VALORANT is now officially out and there’s every evidence Riot intends to push it into the esports limelight. Could it succeed where Overwatch has apparently failed? A brief history of esports seem to suggest that no publisher has managed to create a vibrant scene from scratch. In fact, if you go down the list of popular titles, the less control the developers exercise over the competitive scene, the more likely it seems the product will eventually evolve into an esport.
Naysayers thought it’s the end of CS:GO. A game once considered the pinnacle of tactical FPS has been exposed as a relic of the past by the colourful, flawless product released by an esports industry giant. You might think the above refers to VALORANT – and if you go onto the right subreddit you’ll no doubt find people saying it, but it could just as easily have been written about Overwatch a few years ago. In reality, time has shown that Overwatch is an somewhat flawed product when it comes to esports, both from the spectator and player point of view, to the point where the current meta requires rotating hero pools and viewership has plummeted on a year-on-year basis. And this is a game made by Blizzard, a company that unintentionally made what are arguably the most important esports titles to date: the StarCraft series.
So, the only real precedent we have to go off is Blizzard’s shooter, and the parallels are eerie. Both companies have successful histories in other genres, both have experience in esports, and both have massive amounts of money to promote their products. Both have also attempted to round off some of CS:GO’s rough edges and make a more polished, family-friendly version, perhaps not realising that polish is not what people get hooked on in the first place.
When it comes to tier one, if you look further at the biggest esports in the world today, neither of the Valve products are even truly Valve products, with both CS:GO and Dota essentially being born of fan-made modifications of existing products, rather than being created to be competitive titles from the get-go by a studio. Add to that the fact Counter-Strike itself took decades to evolve from the mod to the game we know and love today, and it seems like the idea any company could just ‘make’ an esport from scratch is pretty far-fetched…
Some would even say ‘making’ an esport is just not possible based on the evidence we have. Super Smash Bros Melee is a perfect example of a game that was esports-ready on release, but only when being played in a way developers never anticipated, and modern attempts by the company to replace it have produced far less competitive titles with a fraction of the longevity or appeal.
Valve have also had their own disastrous crack at a producing a competitive title recently: Artifact, which was created in the opposite order to most of the successful games Valve owns, with the game first and the community expected to follow. Dota and CS grew organically, with the TOs that serve them doing the same. While it is true League of Legends is a slightly less organic product in terms of the esport, that game already had proof of concept before Riot made it, a community that existed around it and third-party TOs that took the early risks.
When it comes to Overwatch – and by extension VALORANT – there is no real proof of concept in terms of a truly successful esport. Comparisons with Team Fortress 2 aren’t that apt as the Valve class-based shooter is far simpler and more elegantly executed in terms of character balance (as well as in no way a successful esport, sadly), and in some ways it’s even harder to call Overwatch a success when you consider it had more resources poured in at launch than almost any game to date and has yet to prove itself a functional competitive game, let alone a tier one esport.
Even League of Legends is ‘inspired’ by another product: a Warcraft mod which also formed the nucleus of Dota. of sorts, so of the big three esports it’s fair to say none of them were actually created by the publishers outright. With this in mind, it seems less and less likely that VALORANT could be a legitimate threat to CS:GO in the short term, and more likely that the game will go the way of Overwatch: settling into a niche in the second tier of esports, with a smaller but still dedicated fanbase.
That’s not to say a publisher can’t make an esport outright – and games like Rainbow Six have certainly evolved down the years to become more functional competitively – but history isn’t on VALORANT’s side. Riot will no doubt brute force it in the beginning, but Overwatch has proved you need the core product to be good for the audience to grow, and the history of esports suggests the best products come from communities that just want to have fun, rather than companies trying to make bank.