ZETA DIVISION’s long walk through VCT Masters: “We’ve proved everyone wrong”

ZETA DIVISION Valorant player Laz walks off stage in full lightLance Skundrich/Riot Games

After OpTic Gaming defeated ZETA DIVISION in the lower bracket final, the Japanese side’s coach Hibiki ‘XQQ’ Motoyama left his seat in the coaching area near the stage and walked at a slow pace to his team.

He visited ZETA’s emotional and tactical leader Koji ‘Laz’ Ushida amid the purple light show put on for the winning side. In one cutaway on the Valorant Champions Tour broadcast, Laz can be seen with his head in his hands and eyes shut as tight as possible, fighting back tears.

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Even though they were down 2-0 before going into the map, losing was not something they were thinking about.

ZETA DIVSION huddle on the Valorant Masters stage.Lance Skundrich/Riot Games
ZETA DIVSION placed third at VCT Masters.

After his short walk to his team, a few paces from the players, XQQ got his players in a huddle on stage.

“Until the very last round of the matches, my teammates and I, we all knew and we all were feeling that we could win this tournament,” XQQ said in a post-match press conference. “So we were holding on to that, but as soon as it was over, we knew that it was over.

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“All I could say was ‘thank you’ to all the teammates for the hard work and because they had had no rest up until this point, so I just went up to them and said ‘thank you’ for the great work.”

A long walk that turned into a sprint

XQQ’s proximity to his players on stage, and every other coach in the top four portion of the tournament, was a new feature.

Each coach and staff member was moved into what looked like the basement of the event’s studio for the group stage and the early parts of the playoffs.

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In ZETA DIVISION’s first loss, the walk from the basement to the stage was slow. Defeat has a bitter taste, especially when the stakes are as high as a Masters level tournament, and XQQ had tasted it before.

ZETA DIVSION's head coach XQQ on stageColin Young-Wolff/Riot Games
XQQ helped rebuild the team after their disastrous 2021 international showing.

“I felt regret and helplessness,” XQQ had said after ZETA DIVISION left Masters Berlin in last place in 2021.

After ZETA DIVISION won their domestic VCT circuit and qualifier for Reykjavík, the team made a promise to shoot for the trophy — even with Japan’s bleak history at international events and the odds stacked against them.

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“I believe that the best way to compete at an international LAN is to give it our all and fight without regrets, so at least I would not like to feel any regrets this time,” he said before the tournament started.

The road to fulfilling that promise started with a win against a hobbled Fnatic squad. After the historic win, ZETA’s first on an international stage, XQQ wanted to be with his team as fast as possible.

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He sauntered through the dark hallway just outside the coaching area and took the first set of stairs at a trot, skipping steps, before going into a jog. He passed by workers and backstage equipment before hitting another set of stairs, and eventually made it to the stage.

XQQ greeted the team with what would eventually become ZETA’s rallying cry, “Nice!” and fist-bumped Laz.

That first win seemed to lift a weight off of the players’ shoulders as they were no longer afraid of not reaching what they considered the bare minimum out of their trip across the world.

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From there, ZETA qualified for the playoff stage, and XQQ once again made the sprint from the dungeon of the Icelandic venue, this time announcing his entrance on the stage and making the run in time to join the team’s victory huddle.

“The moment we won, I was able to put down my headphones, looked at my shoelaces so they’re not coming off and I made sure that I was safe, and ran,” he said. “But this time the running felt so short for me.”

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Coaching from the stage

After ZETA went into the lower bracket of the playoff stage, that run became less necessary as the team finished their celebrations before their coach could join them.

“With every win I’m breaking my record in the time that I arrive on stage,” XQQ said. “But at the same time, their celebration is getting shorter and shorter.”

ZETA would eventually find themselves in the lower bracket semi-final against Paper Rex, after moving past Team Liquid and Korean side DRX, a team ZETA considers one of their biggest rivals.

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ZETA's Laz air fist bumping his teammate.Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games
Laz helped led ZETA DIVISION from the group stage to top three.

With the world, and most of Japan, looking at them, ZETA DIVISION went into the game with the same plan they had every game before: play their game and adapt to the opponent. But this time, they had their coach sitting not too far away.

“I was just very happy because being so close and being able to look at the players’ faces we can share a lot of emotions together, whether that’s happiness or sadness,” XQQ said.

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“In terms of distance, I was just thankful to not have to rush to the stage.”

The emotions against Paper Rex ended on the joyful side as they took the match 2-1. At this point, a viewing party had been set up in Japan to let ZETA’s fans watch their team make history on the world stage.

#ZETAWIN even began trending on Twitter in Japan, closely followed by #ZEATWIN — a typo of the original hashtag, as their hometown fans showed their support online even though the time difference had them watching ZETA in the early hours of the morning.

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“It really gives me power to fly and I just want to say thank you to all of you,” ZETA’s Yuma ‘Dep’ Hashimoto said to the fans at the watch party and at home after their win over Paper Rex.

ZETA DIVISION would end their journey shortly afterwards as they were swept out by OpTic, but their time on the international stage was well earned and well fought. While the silverware may have eventually gone to OpTic, the Japanese team took home the hearts of Valorant fans everywhere.

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“I’m really happy to say that we’ve proved everyone’s expectations wrong, thinking that Japan is a weak region,” Laz said after ZETA lost to OpTic. “And we have grown so much as a region to prove this.”