FEATURE

Crunchy on EXO Clan’s future: “The goal is to go overseas together”

The EXO Clan star is looking towards North America after conquering Oceanic Valorant in First Strike.

Ethan “Crunchy” Laker has grown a lot in the last nine months. He went from a middling CS:GO player in Oceania to the region’s hottest prospect in Valorant. It wasn’t without growing pains, but now the fruits of his labour are finally being reaped, having won First Strike with EXO Clan.

The star aimer and Kovaak’s aficionado flame of love for CS:GO was slowly burning out at the start of 2020. Having bounced from team to team within MDL and the lower leagues without ever really making a break into the top 10, it was hard to stay motivated.

Then Valorant came along. Sure, the story of CS:GO reject turning into a Valorant superstar has been told enough. There’s always a pundit that says “only the bad CS:GO players moved to Valorant because they couldn’t be the best in the better game.”

But, there was something special about Crunchy from the outset. He was a good CS:GO player to reach where he got to, but once he found a game he was truly passionate about, he turned it up to 11. Valorant was that spark he needed to turn into not just a good player, but one of the best.

Since committing to Valorant in the beta, he won the first ever OCE tournament with the OCE.gg Community Cup, joined EXO Clan, and has won another four titles since, including First Strike Oceania.

EXO Clan announced their roster in June of 2020

That most recent title is the biggest, and most important one EXO Clan has ever won. They did it in dominant fashion too. Throughout First Strike Oceania ⁠— including the qualifiers ⁠— they didn’t drop a single map. They didn’t even play a single overtime. They squashed every opponent they came across.

That gave them the confidence to topple Order in the most lopsided victory this long-standing rivalry has seen. Neither team had swept each other before First Strike, however EXO managed to do it 13-5 (Haven), 13-8 (Ascent), 13-9 (Bind).

“Since the Swiss stage, we didn’t even lose in double digits to any team, which is kind of mental. Going into it ⁠— especially after our game against Legacy ⁠— we knew that the finals were going to be a 3-0. Watching Order’s games back, they were looking hella shaky,” Crunchy told Snowball.

“If you compare the two teams, we are so much better”

“They dropped maps to FunCrew and Waterbottle. Waterbottle went out 0-2 in groups ⁠— they were properly slapped around by Legacy and RipNTear. You can kind of see it just by looking at it ⁠— if you compare the two teams, we are so much better.”

There wasn’t a single doubt in their mind. The clairvoyant Bob even foretold it. Order’s attempts to anti-strat EXO Clan were fruitless. Once the game plan was figured out just a few rounds into Haven, it was a cakewalk.

“Bob called pl1xx early on Sunday morning and said ‘we’re winning the finals 3-0’, especially after how the vetos went. They picked Haven, we picked Ascent, they pick Bind ⁠— which is historically our best map as we’ve only lost it once, which was to Order, because I whiffed on a 5HP Texta. We prepared a lot for it, and it clearly paid off,” he added.

“We expected everything they did, and there were no surprises. There were no wrenches thrown into our game plan, it was just so smooth.”

EXO’s road to becoming Oceania’s number one

Crunchy has, in his eyes, set out and achieved what he wanted in OCE Valorant ⁠— to be the best. There is no doubt in his mind. Despite having traded titles with Order since the game’s inception, the First Strike victory was dominant enough to warrant putting EXO on a level of their own.

“It was different with MEX because we beat them 2-1 in the playoffs and then lost the final in five maps, where every map went to overtime or max rounds. It was super close ⁠— yeah they were better, but the gap was miniscule. Here, Iyen had a rough day, and we still clapped them 3-0. There’s a big gap now,” he said.

“It’s really cool because we started the year getting absolutely embarrassed by Order in the first Ignition Series. They went absolutely flawless in that tournament, and it feels good to give it back to them at the end of the year.”

Part of Crunchy’s growth has actually been a regression ⁠— in some sense. He started out as the star player on the Bumbleboys roster, using his fresh aim to selfishly play Reyna and drop 30 every game. 

That didn’t work when he joined EXO. Stuck on Brimstone and Omen, he was still trying to frag out while being the support player. The selfish style of play was costing EXO games, and Crunchy knew he had to change. He himself admitted he was addicted to posting the best stats ⁠— the headshot percentage farmer. 

“All of my stats have gone down recently, but I’ve come to terms that I’m a support player, and I need to make sure that pl1xx and Dizzy pop off. My performance on the scoreboard has gotten worse, but theirs has gotten better, and I’ve gotten better as a role player. I don’t use smokes or flashes for myself, I use them all for my teammates,” he stated.

“I can now bring more value to a team. When I started, I wanted to be the star player, I was a Reyna one-trick. I think I was f**king good with that, but with EXO, I struggled a lot at the start playing Brimstone. I didn’t know how to be a support player, and that was a really big learning curve. It sucked, but we got there, and things are coming together. I’m a better player than I was earlier, I’m just measuring it differently.”

He also jumped to the defense of Bob. While some tout Bob’s MVP status as a meme in the community, Crunchy firmly believes he has the potential to become one of the best players in the world.

“Bob is like that as well. I’ve seen a lot of people criticize Bob, and it seems really unreasonable to do so. He uses all of his utility for his team mates. He doesn’t care about his own performance, he just gets us the dub. Bob’s Sova is easily top three world, and his Breach is unrivalled. Just compare how Bob uses Breach compared to anyone else in this region and it’s not even close. He puts everyone else to shame.”

Becoming world-class ⁠— with or without EXO

EXO wants to test that theory. The next step for Oceania’s best is overseas. With the region being looped into North America for the Valorant Champions Tour in 2021, that’s where their eyes are set.

Crunchy signed with talent agency Evolved in November to get more overseas opportunities. They’re coming in thick and fast now, but he’s stuck in a predicament. EXO want to stay together, but how feasible that is remains to be seen.

“Evolved have helped so much. There’s been a lot of potential offers that I’ve received. They’re helping me individually to try and get me over to NA, and if possible, get EXO over as a five-man. The end goal is for all of us to go overseas together because I feel like we could do really well against the NA teams,” he said. 

“It’d be a dream come true. We’re at the point where we are the longest standing roster in Oceanic Valorant. We’ve built up so much chemistry, we can just transfer all our systems, we know how to play off each other and bring out the best. We’re a lot better as a five than we are as individuals. We can really make sure everyone pops off.”

It’s not just NA Oceania’s number one has their eyes on. They want to prove their mettle against Asia’s best, Europe’s best, and ultimately show off what Oceania has to offer against the world’s best. 

Without the prospect of an international LAN, and only online events to go off, it’s hard to definitely say where EXO actually stacks up. That doesn’t they don’t have the confidence to say they belong alongside some of the greats like Vision Strikers and 100 Thieves.

“It’s hard with the eye test. You can watch all of these teams, but you don’t know until you play them. From the eye test ⁠— big asterisk ⁠— I think we’d slap SEA, we’d slap most Japanese teams. Vision Strikers ⁠— they’re really good tactically, but they lack individually. It would be a sick game between us and Vision Strikers, and I really want to play them, because if we win, it’d mean we’re the best from this side of the world,” he said.

“As for NA, we could definitely be a top eight team. Our style works really well against NA. We play heavy retake and NA players play heavy on site. They’ll dump all their utility and then have nothing for post-plant. After a while over there, we could be a top four team.”

However, as time goes on, the chances EXO Clan get will dwindle. There is a definite resource gap that Crunchy admits will kill the region in the long-term. However, while the game is still in its infancy, Oceania has the strats to take down at least one region ⁠— even if it’s just a game of rock-paper-scissors.

“We just don’t know. I feel like at this point one region’s meta might just counter another region’s. NA might beat EU, KR beats NA, EU beats KR. It’s rock-paper-scissors. I don’t think there’ll be one best meta. It’ll change with every patch with all the new agents every two months, and different teams will have their own unique styles.

“I think we have a pretty good understanding of the meta, at least for now. As time goes on though, our chance of performing with the big regions dwindles. For now, we have a solid chance.”

Moving on with no regrets

The CS:GO player Crunchy lacked the drive and the confidence to break into the top echelons of Oceania. The Valorant player Crunchy is a totally different person. While CS was his life for years, the pivot is the best decision he’s ever made in his eyes.

“I’m happy I made the switch. I love the game so much more than CS:GO. I’m very grateful to my old CS:GO team for teaching me so much, but I think Valorant is so much better. The amount of opportunity for creative play and innovate the meta. It’s a real opportunity to set the way the rest of Oceania players now that we’re at the top. I’m very glad that I did it,” he admitted.

What sort of experimentation Crunchy wants to show remains to be seen. Unfortunately for most, we didn’t get to see them play Icebox. Apparently pl1xx was going to pull out his seventh unique agent pick for it, and EXO were confident they would smash Order on it.

But even on the maps they do play, teams are playing suboptimally. Crutch characters like Jett, Omen, and to a lesser extent now Cypher have stagnated the meta. Now that there’s a break in competition, we might see some proper theory crafting, and EXO is leading the charge.

“I don’t think teams were trying to innovate, they were just refining what they have now and playing the current meta.”

“I don’t think teams are experimenting enough. I think Omen’s good, and he’s very versatile, but on certain maps like Bind, Brimstone is god-tier. The threat of a Brimstone ultimate means you can’t play in U-Hall, and that’s the strongest position. Viper is also really good and can f**k with people’s heads a lot,” Crunchy stated.

“Now that we have this lull in competition until the new year, we will start seeing a lot more innovation. I don’t think teams were trying to innovate, they were just refining what they have now and playing the current meta. They might have a pocket pick like Sage, but there’s no wildly different comp. Now there’s time to really flesh things out.” 

I said in the sub-title that there were no regrets. That’s not entirely right. There are two Crunchy has. “Not killing Texta when he was 5HP in that 1v2 on Bind. That’s probably the only one because we could have gotten Bob a new PC and he could have streamed,” was his joke answer. His serious answer was a bit more sinister.

“The whole getting banned thing in the Oceanic Valorant Open ⁠— that was a nightmare. I thought I would have to stop playing. I’m very grateful to Inveigh because I didn’t know how much he was doing until I heard about it, and all the guys that dealt with the programs that it could have been like Kovaak were super helpful. They did a lot of work for me.”

Stopping playing was the last thing Oceania’s brightest rising star of Valorant wanted to do. But six months on from that, and nine months on from making the switch,

Crunchy is destined to turn Valorant esports’ eyes on Australia ⁠— with EXO or not.

ProducerJosh Swift
Andrew Amos
After joining Snowball in mid-2018, Andrew "Ducky" Amos has fast become one of our region's best esports writers. Cutting his teeth in Oceanic Overwatch, he now covers all kinds of esports for publications globally. However, his heart still lays at home, telling the story of Aussies trying to make it big.