Note: This feature was first published on 18 May 2020.
Riot Games is Riot Game no longer. The longstanding joke, brought about by the fact that the developer has long had League of Legends as its only game, is being upended in a big way, with the announcement of titles like digital collectible card game Legends of Runeterra and tactical shooter Valorant.
But for fans of first-person shooters, and pros looking for the next esports sensation in which to showcase their talents, Valorant is the far more intriguing title. The game is still in closed beta for now, but it's already managed to set new records and attract top players from titles that have been around for far longer. For starters, its limited closed beta launch in early April saw Valorant break the record for "single-day hours watched in a single game category", with 34 million hours on the clock. At the same time, Valorant also hit a peak concurrent viewer total of 1.7 million, second only to the 2019 League of Legends World Championship. To say that people are excited about the game would seem like something of an understatement.
These could all just be signs of a successful game. However, there's good reason to believe that Valorant will be successful not just as a fun shooter, but as the next first-person shooter with a massive competitive scene and robust tournament infrastructure. Here's why.
Riot Games needs no introduction. The developer of League of Legends is behind what is literally the most popular esport on the planet, and it has built a healthy and thriving tournament structure around it. Riot hosts the League of Legends World Championship every year, in addition to regional leagues, and it has seen compelling and emotional storylines play out on the big stage. Everyone who has their eye on Valorant is clearly thinking that one day it could enjoy similar support and success, even if Riot said in April that Valorant won't mirror League of Legends for now, preferring instead to take a slightly more hands-off approach and let the community evolve by itself.
Nevertheless, Riot Games is an esports juggernaut, and it is largely responsible for giving esports much of the newfound legitimacy it enjoys today, thanks to the sheer scale of League of Legends. Last year, The Washington Post described the game as the "Super Bowl of esports", clear testament to the game's now entrenched position in the mainstream.
Unlike Fortnite, or even Overwatch, which both have mechanics that might appeal more to casual players, Valorant was created to be played competitively. Valorant developers count former Counter-Strike pros among their ranks, and Riot has gone on record as saying that they want to "build an esport worthy of your lifelong attention and interest". And given the state of League of Legends today, which is still thriving despite being released way back in 2009, there's no better company to do that than Riot.
In fact, Valorant's developers have even said that it might be too competitive for casual players to enjoy. At the moment, Whalen "Magus" Rozelle, Senior Director of Global Esports at Riot, says that the company will focus on forming partnerships with players, content creators, tournament organisers, and developers. Its goal is to build an esports ecosystem for Valorant and let the community grow naturally, which doesn't seem like a bad idea considering how new Valorant is.
Riot has set out some Community Competition Guidelines to help guide organisers, expressly carving out a space for even amateur tournaments. That's a positive sign, as a healthy amateur scene is integral to funnelling talent into the highest levels of competition.
Many first-person shooters suffer from something called peeker's advantage. This refers to a scenario where you're holding an angle and waiting for the enemy, but when they appear, you're the one that loses the fight. This is because of the internet infrastructure built around the game. They prioritise the experience of the shooter, who then gains a slight edge because of the time it takes for the game's server to relay information to you.
This can be a nuisance to casual players, but for the pros, it could decide the match and the championship. Valorant was designed with speed and stability in mind, and its commitment to the best possible experience for elite players is what has been attracting streamers and pros in droves.
Valorant uses 128-tick servers, which means that the game's servers process information 128 times per second. In comparison, Valve's Counter-Strike: Global Offensive servers are 64-tick (FACEIT and ESEA servers are 128-tick), while Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has been tested to have an average tick rate of just over 60Hz for standard 6v6 lobbies (this drops to around 22 packets per second to the client in Ground War). Do you die behind cover or feel like some of your shots aren't registering? That could be due to the low tick rate of the game you're playing.
Valorant's high tick rate servers mean greater precision for players, fewer shots not registering, and also decreased peeker's advantage. It should create a better and more responsive experience overall, and fewer complaints of lag, assuming that players' internet connections and PCs are up to snuff.
The stagnating esports scene of titles like Overwatch, Fortnite, and Apex Legends is also working to Valorant's benefit. In late April, the reigning MVP of Overwatch, Jay "sinatraa" Won, announced that he was ditching his US$150,000-a-year deal with the San Francisco Shock to sign with the Sentinels as a Valorant streamer and pro player. The optics of this are terrible – the San Francisco Shock are the defending champions of the Overwatch League, and their star player just up and left mid-season, for a game that is still in closed beta.
Team Liquid Fortnite player Jake "Poach" Brumleve is also switching to Valorant, citing Epic Games' lack of communication with the competitive community and questionable decisions with regard to Fortnite's esports scene. In a telling statement, Poach said that he didn't really enjoy playing Fortnite competitively, because he didn't feel that the game was very competitive.
Major esports organisations are also announcing competitive rosters for Valorant. Cloud9, T1 and Gen.G have already signed players, with T1's line-up featuring Braxton "Brax" Pierce. The player is best known for his success on North American CS:GO team iBUYPOWER, before being banned by Valve in a match-fixing scandal. One of Apex Legends' biggest streamers, Brandon "Ace" Winn, also announced on stream that he was "done with Apex" – he's now listed as part of the Valorant roster for NRG Esports.
These organisations are taking a huge risk by moving early and locking players in with lucrative contracts, but these decisions speak to the vast confidence that the esports scene has in Valorant's future. No one can say for sure where Valorant is headed, but with Riot's backing and the growing enthusiasm of top organisations and players and tournaments organised by the likes of Twitch, ESPN, and T1, Riot's tactical shooter looks headed for lush pastures.