At face, there’s a lot to love about Riot Games’ new team-based shooter, Valorant—first and foremost, that it exists.
It’s the second big game from Riot Games (jokingly referred to as “Riot Game”) since 2009’s League of Legends, which ushered in the era of modern esports and, for a time, held the title of most popular PC game in the world. Within the space that legacy has carved out, Valorant, while still in closed beta, has become a competitive gaming phenomenon.
The infrastructure that formed around League of Legends’ million-dollar international tournaments is re-creating itself piece-by-piece around Valorant. Esports teams are already on the hunt for budding talent. Top players are flocking over from esports like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch to stream it. It’s been the most-watched game on Twitch, even though most viewers can’t play it. In-game, it’s developing a highly competitive culture of super-serious, capital-g Gamers. That’s in part because of its closed-beta status, but also Valorant’s core design feels engineered in a petri dish to evoke the vibe players want out of an esport.
Riot has said that, with Valorant, its aspiration is “to build an esport worthy of your lifelong attention and interest.” Sorting through the competitive ecosystem the game is launching into—one that, a cynic might say, Valorant was designed to cultivate—it’s easy to forget there’s actually a super-solid game under there. I haven’t been able to stop playing it and have been gleefully riding its roller-coaster highs and lows every chance I get. On its own terms, Valorant is dope.
In closed beta with a summer 2020 release date, Valorant is a five-versus-five team shooter. Players pick one of Valorant’s 10 unique agents, each with their own special abilities. The attacking team wins if they take out the entire enemy team or plant and successfully defend a spike placed on an objective. The defending team wins if they prevent the spike from detonating or kill the attackers before it’s planted. The winning team earns a point after each round, and the first to 13 wins. Between rounds, players engage in a little resource management, purchasing tiered weapons, shields, and specialized agent abilities with money that accumulates throughout the match. Halfway through, the teams switch roles and lose their fancy guns and funds. Unfortunately, what communicates these mechanics is an art style that more resembles an antiquated Steam shooter than the next big esport.
For me, each stage of learning Valorant felt like another step on the galaxy brain meme. I figured out the guns I liked. Then, what the agents’ abilities do. I overused (and overspent on) those abilities and then reigned it in. Next, I grasped how the item economy works, rejiggering both my understanding of the guns and the abilities. Finally, I recalibrated all of it in an effort to piece myself into the team’s strategy. Anyone paying attention to Valorant knows that it’s been the most popular game on Twitch for a reason; its depth is easily appreciated once you get past its simple premise and off-puttingly plain aesthetic. (Also, some streamers are gaming the system with the promise of beta keys.)
Growing feels good. Playing doesn’t always. This is a punishing game that demands perfect mechanical acumen alongside quick tactical decisionmaking. Valorant has a low barrier to entry but a high skill ceiling that, in closed beta, seasoned tactical shooter players are quickly scaling. Playing too risky or too safely will get you quickly killed unless you’re some lesser-aim deity. Striking the right balances—from positioning to economy—takes a hell of a lot of practice, and Valorant’s closed beta environment is not nurturing. (Although Riot Games thankfully included a “report” feature, skill or gender-based toxicity has been relatively common in my games.)
Part of the fun of watching top streamers play Valorant is how often they lose their minds over low kill-death ratios. One of the early sprays, or in-game graffiti patterns, you can get is a salt shaker, and it’s certainly fitting.
Despite it all, Valorant is fair. When you die, it is probably your fault. You were in the wrong position or weren’t paying attention to where the enemy was, or you just can’t aim as well as they can. When you’re on a rampage, the knowledge that you earned it makes it all the sweeter. Because the player has to be perfectly intentional about everything, Valorant captures the I have to make it frustration of a Super Meat Boy–type platformer and not the I can make it hopefulness of a team shooter like Overwatch, in which heroes’ abilities feel more game-changing.
People who love competitive games—and especially love the idea of competing against their own kill/death/assist histories—may find themselves compulsively chasing those dopamine bursts. It’s one of those games that makes you really mad, then really happy, then super mad, and then super happy, and then, when you’re done, you’re left with: “Until I get good enough to consistently feel super happy and only really mad, I will never stop playing.” So you play again.
Valorant demands a specific skill set easily imported from tactical shooters like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Rainbow Six Siege. It’s drawn comparisons to team-based shooter Overwatch, too, although those feel less apt. Overwatch was a cultural phenomenon, on top of being an esports phenomenon, in part because its heroes offer abilities for every type of player, from healing to blocking damage to precision-sniping. Overwatch players who can’t aim well or don’t have a lot of spatial awareness can still hugely influence the trajectory of a game with a well-timed ability. In Valorant, agents’ abilities generally secure intel, block off zones, or obfuscate portions of the map. Not a lot feels powerful, and it’s definitely not for everyone.
This sort of rough-and-tumble “git guud” aspiration is what makes Valorant a promising esport. If any cynicism should be reserved for Valorant, it’s how eerily well-suited it is to become that. Riot Games knows what the people want, and what does well on Twitch. Sorting through my immediate reactions to Valorant, ambition is the most memorable: I had to get good at this game. When Valorant is released widely, others will be infected with this desire, and there will be a whole esports superstructure—one that feeds on aspiration—to keep them interested. Riot publicized its early approach to Valorant esports earlier this month; among its tiers of community competitions, it nods toward a “global competitive ecosystem” with the goal of “seeking to monetize and/or grow a brand or business.”
Comparing Valorant-the-phenomenon to Valorant-the-game is tempting, and doesn’t always resolve in the esport’s favor. It’s not beautiful to look at. Watching even the top Twitch streamers queue for round after round, for me, gets repetitive quickly. Plenty of toxic player behavior has cropped up around and inside the game, too, which doesn’t exactly cultivate a friendly environment for potential strategy shooter enthusiasts.
What Riot Games has right now is a sturdy and successful foundation for an addictive, satisfying team shooter. What springs from its existence might not be friendly or approachable, but it will get the job done.