By Hugo Blair, Gaming Editor
For the past two decades, the competitive scene surrounding tactical team-based shooters has effectively been dominated by Valve’s Counter Strike series. Tournaments have been held featuring games in the series since the original game released way back at the turn of the millennium, and the release of Counter Strike: Global Offense in 2012 along with the concurrent rise of streaming services such as Twitch, and the esports industry in general, cemented the game’s place as the top dog in the genre. Though its competitive scene faced difficulties along the way, such as a fracturing of the player-base and the introduction of controversial updates, the scene surrounding the game remains strong to this day. I need only point to the PGL Major planned for October of this year which boasts a prize pool of two million dollars.
However, if anyone were to steal the limelight from Valve it would be Riot. Known for the extremely popular MOBA League of Legends, Riot is no stranger to creating competitive video games, and fostering competitive esports communities within those games. The League of Legends World Championship is one of the most prestigious esports tournaments in the world, and has featured some of the biggest players and biggest prize pools in the history of the sport. Excitement thus ensued in the Summer of 2020, when Counter Strike finally met its first real opposition with the launch of Valorant, Riot’s free-to-play team-based tactical shooter. Unsurprisingly, the game was an instant success, as even before release the company had partnered with Twitch to create an aggressive marketing campaign that had seemingly the entire gaming scene clambering to gain access to the game’s closed beta.
What attracted players to the game was not just the novelty of a new game in the genre, but also the changes Riot had made to the formula in the name of both accessibility and intense competition. In Counter Strike, players can purchase different weapons as well as items such as armour, smoke grenades, flash grenades, and molotovs/incendiary grenades at the beginning of each round. Much of the strategy comes from appropriate use of these items, as the player’s character has no special abilities beyond their item selection. In Valorant, however, at the beginning of each game players must choose a unique agent from a cast of fifteen, each of whom boasts a kit of special abilities. Each round, the character’s abilities must be bought in addition to purchasing weapons and armour. These abilities include the mundane which wouldn’t seem out of place in Counter Strike, such as different smokes from Jett, Omen, Viper, Cypher and Brimstone which are functionally equivalent to the smoke grenades seen in CS. Most abilities, however, are strong tools which can have a major impact on the game, such as Sova’s recon bolt which can reveal enemies behind walls, or Sage’s healing orb which can restore wounded allies’ health. The latter is particularly interesting as there is no method of recovering health in CS, making any damage taken more important. Additionally, each agent has a unique ultimate ability that can be used periodically to drastically swing a fight in their favour. Make no mistake, while Valorant is very much a competitor to Counter Strike, it is by no means a carbon copy.
Another major difference between the two titles is their esports scenes. Counter Strike’s scene has developed organically over the past two decades, if indeed rapidly from launch, as the game was always designed to be played competitively. With Valorant, however, Riot took things a step further by designing the game from the ground up such that it is especially accessible to players new to the genre and yet could foster an intense competitive scene, and by committing to provide their full support to make that scene a reality. With years of experience from League of Legends esports under their belt, they were poised to create a new titan.
Valorant’s esports scene began even before the game’s official launch, during the closed beta, with the migration of many ex-Counter Strike pro players to the game, such as TenZ, Shroud, AZK, swag, n0thing, and fRoD. Players saw Riot’s entry as a major threat to the CS scene, believing it had the potential to eclipse Counter Strike in popularity, and so opted to make the switch sooner rather than later. However, it wasn’t just Counter Strike players who wanted in on the action. Many professional players from a wide range of FPS titles saw potential in the game and announced they would be changing focus to the new title.
Almost immediately, online tournaments began to crop up, many functioning on an invitation only basis. Invites were extended to high-profile professional players from other fps titles, and even to players from the League of Legends scene. The ESPN Invitational was one such early tournament, and featured 7 teams composed of pros from CS:GO, Fortnite, League of Legends, PUBG, Apex Legends, Rainbow 6: Siege, and Overwatch, as well as a team of Valorant developers. In what many saw as an upset, the team composed of Apex Legends players took home the win, showing that perhaps CS players would not have as much of an advantage as many had previously thought.
Off the back of such invitational tournaments, many large esports organisations announced the formation of Valorant teams, and raced to scoop up as many promising players as possible. Major orgs such as G2, Team Liquid, Fnatic, Cloud9, Dignitas, TSM and many more all announced rosters, demonstrating just how seriously the esports industry was taking Riot’s new venture. Of course, Riot themselves also had a role to play in the genesis of Valorant’s esports scene. At the beginning of June, the company announced the Ignition Series, a program in which select tournaments would be spotlighted by Riot each week, both in order to draw attention to the players and build recognition for the teams. Riot would also promote the events through their own channels, and provide detailed schedules to allow fans to easily follow the action. The European G2 Invitational and Rage Valorant Japan Invitational were the first tournaments to feature in the new Ignition ecosystem and both were a great success, once again highlighting Valorant esports’ continued upward trend in popularity.
Following on from the Ignition series, Riot announced its first series of in-house tournaments which ran from October to December: Valorant First Strike. This was the scene’s first truly global series, comprised of a series of qualifier events, each leading to a regional final that would see one team crowned champion of their respective region, be it Europe, North America, Latin America, Oceania, Japan or elsewhere. The First Strike tournaments were also the first to feature Riot-backed prize pools with 100 Thieves, the North American regional champions, pocketing the lion’s share of the $100,000 pot.
As the First Strike series drew to a close at the tail end of 2020, Riot once again revealed in what direction the future of Valorant esports would head with the announcement of the Valorant Champions Tour. Even greater in size than the First Strike series, the planned year long tournament would feature three levels of competition: Challengers, Masters, and Champions. Challenger events would be regional, similar to what was seen with the First Strike series, and act as qualifiers for Masters. The Master’s series themselves would occur 3 times over the course of 2021, and pit the best teams in a region against one another to accrue points in order to qualify for the Champion’s event. Valorant Champions would feature the top 16 teams in the world, so that one may ultimately be crowned the best of the best.
As 2021 has progressed the Valorant Championship series has proven to be an immense success thus far, with the Master’s finals just recently wrapping up. Riot’s ability to develop a strong competitive scene during the Covid-19 pandemic, when international flights and in person LAN events have been impossible has demonstrated the resilience of both the Valorant community and the wider esports community in general. In a time when many other industries are feeling the pressure, Valorant esports has seen continuous growth in popularity and commercial success. Riot has had no difficulties in securing sponsorship for events, and fostering a community that are hungry to see what developments will come next. Great strides have been made in developing sustainable tournament series that prioritise the wellbeing of their players by incorporating off-seasons, and in promoting diversity within the community by encouraging the formation of elite women’s teams and tournaments. Valorant may very well represent our first glimpse into what the next decade of esports holds, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.