On Tuesday, Riot Games first-person tactical shooter VALORANT will go into closed beta.
In a private bootcamp on March 27-29, a group of top influencers, media and esports pros played the game for the first time, including some from ESPN.
Among these participants were Counter-Strike: Global Offensive pros, commentators and luminaries, the likes of active pros Team Vitality star Mathieu “ZywOo” Herbaut and Team Liquid rifler Jake “Stewie2k” Yip; former pros Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert, Tyler “Skadoodle” Latham, Sean Gares and Spencer “Hiko” Martin; and commentator Daniel “ddk” Kapadia and content creator Scott “SirScoots” Smith. Keven “AZK” Larivière and Braxton “swag” Pierce, who were banned permanently from Valve-sanctioned Counter-Strike events for match-fixing in an online match in 2014, also participated.
Reactions from the Counter-Strike community seemed resoundingly positive when the embargo for content lifted on Friday.
Many have questioned what impact VALORANT will have on other esports titles’ ecosystems, including in Counter-Strike. In Fortnite, World Cup runner-up Harrison “Psalm” Chang announced Sunday he’d quit Fortnite to pursue VALORANT full time. Other pros from other games participated in the bootcamp and many expect the jump to happen in other titles, like Overwatch, to be attempted.
But what about Counter-Strike?
Team Vitality Counter-Strike veteran Richard “shox” Papillon — who also participated in the VALORANT bootcamp — said he doesn’t believe top players will make the jump from Counter-Strike to VALORANT. Rather, shox believes that lower-ranked players or semi-professionals will look to change games, in order to have a competitive advantage over players new to first-person shooters.
“It’s really hard for them to reach the top,” shox told ESPN on Monday. “So they will try to go to VALORANT to try and be the highest possible level in VALORANT because they’re not reaching it in CS. In my opinion if you look at the top 10 or top 15 teams in CS, I don’t see someone leaving a team like this to go to VALORANT.”
Counter-Strike is easily the closest one-to-one comparison for VALORANT. While the new Riot-developed shooter does have characters with abilities akin to Overwatch or Apex Legends, those who have tried the game have compared it most to Counter-Strike in terms of gameplay.
While I’m sure some Counter-Strike pros will make the jump, I don’t expect Counter-Strike to take a massive hit from VALORANT’s eventual esports debut. VALORANT will thrive where Counter-Strike struggles — among advertisers, TV executives and other naysayers who have concerns about the graphic nature of the game’s aesthetics: terrorists vs. counter-terrorists, bomb planting and defusing, replicas of real-life guns, gore. But if Counter-Strike has shown anything over the past 20 years, it’s that it will remain relevant in spite of other titles.
That said, VALORANT might be Counter-Strike’s best challenger yet. Riot Games may have only ever launched one successful esport, League of Legends, but that esport is the biggest in the world. League of Legends and Riot have climbed hills Counter-Strike hasn’t been able to, such as penetrating the Asian player base market and franchising in a system that convinced several billionaires to open their pocketbooks in the United States, Europe and China. Meanwhile, much of Counter-Strike’s success has been on the back of third party organizers and community creators.
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If anything, Valve will now need to tap into Counter-Strike more. Build it. Nurture it. And most importantly, finally invest in it.
The Counter-Strike community has called for years for Valve to push the world’s second-largest esport even further. It’s done so in Dota 2, but at a cost — to the mainstream, the only Dota 2 event that matters each year is The International, which featured more than a $30 million prize pool in 2019.
Counter-Strike is indefinitely more relevant year round but has struggled with turf wars between organizers, with Valve only stepping in at the prospect of one organizer looking to monopolize the leagues by partnering with teams. Putting Counter-Strike in the Dota box isn’t the right call either. Instead, Valve will need to think outside that box and iterate on what has made Counter-Strike the biggest first-person shooter title in esports. Even bigger than Call of Duty, which has received hundreds of millions of dollars in investment more over the years.
Based in Seattle and with its founding executive Gabe Newell still at the helm, Valve is known for its loose environment. Desks in its office are reportedly on wheels with anchors, allowing employees to move from one project to another, and according to the BBC, managers are banned, making those transitions even easier. It’s made Valve one of the most successful game companies in the world — both as developer and publisher and storefront with Steam. Where it hasn’t helped is esports.
Now Valve has little choice. Riot Games is coming for its audience and using VALORANT to target a fanbase that has eluded Valve. It’s time for Valve to finally step up.
League of Legends and Dota 2 do co-exist in the esports space. But Valve is on the losing end of that equation.
Dota is No. 2 to League of Legends’ No. 1. Valve can’t afford to let VALORANT to catch up to Counter-Strike, but if Riot’s shown anything since League of Legends’ release in 2009, it’s that it has no issue lapping existing games in the same genre, like the original Dota and then Heroes of Newerth, in the same genre.
If Valve wants to keep on top, it’ll need to do what’s seemed impossible. More than 10 majors and eight years later, it’s time for it to give Counter-Strike esports a nice bump in a post-coronavirus world. Work to make a circuit — like it is with the newly-announced regional major rankings — but with the intent of it continuing full time, rather than just because a pandemic has shaken up the calendar. Put a few more million dollars in the prize pool. Take Counter-Strike to a new level.
Shox isn’t optimistic Valve will react, given how hands-off the developer has been in handling Counter-Strike esports, particularly since the release of Global Offensive in 2012. But he doesn’t believe VALORANT will hit Counter-Strike as much as others predict.
“As a CS pro, I would really love Valve to be more committed to the game and definitely do more updates,” shox said. “But I don’t think it’ll change anything with Valve, because I don’t see VALORANT as a competitor to CS because they’re two different games. VALORANT will have its own scene, with its own players, its own team, its own competition. I don’t see it as a competitor to CS.”
I won’t argue that VALORANT is a Counter-Strike killer. That’s a stupid argument and anyone making it is providing more hot take than fact. But it doesn’t mean VALORANT won’t impact Counter-Strike at all. The right mindset is in the middle. The ball’s in Valve’s court. Now it’s time for them to react.