‘Valorant’ is harvesting talent from stagnating esports

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Yesterday, the reigning MVP of Overwatch esports, Jay “sinatraa” Won, confirmed rumors and announced he was leaving his $150,000-a-year deal with San Francisco Shock for a pro career in Riot Games’ new first-person-shooter Valorant. It’s a huge deal for Riot, it’s a blow for Blizzard, the developer behind Overwatch, and it’s just the latest in a string of similar moves.

It doesn’t matter how big a game studio is, building momentum for a new release and sustaining it can be a herculean task. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused some A+ games and battle royale updates to be pushed back. However, Riot Games has capitalized on this perceived lull, to the point that many top esports pros are committing their futures to the game before it has even been fully released.

In fact, even before the public beta began, Valorant already had some coups, in the form of Fortnite player Jake “Poach” Brumleve and CS:GO star Braxton “swag” Pierce. Things accelerated after April 3rd, when Valorant’s public beta started. Just two days after, Harrison “Psalm” Chang announced he was quitting competitive Fortnite and switching his allegiance in a bid to become the “most decorated competitor in gaming history.” It’s certainly a lofty aim, but Chang has serious esports pedigree: he finished runner-up at the 2019 Fortnite World Cup Finals in the solo competition, earning a whopping $1.8 million in the process.

As gamers continued to push streamers’ Twitch channels viewing numbers to new highs in hope of a beta key, North American Overwatch player Jay “sinatraa” Won was finalizing plans to switch. On April 28th, Won announced his departure from the team he’d helped win the Overwatch League Grand Finals for a pro career in Valorant as a streamer member of esports team Sentinels. Two of Won’s future teammates, Shahzeb “ShahZaM” Khan and Hunter “SicK” Mims, are former CS:GO pros with careers dating back to 2014 — an age in esports.

In a Twitlonger post, Won explained that he had “straight up lost passion” for Overwatch, noting that recent changes to the hero lock and bans had resulted in a lack of desire to play “scrims” or ranked matches. Put simply, the soon-to-be-four-year-old game wasn’t fun any more. It echoes sentiments shared by popular Twitch streamer Gale Adelade, who walked the same path a few weeks previous, and John “Wanted” Lin. 

As new shooters arrive, it’s common for high-profile players — especially streamers — to try their luck at new games. If you’re good at clicking on heads in one title, it’s likely those skills will translate to another. Plus, interest in new games can often drive a new audience that may have plateaued elsewhere.

It may even be that competitive aspects of games that once lured players have been sidelined in order to better fit the casual player base — as some former pro Fortnite players have noted. Blizzard hopes that Overwatch 2 will bring some freshness to a stagnating franchise, but the lack of interest from retiring pros doesn’t suggest that will happen.

It appears on the surface that notable esports personalities are forgoing massive sums of money in the games that helped them rise to prominence, all for an unknown future in a game that has been around for barely a month. Riot Games appears to have thought long and hard about that. As my colleague Jessica Conditt points out, the company partnered with “multiple hundreds” of influencers and streamers ahead of Valorant’s Twitch debut. Unlike other titles, like Apex Legends or Call of Duty: Warzone, none of them were sponsored or paid.

“During closed beta, we have not paid any streamer to stream Valorant,” Nikki Lewis, head of marketing for Valorant, told Engadget. “Our goal is to sustain a community for years, even decades, to come, and so our efforts are being put toward building a long-lasting relationship with streamers, looking for things that are of value where we can support the businesses they are trying to build.”

Partners will also be rewarded with in-game perks, access to developers, promotional support and exclusive opportunities to showcase new in-game updates. It’s a similar model to that employed by Blizzard, but one that almost certainly inspires confidence in a brand new title.

As for Valorant esports, Riot confirmed it was focusing on “partnerships” with players, tournament organizers, content creators and developers. Part of that includes the release of Community Competition Guidelines that demonstrates how smaller events can be set out, including a ban on charging online viewers and TV broadcasting, and a $10,000 limit on winnings.

Medium-sized tournaments — which limit prizes to $50,000 per match and $200,000 per year — can feed into Riot’s own esports tournament schedule, alongside major events like an ESL or Dreamhack invitational. 

There will always be other games vying for players' attention, and companies looking to make the next hit. Overwatch 2 is likely to be released later this year, and promises to build on the core gameplay that attracted over 50 million players with story missions and new multiplayer game modes. Riot will need to move fast to ensure it can maintain its early momentum and build its new shooter into something that’s exciting for viewers, and profitable for players, quickly.

Riot has seen it and done it all before, though. If it can lean on all of the experience it’s gained from the huge success that is League of Legends, that might not be as hard as it should be.

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