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The 5 big questions facing ‘Valorant’ esports in 2022

(The Washington Post illustration; Flickr/Valorant Champions Tour Photos/Wojciech Wandzel/Riot Games)
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At the Dec. 12 finals in Berlin, the European team Acend claimed “Valorant’s” first world championship, taking home a prize of $350,000 along with approximately $500,000 as part of a prize pool funded by in-game cosmetics sales. But even if the question of global supremacy is settled — for now, at least — there are trends relating to the health and trajectory of the “Valorant” esports ecosystem worth considering.

On Monday, Riot revealed the upcoming schedule for events in “Valorant’s” 2022 competitive circuit, the Champions Tour. The season will begin in late January with a four-day open qualifier. The 12 teams that make it out will proceed to the next stage, a seven-week, round-robin competition that ends with double-elimination playoffs, running from Feb. 11 to March 27. The winners will attend a global competition in mid-April. That event format will repeat starting in May, culminating in a Champions event in September, followed by third-party tournaments to round out the year.

The big narrative questions — chief among them, whether the North American region can bounce back after its end-of-year slump — are likely to be answered in April. But there are also some tectonic shifts rumbling underfoot. As “Valorant” matures, here are the biggest trends and questions that stand to shape the game and competitive scene’s second full year.

We’re likely to feel the impact of the TenZ buyout

In June, the esports organization Sentinels confirmed it had bought out Tyson “TenZ” Ngo’s contract from competing team Cloud9, for which Ngo was creating content after having dropped from the competitive team. The final price of the contract was $1.25 million, following a $250,000 loan. Cloud9′s original asking price for Ngo was reportedly $2 million.

That figure sets a benchmark for future buyouts, which could lead to an ecosystem where top talent is relatively immobile, locked in with the teams they’re signed to because other interested organizations are unwilling to pay the high asking price. We’re already starting to see that in the market for in-game leaders, said Michael “Mikes” Hockom, former coach of both the G2 Esports and Team Envy “Valorant” squads. In-game leaders are shot callers; they develop their squad’s playbook and direct their teammates during a match.

G2 were the kings of ‘Valorant’ in Europe. What happened?

“Teams have this notion that the perfect [in-game leader] will fix most of their issues, even though, in reality, it is most likely their system that is failing,” Hockom said. Organizations seeking a new in-game leader have three serious options: shell out for an expensive known quantity, cultivate young talent over a longer time frame, or recruit from overseas where prices may be lower. We can sense which way the winds are blowing: On Dec. 10, it was reported that the North American team 100 Thieves — among the best in the region — is trialing Adam “ec1s” Eccles, the former in-game leader of the European squad Ninjas in Pyjamas. In all likelihood, Eccles’s contract will cost less than that of 100 Thieves’s former in-game leader, Joshua “steel” Nissan, a former “Counter-Strike” pro and one of the best known in-game leaders in North America.

“Importing talent isn’t inherently a bad decision, but a lot of teams aren’t well equipped to support that transition process into a new environment,” Hockom said. “Moving to a new country sounds very exciting at first when you’re young, but a lot of the cons aren’t realized until you reach that place and experience it for months at a time.”

The victims of inflated player prices are likely to be some of the best players themselves, lower-tier talent that needs support and mentorship from tier-one organizations and international players whose health and success in a new region is far from guaranteed. As rosters are reshuffled between now and the first open qualifier in late January, Ngo’s buyout from June may have an outsize — and not entirely positive — impact on how teams and players negotiate.

Can Riot create new skills for players and pros to get excited about?

This one is a bit abstract, I admit.

For me, one of the brightest moments of watching someone like Nicholas “nitr0” Cannella play was when he started playing the wind-whipped fragger, Jett. I can distinctly remember moments in which Cannella, wielding an Operator, tilted rounds in his team’s favor with a flick. By contrast, I can’t remember a single frame of him in play when he was on the controller role, responsible for setting up plays for his teammates.

As esports watchdog ESIC tackles 'Counter-Strike' match-fixing, critics fear it's not up to the job

“Valorant” borrows much of its language and ideas from “Counter-Strike.” The Operator sniper rifle, specifically, is a clever homage to the AWP; “op,” the shorthand for Operator, is pronounced the same as “awp,” and players skilled at using them are “AWPers.” In “Counter-Strike” esports, professional AWPers are heralded as the best players in the game.

With the release of “Valorant’s” latest map, Fracture, Riot Games has made its interest in subverting tactical shooter conventions obvious. I’d like to see more of that. And one way for that to happen is if Riot finds a way to introduce new mechanics, similar to “Counter-Strike’s” awping, where mastery could define a professional “Valorant” player’s career. I ... don’t know what that thing might be. To “Counter-Strike’s” credit, it’s no simple ask to invent “awping version 2.0” But for now, Operator players command far more mindshare than their teammates, who often set them up to succeed with utility. I wonder if there’s a way to change that.

Are there going to be more monetization options for teams?

In a recent video keynote, Riot Executive Producer Anna Donlon announced a slew of changes meant to drive esports engagement, including integrating match schedules directly into the game client. These upgrades might bring marginal benefits to teams, but what about actual monetization options?

According to Riot, each participating champions team netted $500,000 as part of an in-game cosmetics promotion. It’s the game’s most prominent example so far of teams directly monetizing their involvement in the scene. But while it appears to have been a huge success, that money goes to just 16 teams. Over 10,000 teams competed in the Valorant Champions Tour in some capacity in 2021, according to Whalen Rozelle, the head of global esports operations at Riot Games.

‘Halo Infinite’ is embracing esports. Now teams want in.

I don’t follow “Halo Infinite” esports too closely — at least not yet. But when the game’s multiplayer beta launched in November, I immediately bought a Team Envy skin. Maybe the organizations investing in “Valorant” are holding out for a more systemic monetization opportunity on the horizon, like a franchised league system. But for now, I’d gladly support players and teams I like by purchasing cosmetics. And judging from the success of the Champions event skin collection, there are a lot of fans who feel the same way.

Viewership numbers didn’t uniformly go up — but there are some good signs

May’s “Valorant” Masters tournament in Reykjavik netted a peak concurrent viewership of 1,085,850 according to the esports analytics service Esports Charts. Last week’s final saw a peak of 1,089,068 — just over 3,000 more. Peak analytics are just one part of the picture, but at a glance it isn’t a reassuring image of growth. Still, those numbers aren’t entirely a bad sign. For one, Champions was evidence that “Valorant” doesn’t live or die by North American squads’ success or failure.

“The huge groundswell support for KRÜ, proved that there is major interest in cool underdog stories and a global appeal to the game,” said Josh “Sideshow” Wilkinson, an esports caster and analyst who is one of the hosts of Plat Chat, an esports analysis show, referring to the Latin American team that upset established North American and European squads at Champions. “On top of that, the finals were between two EMEA teams with medium-sized fanbases and — with the assistance of [free cosmetic] drops [for viewers to use while playing “Valorant”] — it overtook the Reykjavik finals for the most watched match of the game’s young history.”

In “Valorant” lobbies, rare gun buddies tend to elicit nagging questions about whose gun buddy it is and where the player got it.

“I have no idea how much gun buddy drops affected viewership but I think it’s very safe to say that they wouldn’t have beaten Reykjavik viewership without them,” Wilkinson said, noting that Plat Chat, which was granted permission to co-stream Champions by Riot, had more viewers on YouTube until the finals, when Twitch viewership peaked as drops were activated.

It’s certainly not the most pressing issue concerning “Valorant” esports, but the approach does raise some questions — mostly around how drops will be deployed in the future. If we grant that drops bring in viewers, will Riot use them to promote some of their less-widely viewed tournaments? And, perhaps more importantly, will that boost in viewership convert meaningfully to interest, support and eventually fandom?

Does Riot have a game plan for match-fixing allegations?

Will we see the end — or at least signs that we’re approaching a conclusion — of the match-fixing subplot to the past few seasons of “Counter-Strike” and “Valorant”? A number of players who are widely suspected of having fixed matches in an amateur “Counter-Strike” league crossed over to “Valorant” when the game launched in 2020. The investigation into these infractions by an esports integrity watchdog, the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC), has not yet been finalized.

As esports watchdog tackles widespread match-fixing, critics fear it can’t do the job

As a journalist, I want to see the results of that investigation. But I’m also curious if Riot, who will likely have the final say when it comes to administering sanctions to “Valorant” players, can find a punishment that will feel true to the spirit of upholding competitive integrity. And on that front, all I have are questions. Has too much time passed between the alleged infraction and now? Would justice be served if players were given a three month ban during which they streamed and made more money than they would competing? Does a lifetime ban, which would effectively end these players’ professional careers, serve the goals of competitive integrity? What does rehabilitation look like? Is the model set by Nissan, the aforementioned North American in-game leader who reshaped his image through years of service to the “Counter-Strike” community after his own match-fixing scandal, the only viable model of rehabilitation? What level of punishment would deter future misbehavior?

In short, I don’t envy Riot or ESIC as they resolve these questions. I just hope they resolve them in 2022.