Interview of Kasra Jafroodi, Global Esports Business Strategy at Riot Games
Ahead of the Ignition Series x Mandatory.GG Cup, we had the pleasure of interviewing Kasra Jafroodi, in charge of Valorant esports strategy.
It was an opportunity to learn more about the first steps of Valorant as a show, but also to ask his opinion regarding the format of the Ignition Series tournaments, the state of the European scene in relation to the American scene, and to learn more about the future of Valorant.
This interview was made on 28th July 2020, before the tournament was played and before the various announcements regarding Act 2.
Mandatory: When Valorant launched in Beta, the game was only available to players interested enough to watch some matches on Twitch. What did you think of the players' enthusiasm and their feedback about the game, as a show?
Kasra Jafroodi : When we came out in closed beta,we were on Twitch and people started to watch enough to get their access, we knew it was gonna be popular. We were very pleasantly surprised at how popular it was, how many fans and players were tuning in to have the potential to have access to the game. We were all very surprised, we were all very happy. It gave us a lot of energy.
Ve've been listening very closely to feedback on the viewing experience, whether it's watching a match or watching someone's stream. We wanted to make sure Valorant as game is a game that is fun to play but also fun to watch. We've been listening very closely to the feedback, we've been trying to make changes, some of them will take longer, some of them have been made already, but ultimately it's something we're really excited about.
Mandatory: Valorant is an esports and competitive game by design. How much are you involved in its design as an esports strategist?
Kasra: Esports and the game work very closely together. If you're a player and you want to become pro at Valorant, you just can play Valorant as much as you can and you get better at the game but the step from being really good at Valorant and actually entering the pro scene is difficult. We're always thinking about what it takes for a player to become pro and what can we do both from esports of the game side to reduce the barriers of entry.
As well, we'e been thinking about the business side of esports and how esports comes into the game., wether it's in game items that are esports branded or team branded. We work very closely in thinking through those systems and figuring out what that looks like as well.
At Riot, one of the things that we're really good at is working really closely together. I work very closely with the game team, we talk on a weekly basis and step with each other.
Mandatory: We saw a lot of professional players from other FPS switching to Valorant from the get go. In your opinion, what can Valorant bring in esports that other games couldn't?
Kasra: Valorant was created because our game designers felt that there was something missing in the FPS base. When we look at Valorant compared to other FPS, there is something about it that makes it different especially from the esports standpoint. The fact that you have different agents with different abilities brings so much more creativity. Someone can, in a game, have a clutch that looks very different from any other clutch because of the way they decided to play that agent the way they decided to use their abilities.
We're really excited by the creativity that brings into the esports and we think that because of that it will be more fun to watch, and ultimately we're really hoping that pros in the scene will have their own individual styles based on the Agents they play and the way they play them.
Mandatory: What do you think of the level displayed by teams in the Ignition Series so far?
Kasra: I think it's obviously very early on. We've seen teams build up through the Ignition Series or there are teams on the esports scene that weren't around a month or two ago. We're starting to see rivalries come up. We're really excited to seeing G2 do really really well but we're starting to see other teams come up and start competing with them. It's the same thing in North America, as almost as different teams has won every event it happened.
I think we're still really far away from hitting the top level of players in the game. As we go on, teams will get better, the players will get better, and the meta will change. As new agents come up, the play will change, so ultimately I think that the levels of play we've seen have still been much better than anything we've ever seen before in this game, but we still also know that there is so much room to improve and teams are working really hard to get better.
Mandatory: In your opinion, why is Europe taking so long to build teams, compared to the U.S.?
Kasra: The North American scene and the European scene are different in esports in general. And because of that, the way each of them has taken on Valorant has been different. North America works a little bit more with a franchise model where Europe is much more focused on relegation and promotion, and therefore being the best teams possible. In North America, teams move quickly, they want to lock up talents where in Europe, organisations are really taking their time to build the best team possible. We've already seen Ninjas in Pyjamas, for example, have two teams. We saw Vitality had their own event where they were just using it to even scout, not even to actually play a team.
So European teams in general are just being much more careful, insuring that they build the best team possible, rather than building a team quickly. We're really excited for them to start building teams and competing more. To be honest, I'm just really excited for more global competition later when we can all travel, to see organisations in North America play organisations in Europe, Asia, all around the world.
Mandatory: Can we expect an international tournament at the end of the Ignition Series?
Kasra: Ultimately, we would love to have an international event for the Ignition Series, but, frankly, it's really challenging. It's not very easy in today's climate to set up an international event and giving that the Ignition Series are supported by third parties, it's even more difficult. So ultimately I would love to have international event but I don't think the Ignition Series will have it at the level that everyone wants to have it.
Mandatory: What are your takeaways from the Ignition Series in terms of structure and format so far?
Kasra: When we created the Ignition Series, one of our goals was to watch all the events and learn from third parties, whether it's from the structure, the format, or how they run the events. And we've been watching and learning very closely from them.
We've seen some that have been open tournaments with open qualifiers, we've seen some that have been invitationals with the best teams and some that have been invitationals of the streamers. We've been watching them all and see how they performed. We've also seen events on stream with co-streamers and influencers or events that have one main highly produced stream. It seems like, right now, fans want open competition, they want to find the best teams possible in each region. We know that's one of the takeaways we're taking away from this, for sure. But we're all still learning, and as Ignition Series events go on, they're all evolving as well and everyone of them is doing something new.
Mandatory: What are the challenges you are facing when shaping an esports scene on such a new game?
Kasra: Shaping an esports scene for a new game like Valorant is challenging. One of our biggest challenge is that there's so much hype for this game. If you ask fans what they want, the thing they want the most right now is a world championship. They want to see Valorant Worlds, they want to see the biggest thing at the biggest stages right now.
And Covid aside, I don't think going as big as possible at the beginning is necessarily the best for the long-term success of Valorant esports. I'm really focused at trying to create an ecosystem that is successful 5, 10, 20, 30 years from now. And for an esports ecosystem to be successful, it has to be sustainable and third-parties that get involved in the ecosystem like teams, and players, have to be successful as well.
Our biggest challenge is to try to lay a foundation for something that is going to be successful 5, 10, 15 years from now; that everyone can be happy that they got involved in Valorant esports but doing it at a pace that is not too fast but enough to fit the hype that's out there. I think that's kind of the biggest challenge we're facing right now.
Mandatory: As of now, there is no mention of the Ignition Series in Valorant's client. In the future, how do you plan on converting a Valorant player into an esports viewer?
Kasra: We're actively thinking a lot about how to convert players into esports viewers. We know that the best audience to watching esports are the fans that actually play the game. Now, we're exploring a lot of things. One of them is putting things in the client. But in Valorant though, we do have a blank slate, we have an opportunity to do things that no one has done before. We're definitely thinking about what to be put in the client and how do we promote the esports in the game but how do we do it in an authentic way, in a way that players and fans really like.
Mandatory: The Counter-Strike scene never really succeeded in breaking away from its violent game reputation (labels like "Terrorists" and "Bombs" don't help). How do you plan on convincing brands and the general public to follow and support Valorant?
Kasra: Having been in the sports scene for a while, there are definitely games out there, that are a little bit more violent, that have a harder time monetising because brands don't want to get involved. Valorant, from the game itself, has taking steps away from that and make it much more possible to be successful. For example, you have Attackers and Defenders, you have a Spike, all of these things make it much more possible for brands and advertisers to enter the ecosystem.
From an esports standpoint, we also have requested blood to be off in all esports matches. The guns that players use are unrealistic, not only the names are made up and the guns are made up, but some of the skins make them even more unrealistic. And all of this just reduces the barriers for advertisers to enter the scene. And ultimately when you have more advertisers in the ecosystem, it's just more successful for everyone and that ecosystem grows. So we do think that the fact that Valorant as a game is less violent makes it much more possible to be successful than some other FPS games out there.
Mandatory: Ignition Series allow different organisations to build their format freely. Do you plan on making a competitive circuit with a unique format?
Kasra: Ultimately we wanted to give companies and third-parties that organise the Ignition Series their freedom, to create an event as they'd like. So that they could have their own unique flavour, and everyone else could watch and learn from that format. Ultimately when we think about what Riot competitive Valorant scene looks like, I don't know if it will look like the Ignition Series where you have a different thing every single weekend, but we're exploring a lot of options, and ultimately all we want to do is what's best for fans.
Mandatory: Are you taking inspirations from other esports game in building your strategy, like the LCS or other games?
Kasra: With Valorant esports, we have the opportunity to create something from scratch, and of course, we have a lot of learnings from other esports and League of Legends that we can apply. Ultimately, we want to create what's best for Valorant. And what's best for Valorant is going to be a little bit different than what anyone else has done before. There are a lot of learnings we can apply from things like League of Legends for example. We know that we don't want to change the esports from the game. We want to make sure that the experience our fans have watching the esports is very similar or the same as the experience they have playing the game. And we think that this has contributed greatly in the growth of League of Legends esports and it's something that we want to apply to Valorant.
There are definitely some learnings we have that we want to apply but, ultimately, we're watching closely and we want to make sure that what we build for Valorant is best for Valorant, not a copy of anything else out there.
Mandatory: Will Act 2 of the Ignition Chapter change anything about the format of the Ignition Series ?
Kasra: Ultimately Ignition Series isn't tie to the Acts themselves. Some things will change naturally, there will be a new Agent in Act 2, and therefore I think the gameplay will change a little bit around that Agent. But ultimately, Ignition Series from a format standpoint is up to the third-parties that are running it, and it's not fully affected by the Acts.
Mandatory: Some professional players are worried about burn-out, because some formats force them to play up to 6 matchs in one day, sometimes without any break. Do you intend to set stricter rules in the format of the competitions that Riot Games supports?
Kasra: We're definitely looking very closely at competition formats because we know that professional players have been worried about burn-out, and we know that some of the tournaments out there have been very rigourous for them. That's something that we're looking at very closely. We are keeping Ignition Series format open to third-parties but there are some restrictions being added to ensure that players don't get burned out from our organisers. And ultimately we want to take a lot of these learnings and apply it to the future as well when we are creating a Riot formal competitive ecosystem and ensure that players feel healthy and aren't over-playing. Players' health is very very important to us.
Mandatory: How do you plan on supporting organisations and players who are professionalising or seeking to become Valorant pros?
Kasra: We know a lot of players are investing a lot of time into this game and we want to ensure that we can support them from a structure standpoint, both now and in the future. Right now we're very focused on building the competitive foundation for esports, a key focus has been ensuring there is competitive integrity in the matches and players feel that the game and the esports is fair.
But ultimately, as we grow the scene, we want to make sure that they have both the support in becoming pro, and that we can do things to reduce the barriers to entry of becoming pro, but that while they're pro they have the support they need to feel healthy. We know that players are making a really big commitment, and we want them to look back 3-5 years from now, and know that they made the right choice, and that they were supported by the ecosystem, and that their health matters.
Mandatory: To end this interview, is there something you're not allowed to tell us about, but that you will tell us about nonetheless because we are really nice people?
Kasra: Okay, something I can't tell you... Hm, I would say that one thing we're working on that we haven't been very public about is observer. We've been focused very much on the viewing experience of Valorant and Valorant esports, and we're actively working on that. There's a lot of changes that have been made already and a lot more changes that will be made in the future and we're talking to a lot of people in the ecosystem about that. But that's something that hopefully we'll see within the next year.
We know it's an area that we're little bit lacking behind but we're listening very closely and want to make sure that the viewing experience in Valorant esports is as best as possible.
Thanks to Kasra Jafroodi for his time and his answers. Thanks to Riot Games for offering us the opportunity to talk with him.