FEATURE

Swerl on his Valorant ambition: “I want to be top 2 in Australia by the end of 2021”

The 16-year-old Mindfreak star has a long way to go in Valorant, but he’s already lived through adversity enough.

Ali “Swerl” Kobraee has gone from no name to one of Oceania’s most hyped Valorant players in 12 months. All it took was one chance with Dire Wolves. Now, the 16-year-old has his sights set on playing overseas.

Swerl’s journey to here hasn’t been an easy one ⁠— especially comparatively to his peers. Kobraee grew up in war-torn Iran, moving to Australia at age 5 before starting to pursue his gaming dream at 10.

Gaming had always had a hold in his life. It was a rock while he grew up in the peak of the 2009 protests. However, he’s the first to admit that he had it lucky while over there.

“Growing up in Iran was okay, I was born in a sweet spot where the community protests were dying down and Iran was generally becoming more safe. During my time in Iran I watched my brother play games. We’d also go to our nephew’s house and they’d play CS 1.5 and 1.6,” he said.

His early years were molded by Counter-Strike, Quake, and Fortnite. Then, at the start of 2020, he stumbled onto Valorant. It’s a new chapter in his short book for now, but he’s now mature enough to string it into his defining masterpiece.

Getting a new start through Valorant

Valorant is a game that Swerl has flip-flopped on well before it was released. That’s not an uncommon trait for Kobraee ⁠— he’s jumped between the competitive scenes of more games than you can count, despite only being 16.

He’s played Quake seriously. He tried to make it in Counter-Strike numerous times, starting at 10 and racking up over 5,000 hours. He made money off of Fortnite in the early days. Before Valorant was already released, he resolved himself into playing it ⁠— and quitting before even getting his hands on the game.

“I remember when that little trailer thing came out ⁠— it was the Project A teaser video ⁠— that’s the first time I saw the game, and I thought that looks cool. And then the real trailer came out, and I said this game was terrible,” he laughed.

“I held off really hard from playing Valorant, but I started playing a week before the beta ended. I was so bored of Quake and not striving to do anything, so I started having dreams about Valorant. Put a stream on when I went to sleep, woke up, had a code, and started playing.”

“I’ve had multiple Valorant dreams. It was the early-on stages. I just watched streams and Shroud playing it and I was like ‘wow, this game actually looks pretty cool.’ The art design, the playstyle of the game was just new. It had the Counter-Strike 5v5-esque feel, but with a twist.”

It’s those commitments issues that Swerl was worried would block him from ever seeing any success in Valorant. However, now older and a bit more mature from those early CS:GO days, the timing worked out perfectly. He turned 16 just before the start of the Ignition Series, and that gave him his entry into the scene.”

“I was thinking how I f***ed up about quitting Counter-Strike. Watching back my videos from then, I definitely could have done something in Counter-Strike if I wasn’t such an immature dog in the community. 

“When Valorant came out, I was 15, I thought it would take a year for tournaments to start up, and I was correct. 8 days after I turned 16, the Ignition Series started.”

He joined the original Dire Wolves roster, which was one of the most diverse in Valorant. Each player practically came from different games, save for Noah “Nozz” McLafferty and Dale “Signed” Tang, both Overwatch pros. Swerl was just a ranked God at the time, but the duo took a chance on him. 

While it may not have paid off in terms of results for the Dire Wolves roster ⁠— outside of their Order Oceanic Valorant Open Top 6, the roster underperformed and disbanded after three months ⁠— it gave Kobraee the motivation to keep pushing.

“Playing with people from different games was interesting. Taxx [from CS:GO] knew the way to practice. Signed, Nozz, and AVRL from Overwatch were really into studying the game and the analytics, because Overwatch is more about learning about how to play against your opponents and learning your mains. Wryce was a shot in the dark [from Paladins] like I was too. That was a good aspect of the Dire Wolves team ⁠— the diversity.”

“I think Signed can go very, very far. I look up to Signed, he’s very experienced and he’s a close friend. He’s very smart in game, very talented with his aim, and he’s an all-round great player. He’s in the top 5 best players in Oceania.”

However, there’s two key people Swerl has had to win over: His parents. While they were initially skeptical about their son pushing to become a pro, once the money started coming in, they quickly changed their minds.

“I’ve been pursuing this esports thing for a really long time. I’ve been trying to get my parents to believe in it, because they’re old and they don’t really believe you can make money from playing games.

“When I started playing Fortnite and made $4,000 before I quit, that’s when they realized making money from games was a thing, and they started supporting me. They want me to go to school and graduate and go to university, but they’re still supportive.”

It comes with a harsh schedule ⁠— Swerl gets home from school at 5:30pm, streams as much as he can, scrims until 10pm, goes to sleep, and repeats. There’s not much time for study, but he’s getting by fine at school. Plus, some of his teachers are at least aware of his antics ⁠— for better or worse.

“It was on the downlow when I was going really hard at Counter-Strike in Year 7 and 8, but when I went ‘pro’ in Fortnite, pretty much all my friends knew, and then they told their friends, and then the whole school knew. Valorant is more closed circle. If my teachers called me Swerl though, it’d be a bit odd,” he said.

“Well, my P.E. teacher calls me Swerl ⁠— he’s secretly in my Twitch chat every day I guess,” he added, laughing.

Becoming more than just a pro player

Kobraee didn’t get to lift any trophies in 2020. However, his consistency did reward him somewhat. He was one of a few players to make the finals of both Ignition Series events and First Strike. He finished Top 8 in every event he played, with his worst placing coming at the MEX Invitational on Mindfreak.

When you compare the start of the year to the end, Swerl has come a long way.

“Half of the year was just me doing nothing and playing Quake, and the other half was me being really productive; watching VODs, playing with a team in scrims, and learning Valorant. For my age, getting Top 6 [in OVO] and Top 4 [in First Strike] was a big achievement for me. I don’t think there’s another person my age doing this.”

He had to build that consistency up though. Dashing in and out of games never allowed him to get up to that top echelon. There’s still a long way to go, but he’s committed, and he’s got his schedule.

“I personally think that there are players that are better than me or sharper than me, but if I’m feeling myself I can be very good. If it’s a cursed day though, everything just falls apart. Only recently have I started playing consistently. It feels really good, hopping on, and playing consistent, instead of having on days and off days,” he said.

“Consistency in your life schedule definitely helps out in game. Having good sleep, eating good foods, going to the gym and exercising are all important.”

It’s not just consistency in his play. It’s flexibility. Swerl has played everything from Jett to Omen, and even some Raze and Reyna. He’s been the Mr. Fix-It for Mindfreak, who underwent an identity crisis after losing SkitzMACHINE early in 2020. While Signed is the star AWPer, Swerl’s aggressive playstyle has earned him a rep in the community.

“I have a different style of play compared to any other Omen. I play him more like a duelist than an actual support character. I set myself up for things. Characters like Jett and Reyna are better for me because I can do these aggressive peaks and get away with it.”

“I went on Jett for a week, but now I’m back on the entry frag as a second duelist like Reyna, Raze, or Omen. My OP isn’t strong,” he laughed.

He’s not just solidifying his reputation as a pro player though. He’s focusing on building a brand for himself too. Swerl has taken up full-time streaming over the break, and is planning on continuing it despite his pro commitments and his studies.

“I think streaming is one of the parts of building a brand. Things like YouTube have way more reach ⁠— doing daily uploads and series. It helps connect your fanbase. When I started doing series on YouTube, I was getting 6-7 viewers on stream. Now I get like 30 viewers, it’s crazy.

“Building a brand really helps going overseas too. You have something more than just being a pro player ⁠— you can bring in impressions and eyes on the org, which opens up on brand deals.”

Finding a future despite Oceania’s curse

Swerl’s juggling of streaming, pro play, and school isn’t a mindless grind. He has the goal of making it overseas. The only thing stopping him is his age ⁠— both a blessing and a curse. However, he just has to hope that the Oceanic scene doesn’t die before his career really gets off the ground.

“I wish. I’d drop Australia and just run to NA every day of the week. That’s my goal when I turn 18 is to just move to NA,” he said.

“I have faith until the end of this year. If nothing happens at the end of this year, I’m going to cry. I’ll go full content if the stream is doing well, and that’ll give me time to study at school. I can balance those two things out.”

His love for the game is too much to drop it entirely, but he’d had to give up his biggest esports dream of playing on LAN. From small beginnings it might not be too much to ask for, but a perfect storm has stopped him from ever making that a reality in Valorant so far.

“I have always wanted to play on LAN. I remember when I played Counter-Strike my dream was just to go to a LAN and watch people play, and have a chance to go on stage. I did that once at IEM Sydney, but I want to compete at one now.”

Of course, with Valorant Champions in sight in December, one lucky Oceanic team could make it through the NA Last Chance Qualifier. With EXO Clan moving overseas, it might be Swerl’s Mindfreak that fills the void. Time with the world’s best on LAN would be a gem, especially for a 16-year-old. That’s experience beyond your age you cannot get otherwise.

While he wants to play against the likes of KOLER (ex-NRG), WARDELL (TSM), and Vision Strikers, the ultimate goal of Swerl’s is to just make what he can, while he can, with Valorant. He’s got the headstart on age. It’s just what he makes of it. Until he finally breaks through ⁠— both the age barrier, the content one, and the pro player one ⁠— he’s going to keep grinding.

“I want to be top 2 in Australia by the end of 2021, and I want my content to be consistent on this daily schedule. I’m praying that people come and watch me, but until then, I can only do my best.”

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.