It’s 9-1. Acend is absolutely demolishing Gambit on Breeze, smothering their attack at every turn. Chat is already saying that it is a GG, how Gambit is washed, and how Acend will be the world Champions. While chat was right about the latter, the first two statements would soon be proven wrong. Gambit manage to win one attack round to take it to 9-2, an all too familiar sight, but still a massive lead.
But then, it happens. A lurk from Nikita "d3ffo" Sudakov and Timofey "Chronicle" Khromov down mid takes out two Acend players. The chaos from the mid player allows the world-renowned lurker Ayaz "nAts" Akhmetshin to sneak onto sight and take out another player. In a matter of four seconds, it goes from a 5v5 to a 5v2, with Acend on the backfoot. Never count out Mehmet Yağız "cNed" İpek, especially when he has knives. He manages to get kill on Igor "Redgar" Vlasov, but gets traded out by D3ffo, who then kills the last Acend player alive. And we arrive at the dreaded half: a 9-3. Suddenly, the sky darkens, thunder rumbles as a curse falls among the players of Acend. Gambit win the first two rounds, then, after an attempt from Acend, go on to win 8 rounds in a row to take the map 11-13.
Like Thanos, the 9-3 curse is inevitable. It is a common story among many in the VALORANT scene, pros and players alike, that the 9-3 curse is an unstoppable will of fate that switches around the momentum of a game. Suddenly, being 6 rounds ahead is not enough, and the winning team suddenly loses an easy game. We even see a video from Tyson "TenZ" Ngo that says “to avoid a 9-3, just lose the round and make it 8-4”.
But is it really the ominous shadow lingering over every 9-3 curse?
Unmasking the 9-3 curse:
For transparency’s sake, I used data going back all the way to Stage 1 from all tournaments that fed into the VALORANT Champions Tour. So Strike Arabia, VALORANT Oceania Tour, VALORANT Conquerors and VCT tournaments. Essentially, if you are on VLR, and you go to the VCT 2021 tournament set, if a tournament was in those pages, I gathered from those. Also, to help my sanity, I only looked through Main Events, not Open Qualifiers. Finally, I only looked at Stage Finals and Masters for each Stage, not any Challengers, again, for sanity’s sake. I still have over 200 games to analyze, so it is a still a massive pool, but these will be inferences on a sample of the data, not the population.
What I looked for was three things:
1. How often did a 9-3 result in a 9-3 curse
2. Was there a disproportionately large amount of 9-3 comebacks relative to other comebacks and
3. Was there some kind of through line between all the 9-3 wins?
If the 9-3 curse is real, then there should be a higher percentage of 9-3 halves resulting in the curse. Similarly, if the 9-3 curse is real, the number of comebacks FROM 9-3 should be disproportionately higher than other comebacks, such as 7-5’s or 8-4’s. Also, if it’s real, there has to be some metric that makes sense as to why.
How often did a 9-3 actually occur?
So in the data that I collected, I found 212 instances in VCT 2021 of a half ending in 9-3. These are spread out over all regions, not really clustered in any one region. In terms of international LAN events, I found instances of a 9-3 half 28 times.
Now, based on how often we hear about the 9-3 curse, and how prevalent it is in the VALORANT culture, what percentage do you think those were actually cursed? If you are thinking 50%, that would be 106 of the games overall, and 14 internationally. Maybe you are more into the curse, and are thinking 75% (159 games overall, and 21 games at international LANs).
Well, you’d be wrong. The grand total of number of 9-3 curses over all of VCT, that I could find, was 25. 25 out of 212, 11.79%. So, to put it another way, if you pulled 100 games, only 11 or 12 would have had comebacks.
And at international events, only five instances of a 9-3 curse appeared, two at Masters 3 Berlin and three at VALORANT Champions. This means only about 17.8% of 9-3 halves resulted in a curse.
So, not even 25% (every 1 in 4 9-3 halves) resulted in a 9-3 curse. Even the tournament that is known as the “9-3” start, Masters 3 Berlin, only had it happen twice, with 10 non-cursed 9-3 halves.
Okay, but maybe the second statement is true.
Are there are more 9-3 comebacks than any other?
If a 7-5 and 8-4 are common halves, but aren’t cursed, then there should be a disproportionately large number of 9-3s to the other two types. This is also false. Just at Champions alone, 8-4 beats out 9-3 in percentage of comebacks, with 26.09% of 8-4 halves resulting in comebacks. It does beat out 7-5 halves, but only by 4% (with 7-5 halves resulting in a comeback 14.29% of the time, compared to the 18.75% of 9-3).
And if we look at the raw numbers, the more rounds a winning team has, the less likely a team has a chance to win the comeback.
As you can see, the pattern is quite clear. This is for all of VCT as well. So, this one is a bust.
Is there a common trait between all 9-3 wins?
In short, no. Every metric that I could use to explain the 9-3, at least on a basic level, could be explained with a comeback happening in general. For example, a team winning a map because the side they switched was one they had an advantage on. This occurred in 20 out of 25 of the 9-3 curse, so about 80%. A lot, but not all of them. And that is a common thread in many comeback scenarios, not just 9-3s.
In addition, if we look at if a map is favored of the team that won (so they switch to attack on an attack sided map, or defense on a defense sided map), that popped up in 19 out of 25 games, so 76%. And, the intersection of both is even lower, with only 62.5% of 9-3 curses occurring with teams moving to a side they prefer and the map favoring them on that side.
Also, winning the first pistol/eco round is not an indicator of a 9-3 curse. There are several instances of teams winning the pistol/eco round but it not resulting in a 9-3 curse. Even if this were true, this logic can also be applied to a normal comeback. If winning pistol/eco rounds was so detrimental to a 9-3, it would be even more powerful for a 7-5 and 8-4.
ACS does not explain it either. Of course a team that loses to a comeback would have significantly lower ACS than the winning team. There is also no through line with ACS in terms of the winning teams: some 9-3’s had a single player who outperformed, others had several players go nuts.
At least for the baseline statistics of map preference, map sidedness, and ACS, nothing explains a 9-3 curse. And anything that could explain 9-3 could just explain a comeback in general. Essentially, a 9-3 comeback is not unique, but we want it to be unique. So why does it feel like it appears so often?
Valorant and Psychology: why the 9-3 curse feels so real
“Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” – Michael Shermer
When the unexplainable happens, we, as humans, are driven to figure out why. There are whole desk segments dedicated to breaking down big plays and momentum shifters in VCT, just to help viewers, analysts and players grasp what has happened. And I feel like that I can use this lens to talk about the 9-3 curse. For the purposes of this article, I will break it into two sections: Synchronicity and Cognitive Distortions.
Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist, nor am I super familiar with the field in general. However, I did read several academic papers on the subject, so I am partially confident in the subject I am discussing. I am NOT an expert in psychology, and there could be nuisances I am missing. So take what I am saying with a grain of salt. I will be putting the academic papers I used down below, if case you want to find them yourself.
Synchronicity: A Viewer Phenomena
Synchronicity is a concept first discussed by German analytical psychologist Carl G. Jung. It refer to a “person's subjective experience that coincidences between events in their mind and the outside world may be causally unrelated to each other yet have some other unknown connection.” (Sacco). This process has been applied to numerous fields, from smartphone communication (Petrocchi) to psychics (Palmer). This process, which is a common thread in the Jung’s line of thinking, is that this is natural process to help humans process strange events (Hogenson).
So, how could a team who was thriving one round get stomped the next? This is where that “9-3” aspect comes into play. During many Stage 3 Challengers and Masters 3 Berlin, there were several crucial matches that were affected by a 9-3 comeback, such as 100 Thieves versus Gambit Esports in Berlin. These were big matches, but also big comebacks, so they would stick in our minds more.
This is where that pattern aspect comes into play. With these games lingering in the mind, it would be really easy to notice that these big comebacks all had 9-3 halves. And so our brain would naturally trend towards a link between comeback and a 9-3 half.
This also plays into the story-telling aspect of the Shermer quote. A story of “a team came back from being down 6 rounds” has some power, but it gets lost in other games with bigger losses or bigger plays. The phrase “9-3 curse” has a gravity to it, it pulls a viewer in. It changes a match from: can they come back from this, to, can they break the 9-3 curse? That is a much more gripping title and a more impactful story to tell.
So, in a sense, a “9-3 curse” isn’t an actual curse, it’s an expectation. It’s the expectation that, given previous experiences, the team that will win will comeback inexplicably.
Negative Cognitions: Living the Curse
Negative Cognitions are a negative distortion of thinking. They commonly appear as low self-esteem or low self-confidence, but can progress farther as depression or self-critical thinking (Fowler). They are typically discussed with more heavy topics, like gambling (Fu) and anxiety (Hakeburg), but I feel as though it can be applied here.
The best way to highlight a Negative Cognition is this simple example: A Positive Cognition says “I am worthy”, but a Negative Cognition says, “I am worthless.” It is a change in thinking, and this change of thinking can negatively impact our mood, how we interact with others and could lead to further mental health issues (Fowler).
A good example of this is shooting in VALORANT. It is a common piece of advice among coaches and VOD reviewers to tell someone “if you aren’t confident in a shot, you won’t make it.” Half of making a good shot is thinking you can make it. Thus, a Positive Cognition. Saying you can’t hit a shot messes with your performance. And this can build on itself. If you say you can't make a shot, then you miss, you further the thinking that you can’t hit the important shots. It becomes a cycle of negativity that repeats over and over.
This is where the “9-3 curse”, as a player, comes into play. When someone plays ranked, sees a 9-3 half, and then the “curse” happens, it only supports the notion of there actually being a curse. Thus, when another 9-3 occurs, someone who has experienced it before is more likely to change their thinking in the match. Either one thinks the game is super winnable since the enemy is cursed, or they think a game is losable, thus defeating themselves before the barrier drops on the second half.
Now this is a broad generalization, and it is not probable that pro players fully believe in the “curse”, but it does explain how a myth like the “9-3 curse” continues to perpetuate VALORANT culture. It’s a never-ending cycle. We watch it happen to pros, and experience it in our games, and so it further affects our thinking towards 9-3 halves, which affects our games more, and so on.
A way to connect the two is encompassed best by this line from Warren Colman, “It is we who make the world an archetypal world by virtue of the way our archetypal preconceptions shape the world … At the same time we are equally shaped by the world in myriad ways.”
So is there an evil “9-3” wizard that lurks in the code of VALORANT, sneaking around games to curse the enemy? No, probably not. But thinking that there is a “curse” means we are probably more likely to experience it, sending us down a slippery slope. And so it lives, lurking around in our psyche every time we see it happen.
Colman, Warren. “Reply to Wolfgang Giegerich's ‘a Serious Misunderstanding: Synchronicity and the Generation of Meaning.’” Journal of Analytical Psychology, vol. 57, no. 4, 2012, pp. 512–516., https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5922.2012.01992.x
Fowler, D., et al. “Negative Cognition, Depressed Mood, and Paranoia: A Longitudinal Pathway Analysis Using Structural Equation Modeling.” Schizophrenia Bulletin, vol. 38, no. 5, 2011, pp. 1063–1073., https://doi.org/10.1093/schbul/sbr019
Fu Keung Wong, Daniel, et al. “Negative Mood States or Dysfunctional Cognitions: Their Independent and Interactional Effects in Influencing Severity of Gambling Among Chinese Problem Gamblers in Hong Kong.” Journal of Gambling Studies, 4 Sept. 2017, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10899-017-9714-2
Hakeberg, Magnus, and Ulla Wide. “General and Oral Health Problems among Adults with Focus on Dentally Anxious Individuals.” International Dental Journal, vol. 68, no. 6, 2018, pp. 405–410., https://doi.org/10.1111/idj.12400
Hogenson, George B. “Synchronicity and Moments of Meeting.” Journal of Analytical Psychology, vol. 54, no. 2, 2009, pp. 183–197., https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5922.2009.01769.x
Palmer, John. “PSI AND SYNCHRONICITY: A CONTROLLED COMPARISON.” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 80, no. 4, 2016, pp. 193–213.
Petrocchi, Serena, et al. “‘What You Say and How You Say It’ Matters: An Experimental Evidence of the Role of Synchronicity, Modality, and Message Valence during Smartphone-Mediated Communication.” PLOS ONE, vol. 15, no. 9, 2020, pp. 1–18., https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0237846
Sacco, Robert G. “The Predictability of Synchronicity Experience: Results from a Survey of Jungian Analysts.” International Journal of Psychological Studies, vol. 11, no. 3, 2019, p. 46., https://doi.org/10.5539/ijps.v11n3p46