(Early) Thoughts on Valorant

I’ve wanted to write this post for a few weeks now, but have not yet had time to extensively play the game. Finally I decided I should just jot my current thoughts down (or these thoughts will just be lost in time), noting that it is founded on a dangerously shallow understanding of the core game.

A quick disclaimer: I used to work at Riot Games, the developer behind Valorant, the game I’m about to discuss. My tenure at Riot overlapped quite a bit with this game’s development, but I was never affiliated with the project. My discussion below is based on public info.

Valorant is Riot Games’s new FPS currently in closed beta for PC platform, and its first new game IP since League of Legends a decade ago. There’s a lot riding on this game: in the short to mid term, this game will largely determine whether Riot is an multi-IP games studio,1 or “just” the League of Legends company (which to be clear is an extremely enviable position). It’s also a major test for Riot’s R&D process, as the game has been in development for over 6 years.

Savvy beta marketing

Marketing-wise, Valorant has had a great start. Its Twitch beta key strategy (keys randomly drop by watching Valorant streams, initially with designated partners, later with all channels) has overall been a resounding success.2 This is a mechanic that CS:GO players are familiar with, as CS:GO tournaments have often used in-game drops as rewards for watching streams. One criticism of such tactics is that they inflate Twitch engagement numbers; that certainly happened with Valorant, though I don’t think it’s Riot’s goal to hit specific viewership goals, but rather, to have optimal visibility / hype around the game’s beta launch – and that goal was more than fulfilled. (Possibly over done, even – for a while, Reddit was filled with complaints about not being able to get a key despite watching dozens of hours.)

Riot has also deployed its community engagement best practices to great effect. I’ve skimmed the subreddit over the past few weeks, and the community has generally been very appreciative of Rioter engagement. The “devs vs streamers” showmatch (where the devs won by a landslide) also earned the team a lot of street cred.


The core game (“5v5 character-based tactical shooter”) can be crudely described as 80% Counter-strike and 20% Overwatch. Counter-strike lends the main structure of the game: the 5v5 rounds-based format (with its economy macro play), the map objectives (bomb plant / defuse), and even the broad strokes of the weapons and gunplay feel. It even brought over the esoteric mechanic bunny hopping.3

The limited selection of grenades in CS is replaced with an expansive character system (the “20% Overwatch“), and character abilities are mostly about utility – detection, blocking vision / movement, mobility, and so on. Abilities are not free to use; instead, charges are purchased with hard-earned cash at the beginning of every round, which suggest their origins in CS-grenades. (Ultimate abilities are the exception: they are charged up by kills, deaths, planting / defusing, or collecting power-ups.) Damage-dealing abilities have been contentious within the community, partly due to Riot’s own marketing statements.

Based on very limited game time, I would say the core game works. It builds on the proven foundations of Counter-strike, and adds variety and depth with the characters system. It’s a very strong execution of a clear game thesis.

Bull & bear cases

This is where I make some wild speculations of the game’s future. This is done in earnest as a thought exercise, but take it for it is – subjective predictions and guesses. I’ve also intentionally pushed myself to plant some stakes in the ground, instead of hedging – so there’s a higher chance I look like an idiot in a few years time when I look back at this.

The game environment – cheating, toxicity, etc.

The seedy underbelly of a competitive online game. Riot has had a lot of experience manage this aspect in League of Legends, but it remains a challenge. In particular, anti-cheat is a never-ending war of attrition, and FPS games on PC seem to have the worst of it – PUBG, Apex Legends, Call of Duty: Warzone, and of course CS:GO. Riot made a big promise – “a commitment to anti-cheat from day one”, and promptly walked into a big, ongoing, controversy with its anti-cheat software, Vanguard. (A quick search will turn up lots of articles discussing this.)

As an aside – the situation around Vanguard tells you a lot about the PC platform. Vanguard asks for very high level system privileges, and raises legitimate concerns about privacy / malware / digital surveillance – the fact it can do so, and needs to do so4, is a problem unique to PC gaming (I’d guess Android is close). There are cheaters on console and iOS, but the scale / prevalence does not compare – for example, see the recent story about console Call of Duty players turning off crossplay to avoid PC cheaters. (And the compatibility headaches it is running into, with all sorts of hardware / software configuration edge cases, is also unique to PC gaming.)

Anyways – some of the Vanguard controversy is founded in conspiracy-theory land – singling out Riot for its ownership by Tencent, and thus leaping straight to concerns over Chinese hacking. Unfortunately, it is a sign of the times, and the trajectory of worsening US-China relations. But I won’t delve into that here.

The bear case here is that the security drama severely hampers the game’s growth, or even sinks it. But I think that would be extremely unlikely.

I am more concerned about toxicity, and how it reduces the addressable audience. Here I’m more pessimistic. I don’t expect Riot to do much better than it did in League – which is to say, the game will have a male-dominant (like, ~90% male) community that is frequently toxic, and often prejudiced and hostile against female (and other minorities) gamers. This bleeds into my next point.


This is the biggest variable to Valorant’s future (and encapsulates many other variables, so this is not a MECE analysis). To start with my conclusion – if you were to ask me right now, I’d guess that Valorant stays safely within the confines of the existing PVP-shooter audience, and carves out a playerbase from various existing shooters; it will have a loyal following, but it will not challenge battle royale’s position as the leading PVP-shooter sub-genre globally.

The bull case for Valorant is where the game goes beyond converting its bulls-eye target of Counter-strike players, and attracts players of other adjacent PVP shooters – Overwatch, Rainbow Six Siege, Call of Duty, PUBG, Fortnite, Apex Legends, Escape from Tarkov… Going even more broadly, it could also appeal to players of other types of real-time multiplayer PVP games, such as League of Legends itself – this poses a mild cannibalization risk (which I wouldn’t lose sleep over).

It’s hard to imagine the game converting a lot of non-PVP gamers. I would guess that Riot does not have much interest in targeting them (at least not for this game), in contrast to, say, Fortnite‘s efforts at building a digital lifestyle brand (and catering to a wide gamer demographic). A lot of this is rooted in the company culture, which for years was “HARDCORE GAMER”, but this has been relaxed/widened a bit in recent years. Still, Valorant‘s Game Overview section on its beta website is pretty telling about the intended audience:

Here’s what we think it takes for you to trust a game enough to invest: 128-tick servers, at least 30 frames per second on most min-spec computers (even dating back a decade), 60 to 144+ FPS on modern gaming rigs, a global spread of datacenters aimed at <35ms for players in major cities around the world, a netcode we’ve been obsessing over for years, and a commitment to anti-cheat from day one.

Shooting in VALORANT is precise, consequential, and highly-lethal – we want you to win on your skill and strategy alone.

This is a laser focus on CS players, and disgruntled players who’ve complained about the “shitty netcode” of just about every shooter with a PVP mode. (Maybe it’s just for the beta phase, where they are prioritizing veterans above all else.) I’d argue this language is alienating to players less familiar with PVP-shooter games, who don’t necessarily understand jargons such as “128-tick”, and thus this marketing actively reinforces the existing male-dominant audience stereotype.

The arguments for a bear case come in a few flavors. The first is where CS players churn and flow back to CS, because at the end of the day, Valorant is a different game. There’s some premature indication of this on reddit, where CS veterans would demand certain types of mechanics (that are present in CS). This is a delicate balancing act, and looking at Riot’s early days with League and Dota veterans, I’m not too worried that Riot would over-cater CS veterans. (But the League / Dota analogy would also suggest that loyal CS players will stick with CS, and even be antagonistic to this new game which poses a threat to their community – this would limit the efficacy or targeting CS players to begin with.)

The second bear case argument is where Valorant fails to capture players other than CS die-hards. This does not seem to be the case so far, but I would guess the ceiling here is not high. My negativity here is largely emotions-based: since Valorant’s inception 6 years ago, we’ve witnessed some dramatic new entrants to the PVP shooter space – Overwatch, PUBG, and Fortnite, to name just a few. These games all brought some genre-defining “fresh” factor. I couldn’t help but feel that Valorant in comparison feels too old-school, too familiar (“I know exactly what I’m getting into”). There’s a market premium for novel experiences – for example, that first chicken dinner was unlike any game experience I’ve ever had before – and Valorant judged by its cover is treading on familiar ground.

The last argument is about overserving player needs. I recently came across this excellent article on fy_iceworld – and vivid memories of playing CS1.5 in college in China came roaring back. I was the snob that begged classmates to play the “real game” (as in, play 5v5 bomb defusal mode), and we did very occasionally; most of the time though, we were “messing around” in fy_iceworld or playing 20-person PUGs (with max economy every round, of course). My point here being, if my cohort of CS players 15+ years ago is any indication (highly anecdotal, and a long time ago, for sure), the majority of players around me were playing CS “casually”. (Just like the vast majority of soccer enthusiasts around the world are not playing 11vs11 games on full-sized grass pitches with FIFA rules.) If Riot is too strict on the game modes offered, and don’t provide “casual” outlets in-game, it could cause these “bottom of the pyramid” players to churn, which could also pull away their social connections.


I don’t have much to say here, except that Valorant is clearly built as an esports title (in the proud tradition of CS), and it should have a vibrant esports scene that helps with maintaining the game’s player engagement. I also think that for spectators, shooters are much easier to understand and follow conceptually (vs MOBAs), and thus the bull case could be as big (or bigger) than League esports today. So I’m personally quite bullish here, and think that Valorant could enjoy disproportionately higher esports popularity relative to its active playerbase.

One bear case argument is societal attitudes towards video-game violence, and how much that impacts a shooter like Valorant when it comes to sponsorships or broadcast coverage. This may be an issue in North America.

Winning the Chinese market

I’m quite bearish here. Valorant will have a difficult road to launch in China (could be delayed by years), and even then its prospects are murky.

There is a strong bull case to be made. Firstly, Riot is owned by Tencent, which has market-leading publishing capabilities in China, and did a phenomenal job publishing League. Secondly, the PC PVP-shooter landscape is much less crowded (and more stagnant) than it is in North America – PUBG, Fortnite, Apex Legends, Call of Duty franchise are all not officially available in the market. Based on one source (tracking PC cafe consumption), the market leader remains Tencent-published CrossFire (launched in China in 2008), followed by Tencent’s self-developed Assault Fire as a distant second (10x engagement gap), with Overwatch and CS:GO in 3rd and 4th place. One could argue that the market is ripe for a new entrant, and Riot + Tencent is a fearsome combo.

But the bear case is quite stacked as well. To begin with, there is the regulatory uncertainty – for years, the trend has been in one direction, and that is tightening. And US-China relations are at historic lows, which makes getting the license approval for a US-based IP that much harder. (There’s a reason the big names above are all absent.) There’s a low (but non-zero) possibility that Valorant never gets a license.

Second of all, the CrossFire audience may not be interested in Valorant, despite the superficial similarities. This links back to my earlier point about fy_iceworld and the audience motivations.

Thirdly, the initial Chinese player reaction has been mixed, which reflects some brand gaps and taste differences. On NGA (a popular forum for Chinese hardcore gamers), Valorant‘s gameplay has been labeled “缝合怪” (stitched-up monster), which is a common term to describe video games that mash-up mechanics from different games5; and the visuals were unfortunately derided by some as “browser-game quality” (not understanding or refusing to acknowledge that it’s a conscious art style choice). These comments partly stem from hostile rivalry between Riot’s supporters and supporters of Blizzard and Valve. Blizzard is clearly the biggest and most beloved studio brand, and their Chinese supporters seem a tad unhappy about Valorant possibly taking players from Overwatch; meanwhile Valve supporters are still holding a grudge from the League – Dota2 rivalry, which has always felt much more intense in China. However, I do think the art style is an acquired taste to many Chinese players.

And last but not least, there’s the question of mobile.6


I’ll try to be concise here: my take is Valorant needs to have a mobile version, but it will be very challenging to get it right.

First, the most popular PVP-shooter globally, by a long margin, is a mobile game. PUBG Mobile announced 100M MAU last May. Its sibling game in China, Peacekeeper Elite (rebranded for regulatory reasons), was estimated to have had 197M MAU this March. So it’s plausible that the combined PUBG Mobile franchise currently has over 300M MAU – about the population of the US, or comparable to Twitter’s MAU.

In the China context, what this means is “all gamers are hardcore gamers”, if you define “hardcore” by genre played. To put this into a picture: Chinese moms are playing mobile battle royale with their children.

These Chinese moms will likely never play PC games, if they don’t already. A fraction of these kids will, but I’d bet majority of them will be mobile-only gamers. Clearly, Valorant is not a game made for them (and not every game needs to be made for the widest audience/platform); but I can’t help but feel Valorant cannot be a truly global game (which matters for its esports aspirations), without at least trying to accommodate such players somehow.

So should Valorant make a mobile version? The core game’s methodical play and precision aiming does not translate well to current mobile shooter control schemes (or console either). PUBG Mobile can get away with it, and retain the spirit of the original PC game, because the maps and the encounters are so open-ended – it’s only during close quarters combat where the gameplay feels like a parody at times. Perhaps CrossFire Mobile could be a reference here: the game superficially resembles its PC ancestor, but I’ve heard the engagement with the content is notably different from PC.

In closing…

As a meta comment: this post probably both took me the most time to write (10 hours over 3 nights, as I debated endlessly with myself), and left me least satisfied with the results. I hope you find it marginally useful. If I were to do it again, I would break it up into a couple posts, so I can have the energy and the space to mull over a specific point.

For the game discussed, I guess my overarching sentiment is moderate pessimism over product-market fit. Valorant is strong execution against a clear game thesis – I just don’t know how big that audience is, versus other possible opportunities.

  1. This doesn’t take into account Riot’s studio acquisitions – Radiant in 2016 and Hypixel in 2020, where there’s scant public info about their projects.
  2. Side note – I was surprised that beta keys could only drop on Twitch – I would have thought Riot would have enabled other streaming properties, such as Youtube & Mixer, to also participate. I speculate this is due to a lack of infrastructure (APIs etc.) on these partners, rather than lack of interest on Riot’s part.
  3. I don’t claim to be an expert on FPS games; I couldn’t understand why this mechanic is needed, aside from making CS players feel at home. It reminded me of creep-stacking and denying in Dota, and League of Legends choosing not to implement them.
  4. This is one of the hotly debated points in the controversy.
  5. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is another recent game that got this meme label. Not bad company to keep.
  6. For folks who’ve read some other posts on this site – do I sound like a broken record about mobile yet?