Earlier this week, Riot crowned its 2023 Valorant champions, Evil Geniuses, who took the title with a 3–1 win over Paper Rex. But what should have been a triumphant moment for Riot esports quickly soured after the news that The Guard, one of the teams that won the right to compete in Valorant’s international tournaments, would not be participating in 2024 — all because of what seems to be an administrative error.
Prior to the 2023 season, Riot restructured the Valorant Champions Tour (VCT), introducing a new promotion system. Teams in one of the three Challengers regions (the lowest tier of competition) would compete to qualify for an Ascension tournament. The winner of each Ascension tournament (one for each Challengers region) would be promoted to its region’s international circuit, qualifying the teams for participation in global events like Masters and Champions tournaments and benefits like a Riot-offered stipend and revenue sharing. Promotion, therefore, is a sought-after and highly competitive prize for organizations and players — not only for the esteem that comes with competing alongside Riot’s handpicked partner teams but also for the financial benefits it conveys.
This year, the three teams that qualified for promotion were Gentle Mates in Europe, Asia Pacific’s Bleed eSports, and The Guard in North America. But in a completely unexpected development, Riot announced that because The Guard failed to agree to the Team Participation Agreement, it would not be participating in the 2024 season.
In a follow-up tweet, head of Valorant esports Leo Faria went into detail about the circumstances leading up to this announcement as well as the reasoning behind Riot’s decision:
Every team that qualified for Ascension signed the Team Participation Agreement prior to the start of the tournament, and signatures were held in escrow. Immediately after the conclusion of Ascension we started the onboarding process with the three winning teams, expecting them to release their signature from escrow to finalize their promotion to the International Leagues. Unfortunately this was never completed by The Guard, and after two months and several follow-ups, we had to make a very hard decision in order to not compromise the start of the season next year.
Perhaps most concerning to outside observers was the fate of The Guard’s players. Many in the Valorant esports community expressed extreme dissatisfaction that the players would be left with nothing to show for their hard work and offered solutions that would allow the players to still compete.
One such solution was to have The Guard’s players still compete together, either as free agents or supported by another esports organization. In his tweet, Faria pushed back against that, saying that because the players competed under The Guard, they do not qualify as free agents. Allowing another organization to pick them up now, after the fact, Faria said, would set a bad precedent, potentially opening a loophole by which organizations could buy and sell franchise slots — a practice Riot does not permit for its Valorant league.
Another remedy would be to promote North America’s Ascension runner-up, M80. That, too, was apparently considered but rejected. “The point of Ascension is to reward performance, and as great and talented as M80 is, qualifying a team that didn’t win the tournament defeats that purpose,” Faria’s tweet read. “Promotion is earned in-game, not out of it.”
After the announcement, The Guard put out its own statement regarding Riot’s decision.
“We are disappointed to arrive at this outcome unexpectedly, but moving forward, we are committed to supporting our competitive team as they look for new opportunities.”
The community was seemingly confused by this statement, wondering how such a decision could happen “unexpectedly.” However, after Riot’s announcement, multiple Guard players tweeted that they found out via social media, leading many to believe that the decision to not participate in the 2024 season had already been made at the highest executive levels and was simply (and callously) not communicated to players and Guard support staff, including its social media team.
It’s worth noting that The Guard, as an organization, has been going through tough times. It is the esports division of Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, which owns multiple traditional and esports teams including the Overwatch League’s Los Angeles Gladiators and the Call of Duty League’s Los Angeles Guerrillas. Earlier this year, The Guard underwent massive layoffs, with reports that most of its staff had been terminated while the organization looked for buyers for its various teams across Apex Legends, Halo, Valorant, Overwatch, and Call of Duty esports.
The Guard isn’t alone in its troubles. Other esports organizations like OpTic and 100 Thieves and esports organizers like Activision Blizzard have experienced similar layoffs amid a general climate of decline that’s seeing the industry’s biggest investors pull out because of soft or nonexistent profits and soaring costs.
It’s a tough time for esports organizations, and the news that The Guard’s Valorant program has all but disintegrated overnight supports the theory that it either found Riot’s terms unacceptable or that it simply wanted out of Valorant esports altogether.
Regardless of why and how this happened, Valorant’s 2024 season will not feature a promoted team from the North American region, devastating fans and players alike. On social media, Guard players expressed their heartbreak.
“I am devastated,” tweeted Guard player Michael “neT” Bernet. “All the hard work and sacrifices we have went through as a team just to have it stripped away from us through Twitter.”
Meanwhile the team’s head coach, Josh “JoshRT” Lee, tweeted at celebrities like Elon Musk, Ben Affleck, and YouTube personality Mr. Beast exhorting them to pick up the roster so the team could still play.
Faria, Riot’s head of Valorant esports, responded to the outpouring of emotion and seemingly offered hope for The Guard’s players. “I appreciate the passion with which you all showed up to advocate on behalf of the players,” he tweeted. “There are still significant risks our team needs to dig into, but we’re working through this and hope to find a positive outcome for the players. We’ll update you all when we know more.”