Sizing Up the Valorant Esports Scene, So Far

Tactical shooter Valorant has been out for just over a month, and to no one’s surprise, professional esports teams are already cementing themselves in its burgeoning competitive scene. According to a variety of sources, the average salary for a full, five-player team can range anywhere from $15K USD to over $25K a month, depending on region. Some individual players are being paid considerably beyond that range.

The highest tournament prize pool offered to date was a modest $50K, with no leagues currently running. However, this has become a familiar pattern in esports. In the two years prior, PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS and Apex Legends each saw players signed before any official tournament could be announced, and Valorant has taken the trend to a new extreme; with teams assembled while the game was still in beta.

Just like other games, players can provide additional market value through streaming and content, with many having already built a fanbase through Twitch or in other games. The most notable competitor in this regard was Jay “sinatraa” Won, the decorated 2019 MVP of the Overwatch League, who abruptly quit the game to play Valorant for Sentinels

Ultimately, one can’t decry a company for trying to establish its name in what may or may not be a major esports property in years to come. This is especially true for team organizations that built their brands on esports that have been underutilized or wholly neglected by their respective publishers.

So far, Valorant publisher Riot Games has only sanctioned (not run) any competitions, under the “Ignition Series” banner. Among the first of these events was a tournament co-hosted by team org T1 and events/production company Nerd Street Gamers — two companies with investment from Philadelphia Fusion owner Comcast Spectacor

The event consistently attracted 50K live viewers on Twitch across multiple days of competition. Those sort of viewership figures compare to cs_summit 2, a lower-tier Counter-Strike tournament which saw daily viewership in the 40K-60K live viewer range. Another example would be the North America finals for Overwatch League’s May Melee, which peaked at 88K viewers.

Rather than immediately set up a franchised or closed ecosystem like League of Legends, the Ignition series format combines invited pro teams with qualified amateurs. “Investing in this type of amateur ecosystem development is what gives esports longevity,” John Fazio, CEO of Nerd Street Gamers told The Esports Observer

There is no set time after which a competitive video game definitely becomes an esport. Even those that have been on the market for years, and are still played in tournaments today, can’t all claim to have a self-sustaining ecosystem that would endure if publishers and organizers pulled the plug tomorrow.

Valorant has its nuances. It is the first new IP from Riot Games since the company’s inception. Aside from League of Legends, Riot has only teased competitive scenes for its spinoff games e.g. Teamfight Tactics

Furthermore, this game isn’t running on a wholly untested formula. Valorant unabashedly uses the format and gameplay of Counter-Strike, but with class-based elements similar to Overwatch. The former has endured for decades thanks to a tension-building, round based setup, while the latter built on the legacy of Team Fortress 2 with a variety of characters and different playstyles. 

Fazio said Nerd Street Gamers brought in broadcast and production talent from both titles. Riot then offered significant marketing and logistics support. “Observer tools are the big focus for us and Riot has been incredibly inquisitive, receptive, and collaborative when it comes to feedback from the tournament operators,” he said.

The lion’s share of the T1 x Nerd Street Gamers Showdown prize pool was taken by Team SoloMid (TSM), which began in 2008 as a League of Legends team. 

Valorant’s mechanics are more similar to Counter-Strike than any other FPS game,” TSM’s head of talent Mike Scales told The Esports Observer. “When recruiting talent for a new game you have to account for everything [i.e. games played, accomplishments, mistakes] to estimate their potential trajectory.”

Rather than a blanket attacking and defending team, Valorant players have a (current) choice of 11 “agents,” each with an ability set that could wall off sections of the map, detect enemy movement, or revive a dead teammate. 

“We feel that the agents released so far have been balanced well and that the necessary parameters for winning come from teamplay,” said TSM coach Taylor “Tailored” Broomall. “I don’t think ‘meta’ is the correct word to use when describing comps right now, as any team could run any combination and win games, they just need to adjust their playstyle to it.” 

On the question of a prospective Valorant league, Broomall personally feels that league formats feel like “drawn-out tournaments” that soak up practice time. “That’s my experience coming from Counter-Strike, a game with an unclean and disorderly competitive past. 

“As long as the leagues do not stifle the smaller, promising young teams and it is structured in a healthy manner for the players, then I’m all for it.”

So far, the other Ignition Series events have been held largely by esports team organizations, including G2 Esports and Team Vitality. As the months progress and the likelihood of live esports events is determined, we’ll see how esports’ larger competition operators (i.e. ESL, DreamHack, FACEIT, BLAST) take on this new title. 

Riot’s decision to hold its own events also remains a question of when, and not if.

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