With Valorant coming into its second year, there’s an odd sort of atmosphere around everything. You might think that I’m about to talk about the NA VCT discourse over the last few days, C9 and EG’s actions, all of that, but that’s actually not what I’m talking about with that — sucks for the players, sucks for the orgs, but it’s in the context of greater issues for esports economics, and in any case it’s not a discussion possible to have with the necessary nuance with how hot feelings are running.
Ultimately, I think that the bulk of details around the micro (player salaries, franchising, etc.) are functions of the macro (esports economics and broader economics). What I’m interested in (as an academic exercise and also as someone involved in Valorant) is the position of Valorant within the esports ecosystem, and Valorant’s staying power as an esport.
That maybe sounds a little odd, right? It might just be about being in the bubble here, but it feels like any voices proclaiming that Valorant wouldn’t work as an esport or wouldn’t have sticking power went quiet very, very quickly after the first year. Which on some level is insane, because cynic’s chance here absolutely favours dismissing it — if you could somehow go short on every game claiming itself as ‘esports-ready’ over the past decade, or that made a big push into it early on, you would have pretty close to a 100% win rate, especially if you had the capital to wait it out for about as long as Valorant has been going. (Overwatch is the marquee example of course, but there are plenty of games that this applies to on a greater or lesser degree. Remember Paladins? Remember Vainglory? You do not. Please do not lie.)
You get the odd criticism about Valorant as a spectacle (abilities on screen etc.), but for the most part, it’s all pretty muted. You get more criticism from within the community than without, but even that criticism is at most times pretty undirected — grumblings about franchising or how tier 2 isn’t being supported enough. Some of these critiques are fair, some are nonsense, and some are “you want it to be one way, but it’s the other”, but there rarely seems to be a fundamental critique of Valorant esports on an existential level.
Now, I don’t think things are all doom and gloom. What I do think, however, is that there’s a certain balancing act to ecosystem success in both esports and sports, and Valorant might be sticking too far in one direction at the moment.
The title gives away a little of what I’m talking about here with spectacle versus obsession, so let me elaborate with some historical reference. I’m comparatively new to esports overall, with the first event I ever watched being the 2014 LoL World Championships; I wasn’t a long-term fan before going pro (as a coach) in 2016, and I haven’t seen all the cycles that some others have. I did, however, see a large chunk of how LoL played out, with particular respect to the era where it became an esport that could stand on its own instead of purely being a fully-subsidised marketing exercise.
Most sports and esports, as a thing that has fans, start as spectacle. You put on a show, people start coming, at some point people start paying to come. (Yes, esports hasn’t solved that last part yet, but let’s not dwell on that). The attraction is essentially the entertainment product you’re presenting. LoL had a good run on that front early on — everyone remembers season 2 and 3 Worlds, everyone remembers the old IEM events, everyone remembers IPL 5.
However, in the long term, a sport that is just spectacle tends not to succeed. Why? There’s things you can say in terms of recurring revenue and average fan spend and so on, but fundamentally, we care about sport because it hooks itself into our lives on a level that somehow goes beyond just “that was an enjoyable experience, both teams played some good Valorant, Zescht funy deutschmannen”; it becomes a function of identity.
For instance: I’m a football fan (Millwall) because ‘my’ club is woven into who I am through family, culture, experiences, and class, despite the fact that I never played football as a kid and have no connection to football in a sporting context. I follow other sports — particularly American football, which I played at uni and then semi-pro level, but as a spectator and as a fan, it’s absolutely not the same. (I make that point specifically about not playing the game because 9/10ths of the battle in esports and sports alike in the first place is that people are very, very unlikely to really get into a game as a spectator that they’ve never played — I think there is an upper limit to how successful any esport/sport can be without that element, but it’s clearly not a total bar.)
That’s hence the other side of the coin — obsession. Your long-term fans have to be obsessed. They have to be living vicariously through it. You want them to feel like they have an interactive relationship with the esport, to be arguing over who’s gonna win this week, to be listening to the radio and calling in, to be screaming over the idiot coach and his idiot decisions, that sort of thing.
Naturally, that’s a difficult thing to achieve, particularly when the nature of esports means that it’s rare that there’ll be any sort of familial or geographical link there. However, outside esports, the success over the last 20–30 years of the likes of the UFC tells us that it’s possible to some degree.
For me, I think that’s the greatest criticism that you can levy against Valorant right now. It feels like an esport that it’s very, very difficult to get obsessed about. We can put on as good of a show as we want whenever the curtains come up, but we still struggle for hooks outside of a handful of player personalities, mostly in NA. (Yes, that’s a player/org deficiency to some extent, but particularly this deep into the streaming era…if you’re relying on those personalities to go fix the problem for you alone, you don’t have an esport, you have a Cayman Islands gambling partnership waiting room.)
Now, to be clear: there is very good reason that Riot indexes so hard on the spectacle, and you can see it starkly in that period between when I started watching at Worlds 2014, and around 2018 or so. The game was still in the ascendancy at that point in terms of viewership and playerbase in the West, but one of the biggest criticisms of it on the esports side was that it was a shallow product. LCS ran on Bo1s (and only 2RR, having dropped from 3RR in 2014), everything was on one stream, the Challenger leagues were barely functional, and so on. There wasn’t enough for the hardcore fan to really get into, and the loudest voices were said fans — the kind of guys who have an awful lot of opinions about which Jin Air team was better.
So, Riot made big changes to try to work towards that. EU and NA both went from playing 18 maps a regular season to something like 40 with the introduction of Bo3s across the board. Focus was put into those advanced features — replays (albeit we never did get CS/DotA-type replays), PoV streams (albeit a lot of this postdates that exact period), multiple streams, all that jazz.
The problem? It was all a spectacular failure. Viewership on both LCSes cratered/continued to crater, interest remained low, and in the end, a huge number of the changes had to be rolled back pretty much entirely. Most teams now play fewer maps in a split than they did in 2015 even though there’s one extra split. Diluting the spectacle is absolutely not without a substantial amount of risk, because what if fans just tune out and don’t come back?
It is absolutely a balancing act — but it is a balancing act that you can’t, or shouldn’t, forfeit entirely. To pull in a sports example, American football in the UK and Europe is an amazing one. The briefest possible history of that goes as follows: there was a huge push by the NFL in the 1980s into the UK and other European markets, which worked for a time and triggered a boom in the domestic game, eventually leading to NFL Europe in the 1990s. NFL Europe and everything associated were a complete disaster and basically killed off both the NFL and said domestic game for an entire generation.
This was to the point that you had this odd time warp effect with how the game was perceived at one point — talk to someone in the UK in, say, 2010, about American football, and they’d be more likely to know about the Chicago Bears and William Perry than they would about the Patriots and Tom Brady. The spectacle had been great; it was still front and centre in their mind’s eye. It had generally failed to instill any lasting love or interest for the game itself or even the league. When the NFL started to come back to international markets in the 2010s, it took a very different approach — it’s getting into complex territory at this point, but the short way to describe it is that the approach has been to sell the NFL as a product and a spectacle and not care in any but the most superficial ways in promoting the underlying game. (Amusingly, the closest it’s come is in focusing on finding international players who are ready or near-ready for the league itself — see the practice squad expansion news today for instance — almost trying to create the same sort of parasocial connection that a lot of esports at some level.)
The 2023 calendar for VCT was all spectacle. Lock-In was a pretty good event in spite of its format, but it was, at its heart, a test show for Valorant as a game more than anything else. The VCT regular season format itself isn’t bad — single-RR Bo3 gets you to a similar number of maps as a split of LEC has and is solid on the ‘competitive’ side of building a competitive format — but only the one split was a brutal pill to swallow.
2024 is an improvement, but it still feels like Riot remain overindexed on the spectacle. Extremely restrictive international tournament qualification spots, league play still largely heavily condensed into what feels like a single split with kickoff into the two IL stages, your season being flat-out over in early July for 7 out of 11 teams in the league…opinions are mine and mine only, but even taking the most blue-sky view I can, it feels tighter than it should be on that spectrum coming into the second year of the game when you compare to e.g. how league play ramped up in LoL (albeit e.g. season 4 EU LCS was over second week of August, so still an extensive offseason). While on some level, I’m happy for the time and space given by such a long offseason, it’s a bit much to almost be forced to hit the reset button on drumming up interest in the pro game again by the time we get to January or whenever it is.
I don’t really write this as some big critique, or even really a critique on some level. My own view, as expressed publically and previously, is that I don’t really like franchised esports because of the compromises you have to make competitively for them to exist — but I understand why they’re sought-after and probably necessary in the current climate, I’ve happily worked in franchised leagues/ecosystems in both LoL and Valorant, and I’ll happily continue to do so in 2024.
I wrote this through because 1) it helps me think it through and 2) I think that things like this are important to think about, because esports are the oil tankers of the gaming worlds — huge, full of money, a disaster if they veer off course, and with the turning circle of, well, you know. Valorant is on course — or at least, a course — right now, and I don’t even necessarily think it’s in need of course correction at this point — but it’s important to understand what the seas look like, because that may not always be the case.