Opinion: Valorant Masters in Iceland Marks the Next Era in Esports – The Esports Observer

On Feb. 7, 2013, the esports industry changed forever. A game publisher was finally willing to commit the resources to building a sustainable league for one of the most popular games in the world. When Riot Games launched the LCS, it marked a new era in esports. The early days of esports, led by South Korea’s evolution and the dominance of StarCraft, was over and the era of League of Legends and active, strategic publisher support had begun.

Like any other technology-driven industry, esports has evolved rapidly over the last decade, but the top of the scene has remained largely consistent. The Big Three of League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Dota 2 still carry the greatest weight with their championship-level events, despite the surge of new mid-tier esports. New releases are more likely to make a big esports push and flame out soon after than they are to build any sort of lasting legacy.

Today, it may finally be time for the status quo to change. In a few years, we could be looking back on this week as the moment the next phase of esports began – when things shifted from Riot leading the way in a single game to becoming the driving force for the industry as a whole.

With the start of the Valorant Champions Tour Masters in Iceland, Riot Games will finally challenge the legacy of CS:GO in a real and meaningful way. The first year of Valorant esports drew plenty of attention and organization interest, but the pandemic delayed the start of the most important aspect of any esport: international rivalry. Today is the first taste of international competition the game has seen since its launch in mid-2020. Now is the time when Valorant esports truly begins, and it has the potential to change the shape of this industry.

Like Super Smash Bros. Melee before it, CS:GO has often thrived in this industry in spite of its publisher. Every Melee fan (myself included) has lamented what the game could have been had Nintendo only taken a more active role in the development of its esports ecosystem. While Valve gives dramatically more support to CS:GO in comparison, it amounts to little compared to the global ecosystem Riot has cultivated over the last decade for League of Legends. Early signs show that they’re looking to replicate that success in Valorant.

Already Valorant has a clearer seasonal competition structure than CS:GO. There are more obvious stakes to events, and a year-long narrative culminating in an actual world championship. Not only has Riot already secured multiple sponsors for its circuit, but the company is actively promoting esports within the game itself. Heroes of the Storm fans will remember the feeling of seeing an Overwatch League tab on the Battle.net launcher while the actual HotS landing pages and in-game displays gave no hint that anyone actually played the game competitively. What we would have given for even a fraction of the visibility Riot has already given to Valorant esports.

The potential success of Valorant isn’t just about dethroning CS:GO, much as Riot may enjoy that, and the Reddit debates about the two games will be forever entertaining. But the model on display through Valorant – a measured approach to entering a saturated genre, active support in-game and out – could become the blueprint for how new games should think about esports. If Valorant posts strong viewership figures with this event and its world championship later this year, the assumptive status quo of esports will be forced to change. We will indeed have entered the next era of esports.

Some may argue that the new era of esports began in 2018 with the launch of the Overwatch League and the push towards a franchise model. However, we have yet to see this reshape the industry beyond a short-term influx of investment capital. There hasn’t been a mass move into franchising across esports, and should the OWL fail it could well set the industry back rather than pushing it forward.

On the other hand, Valorant has all the tools necessary to create a lasting impact. It sits in a proven esports genre but with a more sponsor-friendly visual identity. It is doing more to appeal to women, an extremely underserved segment of the audience, than any game has done before it. Most importantly, it is supported by a company with a long-tail view of how to cultivate an esports ecosystem. What was a meme in Artifact is true for Riot – they’re in this for the long haul. Even if Valorant never reaches the level of global domination that League of Legends has achieved, by contesting the established hierarchy and delivering on concepts like in-game advertising and support for women’s esports the company can leave a lasting mark on the shape of this ecosystem.

What’s more, Valorant is just the start. Later this year, Riot will also host the first international event for Wild Rift, challenging the status quo in the mobile genre as well. Since 2013 we have operated in the era of League of Legends, but we may well be transitioning into the era of Riot Games.

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