As you read this, the bracket for the finals of First Strike: Europe is in the process of being set. By Monday, eight teams will have successfully run the gauntlet, and will play on 3rd-6th December for, among other things, a $100,000 pool and for the bragging rights of ending the first year of Valorant as champions.
Plenty will be written about those teams in the coming days. This piece is not about those teams. Let’s talk about one of the teams that didn’t make it in.
Let’s talk about Guild.
Oh, Guild. There is so much that can be written about Guild. I feel the need to explain the process here: the genesis for this piece was that I was going to write about a bunch of the different teams to just fall short — NiP, Opportunists, eXiLe, whoever misses in the second qualifier (still ongoing as I write this). I sat down, I started writing, and I was at 1000 words without even getting to the end of their pre-First Strike results yet. Just ruminations on the stories of bonkar, Yacine, Guild Esports, the lot.
So, saved in a different file, start over. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Exact same thing happened again.
So, to hell with it. Maybe I’ll write about the other teams later, but for now: let’s just talk Guild.
You may be able to skip this, but if not, first: who are Guild? Let’s go through the condensed story of their story until they became Guild. Sit tight. On practically the first day of Valorant beta, NiP re-signed their team from Paladins that they had let go to complete in Valorant, centred around IGL bonkar. bonkar would be (so far) the only one of the five to really successfully make the transition in the end, but he managed to build something special around him, bringing through players like rhyme, Zyppan, and, of course, Yacine.
After the end of closed beta, results declined, and NiP pulled the plug after a disappointing showing at Epulze Valorant Prodigies in June, kicking bonkar and rebuilding around rhyme (and new signing luckeRRR). Unperturbed, bonkar took Yacine (who had gone from a streamer filling in for a bit to one of the best riflers, best Razes, and best attack-sided players in Europe), and rebuilt the lineup, bringing in acclaimed but VAC-gated CS talent Sayf, a young Omen player by the name of ziz (now Leo), and eventually completing the five by giving up his Cypher to xajdish (formerly of Dreamchasers, now of nolpenki, and now of the handle Aron).
Results? Generally good.
The team were absolutely there in the top echelon throughout Ignition Series (despiting getting little in the way of invites), including two finals appearances (at Mandatory Cup 2 and LVL Clash 2), and (as always seems to be the way) a bunch of near misses (failing to qualify for Allied Esports Odyssey in successive overtime losses, coming within two rounds of playoffs at Vitality European Open). Opinion varied, but most ratings put them in the #3-#5 range in Europe by the end of Ignition — below G2 and FPX, but at or above the best of the pack (two Bo3 wins over NiP, one Bo1 win over Liquid), and let down honestly by a lack of invites more than anything else.
Ultimately, despite the performances and the plaudits, Bonk were not able to win an org over; and as Ignition drew on, things started falling apart. Coach Salah left after a narrow failure to qualify for Allied Esports Odyssey (missing out with two overtime losses to cNed’s BBL Esports), and while the team carried on with ex-FABRIKEN head coach eMIL (and made the second of their finals appearances a couple of weeks later), it was common sense that something would probably give as the EU circuit entered the fallow period of September/October. Bonk played all summer; they were not built to hibernate.
Within days of that second finals appearance, half of Bonk was gone; Sayf and eMIL jumped to a rebuilding NiP, and xajdish (now known as Aron) left shortly afterwards. The bonkar-Yacine core remained, as did a rapidly-improving ziz (aka Leo), but once again, bonkar was left in a rebuild. The man of the moment this time would turn out to be draken — one of that small group of CS pros with tier-1 experience who had both made the jump in beta and stuck it out.
After some good showings in beta (culminating in captain status at the G2 Ignition scouting event), draken had gone off the radar for a bit, but had been showing up decently for Inferno (proto-Heretics with nieSoW, loWel, and pAura) and qualifier stacks over previous weeks, and in terms of in-game play alone, fit the existing core like a glove; like many teams, the question of ‘who AWPs?’ was a persistent one hanging over various iterations of Bonk — especially after Sayf left — and if nothing else, draken did bring with him the promise of solving that.
And so, in October, Bonk burst back onto the scene, bringing in goffe (Swedish CS journeyman turned Valorant ladder star) and signing for the upstart, but extremely well-capitalised, Guild Esports. I won’t go too far into the business side re: Guild (because that is an incredibly deep rabbithole), but two things need to be noted:
- There is a lot of money behind and around Guild.
- The Valorant team was specifically signed as the marquee team for Guild; this is the team that is intended to launch a global esports brand.
The stage was hence set.
Well, if nothing else, we’ve had a performance. A warmup run through a couple of the myriad smaller cups that popped up in late October/early November saw them showing decently, but not perfectly; a loss in the final to HSDIRR at Fragleague S5 Cup Nordic, and then a second loss the next day in Nicecactus Fall Trophy #1 to Gambit the next day, threatening to bring Bonk and bonkar’s affinity for finishing 2nd to memetic status (three times in Ignition including G2’s event, and as much as eight straight depending on what events one chooses to add in); there were certainly bright spots (especially from Leo), but bonkar even by his standards struggled to make a personal impact, while both teams held up as well as anyone has against Yacine’s aggression.
Now, onto the qualifier. If you’re completely unfamiliar with the format:
Essentially, you have four open qualifiers feeding into two closed qualifiers (i.e. one each). In essence, you have pseudo-double elimination for getting into each closed qualifier. The way that the seeding was done causes some issues with that as you’ll see later, but on paper, it’s simple enough.
Guild came into the first open qualifier with the #4 seed overall (G2 #1, FPX #2, SUMN #3, Team Liquid #5); not the best, but one that would ultimately have seen them up against Liquid with bracket advantage in the final qualifier if all went according to plan, with top seeding for the next go around if the worst came to the worst.
They proceeded to lose their very first match against one of the lowest seeds in the entire tournament.
So, to be fair here: this wasn’t an ordinary bottom seed. MJAOMODE were/are the latest iteration of Finnish Overwatch legend Taimou’s attempts to build a team in Valorant, and featured a respectable stable of EU and CIS tier-3 players; not a team that should do much against a team like Guild on paper, but not a gaggle of barely-eligible players who have never played outside of ranked in their lives, either.
MJAOMODE showed up well, with otom — probably the least-known of the five, but with a little buzz behind him (like every other breakout AWPer) from the pub circuit — having a field day against an uncertain draken.
Guild, it should be said, were not helped by the extremely questionable choice to put Yacine on Breach; while Yacine’s own numbers were good, and the resultant comp was on paper fine (indeed, it was a mirror match for comps), Guild were utterly unable to put together any attacking rhythm with Yacine on such an un-Yacine agent, and Guild in the end lost a 6 (6!!!) OT clash to drop out of the first qualifier immediately, with practically the entire EU community crowding into Taimou’s stream chat to watch it happen.
So far, Guild’s screwup. The problem for them is what came next — they were bumped down to the second qualifier, the effective loser’s bracket for all intens and purposes. They were top seed there, and coasted fairly easily into the closed qualifier, but the damage was already done.
Why? This is how the closed qualifier worked in practice:
1) 32 teams in the closed qualifier — 16 from qualifier 1, 16 from qualifier 2.
2) These teams play out, in single-elimination, for 4 spots in the main event.
3) The teams from qualifier 1 are ranked #1-#16. The teams from qualifier 2 are ranked #17-#32.
4) The first two rounds of the qualifier are Bo1; only the third and final round is Bo3.
If you aren’t seeing the problem yet, let me spell it out for you: this is what the top quarter of that bracket looks like.
The problem is that if a team loses in the first qualifier, and comes into the second qualifier as top seed, they are guaranteed the very top team from the first qualifier in the second round in a Bo1. They come in as the #17 seed (despite almost certainly being a far better team than the #16 seed, and probably better than half of the teams that got through, such is the nature of Bo1).
So, by losing that single Bo1, Guild (the previous #5 seed) are now locked in, should they qualify, to play G2 (the #1 seed). Unless you are confident to a very high degree that all top teams will make it through Bo1s normally, this has the potential to create very stacked brackets, which is precisely what happened here:
So, naturally enough, with the odds overwhelmingly against them, Guild proceed to get destroyed by G-wait.
This is huge. Admittedly, G2 at this event were visibly no longer as far ahead of the field as they had been previously, but this was the first time that G2 had lost a series in a knockout tournament. What’s more, while G2 had dropped maps before (particularly against FPX), this was the first map they had ever dropped against Bonk/Guild, after two straight shutouts in finals; 0–5 had become 1–5. The Summoning Salt victory music was playing
And then, it wasn’t.
What happened? This happened:
I’ll try to state what happened here as simply and neutrally as possible: there was an interaction between Sage wall and Killjoy turret that allowed for boosts, like the one seen there, beyond what Riot intended. This was a known bug going into the qualifier (it had been in the game since patch 1.06 in August), but guidance on whether or not specific interactions (certain bugs with Sova, certain placements of Killjoy grenades that obscure their visibility, etc.) were allowed was vague, and while consensus tended to point towards the above boost being palpably unfair, it was non-unanimous even up to the highest levels of the community.
After the Guild win, due to enquiries both related and unrelated to the Guild game, the admins loooked into it, and took the decision the next morning to hand Guild a straight DQ. The reaction to the verdict was, in public and scene opinion, mixed.
There. In any case: Guild were out of the first closed qualifier, in just about the most painful way possible (it has to matter far less re: prospective punishment than I think people understand, but it should be noted that they used this on a single round only and got a single kill off it, and hence would have won without it). Had they not been DQed, they would have played NiP (a team that they had beaten twice before in Bo3s) for a spot in the main event; they would have been favoured to get through.
So, back to the drawing board. Guild came back next week, played the open qualifier — now as #1 seed themselves, given that all four top seeds (G2, FPX, SUMN, Liquid) had already qualified — and coasted through with remarkable consistency — 13–1, 13–8, 13–1, 13–3. 13 rounds given up across 4 maps; for context, G2 gave up 18 across 3, and FPX gave up 19. No fuss, no mess, no Yacine Breach — this is a team that just wanted to get to the closed qualifier and do it all again
But remember what we said about the #1 seed, and the potential for stacked brackets? Well, it happened again. While they may have gotten through, the qualifier around them was a bloodbath at the top end (with 4 of the top 8 teams failing first time around), and one team in particular failed to get through: the new #3 seed, nolpenki.
You may know the name from Ignition, so to start with, let’s make it clear: not really the same team asides from the captain (vakk). The all-Lithuanian lineup that shocked the world in July went their separate ways in August, and a new lineup built around vakk, star Turkish AWPer cNed, and emerging hot prospect zeek (formerly of all-Polish THOSE GUYS) coalesced, picking up JESMUND (ex-2G4L among others) and then Aron from Bonk as their fifth.
This should be made clear: nolpenki were by most accounts a top-10 team in Europe coming into First Strike. While they hadn’t quite shown the consistency of a SUMN against tier-2 opponents to really put them up there, they ultimately won far more than they lost, and had a couple of statement wins in those smaller tournaments.
Like Guild in the first closed qualifier, the upset (to BIG) guaranteed that they would be #17 seed, and like Guild, they would face the #1 seed (Guild) in the second Bo1 should they get through.
And, like Guild, they pulled it off — by the skin of their teeth, but they pulled it off.
It should be said: nobody outside of these two teams saw this game. In fact, because of the (‘interesting’) policy for EU First Strike with regards to streaming, almost the entire world has barely gotten to see any of this entire event. We’ve had precisely two games streamed, and both through PoVs on the other side — the MJAOMODE loss, and the G2 win. We’ve seen the absolute highs, and the absolute lows, and absolutely nothing in between, and even then, through the eyes of their enemies only.
In any case, just like that, Guild are out. It’s over. Without even getting to play a Bo3. A bunch of oddities that added up to being one of the most crazy and convoluted ways to crash out of a qualifier ever.
In a way, it feels appropriate. Over the last year, the story of NiP/Bonk/Guild has been one of the most fascinating in the scene, violently lurching from high to low to high to low to high again. It almost feels like a team that’s destined to have a link to every single possible narrative that emerges in the EU scene — a thread that someone weaves through every single story. This is just a team that, cosmically, is incapable of doing anything in a straightforward way.
So, maybe there’s some weird justice in the fact that they won’t go through to an online First Strike event that’s just a boring ol’ single-elim bracket, that probably won’t be promoted as much as it really should be, and that at the end of the day is explicitly just precursor to the big push that will be the 2021 season.
Maybe. I’m sure everyone involved would violently disagree. But, at least they’ve got a hell of a story.