The Los Angeles-based gaming company has played a leading role in the development of esports over the past decade. Riot claimed that role in part by asserting direct control over the competitive scene for its game instead of outsourcing it to tournament organizers. Riot organized the League of Legends scene like a traditional sportslike league, with specific groupings operating in different parts of the globe. It also later sold franchise rights for slots in its North American circuit, the League Championship Series (LCS) for millions. Spots in the LCS recently were purchased for upward of $30 million after the decade-long track record of success for the esports property.
Both the newness of Riot’s free-to-play 5v5 game — still in a closed beta with an anticipated wide release this summer — and the differences between it and League, genre-wise, led Riot to its current strategy for Valorant, which is the company’s second AAA game.
“It’s akin to understanding that there’s a difference between basketball and soccer — the pace is different, the perspective is different,” said Whalen Rozelle, Riot’s senior director of global esports, when discussing the distinctions between League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena game, and Valorant, a tactical shooter game.
An immediate example of this distinction can be seen in the camera angles each game uses: League has an overhead view for gameplay whereas Valorant has a first-person view from a character’s perspective.
“Sometimes it’s harder to capture game [footage] when you’re locking into a first-person perspective,” Rozelle said.
Broadcasting a first-person shooter can be extremely complicated, as the Overwatch League has demonstrated. Last season, for its broadcasts, the league had a production team of about 80 people sending out 30 video feeds. Included in this staff were six people whose sole jobs were to decide which in-game characters and camera angles to show.
“One of the best things we can do is be stewards of people who have their own ideas,” Rozelle said, adding that the current setup will help Riot “accelerate learning, so that we’ll understand what’s working and not working … the best thing we can do is listen.”
The company will not be taking a completely hands-off approach, however. It will be sanctioning tournaments, with the goal of creating a cohesive experience for competitive gamers to avoid conflicts like overlapping tournament schedules. Balkanized competitive scenes have impacted other prominent titles, notably in the first person shooter genre Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
Riot has established standards for three tiers of tournament organizers, which it has classified as “small” for players, cafes and community organizers; “medium” for middle-tier businesses and brands, esports organizations and influencers; and “major” for top tier esports event organizers like Dreamhack and ESL.
Small pools cannot exceed $10,000 cash prizes and $100,000 annually, while medium events are capped at $50,000 per event and $200,000 annually. Riot stated it might contribute to prize pools at the medium and major levels.
All broadcast tournaments must turn off gore and refrain from advertisements from Riot’s prohibited sponsors list, which includes gambling, non-over-the-counter drugs, firearms, pornography, cryptocurrency, political campaigns or political action committees, and charities with “particular religious or political positions, or are not reputable.”
Rozelle said no major-level deals have been closed yet. A tournament hosted by esports organization 100 Thieves took place on Monday. Rozelle said Riot does not expect any full-fledged external leagues to emerge and that Riot has “entertained” the idea of setting up its own league.
Regarding the overall prospects for Valorant to develop as an esport, Rozelle said early numbers and engagement have exceeded the company’s highest internal estimates, though he declined to cite specific metrics.
Early reviews of the game have been largely positive, with gamers and viewers enjoying Valorant’s mix of strategic elements and pace of play. Over 1.7 million viewers watched the first public glimpses of the game on Twtich.