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24 hours 'til War: Inside an NAL relegation match

This is what gearing up for a relegation match looks like.

24 hours 'til War: Inside an NAL relegation match

LAS VEGAS - There isn’t anything necessarily unique about XSET’s house itself. It’s nestled next to normal Vegas upper-class suburban flora and fauna: Minor manors with boxy, modern looks in muted beiges and grays line the streets — expensive sports cars with bright colors dot the driveways. 

Dec. 11: One day to go

It’s 11 AM on Saturday, Dec. 11, there’s a five map six-six scrim block set up for an hour and a half for now. An Uber Eats or some food delivery app worker brings Nathan “nvK” Valenti a shake as I walk to the door. The pool hasn’t been used in a bit, but that’s because it’s finally cold in Las Vegas and it hasn’t been working right recently.

It is the amalgamation of every “house tour” video, the trope of the “financially wealthy gamer” that every major media outlet likes to gawk at once every six months before turning its gaze to other things that make your parents mad. In this industry, it’s normal.

The interior isn’t filled out, the space makes the house itself loom large, an overhead balcony appears 10 feet above where it is. There’s a lone dining table that only seats four, a couple of couches strewn about the place. Sam “Jarvis” Jarvis, who sits on a couch facing mine, tells me they just haven’t had the time to fill it out, but they will once the relegation match is over.

Ostensibly, XSET is living the dream. They compete in Rainbow Six Siege for a living, they’re paid well, there’s a roof over their heads that’s paid for by the team. They play on LAN, there’s enough money in their salary to spend some on frivolous, fun things. Today, and the past month have come with some added stress, to say the least. 

Tomorrow, XSET will play in relegations: a best of five, winners stay in the NAL, losers are effectively kicked out of town, relegated right there on the stage. 

If the pressure is getting to Jarvis, it isn’t showing. He’s chipper, lively, chatting about everything they want to accomplish next year – surviving relegations is implied. Later in the day, he admits that continuing to make plans for the future helped him not feel the sheer stress of playing a relegation game. 

XSET has had a month, an unnaturally long month when waiting for something like this, to sit, stew, think about tomorrow’s match. They pass the time by scrimmaging and reviewing. Keeping their heads buried in their work and craft, in general, has helped keep their minds off the looming match. 

“We're not stressed,” Jarvis said. “And I think that comes from like, if you feel prepared, you're not going to have that crazy stress, anxiety.”

He later refines what he means by saying “there’s a healthy amount of anxiety.” It’s 12:30, time for scrims. The team files into their workroom, where they warm-up for the day. 

Motivational slogans are emblazoned on a whiteboard, along with other various quotes and formulas for effective communication. XSET has a block of five maps to scrim today, around five hours for last, final refinements before it’s game day. 

Keys clack like hornets buzz after the players file in, silently, one by one. Poetically, the temperature in the room is sweltering — it’s quite literally around 10 to 15 degrees hotter than the rest of the house. It’s either profoundly hot or chillingly cold, and since it’s near impossible to perform in the cold, hot it is. Callouts are short and precise, just the way they’re drilled to be. Hints of normal Siege frustration and exasperation don’t truly seep through the “media is here, best behavior time” veil until map four — the appearance of readiness is there. 

The room functions as a literal and metaphorical pressure cooker. The people inside know the magnitude of what’s coming, even if they don’t say it out loud. They’re confident, but there’s some reasonable level of stress. There’s a real possibility that they’ll lose, and their futures will be up in the air. 

“I’ve not thought about what we do if we lose,” Jarvis says, in response to a question of the same manner. He believes the month has been good for XSET’s game, and they’re ready for Parabellum. 

Out of all the Challenger League teams that could’ve made it to this game, Parabellum is undoubtedly the favorite among that group to knock out a NAL team. They’re the CL darlings, the plucky, punchy Canadian-majority team that fought their way to the SI 2021 main stage and knocked out G2. They’re regimented, smart, aggressive within reason, they don’t play like a stereotypically crazy CL team. 

Jarvis knows this isn’t going to be easy — he thinks XSET has improved, but there’s the overall record, the raw data to consider. 

The Stage 3 NAL standings.

With all the stages considered, XSET had the least points of any NAL team. More pertinently, they finished ninth in NAL Stage 3 – worst in the league – and as a consequence, they now have to play for their jobs. Only beastcoast lost more rounds over the year.

XSET has been cycling through players all year for a myriad of reasons, and they’ve played some downright awful Siege at times. There’s a very committed, terminally online group of fans that believe that they’re doomed beyond a shadow of a doubt – a sentiment that’s shared by some players. 

Subjectively, XSET has improved throughout Stage 3. They’ve played top teams close – but fell short the majority of close games. It’s been the story of their stage, close but no cigar. 

The scrim ends a map early. XSET only gets four maps of warmup and prep — it will have to suffice. It’s 24 hours until go time, nothing left to do but find a distraction until then. To borrow a redneck proverb: the hay’s in the barn. Games are won in the days and weeks leading up to them. 

The NA Finals are on. Spacestation and DarkZero are playing. No one on social media speaks of any other team but Parabellum – the relegation match is the main event. 

“We know we're going against a high caliber team – for CL. Like I don't see it as like, we're playing a top-four Pro League team. I see it as we're playing like 7-8-9 slash first or second CL: like that little pocket of like playstyle and ability,” said Jarvis.

With SI so close, the NA Finals themselves aren’t too terribly important in the grand scheme of the circuit. It’s gameday, best of three reps for the top four teams, and the winner is the best team in the region, but international success is the real prize for top teams. 

For five hours, give or take, the HyperX Esports Arena is the fictional Thunderdome, it is the main attraction. Two teams enter, one team leaves. One team will get a wisp of job security, a hope of locking in their career for another year—or gaining it in Parabellum’s case. The other team is gone, relegated.

There’s a chance XSET stays around for a bit if they lose, the NA Open Qualifier for SI is next weekend. Some of these players might get snapped up by other teams, or be impressed into coaching. They might join a CL team. The stakes could not be higher: win, and keep your job.

This weekend will crown the NA champion, the best team in the region. The relegation match is more important, and a more appealing narrative draw. 

Dec. 12: game day

It’s the day of the match, Dec 12, and nothing much has changed in XSET’s corner. They’re confident – even if the public sentiment isn’t overwhelmingly in their favor. 

Parabellum is playing with plot armor. There are parents of Parabellum players in the stadium – brought along to watch their sons take a shot at the highest tier of Rainbow Six Siege. They’re the CL darlings, and XSET is not – for most vocal Siege fans, XSET is the punching bag, the butt of a good number of jokes. The pre-show analyst desk picks wholly against XSET. XSET aren’t slouches – but it’s pretty clear that history to some degree, as well as popular sentiment, aren’t in their favor. 

On the day of the match, there’s no specific routine the team holistically has, but Jarvis says they’ve considered something to that effect in the past. Christian “Prod” Gauch is eating two fried eggs and sausage. Tim “Creators” Humpherys is periodically taking swigs of coffee. COO Marco Mereu is in the house – rallying the troops for the war to come. The only regimented, unified things are their red and black jerseys and shooting sleeves. 

The mood is chipper, but the air still feels heavier. It feels like gravity has increased, even if it isn’t explicitly acknowledged. For the most part, the players aren’t considering that this could effectively be it for this team. It’s a smart psychological tactic. 

“I feel like the pressure’s mostly on them,” said Prod. “...They have to prove that they're better than us and deserve our spot.”

“It's definitely mindset though,” chimed in Creators. “Because, like that's one path. And it's like, you know, in the position that we’re at, we have to fight to prove that we're worthy of the spot too.”

One by one, the team files into their living room. Someone turns on the NAL grand finals – Soniqs are up 3-0 on the first map of the series against DarkZero. They’ll go on to win the match, a great result, but not what most will be watching for. A gray bus pulls up to the front of their house at around 1:40 PM PT. Their match is scheduled to begin around 4 PM PT. They’ll get in a warmup scrim at the venue. No press are allowed at the venue due to COVID-19 complications – the arrival of the bus happens as I exit. 

The board is set, the players are ready. The only thing left to do is begin. 

Parabellum started on the back foot…for the first two rounds. After that, they ripped off four rounds in a row. Then they took the map. “​​[Siege] is like if you're down four-two after the half and then you go down five-two, it's like fucking red alert mode,” Jarvis said on Saturday. 

According to XSET’s analyst, Drew “DrewSpark” Spark-Whitworth in a message sent after the match concluded, XSET expected Chalet and Coastline early and emphasized starting fast. They just “couldn’t get into gear,” according to DrewSpark. 

Then Parabellum took the second map. Every map was pushed to the regulation limit or overtime – but the result was the same on map three. It was close, but XSET lost. They’re out, 3-0. Heads in hands, exhausted. Parabellum players hug their parents and their team.

The result was more or less exactly in line with how XSET’s games have come over the past months. They couldn’t get crucial rounds over the line, something would go awry at the worst possible time. 

“This series and our entire stage 3 has been frustrating, small margins in score lines as a result of our own inconsistencies have made the difference between securing our NAL future and losing matches like tonight,” DrewSpark said.

The future’s unclear for XSET. The North American League has sat at nine teams for a year – and rumors are swirling that a tenth will be added at some point in the future. For now, that’s all they are, though: rumors, conjecture, reading tea leaves and pig entrails. 

For now, they’re out of the NAL – the frustrating year is over. The normal “GGs” tweets are sent. Tomorrow is a new day, and for XSET, there’s truly no telling where it’ll take them.