Success can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse. Riot Games has one of the most successful multiplayer games in the world with League of Legends, but a studio can’t live on one game alone. Eventually League is going to run out of steam, no matter how many times it’s updated. And when you have 2,500 people on the payroll, that can’t happen.
We’ve already seen a few spin-offs from the main property, including auto-battler Teamfight Tactics, but they’ve all been coasting off of League’s popularity. For the first time, Riot is trying to launch an entirely new franchise with tactical team-based shooter Valorant. Let’s look at where it came from and try to predict if it’ll be a hit.
It’s not an insult to say that Riot made its fame on imitation; League is a MOBA squarely in the DOTA mold. Where it excels is in taking the bones of an existing idea and giving it an incredible level of polish, both in game mechanics and visual and character design.
Valorant does the same, this time cribbing from one of the most popular multiplayer titles of all time in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. CS: GO, for the uninitiated, is a team-based shooter that casts players alternately as terrorists and counter-terrorists, each working to achieve objectives and thwart the other side. It’s a brilliantly balanced game with a very high skill ceiling that’s easy to spectate, making it an esports perennial.
It also doesn’t have a ton of real competition, which is obviously where Riot sees opportunity. It’s already shown that they have what it takes to deliver a top-tier esport, so branching into another genre would let it extend the company’s domination. The only question is: will it work?
Here’s the basics: Valorant arranges players in two teams of five. In each of 13 rounds, one side is offense, tasked with planting a bomb and protecting it until it detonates, while the other is defense working to eliminate the offense and prevent the explosion. It’s the classic terrorist / counter-terrorist model from Counter-Strike, with a tweak: each player chooses a pre-set character with their own set of abilities.
Like Counter-Strike, at the start of each round players spend currency earned to purchase new weapons, allowing for some tactical customization as you learn more about your opponents. That currency can also be used to open up character abilities, forcing a constant ballet of weighing pros and cons.
In addition, characters have “ultimate” abilities, of the type commonly seen in MOBAs, that can have larger effects on the field. Instead of being on a timer, though, they are charged by completing objectives, picking up collectible items, killing enemies and dying, making their deployment feel more earned. Reaction is still split on them, though, with some critics saying that a comeback mechanic is out of place in a skill-based shooter like Valorant.
Under the Hood
Much of the press messaging for Valorant has been around Riot’s desire to make a multiplayer shooter that is free of many of the genre’s pain points while still maintaining a competitive atmosphere. In doing so, it mobilized a tech team that cut its teeth on a huge online service and had them laser-focus on the core processes that make shooters work. Using the Riot Direct network, they’re able to overcome challenges that have been bugging developers for decades.
One of the most impressive technical accomplishments the team notched is the game’s tick rate, or the number of times per second that the server updates the game state. The faster this goes, the more responsive everything feels. CS: GO’s official matchmaking server’s tick rate is 64 hertz. Valorant doubles that, and the effects can be felt throughout the game. “Peeker’s advantage,” where players who are constantly moving benefit from being able to spot enemies and move back to cover before the server can update their position, is nearly gone.
In addition, the company put massive resources into advanced anti-cheating technology. As anybody who has played competitive shooters knows, exploits like aimbots and wallhacks can make things extremely frustrating. Riot has deployed a system called Vanguard, which allegedly demands kernel-level access to your PC to operate.
Gun Star Heroes
From early beta reports, Valorant delivers on Riot’s core competencies. It’s an attractive and polished game. The action has a slower pace than many shooters, giving players an incentive to plan strategies and execute with precision. Each of the heroes has a different feel and the cast embraces a variety of play styles and roles.
But CS: GO isn’t at the top of the mountain simply for being a good game. It’s a carefully tuned franchise that has steadily sawed off all of the parts that interfere with play, leaving behind what might be the single best competitive shooter out there. It has an absurdly high skill ceiling, meaning pro players have to devote massive amounts of time to mastering its intricacies, while noobs can still have fun playing with others at their level.
Initial impressions show that Valorant has what it takes to maintain a large skill gap, with elements like individualized spray and recoil patterns to master for each gun. Shooting willy-nilly will get you killed, while learning how guns behave and measuring each trigger pull wins the day. That said, the game still has a lot of work to do.
One issue that many players are having is the map selection. The art of designing a good competitive shooter map is an incredibly arcane one. They have to be able to accommodate multiple different play styles and appear fair no matter what side you’re on. At launch, Valorant only has four maps to play on and they all have significant flaws. They’re primarily composed of narrow hallways and cubbies, which lend advantage to the defensive team by allowing them to set up duels and chokepoints easily. Worse, they don’t feel all that fun, which is the real killer.
Feeding into that complaint is the hero abilities. While Riot has done a good job balancing so that none of the 10 starting heroes seem broken, a disproportionate number of the skills seem devoted to making maps even more claustrophobic and narrow, with defenders able to create choke points using walls of ice, clouds of toxic smoke and more. One operator in particular, Sage, has a healing orb that feels extremely unbalanced.
The real test for Valorant, though, is whether it will find success as an esport. In the modern era, how fun a game is to watch is almost as important as how it is to play. The most successful spectator titles combine understandable strategy, easy ways to see how well each team is doing, and a way to focus on both individual moments and the overall state of the match.
Valorant definitely delivers on some of that promise. The game’s visual design makes the action easy to track, and the flow of the game is solid. But the question remains as to whether it will captivate audiences long-term. The pleasure of watching Counter-Strike is seeing operators at the top of their skills perform, so until Valorant develops a defined pro player base it’s not going to be that fun to watch.
At this stage in the game’s development, it doesn’t look like Valorant is going to dethrone CS: GO as the king of the team-based shooter world. But we can’t count Riot out just yet. One of its biggest skills that has been on display in League of Legends is the ability to iterate on a live product to make it better. As Riot gathers play data and feedback, it has the platform to adjust the sore spots and make it a better experience. Most of the iconic Counter-Strike maps weren’t in the game’s first release either.
Riot is in a lucky position. The continued success of League of Legends gives it financial padding that can float Valorant and other experiments much longer than a less stable developer could. But this is the company’s first real test at becoming something other than a one-hit wonder, and there’s a lot riding on it. It picked a tough niche to compete in, but if Valorant can carve out a player base, it’ll definitely cement Riot as one of the most dominant developers of the current generation.