Back to Valorant in 2020 – Part 2: A new Esport
Continuation of our 2020 review of Valorant. This year was the first for the FPS with competitive ambitions from Riot Games. And to say the least, the schedule was packed.
Find the right format
While players can have fun on the Spike Rush or throwing snowballs at each other, Valorant is first and foremost designed for competition ans spectacle. This is a game for those who are in pursuit of excellence and want to surpass themselves. In short, Valorant is a game designed for esports. The closed beta has already been an opportunity to see many tournaments flourish, organised by various structures or organisations. We ourselves had the pleasure to organise our first Mandatory Cup in May 2020.
But serious things started with the official launch of Valorant. Riot Games has launched a rather new initiative: the Ignition Series. This was a series of tournaments supported directly by Riot Games, all around the world. The peculiarity came from the fact that it was the organisers of the tournaments who decided the format. The number of teams, the format, the rewards and the streaming methods; so many settings left to the discretion of the organisations.
For the players, it gave them regular opportunities to prove what they were capable of, in order to get spotted by organisations. The strongest among them could even get their hands on a cash prize. For Riot Games, this made it possible to gauge the interest of the public and players for the different formats and to study the behaviour of professionals in order to balance the game. Lessons that were very practical to launch the Valorant First Strike at the end of the year.
The Ignition Series demonstrated that spectators and players mostly want to attend open competitions. Too often, tournaments were reserved for invited teams. We were then attending competitions where the participants were there for their popularity rather than their level. As a result, less popular teams had even less chance of making a name for themselves and couldn't qualify for cash prizes. Closing the competition this way is a very bad idea when trying to start an esports game.
As a result, Riot Games hosted the Valorant First Strike. Regional championships open to all teams. The competition was spread over one full month and the organisations and independent teams were all in the same boat. This has allowed, especially in Europe, to see many surprises, which we will address later.
Let's go back to the Valorant's beta launch. The esports scene has been built at different rates in different regions of the world. In the United States, there was excitement. All the esports organisations wanted to form a team very quickly. A way to show interest in Valorant and position your brand very early in the history of the game. So we found Cloud9, TSM, Immortal, Dignitas and many others.
In Europe, organisations have been much more cautious. If G2 Esports and Ninjas in Pyjamas lined up teams very early after the official release of the game, most of the other organisations took their time. Team Liquid launched in August. Team Heretics waited until October. Others like Team Vitality have already announced their upcoming arrival, but some big names remain surprisingly silent. We are still waiting to see if Fnatic or Na'Vi will sign any Valorant players.
This lack of enthusiasm has affected players in Europe a lot. A lot despaired of being spotted by an organisation. Many players have bet on Valorant and its tournaments, without being financially supported, to ultimately receive no offer. This resulted in the abandonment of many talents and the separation of teams, as well as a certain form of envy regarding how it worked across the Atlantic.
And yet, we notice today that the European scene is more stable than the American scene. Many structures that rushed to recruit players ultimately regretted their choices. We can cite T1 in particular, or even more drastically, 100 Thieves that put their players on the sidelines overnight for their bad results. Drastic decisions, but which has borne fruit for the organisations (in particular 100 Thieves who won the American First Strike), not necessarily for the benched players.
Nadeshot expresses his frustration with the performance of his team, a few days before parting ways with 4 of his players.
Europe, on the other hand, is not exempt from turn-overs. Ninjas in Pyjamas are a sad example. The structure has formed no less than 3 different teams in six months, and the most recent lost two of its players again. It's still an isolated case on the old continent. The team movements that we notice are mainly different mixes between players who have not found organisations to support them.
Adapt or die
It's hard for a publisher to break into the competitive FPS scene, especially when it's dominated by Counter-Strike and Overwatch. But Riot Games made the bet to jump into the arena anyway. Valorant comes at a time when Valve's FPS is stagnating and Blizzard's FPS players are losing interest. In fact, we witnessed a real exodus that only Riot Games was able to generate. The success and follow-up of League of Legends was a pledge of seriousness for both amateur and professional players who can hope to stand out in a long-term game, which will not be abandoned and whose servers will remain populated.
It's no wonder then to see the competitive scene taken over by pro-players of these other first-person shooters. All over the world, it's above all the confirmed talents of Counter-Strike, Overwatch, Paladins of PUBG who find their place in teams and organisations. They have a significant advantage since, in the addition to their natural skill, they trained for years for years to move and understand their environment with a subjective camera. Mandatory qualities that allowed them to dominate the rest of the players at the launch of Valorant.... for a time.
Players have gradually discovered the fundamental differences that define Valorant. The most important of these being: it's a constantly evolving game. This is a point that we raised in the first part of our 2020 review, but one that is far too underestimated on the competitive scene, especially by the Counter-Strike professionals. Unlike the latter, Valorant regularly receives new Agents and new maps. Each of these Agents brings new strategic options and new ways of perceiving maps. The maps go even further. With each offering different architectures and gimmicks, they change the way we play Valorant.
This means that every two months, players have to learn and adapt if they want to stay on top. Meta is inherently unstable. Its not the mechanically strongest players who will dominate Valorant, but the most flexible players.
We have already had different examples, but the most striking one is probably Skadoodle. Tyler "Skadoodle" Latham is a former pro Counter-Strike Global Offensive player who has won numerous tournaments, including several majors. So he seemed like the perfect recruit in the eyes of T1. However, while the player has specialised in Sage, the American meta quickly evolved to benefit aggressive compositions based on triple duelists. Unable to change his style of play before the end of the Ignition Series, he was temporarily benched so that he could train and level up.
A tactical FPS
The raw talent of these veterans is also called into question over time. In Europe, G2 Esports has dominated the entire competitive scene. The team has won absolutely every tournament in the Ignition Series. But it was clear from watching them, and by the players' own admission, that they had no real established strategies. Their playstyle was particularly chaotic, but wreaked havoc. Until it wasn't enough anymore.
The European Valorant First Strike clearly demonstrated the limits of such an approach. The favourites have all lost to teams made up of young players with no previous competitive scene experience: SUMN FC and Team Heretics. Unlike veterans who approach Valorant with Counter-Strike automatisms, the new generation does not have these preconceptions and is able to see the opportunities offered by Valorant. They're not necessarily stronger in aim or reflexe than their opponents, they are above all smarter, each in their own way. They use the abilities and mechanics specific to Valorant in an innovative way.
SUMN FC brought down their opponents by unfolding well-established plans, using to perfection an Agent like Viper who is nevertheless unloved. Team Heretics European champion following the First Strike, is more flexible and able to adapt to the information it collects. Communication between the players is excellent and they know how to estimate when a situation is to its advantage or not.
We are only in the strategic infancy of Valorant. It was impressive to see Mistic play Viper, deploying her Toxic Screen through Bind's teleporters or perfectly launching Snakebite at the Spike from across the map. Just as it was awesome to see loWel play Sage front-line using her Barrier Orb and Slow Orb in extremely offensive ways. These are options that have been accessible on Valorant since day one, but whose potential has only recently been discovered. So imagine how much we have yet to discover in the years to come!
Things are getting serious now
Building on the lessons of the Ignition Series and the Valorant First Strike, Riot Games has already announced the Valorant Champions Tour. This official circuit will start on January 2021. It aims to select the best teams in the world during regional tournaments open to all teams. If the health situation permits, they will compete against each other four time a year. The world champion team will be consecrated at the final tournament, the Valorant Champions, in December 2021.
The professional teams have already started to prepare. The end of 2020 is marked by the first real transfer window of Valorant. The unfortunate organisations of the First Strike are making changes in players and strategies. They have about a month to challenge themselves and train before the launch of the truly first competitive season.
We will of course be following this very closely on Mandatory throughout 2021.