Riot Games' foray into the first-person shooter genre officially launched Tuesday with VALORANT going live worldwide on a staggered release across 11 regions.
The ESPN Esports staff spent the entire beta -- and a part of VALORANT's alpha period -- testing out the title and watching as Riot attempted to tailor its test run to pro players and more casual fans alike.
With months of work on the game in mind, here's what we expect from VALORANT, both today and going into the game's future as an esport and otherwise.
What is VALORANT's greatest strength as an esport?
Jacob Wolf: I'm going to take the cop-out answer here and say there are two really great things VALORANT has going for it.
First off, it's made by Riot Games, the same company that developed League of Legends, the most successful esport in the world. The margin of success between League and even the other top esports games, such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2, is massive, and that success has led to League receiving more business deals and eyeballs than any other esports title.
VALORANT being developed by Riot gives it a huge advantage, and that's why you see esports organizations making absurd bets -- in the totals of million dollars of team salaries already -- before the game even launches.
Second of all, VALORANT has nothing holding it back from commercial success. I love Counter-Strike, but I've spoken to TV executives, advertisers and other high-profile businesspersons over the years, and something that has held Counter-Strike back from certain parts of commercial success is its gore and subject matter: Terrorists and Counter-Terrorists as the offensive and defensive teams, the use of bombs, etc. You get the point.
VALORANT is similar to Counter-Strike in some ways, but those things are renamed or much less prominent ("spike," "attackers," "defenders"). That will lead VALORANT to get into some doors that Counter-Strike sadly never will.
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Arda Ocal: The fact that it's made by Riot Games and it has the possibility of being a globally accepted first-person shooter. Riot knows how to win in esports. The developer has built the most successful leagues in the world with one title, and there's nothing stopping it from being a juggernaut in FPS games, too.
It'd be a different conversation if the game stunk, of course, but it doesn't.
VALORANT is a fun game to play that, with a little bit of observer mode tweaking, will also be fun to watch. League of Legends is a game that is revered in all corners of the world; no FPS truly has that same worldwide strength, and VALORANT has the potential to be that.
Put all of that together, and you have a recipe for success.
Tyler Erzberger: While the easy answer here would just be to say "Riot Games, creator of far and away the biggest esport in the world with League of Legends," I'll go with the game's immense skill ceiling.
When the VALORANT beta first dropped two months ago, a clip of popular Twitch streamer and former Overwatch Leaguer Félix "xQc" Lengyel went semi-viral when he used Raze's satchels to perform a double jump into an elimination. Those once-astounding plays are standard ones that even a low-level Raze player can pull off in the game now, with the best Raze specialists whizzing around the map with her mobility like they've been using the agent for years.
VALORANT needs to separate itself from other shooters to succeed as an esport, and I believe in Riot's focus on the artistic freedom and tools the game gives players to create these mind-blowing plays with the crisp gunplay as a foundation. If VALORANT tries to beat Counter-Strike at being Counter-Strike, it's going to lose every single time. This game's philosophy and tagline is "defy the limits," and if properly executed, that is VALORANT'S greatest strength as a future esport: the ability to produce jaw-dropping clips that will make viewers come back for more.
Emily Rand: This is really difficult to judge since VALORANT is not an esport yet. I agree a lot with what my colleagues have already said, but I want to add to the Riot Games point that VALORANT's greatest strength honestly could be Tencent.
Tencent is a majority owner of Riot Games, and that gives Riot a stronger foundation in the Chinese market, which could be the difference-maker between being an esport popular in the West and potentially overtaking any other FPS game in viewership and popularity.
To Jacob's point, a lot of the cosmetic and internal elements that have made networks and major media outlets sometimes shy away from Counter-Strike coverage, despite its popularity and lasting appeal, have all been addressed in VALORANT. VALORANT offers all of the filters necessary not only to not make trouble in the West, but also easily make it past the more strict expectations of the Chinese government. Most major Chinese esports organizations have already picked up or are recruiting VALORANT teams well before the game is even available in China.
Add to this the fact that Tencent can tie VALORANT to one's qq account, and it's an easy slam dunk that could rake in money and viewers around the world for years.
What about VALORANT'S greatest weakness?
Wolf: Prior to launch, the spectator mode has been awful. It's not intuitive like other things in VALORANT, and it's incredibly difficult to work compared to Counter-Strike's or other shooter titles, which are far more fleshed out. Maybe Riot releases something new on launch (lord, I hope they do), but as of right now, it makes VALORANT less than fun to broadcast. For the game to succeed as a viewer experience, it will need to innovate on how you spectate. We've seen developers take way too long to address this issue -- looking at you, Overwatch -- and it hurt the game as an esport significantly.
Ocal: Agreed, spectator mode. It needs work. Give me X-ray, give me a better bird's-eye view, give me those visuals of a team going around a corner onto site with defenders waiting from a wide angle. Give me stats on screen that update in real time. The game needs to be fun to watch.
Erzberger: Yeah, the spectator is spectacularly lacking. I'm positive I'm one of the people who watched the most VALORANT tournaments during the beta, and though I enjoyed a majority of the events I followed, the barebones and lackluster spectator mode made it feel like a chore to watch at times when compared to the likes of a Counter-Strike. Once the spectator mode is overhauled and improved upon, VALORANT's chances of becoming a Tier 1 esport skyrocket.
Also, though I don't believe the developer will go this route, if Riot tries to be too much like Counter-Strike, it will fail in the end. While I'm sure VALORANT will drive away some FPS purists, I think the game needs to find its own identity with agents such as Jett and Raze with wild playmaking potential to go along with the methodical tactical play and shooting that makes Counter-Strike such a great esport to watch.
While there is a vocal group on social media wanting characters like Raze to be nerfed due to their mobility, I welcome it. The more big plays earned by top-notch mechanics, the better for VALORANT in the long run.
Rand: Spectator mode absolutely has to improve. Additionally, I'm concerned with how Riot is going to go about balancing agents. To Tyler's point, the agent abilities are what make VALORANT different than Counter-Strike. However, they're also difficult to balance, especially when certain utility in a tactical shooter is always going to be valued.
For example, outside of Riot gutting Sage completely, I still don't think there's a reason not to have a Sage on your team. She just offers that much utility, and she's the only healer. Whether Riot thinks this is a problem (I personally don't mind that there's a Sage in nearly every comp, but Riot might) or not is going to heavily affect the game itself. Overcompensating to ensure that "all agents are played in competitive" could result in irrelevant agents with only gunplay making the difference (i.e. Counter-Strike).
What is VALORANT's strongest region?
Wolf: Too early to tell, in my opinion. My gut says North America, but there's no guarantee that will last once other countries have broader access to VALORANT and the coronavirus pandemic calms down and allows for young gamers to populate back into PC bangs in South Korea at a normal pace.
We've still seen very little from other strong FPS regions like Brazil, too; they have the game but haven't had it as long as North America and Europe did. Historically, Europe is the dominant region in Counter-Strike, and it might wind up being the No. 1 powerhouse in VALORANT too, but there's too many variables to declare a true winner as of right now.
Ocal: We don't know this yet because we don't have any data from China, for example. Right now North America has the most stars, and Europe has a lot of potential, but this question should really be answered in a few months, when every region has had a chance to grind the game and we see some more standout players emerge.
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Erzberger: If forced to answer, I'd probably guess North America has the strongest teams at the moment, with Europe having the overall stronger region when looking at the player base from top to bottom. Brazil is in an unknown; I need a lot more tournaments to decide where that region stacks up, and from the small amount of high-level play I've seen in South Korea, they have some talented players but are a step or two behind the Western scene as we head into launch.
China, though, is the big mystery. We know storied franchises like EDward Gaming, Royal Never Give Up and LGD Gaming, along with a slew of other, are already picking up players and full rosters, but with the game not even approved in the country just yet, we have no idea how strong any of the Chinese players are or how they'd stack up with the West. If VALORANT is approved and it becomes popular, I have little doubt that China will be a major contender come the first VALORANT world championship, whenever that happens to take place.
Rand: Currently, North America. After a year or so, I see Europe overtaking them due to a stronger PC gaming culture, among other things. I think both South Korea and Brazil will be strong in the future as well. However, as I've already said, if this game manages to be the first FPS since Crossfire to take off in China, the available player base size will automatically make them a strong region.
That being said, I actually hope we have open tournaments as opposed to closed regions. I want to see a world where the top Brazilian VALORANT team can do something similar to Gabriel "Fallen" Toledo's Keyd/KaBuM!/Luminosity team and continue to play against better competition outside their region once they reach the top. I don't particularly like leagues or regional division as a general rule.
Which team do you expect to dominate the competitive scene early on?
Wolf: I think T1 Esports will have a lot of success early on, as they have in some cases already. I believe a lot more in that set of former Counter-Strike pros than the likes of Sentinels, for example, which stylistically come from a bunch of games. I do expect a lot out of whatever team is able to land Adil "ScreaM" Benrlitom and Oscar "mixwell" Cañellas Colocho, assuming they stay together long term. Those two have been the standouts of Europe for me so far.
Ocal: Team SoloMid will be competitive, I like the signing of the five-stack. T1 invested early -- they signed the very first VALORANT pro, Braxton "Brax" Pierce, right out of the gate, and their aggressive moves in the scene will put them in the mix. I'm curious to see how other orgs approach this: What will G2 Esports do, for example? I expect the usual suspects, the ones that found success in the closed beta, to keep winning, but I firmly believe the best team in a year won't be the best team on Day 1. I think a lot will change.
Erzberger: I think the big four in North America when things get going will be Gen.G, Cloud9, TSM, and T1.
While C9 and T1 still need to fill out their full rosters, the trial team C9 ran during the Rivalry Bowl they won looked mighty impressive. T1 have, on paper, the most mechanical talent of any team in the world right now, with their fifth player only needing to be serviceable to make them a powerhouse. I think TSM have great chemistry, and Matthew "Wardell" Yu along with Yassine "Subroza"' Taoufik will be one of the best one-two punch duos in the world for at least the early stages of VALORANT's esports scene. In the case of Gen.G, there really isn't much need to be said: They're the most in-sync team I've seen play VALORANT so far and are universally praised by any player I talk to that has faced them in scrimmages or in ranked play.
Over in Europe, as Jacob mentioned, ScreaM and mixwell will be pioneers for the esports scene, regardless of whichever organizations scoop them up. I also believe in the United Kingdom's Fish123, who were the undoubted kings of the beta over in Europe with their dynamic teamplay and coordination.
Which game will suffer the most from pros leaving to go to VALORANT?
Wolf: Overwatch. The players leaving Counter-Strike for VALORANT are ones whose Counter-Strike's careers were on a downswing anyway. Meanwhile, top Overwatch League players like 2019 MVP Jay "Sinatraa" Won and World Cup standout Corey "Corey" Nigra are dipping out without any hesitation.
Compensation for top Counter-Strike pros is enormous, so there's very little reason to leave. But in Overwatch, the money is smaller in some instances than what some of these teams are paying in VALORANT already, and VALORANT, as Sinatraa and Corey have pointed out, is more fun. Overwatch, even to some top pros, feels stale.
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Ocal: Agreed. Overwatch has been hurt the most. Losing your MVP from the reigning champions midseason is a right hand to the chin. Then, the league lost one of its most mechanically gifted players and one who is universally loved and also an Overwatch World Cup Champion.
While CS:GO is losing players who either have strikes against them or are midtier, the cream of the crop are still playing CS:GO, while it feels like Overwatch could lose a lot more star players in the coming months if there is still a market for it.
Erzberger: I think any esport that suffers from VALORANT wasn't that good of a competitive game to begin with and was never going to last.
Overwatch is the obvious answer, with the league's MVP bailing midseason to join another organization for a game that we don't even know will have a functional spectator mode come launch. Beyond Overwatch, though, while I don't think Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has anything to worry about in terms of viewership against VALORANT, the fact that a large part of the Tier 2 North American Counter-Strike scene is peacing out for Riot's new shooter could be detrimental in the long run for a region that only in the last few years has started to gain a foothold on the global stage.
Rand: I think it's already Overwatch; however, I also agree with my compatriots that this is less on VALORANT and more on Overwatch itself.
This isn't about VALORANT "stealing" pros; it's more about games that have been unable to hold on to their pros in the first place. I actually think this is also apparent in the North American CS players leaving as opposed to the European ones. Europe's CS players are the best in the world, and there's no reason for them to leave the game they love while they're still making money and having fun.
What will VALORANT's competitive landscape look like in five years?
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Wolf: We'll see a lot of new faces who aren't playing right now, because as Tyler has mentioned in the past, the best VALORANT player of all time is probably a teenager in China who's playing League of Legends or Crossfire right now. I'm sure some of the faces we see now will still be around, but I don't believe they'll be the top players in five years.
I also think we'll see Riot be a lot more involved from a first-party tournament or league perspective. Just because VALORANT's esports scene is community-run right now doesn't mean that won't eventually pivot as League of Legends did. In five years' time, I feel we'll already be there.
Ocal: Much, much different. There will be orgs created specifically for VALORANT. There will be new names and faces dominating the scene. We may not see 90% of these players as pros anymore. The Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok of VALORANT hasn't been found yet, the "dynasty" hasn't been found yet. This game might have 50 agents and 12 maps by then, who knows?
Or, maybe VALORANT is a bust and doesn't exist anymore. That could happen, too. But I'd bet on the former before the latter.
Erzberger: In five years, VALORANT will be a Tier 1 esport that has a rabid and fanatical audience but never quite beats out their older brother in League or Legends or overcomes the history and excellence that is Counter-Strike. While I don't see VALORANT ever overcoming CS in the West, if the game does well in Asia (especially China) and can beat out old standbys like Crossfire and Sudden Attack in some of those countries, then maybe, just maybe, it can be the biggest shooting esport in the world.
All I hope is that the first true legendary, homegrown VALORANT star doesn't have a lame ID. Faker is cool. S1mple is cool. Daigo is cool. If the game's megastar is named "BagelDude32" who only speaks in Twitter memes, I might go write about Crossfire instead.
Rand: I fervently hope that it's a healthy competitive scene with multiple international tournaments and a tournament circuit. I understand why this wouldn't happen (money) but in order for a game to be the most competitive it can be, I think all teams from all regions need multiple chances a year to face each other.
The reason why I think it definitely will not be this is because Riot is likely going to take over the VALORANT broadcasts within a year or two as the esports scene develops beyond its infancy. Franchised leagues typically offer more stable salaries and more sponsorship opportunities, so if VALORANT takes off (especially in China) I expect to see something similar to what we see right now in League of Legends.