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How Valorant is luring top esports talent despite being months from release

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It’s still in closed beta, but that isn’t stopping anyone

Valorant is still in closed beta, but Riot’s new tactical shooter is already making waves in the competitive gaming scene. Despite the fact that the game isn’t widely available and that we don’t yet know what Riot’s plans are for the game’s esports future, teams and players are jumping aboard.

Part of that has to do with its sheer popularity — Valorant has dominated Twitch since its beta first debuted — along with Riot’s history building out a long-running, global esports scene for League of Legends. For teams in the space, this points to a future where Valorant becomes one of the biggest competitive games. “Everything about its launch, and Riot’s track record, indicate that that is the likely scenario,” says Rob Moore, CEO of esports organization Sentinels.

Sentinels made a splash last week signing one of the first professional Valorant teams. The squad is made up of four players — there’s still an open roster spot to fill — all with experience in other competitive titles like Counter-Strike and Apex Legends. The most notable name is Jay “Sinatraa” Won who spent 2019 becoming arguably the best Overwatch player in the world. He won the Overwatch League title as a member of the San Francisco Shock, the Overwatch World Cup as part of Team USA, and also managed to snag the MVP award in both competitions. Despite this success, Won says he “straight up just lost passion for the game,” leading to his move to Valorant.

While Overwatch has a defined professional scene with the ambitious, albeit troubled, Overwatch League, that doesn’t exist yet for Valorant. Riot has said that esports are a likely part of Valorant’s future, but for now, “we’re not looking to force anything too quickly without knowing what’s best for esports fans,” Whalen “Magus” Rozelle, Riot’s director of esports, said last month.

With this in mind, it might seem curious for esports teams to jump into a scene where there’s no guaranteed return on the investment or for the Overwatch League’s biggest star to retire mid-season and switch to an unproven game.

Overwatch League Grand Finals 2019
Jay “Sinatraa” Won and the San Francisco Shock winning the 2019 OWL Grand Finals.
Photo by Hunter Martin / Getty Images

According to Moore, though, it actually makes more sense to get in early, rather than wait until there’s a big league that requires spending millions for a franchise. “We’ve made the decision as an organization to get into games early, and to develop teams and players early,” he explains. “And if we’re wrong, that’s not a huge investment if it doesn’t pan out. We’re not waiting a year to see if this game is developed. We want to be part of the first wave.”

One of the advantages of being early, Moore says, is that it allows you to understand the scene in case it does take off in a big way. “Having a presence in the space gives you a lot more information and a lot more access in terms of developing a team,” he explains. He cites Fortnite as an example. Sentinels are best known as the home of Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, the 16-year-old who won the first Fortnite World Cup last year. According to Moore, the organization was able to scout Giersdorf through other members of its Fortnite team, players who had been in the game from its early stages and immediately saw Giersdorf’s potential.

“Obviously that worked out as well as it could possibly have worked out for us as Bugha won the World Cup last year,” he says. “And so looking at Valorant, looking at the gameplay, looking at the way Riot was supporting it, this definitely felt like a great opportunity to form a team and continue to build the brand of our organization.”

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon - Season 6
Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf on The Tonight Show.
Photo by Andrew Lipovsky / NBCU Photo Bank / NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

The process of forming a team isn’t exactly straightforward, considering Valorant isn’t yet widely available. The beta is still rolling out to different regions — it only recently came to esports hotbed Korea — with a full launch expected this summer. The game is a tactical shooter, similar to CS:GO, but with specific characters and powers similar to Overwatch.

The spread of Sentinels’ initial roster reflects this: in addition to Won, there are former CS:GO pros Shahzeb “ShahZaM” Khan and Hunter “SicK” Mims, along with Jared “Zombs” Gitlin, who also plays for the organization’s Apex Legends team. “These were four guys who were already playing together and had a good chemistry,” says Moore. “One of those guys was someone in our organization already.”

Sentinels aren’t the only major esports organization to expand into Valorant. Clubs like T1 and Gen.g have already signed players, and T1 even hosted one of the first major tournaments. Other big names like ESPN and Twitch have similarly hosted early competitions. It’s clear there’s an appetite for a competitive scene from players, teams, and viewers.

For now, everyone seems to be feeling things out, waiting until the moment when Riot flips the switch and turns Valorant into the next big thing in esports. At this point, that almost feels like an inevitability.

“If we’re wrong, we’re wrong,” says Moore. “But that doesn’t seem to be the likely outcome.”