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2020

Riots Valorant

Riots Valorant 877 493 esctoday

Isn’t even out yet, but it’s already looking like an eSports sensation

 

“The tactical shooter is breaking Twitch records, and it’s still in closed beta.

Riot’s new video game, Valorant, is both a breath of fresh air and completely unoriginal at the same time. The first-person shooter opened its closed beta on Tuesday to gargantuan Twitch viewership, thanks in part to Riot’s deal with the platform that let popular streamers gift access keys to its beta while they played the game live.

After watching many hours of the game and playing quite a few myself, it’s clear that Valorant is a hyper-competitive game catering to perhaps a small slice of the overall gaming community. (Right now, it’s only on PC, with no plans for a console release.) But that doesn’t matter, because it already seems quite likely to be the next big esports sensation, despite its hardcore nature and the fact that it borrows almost every single component of its design from previous competitive titles.

That’s partly because Valorant, even in its beta form, is arriving at a crucial moment for the competitive gaming scene. Much of the esports world revolves around multiplayer online battle arenas, or MOBAs, like Valve’s Dota 2 and Riot’s own megahit League of Legends. There are peripheral esports communities, like the fighting game community and those that surround individual games like Psyonix’s Rocket League, that exist as niche subcultures within the broader esports field, but MOBAs reign supreme.

Only games made by companies with immense resources like Activision Blizzard with the Call of Duty League and Overwatch League and Epic Games with Fortnite have dared to try to buy a seat at the table through unique league structures, high-production values, and massive prize pools.

‘Valorant’ combines ‘Overwatch’ superpowers with a ‘Countrer-Strike’ structure

There is, however, one big exception: Counter-Strike. Arguably the tactical team-based shooter from which Valorant borrows almost all of its structure, Counter-Strike has remained the one competitive FPS resilient to the ever-changing industry and still inexplicably popular all around the world. Counter-Strike has a global fan base that Call of Duty lacks, and it still ranks it as among the top-played games on Steam and the most-watched titles on Twitch, despite its release nearly eight years ago. Right now, more than 1 million people are playing the game on Steam, making it almost as popular on PC than the next four top games combined.

That’s precisely why Valorant seems primed for success. Simply put, the game combines character-specific superpowers heavily influenced by Overwatch with a tense, high-intensity tactical shooter model more or less carbon-copied from Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Riot is attempting to build a modern Counter-Strike, one that appeals to a generation of MOBA fans that grew up on the idea of honing your skill as a specific hero with unique powers and an ultimate ability to use in crucial, match-defining moments.

Going from the early reception on Twitch, Valorant is getting that recipe right in a way that might pull big streamers and pro players away from other games. The game broke Twitch’s record for most-watched game in a single day, with 34 million hours watched. And the game’s peak concurrent viewership of 1.7 million people was second only to the 2019 League of Legends World Championship.

There’s another factor that could contribute to the game’s success: Valorant is not a battle royale game. Riot is bucking the trend that’s taken the gaming industry by storm for the last three years or so by releasing a tactical shooter. Since the release of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds in early 2017, BR games have consumed the shooter market. Fortnite is one of the most dominant games on the planet across all platforms, while a number of competitors have popped up to try to capitalize on Epic’s moneymaking potential, like Respawn’s Apex Legends and Activision’s Call of Duty: Warzone. But we’re also experiencing a bit of BR fatigue, as the initial excitement of the genre fades and its esports potential has proved hit-or-miss.

Valorant is stepping in to offer an alternative, one with a more traditional, team-based and skill-based approach that hardcore shooter fans seem receptive to because it removes all of the luck and randomness of the BR genre. In the handful of games I played in the beta yesterday, I was shocked at how meticulous and slow-moving the game is. Each match demands one team plant a bomb and protect it, while the other tries to defuse it. You have just one life per round. When one team wipes the other completely, which happens often, the round ends early — unless the bomb was planted, and then it must be defused.

‘Valorant’ plays almost identically to ‘Counter-Strike’ where good aim and reflexes are paramount

The team that wins 13 rounds first wins the entire match. And in my experience, that can take upward of 30 to 40 minutes if you’re going up against a squad well-matched with yours. The hero abilities, while they’ve earned Valorant a lot of comparisons to Overwatch, are not as critical as I thought. Having superhuman aim and reflexes, combined with the ability to predict the opponent’s actions and communicate and collaborate with your teammates will largely determine your level of success. Learning how to use the various weapons you can buy at the start of each round — also a feature borrowed from Counter-Strike — will determine how deadly you can be.

The powers are just there to shake things up and, in my estimation, give people moments of glory that they can brag about online and share on social media, similar to how a well-timed Overwatch ultimate activation can earn you the coveted play of the game highlight in Blizzard’s team shooter. Some are quite fun to use, like Jett’s updraft jump and tailwind dash abilities. And Sova, the Hanzo-like bowman Riot uses for the game’s tutorial, has some fantastic benefits, like allowing you to see enemies through walls and even strike them down with his hunter’s fury ultimate.

But at the end of the day, any other player can take you down with a headshot at basically any moment, rendering any powers pretty much moot. In my Valorant matches, I found myself getting punished routinely for stupid mistakes, like peeking around a corner when I was unsure if an enemy was already doing so or forgetting to walk quietly while using the shift key to dampen the sound of my footsteps. Charging into a situation alone will get you killed almost immediately nine times out of 10. Forgetting to play the objective and getting caught up in small firefights will also put your team at a disadvantage as the timer starts ticking down closer to zero.

Valorant is, above all else, a tactical game that requires you to communicate with your teammates to succeed and demands you practice your aim to have any hope of winning a one-on-one bout. That level of skill requirement and dedication may mean it doesn’t hit mainstream levels of popularity like Fortnite or Overwatch, but the game’s design does position Valorant as a more accessible esport than a BR title or something as chaotic as Overwatch or a MOBA. As Counter-Strike has proved over the years, some games, especially easy-to-understand tactical shooters, don’t need 100 million active players to become popular esports; you just need a community of very dedicated fans willing to tune in and keep up with it.

Tactical shooters move slow enough and have clear enough objectives that they are easy to watch and digest, even for viewers who don’t play the game regularly. I can already see the appeal of watching a big Valorant tournament or keeping some favorite streamers playing it casually on in the background while I do something else.

Valorant’ is much more accessible than more chaotic esports like ‘Dota 2’ and ‘Overwatch’

Each round has a coherent start, middle, and end, and there’s a great momentum that builds toward the halfway point when teams switch sides and then the end of a match that makes tuning in at any moment worthwhile. There are opportunities for highlight plays using a well-timed ultimate ability, and one player can, against all odds, take on an entire team alone if they’re skilled enough. There’s a lot of potential for lasting entertainment with Valorant, even if it’s not really the kind of game you enjoy playing yourself.

Valorant has a long road ahead to release. We don’t know exactly when it’s coming out besides a summer to potentially early fall release window, whether it will even come out on consoles, and what exactly Riot’s esports ambitions are. But the game’s early success and the surprisingly effective combination of elements Riot has polled off set up Valorant as the most exciting new game to hit the competitive scene in years. It has the potential to become the company’s next League of Legends, but that will depend on whether the sum of its parts can give it more staying power than all the games it’s borrowing from”

 

 

Social Distancing is Pushing eSports into The Mainstream

Social Distancing is Pushing eSports into The Mainstream 1175 603 esctoday

The trick is turning this temporary boom into long-term growth.

“Industries around the globe have ground to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic. Bars, restaurants, stadiums and factories have shuttered, and entire countries are on lockdown as citizens are ordered to stay home for weeks at a time in an attempt to control the disease’s spread.

With the streets empty, people are turning to their screens more than ever before. Viewership of streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, Twitch, Mixer and Hulu has risen weekly since shelter-in-place orders began rolling out, and people are on the hunt for new forms of entertainment, ideally with a social twist. Something with a chat room, or dozens of forum posts to read through, or an active Twitter and Instagram presence. Something with stats and high stakes. Something live.

Enter: Esports. As economic activity spirals downward around the world, the esports industry has been spun into overdrive. Leagues are ditching plans for in-person tournaments and pivoting to online-only matches, where they’re finding a hungry audience.

Chris Greeley is the commissioner of the League of Legends North America League Championship Series, one of the most prominent esports tournaments around. March marks the middle of the LCS spring playoffs, which would normally see teams compete in-person, with live spectators, at Riot Games’ venues. The Spring Finals were scheduled to be held in Dallas, Texas, at The Star, a 12,000-seat arena normally used as the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility.

“We’re not sure how long LCS will be online-only — when it’s safe and appropriate to do so, LCS will return to a live-event competition because it’s an important, entertaining, beloved part of the league and esports in general,” Greeley told Engadget. “That being said, we’re already in a better position for when live events return because of the capabilities we’re building now. Two or three weeks ago, taking LCS online-only was unthinkable, but circumstances changed and we reconsidered options that had been off the table.”

In order to stay relevant amid the coronavirus pandemic, every esports league has accelerated its ability to host online-only matches. These are goals that most leagues were already kicking around, with plans to implement new streaming tools, revenue sources and online infrastructure over the coming years. Instead, organizations including the LCS, Overwatch League and ESL Pro League had just weeks — days, even — to put rudimentary streaming-only structures in place, in an attempt to save an entire year’s worth of work.

For the most part, they’ve succeeded. The OWL held its first weekend of online-only games on March 28th and 29th, and just days after, Blizzard Entertainment announced it would finish out the regular season this way. The LCS briefly suspended play on March 13th as Greeley and his team rushed to find a solution that would keep the league alive; four days later, they rolled out an online-only tournament schedule and matches have been running since then.

Viewership on streaming platforms is up amid global shelter-in-place orders, though most esports organizations aren’t revealing specific figures just yet.

“It’s too early to share exact numbers, but we’ve been pleased with the level of engagement and feedback we’ve gotten from our community,” Greeley said.

And then there are the advertisers. With traditional sports games and annual festivals canceled for now, major brands are taking stock of the current ecosystem and inking deals in spaces they’ve previously ignored. Esports are an obvious entry point.

Take NASCAR for example. When in-person races were canceled this year, NASCAR and Fox Sports announced the first-ever eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, a simulation-style competition featuring stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin racing in digital vehicles. It was the first time many NASCAR fans — and drivers — were exposed to the magic of professional gaming.

The inaugural eNASCAR race aired on March 22nd and it was the highest-rated televised esports program to date, drawing in 903,000 viewers. It was also the most-watched sports broadcast that Sunday, and the most-watched program on its host channel, FS1, since most sports events were canceled on March 12th. The following race on March 30th clocked 1.33 million viewers, breaking the previous Sunday’s record.

Torque Esports is running The Race All-Stars Esports Battle, an online event serving Formula 1, IndyCar, Formula E, NASCAR and other audiences in the wake of mass event cancelations. This event has already attracted new advertising partners including its first corporate sponsor, Jones Soda.

“We’re in discussions with many brands at the moment who are looking at esports for the first time,” Torque Esports CEO Darren Cox said, noting this is Jones Soda’s first foray into the industry. “Our goal, and this goes for streaming numbers and fan interest as well, is that the current situation doesn’t become just a blip on the radar. We want to use this as a foundation to continue to grow the sport. Many brands remain in the discovery and education process at the moment, but they are liking what they see.”

This interest isn’t limited to the racing genre. Vice President of Overwatch Esports at Blizzard Entertainment Jon Spector said, “We are seeing an increased interest in gaming, streaming and esports overall,” while LCS head Greeley said, “We’re seeing excitement in partnership discussions.”

Greeley noted that in 2019, Nielsen ranked the LCS as the third-most popular professional sports league in the US among 18- to 34-year-olds. This is a coveted market for advertisers, and a sign that esports were already on the radar of major sponsors. The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated their involvement.

“We see this activity more as a continuation of sponsorship trends than a big change, since the esports ecosystem and leagues like LCS have been gaining momentum for some time now in global media,” Greeley said. “Sponsors are drawn to the size and passion of the esports community, and we believe that’s only going to continue growing from here.”

Torque Esports’ analytics group, Stream Hatchet, says esports streaming viewership has grown more than 17 percent from January to March this year, with 1.75 billion minutes of content watched around the world in March alone. A 12-hour Stream Aid Charity Marathon on Twitch last Saturday raised $2.8 million for the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund.

“We’re introducing esports to a much wider audience, particularly in the motorsports genre,” Cox said. “The ‘stay at home economy’ is something that is expanding rapidly and our live-streaming data analytics team at Stream Hatchet is certainly seeing dramatic increases in all platforms at the moment.”

Of course, the global pandemic has disrupted the esports world, too. Established leagues like the LCS and OWL have the resources to quickly pivot and implement online-only tournaments, and sponsors are already knocking. However, newer leagues might find it harder to catch their footing. For instance, the Apex Legends pro scene kicked off this year and was already struggling with server issues, a lack of advertising and poor management structures before the outbreak began. Organizers announced yesterday they would move the remainder of the Apex Legends Global Series online, with the finals airing on Twitch and YouTube on April 6th. It’s a rough first year for any league.

Even established organizations are feeling the pressure: Chaos Esports Club let go its entire Dota 2 squad following the suspension of the Dota Pro Circuit this year.

“This is not a decision we made lightly, but during these uncertain times and with the DPC circuit suspended it is impossible for us to justify the cost of a Dota 2 team at this time,” Chaos Esports Club CEO Greg Laird said at the time. “The world is an unprecedented situation and it is necessary for us to focus our efforts into a few key current and upcoming projects for the long-term success of the organization.”

Compared with many other industries, esports have experienced low job loss during the global pandemic, largely because leagues are able to transition online instead of shutting down altogether. Unemployment rates in the US are expected to hit their highest point since World War II, with conservative estimates projecting 20 million Americans will lose their jobs in the next few weeks.

Esports are well-positioned to serve an audience that’s trapped at home, and organizers are doing everything they can to capitalize on this strange new market. The trick, they say, is making all of this progress stick even after the pandemic has ended.

“We’re very interested in using this as the foundation for long-term growth,” Cox said. “Esports as a whole has been growing dramatically in recent years and now we’re in a massive spike. Once traditional sport returns we’re obviously going to see a levelling off. But in five years’ time we want to look back on today as not just ‘the COVID-19 esports thing,’ but as a tipping point for when esports took its first steps into the mainstream and cemented its place alongside other professional sports.”