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Inside the race to compete in ‘Valorant,’ the ‘next big esport’

(Washington Post illustration; iStock; Valorant)
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What will it take for teams to make it into the next major esports league? A track record of success, sure. But healthy finances, interactive websites and even flashy displays from the roof of SoFi Stadium, visible to passengers descending toward Los Angeles International Airport, could also play a role.

In April, video game developer Riot Games announced that the esports ecosystem around its tactical first-person shooter “Valorant” would pivot from an open tournament structure to a closed league system. The overhaul, slated for 2023, begins with the founding of three international leagues representing the Americas, Europe and Asia; these three leagues include a limited number of slots reserved for organizations that apply for a “partnership” with Riot Games.

Since the partnership system was first revealed, a handful of teams in North America have become finalists in the process — while a greater number have let go of their rosters and suspended participation in the esport. In the American league, organizations hoping to participate at the highest level are reportedly competing for just eight to 10 slots. Evil Geniuses and Version1 have both advanced to the next phase of the application process, according to spokespeople for the two teams. XSET co-founder and COO Marco Mereu declined to specify what the organization had heard from Riot, citing a nondisclosure agreement, but said he was “not disappointed.” Other organizations, including Sentinels, TSM, Cloud9, NRG, Gen.G and The Guard, have also moved ahead in the application process, according to a report by Dot Esports.

The fight for a “Valorant” partnership slot has increasingly played out across social media, as interested teams have rallied their fanbases in support of their applications and pumped out content to demonstrate reach and clout. A video shared to Twitter by the esports organization TSM, for example, ended with the roster’s biggest name, Yassine “Subroza” Taoufik, entreating fans: “Show your voice.”

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Los Angeles-based organization The Guard, meanwhile, went above and beyond — quite literally. The team’s parent ownership group, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (which also owns the Los Angeles Rams and Denver Nuggets, among a range of other teams and venues) broadcast The Guard’s logo alongside the “Valorant” logo from the roof of LA’s SoFi Stadium. The team hired a helicopter to fly over and photograph the display to include in their application.

“For us, it’s an indication of what we can do in the future,” said Alex Rubens, a senior vice president of esports at Kroenke Sports & Entertainment. The Guard hopes to engage fans in Los Angeles, Rubens said. To that end, Kroenke-owned SoFi Stadium and neighboring YouTube theater were unique selling points for the organization. “It’s always up to Riot where they’re going to put their events. We obviously think that those two venues are really great places that they could put them,” Rubens said.

Evil Geniuses delivered a physical copy of their application to Riot in person along with some team swag. But the check-the-box materials — a slide deck and booklet — were supplemented by an interactive website in which Evil Geniuses staff, illustrated to look like “Valorant” agents, narrate the content of the presentation. The site also includes mock-ups of possible branded skins and merchandise, and it gives Riot a sneak peek at “Valorant” content creators Evil Geniuses plans to announce in the coming months.

“[The site] is super fun. It’s like, hover over this, click here, press here for sound, Easter eggs here,” said Nicole LaPointe Jameson, chief executive of Evil Geniuses. “Maybe we’ll share it if we get in later, and remove some of the secret sauce.”

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Few public examples exist of what a standard application might look like, though some organizations pointed to Team Liquid’s public application to Riot’s League of Legends Championship Series, or LCS, as a useful point of reference. In that application — or at least the parts of it that are available online — Liquid chronicles the team’s history and origins, highlights its investor network, outlines plans and expansion efforts and describes its content capabilities and reach. The rest of the 259 page application is dedicated to the team’s competitive philosophy and strategy.

“[Liquid] did a very good job of answering that bid,” said Jacob Trobaugh, vice president of esports and acquisitions at Version1. “It probably would have been a pretty decent bid if you were to switch ‘League of Legends’ for ‘Valorant’ with Ctrl+F.”

Similarly, as Riot narrows down its list of possible “Valorant” partners, it’ll be attentive to teams’ track records and capabilities when it comes to in-game competition, making content and participating in media days — but how organizations perform financially is yet another key factor. The developer doesn’t just want a good competitive product, but a good commercial one as well, LaPointe Jameson said.

“I think EG is in contention as a team that might be more boring in some areas,” LaPointe Jameson said, laughing. “But that boringness ensures that we will be a steady and stable and brand safe and ethical org five, 10 years down the line.”

Unlike organizations involved in franchised leagues, partners won’t have to pay entry or participation fees; in fact, partners are slated to receive an annual stipend from Riot. Some organizations, including XSET, praised the developer for that approach.

“When I talked to some owners in some of the other leagues that have $25-$35 million buy-in, some of these owners, even though they were losing money hand over fist, felt good about the fact that they were in this exclusive league that other people just couldn’t afford to get into,” Mereu said. “If Riot had launched Valorant the way [Activision Blizzard] launched Overwatch League, XSET Valorant never would have happened.”

XSET — and just about every other partnership contender — pointed to its competitive record as a key part of its value proposition. The organization’s “Valorant” roster recently attended the international Masters Copenhagen tournament, one of just two North American teams to qualify after a grueling season of open qualifiers, group stage games and an eight-team playoff bracket. The team took pains to develop its talent, rather than just “buying the most expensive players in the market,” Mereu said.

But winning isn’t the only thing that matters. In XSET’s application, a 60 page digital book, the organization highlighted its competitive set (clothing and lifestyle brands like Supreme and Nike, rather than other esports teams) and its financial fitness. (“We’re profitable,” Mereu said. “We make money.”)

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XSET, Version 1 and Evil Geniuses, among others, also noted inclusivity and diversity as key points of alignment with Riot Games. Both XSET and Version 1 field rosters in Game Changers, “Valorant’s” women’s league. Evil Geniuses entered the “Valorant” scene with a co-ed roster; while that roster floundered, one of the players, Christine “potter” Chi was moved to a coaching position, a role from which she led the latest iteration of the team to a record-high season finish.

“I think Riot is very interested — and I don’t think this is any secret — in promoting diversity and inclusivity in gaming,” Mereu said. “We founded [XSET] on the ethos of building the most diverse, inclusive gaming organization out there. We thought there [are] just too many cookie cutter orgs that looked and felt the same and appealed to the same audience and we really wanted to embrace how diverse gaming is.”

Two organizations, The Guard and Version 1, made a selling point of the perks afforded to their players and staff thanks to the backing of high profile sports families. Version 1, which is owned by the Wilf family, who own the Minnesota Vikings, and businessman Gary Vaynerchuk, offers personal training, performance coaching and housing to players who relocate, among other more standard benefits, like a 401(k) and insurance.

Version 1′s Trobaugh, a former professional esports athlete himself, described the organization’s approach as markedly different from what was available in the industry even just a decade ago.

“I played esports at a time where you’d be signed to a contract and you weren’t even sure if you would receive the paycheck, or if the organization that signed you would send you to an event,” Trobaugh said. “So with that in the back of my mind, we try to be very players-first.”

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There’s also a degree of stability that comes with that kind of ownership.

“The Wilf family have thought very long term, in every sense, with all investments they do. Esports is no different,” Trobaugh said. “In a time where all the signs point to us heading to economic uncertainty, we are very, very lucky to have a stable ownership group that is confident in our leadership team and confident in esports.”

Though every pitch was ultimately different, one common thread united all organizations. Every team expressed tremendous conviction in “Valorant” as a game and in Riot as a developer.

“Riot is really, I think, the cream of the crop when it comes to a partner in esports in terms of the amount of money they invest in their games and esports in general,” XSET’s Mereu said. “A lot of game publishers look at esports as just a marketing expense versus actually growing the esport itself. I think Riot is an exception to that.”

That sentiment was echoed by John Robinson, president and COO of 100 Thieves.

“Since the very beginning, when we played the early access versions of ‘Valorant,’ we’ve just been really impressed by Riot finding a unique space in the genre and really innovating in that arena,” Robinson said. “Their big follow up [to ‘League of Legends’] has been nothing short of an industry-defining game.”

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100 Thieves submitted an approximately 80-page document to Riot, outlining what Robinson described as “a narrative story” detailing the organization’s history, philosophy and plans as a prospective partner. Robinson did not respond to a subsequent request for comment regarding the status of the 100 Thieves application.

While some organizations have celebrated their application’s progress, countless others have grudgingly announced their departures from the “Valorant” competitive ecosystem, having been turned down by Riot.

On June 2, just days after Riot released news of its move to a partnered international league, Luminosity Gaming — which at the time was fielding a top-performing “Valorant” roster in the midst of one of its best runs — announced it would be departing the game. Many more, including SoaR Gaming, New York Fury, Complexity and Akrew, recently bowed out of the process.

“ ‘Valorant’ is very expensive compared to some smaller esports titles,” said Alex Gonzalez, head of Luminosity Gaming, referring to rising talent costs as organizations compete over the best players. But the cost wasn’t the issue, he insisted. This year alone, Luminosity has entered competitive scenes in games like “Splitgate,” “Halo Infinite” and “Apex Legends,” among others. There were simply safer bets to make with the money and other ways to reallocate it that made more sense than to enter a grueling application process with little likelihood of success.

“I don’t think that there’s anyone out there that’s guaranteed a spot. If you speak to someone that feels very confident then I really hope they get it,” Gonzalez said with a chuckle. Still, he said, he hoped Luminosity would enter the Riot ecosystem at some point, perhaps through the Game Changers league.

Eventually, Luminosity transferred its players and coach to a different organization, Shopify Rebellion. But soon after, Shopify’s application for a partnership slot was declined.

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The organization decried the new system as artificially narrowing the path to participation.

“We’re obviously disappointed,” read a tweet from Shopify Rebellion, announcing that the organization’s application hadn’t advanced to the finalist stage. “A popularity contest for a woefully small number of team slots in a partnered league was always going to leave too many on the outside looking in.”

Now, the remaining hopefuls will just have to wait as Riot decides whether to grant — or deny — entry intro esports’ promised land.

“We identified ‘Valorant’ very quickly as what we thought would be the next big esport for the next 10 to 20 years,” XSET’s Mereu said. “You know, we looked at it and we said, ‘We’re going to build our entire esports program at XSET around ‘Valorant.’ It’s going to become the most important part of our company from an esports perspective.’

“It’s a kingmaker for esports organizations and esports game brands like ours. Being a Riot partner in the biggest esport for the next 10 to 20 years really redefines your company and your brand.”

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