Why is everyone watching Valorant?

Riot’s first-person shooter launched its closed beta on April 7 and immediately broke the Twitch record for “most hours watched for one game in a single day” with 34 million hours viewed. It also hit a peak concurrent viewership of 1.7 million that same day, second only to the 2019 League of Legends World Championship.

Throughout the closed beta, which ended on May 29, there was also an unusually large number of high-profile esports tournaments for a game still in beta, including the ESPN Esports Valorant Invitational, the 100 Thieves Valorant Invitational, the Fnatic Valorant Open Tournament, and the Twitch Valorant European Showdown.

So how did a game that hasn’t even been released yet come to absolutely dominate Twitch?

For the past three years or so, two games have dominated the FPS esports scene (I’m not counting Battle Royale games like Fortnite here): Blizzard’s Overwatch and Valve’s CS:GO. But other than the fact that they’re both first-person shooters, the two games could not be further apart.

Overwatch is fast-paced, fantastical, and over the top, with a tesla-cannon wielding gorilla and a hamster rolling around in a giant mechanical ball.  

If you’ve never played Overwatch before (and honestly, sometimes even for players with hundreds of hours logged into the game) watching an Overwatch pro game can be impossible to follow as visual effects flood the screen, characters fly all over the place, ultimates and other abilities get thrown out left and right. Here’s what I’m talking about:

On the other hand, CS:GO features tactical, realistic, and comparatively slow-paced gameplay. At the highest levels of competition, rounds are often decided by positioning, and superior strategy rather than reaction-times and good aim, and as such, teams spend a lot of time moving into position before the action starts.

And when guns do start blazing, the action is often over in seconds with a less than one second time to kill in most cases. Watching a CS:GO match is easy to understand and follow, but it can be boring with long periods of inaction as you wait for the teams to move into position.

But now there’s a third option: Valorant. And it might be the best of both worlds.

Valorant is a 5-vs-5 tactical shooter, and is essentially a CS:GO clone in terms of core gameplay, but with the addition of characters and ability usage like Overwatch.

Matches are played best-of-25, with the first team to win 13 rounds winning. One team starts on attack, while the other is on defense, and after 12 rounds the teams switch sides.

Right now, there’s only one game mode: Defuse, which sees the attacking team trying to plant a spike — Valorant’s family-friendly word for bomb — in a designated area (maps can have either two or three eligible sites).

The defending team has to prevent the attackers from planting the spike, or defuse it if it’s already been planted.

Alternatively, if either team kills all five members of the opposing team, they win the round automatically — although if the spike has already been planted, the defenders must still defuse it before it explodes.

When the game launches, there will be 10 characters, or agents as the game calls them, each of which falls into a specific role: Initiator, Controller, Duelist, and Sentinel, with abilities to help them fulfill these roles. Each character has three abilities at their disposal, plus an ultimate ability.

For the most part, Valorant abilities complement gunplay rather than overwhelm it, which is often the case in Overwatch.

The abilities range from tactical moves like smoke bombs, flash grenades, and spy cameras, to straight-up damage effects like molotov cocktails, shock arrows, and acid grenades.

Some of the more fantastical abilities include Omen’s ultimate, From the Shadows, which is essentially a map-wide teleport, and Sova’s ultimate, Hunter’s Fury, which fires three high-damage energy bolts that can pass through walls and will travel the entire length of the map, hitting and marking anything in their way. But even these abilities don’t have the singular game-changing impact that some of Overwatch’s ultimates have, like Zarya’s Graviton Surge or Genji’s Dragonblade.

Credit: Riot Games

The abilities solve CS:GO’s biggest problem as a spectator esport, adding another layer of strategy that speeds up the gameplay, and is both exciting to watch and easy to appreciate. At the same time, they don’t completely dominate the gameplay the way they can do in Overwatch.

The end result is a game that is accessible to spectate, even for players who have never played Valorant before, and immensely fun to watch.

“When setting out to build a tactical shooter, we saw the opportunity to inject abilities into the space. Abilities increase variability in gameplay, with new creative scenarios to navigate and problem solve in real-time,” Valorant senior game designer, Trevor Romleski, told ONE Esports. “Traditionally, ability mechanics in the FPS space provide little counterplay. For Valorant, we allow for these creative moments without compromising on gunplay.”

Here’s a clip of ex-CS:GO pro, Tyler “Skadoodle” Latham making great use of all of Omen’s abilities to stylishly 1v4 the enemy team.

The abilities also allow for creative gameplay that just would not be possible in CS:GO.

Here’s a great example of Sova’s shock arrows being used to clutch out a round.

Unlike CS:GO, which has basically remained the same since launch, Valorant’s agents allow the game to grow over time with new abilities and new strategies.

And unlike Overwatch, which now has a roster of 32 heroes, and is arguably more similar to a MOBA now than an FPS, Riot is taking a more careful approach to adding heroes. With just 10 heroes available at launch, don’t expect to see a massive roster anytime soon.

“Making Agents in a game like this was very difficult; we had a lot of hard conversations about what works in tactical gameplay and what does not,” said Romleski. “Exhaustive playtesting and aligning as a team was critical for us to find the right way to execute on characters in a tactical shooter. We had plenty of hilarious moments along the way where we tried an ability that sounded great in theory, but turned out to totally not work for the game.”

Valorant launches worldwide for PC on June 2.

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