seed here to #7), they have retained a lot of that previously characteristic consistency
nolpenki’s play is by no means clean; even in spite of the fact that they might be the strongest mechanical team top-to-bottom of the unorged teams (and stronger than some of them even), they are not a 13–0 type of team (in fact, no team played more total rounds in qualifiers — 358 in all). Most maps are close; they took out Guild on a 13–11, and then were taken to the wire by Enterprise Esports (a genuine barely-known) in the Bo3, pulling a 13–11 on map 3. This is not a team that wins easily — but it is a team that wins, and more to the point, it is a team that absolutely has the raw talent in them to hang with the big boys in a format like this.
FPX is hence, in truth, probably an unfortunate foe for them; you can argue whether or not FPX are the true #1 seed, but either way, they’re absolutely the team who are the least likely to have the sort of drops in tempo and concentration that this team seems poised to seize upon and grit out a 24-rounder over. One has to imagine that nolpenki are hoping that I’m wrong on at least one of the seeding and that assessment; we’ll see.
Despite that, it could be a good showcase, especially if we get to see Ascent or Icebox, and it’ll be a nice introduction and re-introduction to some of these players for viewers. This is absolutely a team where multiple players can pop off, but personally, eyes will be squarely on zeek — his upside is genuinely up there with the absolute elite talents in Europe, and hopefully he gets to show that off to a wider audience here.
So, standard disclaimer here: Prodigy is an agency (one that at this point represents at the very least a significant plurality of EU pros in Valorant), not an orged team, and not really a brand in the way that PC/nolpenki are either. If you remember Prodigy from beta, you lose; this isn’t really the same team at all.
If you remember Prodigy from Ignition, you might be off, you might be on. There was a Prodigy iteration that was just the generation-2 NiP core plus a couple of others that made it to the final at Vitality; that’s not who we’re talking about. However, the Prodigy that showed up (and bombed badly) at WePlay? There, we have some common ancestry, even though it’s technically just the one player.
The current Prodigy project has been months in the making, and just as ScreaM/mixwell were constants of the beta Prodigy, pipsoN has been the constant of the new Prodigy — a player and coach of some decent repute in the CIS scene CS:GO (most notably in the latter with Winstrike and pro100), he made some waves early, putting together a very talented Worst Players team that included players like chiwawa (now of NiP) and dimasick, and notching a few good results in beta and post-beta, punctuated by a win at Twitch Rivals #2 over lineups featuring the bulk of FABRIKEN and PartyParrots among others (and an invitation to the G2 Ignition event for pipsoN, chiwawa, and arch).
WP ended up splitting shortly after that G2 event, and pipsoN struck forth (initially with chiwawa) to put together an European lineup. The first forays of the new project were not too successful — a loss in Vitality qualifiers, the aforementioned shellacking at WePlay, and a top-16 loss to Bonk at Mandatory Cup 2. A substantially new roster came out for LVL Clash 2, and that, too, fell hard, taking 8 rounds over 2 maps against Bonk and SKADE.
However, as it turned out, that loss would be the inflection point for the project’s fortunes. The roster for that event was: pipsoN, Happy, vakk, Boo, Luzuh. Boo, previously of nolpenki repute, would also end up catching on with the lineup (and has been one of the best Omen players in Europe in the latter half of the year, at a time when a lot of other notable Omens have struggled to make even an inconsistent impact), but the really important addition was the other one to stick — Happy.
Happy may very well be one of the most underrated players in Europe at this point, and it feels like any such trepidation has little to do with how he’s played in Valorant. The French CS legend was one of many, many ex-tier 1 pros from French CS to end up playing a substantial amount of competitive Valorant in April and May, but unlike most of them, it turned out that not only did the game grip him enough to keep going, it was, in fact, the perfect game for him.
There’s an argument to be made that the qualities — and shortcomings — that opened him to such derision towards the latter end of his CS career are what have made him so good off the bat here. At his best in that early CS:GO era, Happy was one of the best instinctive players in the world; his understanding of mentality, understanding of positioning, of what was in front of him and behind a wall in essence, was what made him so good (and allowed LDLC and NV to compete for honours). When the game shifted beyond that, and IGLing required more than simply reading the game, he fell off.
Happy has, very consistently, been excellent in Valorant, first on StartedFromCS (with Ex6TenZ and Maniac) as mostly a Sage main, and now on this lineup mostly with Raze, but playing similar functional roles as a lurker in both cases. There’s a good case to be made that he’s the best lurker in Europe across the full year, and I would generally have to go along with it; further, on paper, it’s a perfect matchup with pipsoN being a more structured and traditional IGL.
Unlike most of the smaller teams, we don’t have a huge body of work over the last few months for Prodigy; after rounding out the roster with Finnish duo delezyh and hoody (both formerly of the STR99 lineup that put up a couple of good showings in August/September), the team has only really played one significant tournament (GLX Elite), where they lost in the final to NiP.
But, of course, the fact that they’re here is proof that something’s going right, and the prospective matchup with SUMN is a fascinating one; even if one holds SUMN in the highest regard (and I do), it does feel like they have genuinely gotten the best draw of the four second-qualifier teams here, with hoody posting a significant threat on the AWP (one of the less convincing aspects of SUMN’s game), and SUMN in general having put up their real statement games against higher-tempo teams like NMDM and eXiLe (they did respectably against FPX in their Contenders Cup final meeting with two 9–13s, but the scoreline flatters them a little there in truth). Prodigy aren’t exactly slow, but they are methodical with how they slowly probe for map control and push teams back, and that’s going to present challenges for SUMN at the very least.
It hence definitely does feel like there’s an opening here for Prodigy to spring the big upset of the first round; it’s not quite at the level of Liquid-Heretics where the theoretical underdog genuinely may be the overdog, but it should be tighter than many probably expect.
Heretics are the only currently orged team of the four we’re talking about here, but their journey in terms of bringing their 5 together hasn’t been too much less arduous. With regards to a progenitor, while he’s not the captain (and in fact was the fourth player announced), one probably has to look to niesoW. The mercurial German Cypher main made a significant name for himself on the qualifier and small tournament circuit in May and June, mostly playing with the ‘Mattistacks’ (built by Danish player matti, and featuring a number of players at various points, with perhaps the most noted example being when CS legend dev1ce stood in for a Team Liquid weekly tournament) and it was there that he linked up with manager/coach Tanizhq.
After a spell in pipsoN’s group, including a Mandatory Cup 2 appearance on that basic, the first showing for something really resembling the current Heretics lineup came right at the tail end of Ignition — LVL Clash 2, where niesoW joined up with pAura and future captain lowel. This was, to say the least, something of a surprising team-up, for the very simple reason that there were probably no two players who were seen in as similar terms in the entirety of Europe as niesoW and pAura. Both were Cypher mains; both had burst onto the scene playing with bigger names at mid-sized events; both similarly frustrated teams with their defensive read on the game. It was a talented core (especially supplemented with draken, as it was at that first event), but it seemed like an odd gamble at a time where plenty of even top teams were recruiting as if “Sage main” and “Cypher main” were long-term roles within a team onto themselves.
The initial results weren’t amazing — two Bo1 losses, and out in last place — but they weren’t catastrophic (11–13 vs NiP, 9–13 vs a Giants side at the high point of their perceived level), and niesoW did put in some very good performances on Sova. It did look like there was something to be built there, and with LVL done (and draken eventually off to Bonk/Guild), it got to being built.
In the event, the team finished impressively. AvovA had been one of the most highly-regarded pug players over the first couple of months of release, and brought a much-needed offensive spark to the team; nukkye, meanwhile, knew lowel well from their time together in CS (funnily enough, on Hellraisers, with high lord of FPX ANGE1 no less) and it showed in how the two worked together, with loWel being one of the only players in Europe to stick to Sage post-nerfs, in part to enable nukkye’s Raze/Jett.
loWel to Heretics was announced on October 1st; everyone except AvovA was official by the end of the following week, with AvovA serving out a davidp-esque trial period until later in the month. Results since have been as good as anyone else in EU; the team has played in two of the three LVP events held so far (a not-so-fringe benefit of being under a Spanish org), and has won both without dropping a map against decent fields, including wins over NMDM, eXiLe, B7, and Giants (three times). Their seeding coming into the first qualifier — #11 — was in truth probably one of the harsher underseeds — outside of the established teams and SUMN, Heretics are probably closer than anyone else on paper to that aforementioned class.
So: can Heretics beat Liquid? The difficulty more than anything else relates more to how little we’ve seen out of Liquid than anything else, but the capacity certainly is there; Heretics clearly are not some unstoppable juggernaut (and niesoW’s recent performances have been a bit iffy at times — he wasn’t there for the second of the LVP tournament wins, with matti subbing in, and while as good as anyone against Team Finest in the Bo3, he’s not put up the stats in their qualifier run that one would tend to expect), but with their defensive duo, they certainly seem positioned to frustrate a team like TL that increasingly looks reliant on ScreaM and ScreaM alone to create space.
This is probably something like 55–45 Heretics, maybe a couple of points less taking into account TL having greater control over the veto. It’s honestly more likely that I’m lowballing Heretics’ chances than overstating them, but ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding; again, while Heretics have certainly staked their claim to challenge the established powers, this still represents a dive into the unknown.