Valorant may not need casual players to become a massive hit

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Game developer Riot’s first major new title in more than a decade, the tactical shooter Valorant, launched on Tuesday with understandable reservation. The understated moment was a tonal far cry from its splashy and successful beta back in April, largely due to ongoing and widespread protests over police brutality in the US and around the world following the death of George Floyd. As a result of the crisis, numerous gaming companies have delayed online events and announcements, many of which were already scheduled in scattershot fashion due to the pandemic. Yet Riot forged ahead.

“Despite the challenges we are facing in the US and across the globe right now, we want you to have the chance to come together and create positive memories in the midst of all that is weighing on us,” wrote Riot CEO Nicolo Laurent in a blog post published earlier this week. “We hope Valorant will be a small bright spot for you during an otherwise dark time.”

That the company went ahead with the Valorant launch may be both a testament to its faith in the long-term success of the game and its belief that the beta launch performed most of the heavy marketing lift it needed to get the product off the ground with the players that matter most to its business: the pros. (That crowd extends, to a lesser extent, to gaming personalities and streamers, many of whom are former pro players.)

Valorant is the first big-budget online multiplayer title of the last few years that bucks the battle royale trend by reviving a pre-PUBG era of competitive gaming. And unlike perhaps its largest contemporary in the competitive gaming space, Blizzard’s 2016 hit Overwatch, Valorant’s pitch rests almost solely in its appeal to older, more traditional PC shooters. While Overwatch was accessible, multi-platform, and sought mainstream appeal through storytelling and worldbuilding, Riot’s shooter is unapologetically hardcore and uninterested in either narrative or casual players. That sets the stage for a fascinating showdown of esports strategies that will test the wisdom of competitive gaming’s most high-profile companies.

Image: Riot Games

Valorant’s history is rooted in games far older than Overwatch. Tactical shooters dominated Western esports in the late 2000s, before the rise of Riot’s mega-hit League of Legends and similar battle arena games made Asia and that particular strategy genre the undeniable center of the esports universe. The pinnacle of the tactical shooter remains 2012’s Counter Strike:Global Offensive, off which almost all of Valorant’s core design is based. CS:GO remains one of the most popular games on the planet, often topping Steam charts and remaining the only game of its kind with a global esports circuit that is still alive and well.

Using CS:GO as a springboard to modernize the genre, Riot has created a derivative but otherwise highly polished game engineered to be a hit. The studio has mixed in elements of the similar but more chic hero shooter genre, led by games like Overwatch and Apex Legends, by giving its distinct playable characters all unique powers and abilities to use alongside a fairly bland and narrow slate of firearms. It then bound it all together into a free-to-play product that Riot hopes will become a competitive esport, a massive money maker, and a passive entertainment source for Twitch viewers all rolled into one.

It’s impossible to discuss Valorant as a gaming product without acknowledging the ambitions of its creators and how those ambitions are largely unconcerned with the casual players that will make up a bulk of its fanbase. Because to be a successful esport requires impassioned viewers invested in the pinnacle performance levels players can achieve in the game, and it is unclear right now how many players Valorant can attract and retain given its hardcore nature. But if Riot’s all-in esports approach proves successful, Valorant could become the roadmap from which all future competitive games are designed, marketed, and nurtured over the months and years after their release.

Valorant’s design seems particularly directed toward fostering a professional scene. So while it has all the trappings of any other free-to-play game — like an e-shop for digital goods and a battle pass — it’s not quite right to think of Valorant as just another online multiplayer game you might slot into your rotation and play a little bit here and there for fun. Play is highly organized around team coordination and verbal communication, prioritizing fast reflexes and deep strategic and collaborative playmaking. The game also has an extraordinary high skill ceiling that allows individual talents to shine and an intense, singular game mode with matches that can last close to an hour. (Valorant’s launch did introduce a simpler, shorter mode called Spike Rush that allows for quicker games, but it is far from the primary focus.)

In my experience playing and getting almost uniformly crushed for making rookie mistakes, Valorant is not for the faint of heart. Many of the people who will play this game obsessively — and perhaps spend real money on it and become core fans of its esports circuit — will have to, by default, take it very seriously, regardless of whether they’re capable of ever going pro.

Riot has taken everything it’s learned turning League of Legends into one of the most popular, lucrative, and successful competitive games of the last decade and deployed it here in Valorant, seemingly with the sole intention of creating another mega-hit that can dominate the competitive gaming circuit for years to come. If you’re a young shooter player with the skills to play games for a living, there is likely no better game to focus your attention on right now than Valorant.

That raises some interesting questions for how a property like Valorant grows as both its own slice of gaming culture and as a business. Many games that have become popular esports do so organically, because of their at-the-time unprecedented design and the natural growth that comes with striking gold on a new idea.

But since the launch of Overwatch, a game built from the ground up to be the foundation of a globe-spanning big-budget esports league with aspirations for mainstream recognition, the industry’s biggest studios have become more deliberate and esports-focused in their game development and design. Valorant is the most mature product of that environment to date, readymade for esports and Twitch with a corporate infrastructure so trusted that existing pro players began realigning their careers before it even launched.

But what does Riot’s approach mean for the everyday players, those who know without a doubt they’ll never be good enough to play the game professionally? More importantly, how does the title fit into the broader attention economy in which everything from Fornite to Netflix to Twitter competes for a diminishing amount of our free time? Playing a game you’re terrible at, let alone investing time and energy into its pro scene, is a tougher proposition when there are so many alternative sources competing for our eyes. And while games can become popular esports despite lacking a large fanbase of causal players (Rainbox Six: Siege, for instance), other games’ pro circuits have waned because of a lack of overall interest (Apex Legends comes to mind).

The path Valorant takes over the next six months, and how well it’s received by pros and casual players alike, will offer some answers and a telling portrait of the state of esports in 2020.

Image: Riot Games

Riot achieved record-breaking numbers on Twitch and waves of positive press and influencer attention during the Valorant beta by gaming the streamer ecosystem. The developer gave early access to popular personalities and incentivized viewers to tune in for a chance at receiving a rare beta access key.

But now, a few days after launch, many of those same streamers — who no longer or never did compete in esports — have retreated to their familiar haunts, be it Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Fortnite, or the tried-and-true MOBAs and single-player games that continue to top the Twitch charts. On midday Thursday, two days after launch, Valorant was sitting in eighth place in overall Twitch viewership with a little over 100,000 active viewers.

That might not matter all that much, as the game’s esports community has already coalesced around new teams and a slate of high-profile players poached from existing Overwatch League rosters and other competitive gaming circles. Valorant’s primary pitch is not that it’s a new, unique experience, but rather a fresh coat of paint on a traditional one. Those who will love Valorant either already know it’s their kind of game, because they played CS:GO, or will know after their first match that it’s not for them. It’s a hard game to learn to love, especially if you don’t have a dedicated team to play with and don’t want to invest the amount of time and effort to improve as one would in, say, a serious hobby or a real-world sport.

In that way, Valorant feels like the anti-Overwatch. Blizzard’s team shooter arrived in 2016 as a hyper-polished, player-friendly game with Pixar-like levels of detail in its characters and game world. It became an instant hit because its design and visuals were world class, and its esports ambitions were industry-altering in their scope and the depth of the financial commitments made to kickstart it. For casual players, Overwatch was inviting, attracting even non-shooter players into its world by making all of the characters unique and fun to play and giving even the most thankless jobs on the team moments to shine.

Yet for as much as it initially seemed like a home run across the board, Overwatch was an experiment in community-building that came with inherent risks. Blizzard hoped that by making an esports-ready game more accessible to the mainstream, it would cultivate a legion of fans that didn’t care if they were no good at it or couldn’t compete at its higher levels. That way, those players would stick around, playing casual game modes and consuming new story trailers and the ever-expanding lore (while also spending money on lootboxes and copious merchandise).

When the Overwatch League launched, those players would transform into sports fans organized around local, city-based communities. Even if the overall popularity of the game shrank, the competitive community could keep the entire ecosystem humming along. That strategy has more or less worked, even if OWL is now experiencing a rough patch following the implosion of the Vancouver Titans, high-profile players like Jay “Sinatraa” Won departing to play Valorant, and the complexities of launching Overwatch 2 some time in the next couple of years.

Valorant is trying none of that, so far. Teams are already sprouting up among established esports companies like Gen.g, Sentinels, and T1. And although the specifics have yet to be announced, Riot has given us no reason to believe it will diverge from the vertically integrated method of control it developed for League of Legends, where Riot organizes, records, and broadcasts the biggest and most important tournaments and reaps a lion’s share of the financial rewards. The game also doesn’t really have a story to speak of, although it is trying an Apex Legends-style form of worldbuilding through online trailers. The game is overwhelmingly concerned with competition. Riot does not seem at all interested in even pretending like it is fit for casual play.

As for whether Valorant can make up for a potential lack of mainstream popularity with its esports-first approach, the enduring popularity of CS:GO is a strong precedent in its favor. It suggests Riot could similarly cultivate a sizable, albeit more niche, community of players that follow its pro circuit closely and help keep it healthy and lucrative. Not all of those players may play the game regularly to remain fluent in its more subtle changes, but enough of them might to ensure a CS:GO-level of interest. That will be especially true if the highest-profile pros don’t abandon it for other games or the more lucrative and stress-free life of a streamer.

What is undeniable right now is that Valroant has enormous potential, both for the esports community and for the business of competitive, free-to-play games. Esports remains fresh and ever-evolving, and there is no definitive rulebook as to what one game can do to become a popular product and a highly-watched sport at the same time. Some games, like battle royale titles, can at first seem exhilarating to both play and watch, but over time the sheen of the trend has worn off and the copycats have become derivative and exhausting. Team shooters can be a blast to play, but sometimes boring or chaotic to watch. MOBAs require colossal play time investment to even comprehend what you’re watching in the first place.

With Valorant, Riot is reviving a simple but deep shooter genre that is easy to understand and watch but often punishing to play yourself, and it’s hoping the world’s most talented players will become invested enough to turn it into the next League of Legends. It’s a big bet, and the pay off will prove whether Riot can become one of the industry’s legendary hitmakers.

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