Valorant: A Pristine Middle-Ground
As someone who’d played the game for north of 800 hours over the course of three years, Overwatch felt long in the tooth. Rampant power-creep, a questionable esports ecosystem, and few friends left playing it made it easy to step away from the game. Casually, I had picked up Counter Strike: Global Offensive and invested almost 400 hours into that as I admired the tactile gun play and the arcade-esque approachability the game offers in casual modes. Then, because I am a supremely lucky person, I received Beta access to Valorant.
Overwatch is a Blizzard game that introduces the hero-based gameplay commonly seen in MOBAS into a Team Fortress 2 equation, with highly-vertical maps, drastically different characters, and the intense frenzy therein. Valorant is the third game from Riot Games, and incorporates that same hero-based design towards Counter Strike, a game known for methodical, measured gameplay with incredible mechanical depth. The announcement came as part of a grandiose ten-year anniversary video for League of Legends, in which Riot highlighted many games in development, including their card game Legends of Runeterra, a fighting game, a Diablo-esque isometric action game, and a first-person shooter that is now known as Valorant.
This video could warrant an article its own to highlight the execution, but two important things should be known about it. Firstly it was very knowing of gamer culture and highlighted what players would want from a game like this, (no lag, strong anti-cheat) and even leaning into jokes such as highlighting the ‘S’ in Riot Games, as the company was often mocked for its title while having only one title. Secondly, and more importantly, this video was released at a record low-point for public opinion of what can be called it’s closest rival, Blizzard entertainment. From the perspective of a player, these two companies that both specialized in online multi-player games for PC were headed in opposite trajectories. A narrative of excitement and success was quickly cemented around Valorant, while Overwatch was seen to be on a decline. As an aside, Valve was sponsoring CS:GO tournaments, but they were largely held by organizations like ESL and FaceIt, and paled in comparison to the $30+ million prize pool spectacles seen at the annual Dota 2 International.
That brings us to now, where Valorant now exists in a closed beta state where popular content creators have access to the game, and have latched onto it with frothing excitement. Fortune has it for Riot that an already excited audience is captive within their homes due to a pandemic, and is chomping at the bit in hopes of getting access to the game; This rarity only increases the fervor, not that it seems to need it at this point.
If I were to describe Valorant succinctly, it feels like CS:GO made more approachable in the modern year, with esports kept in mind. If this analogy seems reductive, I’d like to make it clear that CS features a weapon called the AWP (pronounced “aup”) that is a one-shot kill bolt-action sniper; Valorant features a weapon that functions the same and is called the Operator (pronounced “aup-erator,” often shortened to just “aup”). To avoid getting into specifics, the game’s economy is kinder with purchased ability charges persisting through death, a mini-map is constantly on screen, and the game sports a singular arsenal instead of having one for attack and defense ala Counter Strike. But it is simply not a simplified CS. Instead, its hero characters offer creative utility to players by allowing them to scout out information, block sight lines, slow advantages, and even secure some eliminations. Each offers a unique playstyle while still utilizing the same arsenal of weaponry, meaning that they are more approachable than heroes in Overwatch but offer a diversity not seen in CS. This is the pristine middle-ground.
It is also important to note that Valorant is set in a near-future version of earth, and sports a diverse cast of characters from across the globe, similar to what Overwatch has done. These characters are not only distinct and cohesive, but also make the game very brand friendly; CS:GO is the opposite of brand friendly. Counter Strike is a realistic military shooter where terrorist try to plant a bomb and destroy something (like a nuclear power plant)while a counter-terrorist force fights to stop them. Whether justified or not, the game has been associated with the Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech shootings and, as The Score Esports explains below, has left teams struggling to secure sponsors. Valorant simply solves this problem by simply labeling teams attack and defense, designing weapons from scratch so that players are wielding Vandals instead of AK-47s, and tasking them with planting a spike (which explodes like an expanding black hole) instead of a bomb. Perhaps some will be able to peel this thin veneer away and realize that these fire balls may as well be molotovs, but it seems likely that companies like Statefarm will have no trouble adopting Valorant as they have Overwatch.
Despite merely being in closed beta, esports organizations like 100 Thieves and Team Liquid have wasted no time and already begun to host show matches and tournaments, with the likely intention to develop teams in the near-future. This instant gravitation towards the game is similar to what was seen last year with Apex Legends, but now has the potential to be skyrocketed forwards by the company in charge of the monolithic and international esports infrastructure of League of Legends. Many prominent players have also begun migrating away from their current games, mainly Overwatch, towards something that does not have any announced leagues or tournaments solely because of that same potential.
Personally I enjoy the game, but have waned slightly from shooters, and will enjoy the game in a casual setting. It offers a fun twist on traditional gameplay without uncontrollably expanding the scope of the game like battle royales have. Despite my interest lacking the same unfiltered excitement that others have shown, I think Valorant can go on to be enormous, particularly given how well-considered its design and launch have been in the current landscape.