How Riot Games is gunning for its second big esport with Valorant

Riot Games spent a decade building League of Legends into a huge esports phenomenon. And with the first-person shooter game Valorant, the company hopes that it now has a second big game to grow its esports business.

The game sprang from the company’s 10th-anniversary announcement a year ago, when the company disclosed 10 games and other projects in a bid to transform it from being just a League of Legends company. As Riot Games itself said, the “s” in Riot Games is no longer a joke, and the company is making moves to be a big player in multiple esports genres.

Esports hit some bumps with the shutdown of physical events in big arenas, but gamers have embraced watching esports events in online-only formats. Valorant was born in this world, formally launching in June with a record 34 million hours viewed by spectators in a single day, including a peak of 1.7 million concurrent viewers, according to Riot Games. During its beta period earlier in the year, an average of three million players logged on each day. Fans watched more than 470 million hours of Valorant on closed-beta streams on Twitch and the Korean video-streaming service AfreecaTV, where Riot courted influencers.

Taking on Counter-Strike

This month, Riot staged the first big online-only esports tournament for Valorant in an event dubbed First Strike. We interviewed a number of parties about Valorant’s potential to become the next big thing. Some of them said that Riot targeted Valorant squarely at Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive game, one of the strongest and oldest esports titles. Valve had left itself vulnerable, they said, by being slow to upgrade the game, slow to work with the community, and complacent when it came to investing in the esports audience.

If Valorant catches hold, it will help the company attract more non-endemic sponsors, or those that aren’t rooted in the game industry. Riot has been attracting big mainstream brands such as Mastercard, Louis Vuitton, Mercedes-Benz, Red Bull, Axe, Alienware, State Farm, Secretlab, and Oppo. And while Riot has to invest and lose money for a while to establish Valorant, sponsors like that will help the esports become profitable more quickly. The big advantage that Riot has is that it has learned so much from its heavy investments in League of Legends over a decade.

Riot’s leaders are hopeful that Valorant will turn into a long-term esport. “In the early stages of Valorant esports, we’ve already received interest and engaged with multiple blue-chip partners,” said Matt Archambault, head of esports partnerships and business development for Riot in North America, in an email to GamesBeat. “For our first-ever First Strike tournament, we secured sponsorships with Amazon Prime and Prime Gaming, Verizon, Red Bull, JBL, SecretLab, and Playzilla. Each partner was outstanding to work with and is indicative of the high quality of partnerships we anticipate Valorant will attract for years to come.”

Above: Matt Archambault of Riot Games.

Esports teams and clubs, as well as tournament organizers, are also positioning themselves to be on the ground floor of Valorant, Archambault said.

“It’s impossible to talk about Valorant without talking about Counter-Strike,” TSM (formerly known as Team SoloMid) coach Tailored said in an interview with GamesBeat. “Counter-Strike is one of the best esports in the world because it was made to be competitive, it was made to be watchable by the general public. Even if you don’t know how to play the game, you can understand what’s happening. The difference is that Riot has such a deep connection with its community. And they put in years and years of effort to make this more family-friendly, more player-friendly, and organization friendly. So they’re taking their skills and learned experience from the League of Legends franchise and putting it towards a format that they know works.”

Tailored added, “I have over 10,000 hours in CS:GO and 20,000 hours in Counter-Strike in general. I think I’ve only opened the game twice since Valorant came out. I was always waiting for a competition for Counter-Strike because I thought it would improve the landscape of Counter-Strike. I wouldn’t say that Valorant killed North American CS:GO. But I would say that North American Counter-Strike has been ravished by not only COVID-19 but longstanding issues in the scene, like tournament organizer issues, gatekeeping by older players, and a lack of interest from Valve in their game.”

Most of the first set of players came from Counter-Strike esports ranks. But Tailored said more of the new ones are younger and fresh to the scene. They like the fact that Valorant is changing at a rapid pace, with new agents coming out all of the time.

“Riot has done such an excellent job of building up these players and storylines, and we’re seeing that already happening,” Tailored said.

He also appreciates that Riot is allowing Valorant to grow organically, with smaller prize pools compared to the huge prizes handed out by Epic Games for the first Fortnite tournaments. Tailored believes the community will grow because a game is good, not because it has the largest prize pools.

Roselle acknowledged there are similarities with Counter-Strike. “We’ve watched a lot of Counter-Strike esports for the past decade or more,” he said. “I’d say the best thing we can do is focus on our own thing and making it as good as it can be. I wouldn’t say we are going head-to-head with Counter-Strike. We’re a lot less concerned with what they’re doing and making the most of what we can.”

Getting the brands as sponsors

Above: Valorant is a 5v5 shooter game.

Of all of Riot’s new games — Legends of Runeterra (card game), Project L (fighting game), Wild Rift (mobile game), Ruined King (RPG console game), and the indie games in Riot Forge — Valorant has been the biggest attention grabber. With the huge success of League of Legends, Riot can easily market its new games to its existing fan base.

And because Riot has credibility with League of Legends, Riot believes it can get brands to bet on Valorant. The game already has entitlement sponsorships of certain in-game plays, such as the Prime Play of the Day, Verizon Agent Select, and Redbull Clutch play.

“Brands are excited to get involved at the foundational pillars of Valorant, a game that many view as the world’s next great esport,” Archambault said. “They see the opportunity to reach a highly engaged audience, and they’ve seen how Valorant has already attracted some of the top professionals and biggest stars. Like us, our current sponsors are incredibly bullish on Valorant’s prospects as an esport — and as the word about Valorant esports and the incredible fan and gameplay experiences spread, we expect that interest will only grow from here.”

Archambault acknowledges that the esports structure for Valorant is at a different stage than League of Legends. While League of Legends has adopted a franchise model, where teams invest money to get a permanent berth at esports competitions, Valorant isn’t there yet.

First Strike event

Above: First Strike was the first major Valorant esports tournament.

Whalen Roselle, senior director of global esports at Riot Games, said in an interview with GamesBeat that the inaugural First Strike event was a big success. Unofficial numbers showed peak viewership at 300,000 and 2 million hours of viewing. “It was our first foray into operating Valorant esports events across the globe, with 18 tournaments over the course of 96 hours,” he said. “The players loved it and the teams and pros gave us great feedback. It was a good step toward the future.”

Planning for the First Strike event began in 2019, well before Valorant launched in the summer of this year. Thousands of teams participated, and that wouldn’t have been possible if the event were entirely focused on in-person events with spectators. Overall, two tournaments had 128 teams each competing, with eight teams qualifying.

“Then COVID hit. And so we had to pivot all of our plans, around April,” Roselle said. “We knew we wanted to kick off with community tournaments and partner tournaments. Then we wrapped up with a series of regional tournaments at the highest level of competition, given the restrictions on travel. We’ve learned that by starting early, you can control what you can control. And that gives you the freedom to address the things that come up inevitably that force you to change your plans. The initial reaction that we received informally was extremely high in terms of viewership. That gives us confidence and we know our fan base is expanding.”

“Riot has been excellent, even during this first event, in working with us on minor issues on major issues,” Tailored said. “They get shit done quickly. I wasn’t too worried about the switch. The opportunities in Counter-Strike were so limited, and this was almost like a relief. A lot of us switched over because we thought the game was going to be more fun.”

Targeting women

Above: Cloud9’s all-female Valorant esports team.

Valorant is also getting a good start with women. That’s an area where esports has faltered in the past, and Riot itself has had a rocky history with accusations of having a sexist culture. The company has addressed that in recent months by bringing in a lot of female leaders, clarifying its policies, and setting itself up with more diversity measures. And it’s making an effort to draw women gamers. Gen.G and Cloud9 esports clubs have both set up all-female Valorant esports teams.

“One of the coolest things about esports and competitive gaming is that, unlike traditional sports, you’re playing with a mouse and keyboard,” Cloud9 senior marketing VP Kristen Salvatore said in an interview with GamesBeat. “It genuinely does not matter who’s behind the game sitting at that keyboard in terms of their physical prowess or their gender or their cultural background. None of that matters. And so there is every reason that this should be a really powerful way to change what people think a team should be.”

A 2019 Newzoo study found women make up 46% of the gaming industry, and Momentum Worldwide reported 29% of esports fans are women. According to WomenInGames.org, 71% of respondents say women aren’t represented enough in esports and gaming. Momentum Worldwide further noted that 62% of female esports fans do not believe brands market to them. Salvatore says for esports to change, some of these stats have to improve.

“That’s one of the things that we really want to lean into more and do whatever we can to incentivize and pave the way for not just women but minorities who might not have been represented as well in esports,” Roselle said. “This is one of the benefits of working closely with the teams so that we can have all-women teams.”

The long run

Above: Valorant debuted in June 2020.

Roselle said Riot plans to have about four big “beats” per year with major Valorant tournaments in 2021. That will include a regional tournament leading up to a Master’s Tournament and a Champions tour.

Having Valorant appear during the pandemic was a big event for esports clubs, Tailored said. “This year could have been really bad for a lot of us,” he said. “It was bad for most people. We feel very lucky and appreciative of our fans and for Riot for not stepping down or backing off as a lot of companies might have. It’s scary going into a new esports. For us, this seems very calculated. The risk is lower knowing it has the backing of Riot and is based loosely on Counter-Strike.”

Riot has had to invest in esports for a long time, well ahead of making profits. League of Legends has begun making money, but Roselle said the company will have to “invest for the long term” with Valorant. At least Valorant will benefit from economies of scale as it taps into the infrastructure for Riot’s League of Legends. Riot will have to communicate where it will spend money with its partners, so they can also figure out where to sink their resources, Roselle said. More important than Riot’s own profitability will be the profits in the ecosystem among the teams and sponsors and other partners.

“It would be great if we can bring more revenue into the scene as a whole for everyone,” Roselle said. “We’re going to have to invest ahead of any kind of profitability.”

But Riot also knows that Valorant will have to stand on its own, and not use League of Legends as a crutch.

“Ultimately, Valorant and League are different games with different audiences and viewing experiences,” Archambault said. “Valorant might better fit the needs of one sponsor over League, and vice versa. Although the ultimate goals might be the same, the way we achieve those goals is not contained within a fixed model, demanding agility and nuance when creating new relationships — and that’s where our decade of experience building and fostering the League of Legends esports scene will come to bear.”

Roselle said that investing in viewing experiences is very important: “We’ll have to work extra hard to beat our viewership numbers in 2021. But it gives us something to shoot for. The initial signals are positive with viewership and fan sentiment, and sponsors coming on board and being excited to invest in the space. First Strike can lead to a lot of positive outcomes, and so it starts a virtuous cycle.”

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