Can Riot Games strike esports gold twice with VALORANT?

Courtesy of Riot

On Tuesday, Riot Games will release VALORANT, the five-versus-five tactical shooter that took the internet by storm during its closed beta testing period.

Over the past few months, businesses and top players from other esports alike have flocked to the game -- making hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary commitments or forgoing guaranteed income in other stable games for a title that prior to this week hadn't been available to the public.

As the speculation market for VALORANT rises, mostly thanks to the success of developer Riot Games, the pressure is on the California company to strike gold twice. Millions of dollars are being bet that VALORANT will be as successful as League of Legends. Riot Games senior director of esports Whalen Rozelle says his team is taking those expectations head-on.

While often taken for granted, League of Legends' success is astonishing. Since late 2014, the game has been the most successful esports title in the world, eclipsing StarCraft before it, and building itself a massive lead even over its competitors in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and DOTA 2.

Along the way, though, Riot Games has acted without a blueprint, encountering new challenges and tasks and having to innovate along the way. At times, that resulted in less-than-appropriate measures and highly criticized and questionable decision making. League has not been perfect, even with its successes, but Riot hopes to take lessons learned in that game and apply it to VALORANT.

"We're coming up on our 10th anniversary of Worlds this year -- and it's amazing to look back on how much we've learned and grown as a team," Rozelle told ESPN. "There's a lot of value in giving a game time to grow organically. A large number of personalities and voices that emerged early on through community events ended up defining the voice of LoL esports. In some ways we were fortunate to ship LCS multiple years after the launch of the game with the support of such a strong and passionate esports community.

"There's also a need to balance short-term and long-term plans. With early League, we didn't have the luxury of making in-depth plans that looked years into the future, as doing this often requires scale. With our current resources and experience, we're now able to plan top-tier events while also looking ahead multiple years. For VALORANT, we are a smaller team but still able to split our focus between ensuring the months after launch go well while also mapping out how our sport could look not just in 2021 but '22 and beyond."

Even before VALORANT's launch, the game had garnered significant esports attention. Organizations such as Twitch, T1, G2 Esports and even ESPN have hosted events featuring players in North America and Europe. In mid-April, Riot said it wouldn't immediately move to a franchise model for the game, similar to what exists in three of the four major regions in League of Legends (South Korea, the fourth, will move to that model in 2021). Instead, Riot will carefully license game broadcast rights to select tournament organizers.

"Locking in a permanent partnership model so early without giving the game and community time to establish its own voice and personality could very well cause us to make decisions that would be nearly impossible to change even if we learned something new one to two years in [commonly the case with the ultra-fast evolutionary pace of esports]," Rozelle said. "The flexibility of an open, tournament licensing approach lets us learn, design and evolve a system to best serve the VALORANT esports fan."

Rozelle said Riot will certainly host tournaments of its own but that it won't immediately flip the switch on permanent partnership. He hopes that with time and building a data set, one day VALORANT will be able to transition to something unique yet valuable to both teams and sponsors looking to participate.

That may be the biggest lesson learned for Riot, from an esports perspective. Throughout parts of League of Legends' history, Riot received backlash for failing to incentivize and reward teams investing heavily into the space.

In mid-to-late 2016, tensions between Riot and some of its teams reached an all-time high, with Riot co-founder Marc Merrill and Team SoloMid founder Andy "Reginald" Dinh trading verbal blows online about the state of pro League of Legends that summer. Later that year, 18 of the 20 teams participating in the League of Legends Championship Series in both North America and Europe signed a letter addressing financial concerns, revenue sharing and league charter plans.

"Over the course of our first 10 seasons, we can't help but look back with hindsight and wish we could tweak things -- irrespective of the success we've had," Rozelle said. "For example, in hindsight, we should have collaborated more deeply with our teams earlier. Being on the same page and aligning our efforts unlocked a lot of value for the sport, and waiting until we were in a permanent partnership system to more deeply collaborate delayed our collective success."

Riot also drew criticism for its decision-making around discipline. Notably, earlier in 2016, it banned three teams from the LCS and the Challenger Series: Team Impulse, Team Dragon Knights and Renegades. While Impulse was clearly justified -- the team hadn't paid players for an extended period of time -- the Renegades decision drew significant backlash, as Riot failed to thoroughly explain its decision, leaving much to speculation and discussion around absolute power.

To let its team be more involved, the Riot esports team met with more than 120 pro teams and organizations about VALORANT prior to the beta, Rozelle said.

"Our goal was to kick off -- or deepen, in the case of teams already participating in LoL -- our relationship with those organizations," Rozelle said. "We spent a lot of time asking questions and listening -- what were their experiences in other FPS esports? What would be things they'd like to see in VALORANT esports? We also shared our high-level plans and approach for feedback. We learned a ton and many of those orgs are already fielding teams, hosting tournaments or both."

Riot's esports operation has changed, mostly for the better, a lot in the past four years. It's brought in new perspective, starting at the top with the promotion of Nico Laurent as the company's new CEO and in the minute, hiring former Microsoft and Lionhead staffer John Needham as its new global head of esports and other voices -- like well-regarded sports attorney Chris Greeley -- in prominent roles within the group. When Rozelle joined in 2012, fewer than 10 people worked full-time on esports, he said. Now more than 100 work on it across the globe.

VALORANT as an esport has some much-needed changes. One is a much more thorough spectator mode, a key feature that while insignificant to the average player will mean a ton for large organizers. Throughout beta the VALORANT spectator was clunky -- at times switching players' keybinds from one to another, particularly at the change of a half -- and other bugs were exemplified on stream of many beta tournaments.

On Twitter on Thursday, longtime Riot employee and VALORANT character designer Ryan "Morello" Scott said spectator, to his knowledge, wasn't a large focus for launch day. Rozelle said that his team is working in step with VALORANT and its lead developers, Anna Donlon and Joe Ziegler, in helping push the agenda forward on certain game design aspects, including spectating.

This weekend, Twitch will host a $200,000 VALORANT Twitch Rivals tournament as an unofficial kickoff for the esport. That's far different from League of Legends, which started off in dingy convention hotel ballrooms and staff struggled to keep it together. It's been a long journey for Riot, and now the big question is: Can they strike gold twice?