Riot’s new video game, Valorant, is both a breath of fresh air and completely unoriginal at the same time. The first-person shooter opened its closed beta on Tuesday to gargantuan Twitch viewership, thanks in part to Riot’s deal with the platform that let popular streamers gift access keys to its beta while they played the game live.
After watching many hours of the game and playing quite a few myself, it’s clear that Valorant is a hyper-competitive game catering to perhaps a small slice of the overall gaming community. (Right now, it’s only on PC, with no plans for a console release.) But that doesn’t matter, because it already seems quite likely to be the next big esports sensation, despite its hardcore nature and the fact that it borrows almost every single component of its design from previous competitive titles.
That’s partly because Valorant, even in its beta form, is arriving at a crucial moment for the competitive gaming scene. Much of the esports world revolves around multiplayer online battle arenas, or MOBAs, like Valve’s Dota 2 and Riot’s own megahit League of Legends. There are peripheral esports communities, like the fighting game community and those that surround individual games like Psyonix’s Rocket League, that exist as niche subcultures within the broader esports field, but MOBAs reign supreme.
Only games made by companies with immense resources like Activision Blizzard with the Call of Duty League and Overwatch League and Epic Games with Fortnite have dared to try to buy a seat at the table through unique league structures, high-production values, and massive prize pools.
There is, however, one big exception: Counter-Strike. Arguably the tactical team-based shooter from which Valorant borrows almost all of its structure, Counter-Strike has remained the one competitive FPS resilient to the ever-changing industry and still inexplicably popular all around the world. Counter-Strike has a global fan base that Call of Duty lacks, and it still ranks it as among the top-played games on Steam and the most-watched titles on Twitch, despite its release nearly eight years ago. Right now, more than 1 million people are playing the game on Steam, making it almost as popular on PC than the next four top games combined.
That’s precisely why Valorant seems primed for success. Simply put, the game combines character-specific superpowers heavily influenced by Overwatch with a tense, high-intensity tactical shooter model more or less carbon-copied from Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Riot is attempting to build a modern Counter-Strike, one that appeals to a generation of MOBA fans that grew up on the idea of honing your skill as a specific hero with unique powers and an ultimate ability to use in crucial, match-defining moments.
Going from the early reception on Twitch, Valorant is getting that recipe right in a way that might pull big streamers and pro players away from other games. The game broke Twitch’s record for most-watched game in a single day, with 34 million hours watched. And the game’s peak concurrent viewership of 1.7 million people was second only to the 2019 League of Legends World Championship.
There’s another factor that could contribute to the game’s success: Valorant is not a battle royale game. Riot is bucking the trend that’s taken the gaming industry by storm for the last three years or so by releasing a tactical shooter. Since the release of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds in early 2017, BR games have consumed the shooter market. Fortnite is one of the most dominant games on the planet across all platforms, while a number of competitors have popped up to try to capitalize on Epic’s moneymaking potential, like Respawn’s Apex Legends and Activision’s Call of Duty: Warzone. But we’re also experiencing a bit of BR fatigue, as the initial excitement of the genre fades and its esports potential has proved hit-or-miss.
Valorant is stepping in to offer an alternative, one with a more traditional, team-based and skill-based approach that hardcore shooter fans seem receptive to because it removes all of the luck and randomness of the BR genre. In the handful of games I played in the beta yesterday, I was shocked at how meticulous and slow-moving the game is. Each match demands one team plant a bomb and protect it, while the other tries to defuse it. You have just one life per round. When one team wipes the other completely, which happens often, the round ends early — unless the bomb was planted, and then it must be defused.
The team that wins 13 rounds first wins the entire match. And in my experience, that can take upward of 30 to 40 minutes if you’re going up against a squad well-matched with yours. The hero abilities, while they’ve earned Valorant a lot of comparisons to Overwatch, are not as critical as I thought. Having superhuman aim and reflexes, combined with the ability to predict the opponent’s actions and communicate and collaborate with your teammates will largely determine your level of success. Learning how to use the various weapons you can buy at the start of each round — also a feature borrowed from Counter-Strike — will determine how deadly you can be.
The powers are just there to shake things up and, in my estimation, give people moments of glory that they can brag about online and share on social media, similar to how a well-timed Overwatch ultimate activation can earn you the coveted play of the game highlight in Blizzard’s team shooter. Some are quite fun to use, like Jett’s updraft jump and tailwind dash abilities. And Sova, the Hanzo-like bowman Riot uses for the game’s tutorial, has some fantastic benefits, like allowing you to see enemies through walls and even strike them down with his hunter’s fury ultimate.
But at the end of the day, any other player can take you down with a headshot at basically any moment, rendering any powers pretty much moot. In my Valorant matches, I found myself getting punished routinely for stupid mistakes, like peeking around a corner when I was unsure if an enemy was already doing so or forgetting to walk quietly while using the shift key to dampen the sound of my footsteps. Charging into a situation alone will get you killed almost immediately nine times out of 10. Forgetting to play the objective and getting caught up in small firefights will also put your team at a disadvantage as the timer starts ticking down closer to zero.
Valorant is, above all else, a tactical game that requires you to communicate with your teammates to succeed and demands you practice your aim to have any hope of winning a one-on-one bout. That level of skill requirement and dedication may mean it doesn’t hit mainstream levels of popularity like Fortnite or Overwatch, but the game’s design does position Valorant as a more accessible esport than a BR title or something as chaotic as Overwatch or a MOBA. As Counter-Strike has proved over the years, some games, especially easy-to-understand tactical shooters, don’t need 100 million active players to become popular esports; you just need a community of very dedicated fans willing to tune in and keep up with it.
Tactical shooters move slow enough and have clear enough objectives that they are easy to watch and digest, even for viewers who don’t play the game regularly. I can already see the appeal of watching a big Valorant tournament or keeping some favorite streamers playing it casually on in the background while I do something else.
Each round has a coherent start, middle, and end, and there’s a great momentum that builds toward the halfway point when teams switch sides and then the end of a match that makes tuning in at any moment worthwhile. There are opportunities for highlight plays using a well-timed ultimate ability, and one player can, against all odds, take on an entire team alone if they’re skilled enough. There’s a lot of potential for lasting entertainment with Valorant, even if it’s not really the kind of game you enjoy playing yourself.
Valorant has a long road ahead to release. We don’t know exactly when it’s coming out besides a summer to potentially early fall release window, whether it will even come out on consoles, and what exactly Riot’s esports ambitions are. But the game’s early success and the surprisingly effective combination of elements Riot has polled off set up Valorant as the most exciting new game to hit the competitive scene in years. It has the potential to become the company’s next League of Legends, but that will depend on whether the sum of its parts can give it more staying power than all the games it’s borrowing from.