There have been debates around the potential impending ‘death’ of Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive since Riot Games’ new shooter Valorant surfaced, even before it officially launched in June 2020. While there are no real signs so far that this will be the case, there may be some value in comparing the games in terms of their competitive activities.
While the two can, and likely, will coexist, there’s an interesting contrast to the games’ esports efforts and how their respective developers are handling such scenes. Besides the fact that both games are five-versus-five shooters with in-game economies, there aren’t many similarities — especially on the esports front.
I believe that the way Valorant has been designed, in both its casual and competitive aspects, means it has a higher ceiling for commercial success. Specifically, I believe Valorant esports has all the makings of a title that will be more fruitful for the organizations that invest in it as well as Riot Games themselves.
Valve are notoriously hands-off when it comes to CS:GO esports, only truly getting involved when Major tournaments come around twice a year or when situations like conflicts of interest and coaching bugs arise. They could shut down the competitive side of their game in a major way with no warning and nobody could do anything about it; this doesn’t produce as much trust as having a developer that’s actively looking to improve and grow their scene.
While Valorant esports is in its nascent stages, there’s enough evidence to look at now — and a whole other scene in League of Legends to potentially give us a look into the future of the game — so we can finally have this discussion.
Valorant is righting CS:GO’s wrongs
Two of the biggest complaints when it comes to Counter-Strike in esports is the lack of support from developer Valve and the money that’s likely being left on the table through the terrorist theme that’s present. There may be some companies that flock to the game because it’s mature and ‘edgy,’ but that’ll never trump the amount of prospective commercial entities that wouldn’t touch the title with a barge pole.
Whether you think it removes the personality of the game or otherwise, the terrorist themes in Counter-Strike undoubtedly hurt it on a mass scale when it comes to both commercial interest and broadcast viability. Media rights are the biggest revenue stream in many traditional sports but it’s unlikely that this title will ever be able to drink from that well due to its realistic art design and premise, terrorists and counter-terrorists aiming to kill each other, blood, and other elements that are potentially unsettling to people.
Valorant, on the other hand, has been purposefully designed to step around most of those issues. The characters have fantastical powers and designs, the powers themselves aren’t realistic, and there’s no terrorist theme. The shooting aspect of the game could be its only downfall but even that has been toned down dramatically.
There’s a much larger chance of Valorant being shown on television and mainstream digital channels, and this is where media rights deals come into play. We saw League of Legends esports rake in an estimated $113m for Riot Games in August 2020, and that was just for global events such as Worlds and the Mid-Season Invitational to be shown on Bilibili in the Mandarin language. Many more of these deals can be made in LoL and, potentially, Valorant due to their accessibility. CS:GO as it stands would never be able to achieve success on this scale.
Closed vs. open ecosystems
The reputation of League of Legends esports is largely responsible for the influx of investment that Valorant esports received from organizations early on, and it’s running a closed ecosystem. Riot Games have earned a lot of trust from teams, especially those already involved in one of their titles, and that’s for good reason.
Perhaps the most commercially successful esport to date is League of Legends. Housed under the ‘LoL Esports’ banner, it has regional leagues with multi-million dollar buy-ins, no end of sponsor interest, and millions of dedicated viewers.
With the developer being as involved as they are with Valorant, we’ve every reason to believe that they’ll be looking to replicate the successful model they have deployed in League of Legends over the years. They recently announced the Valorant Champions Tour, in which they’re in complete control, that signals they’re going for a similar but accelerated model for their shooter.
We’re already seeing early signs of LoL’s sponsorship success transferring to Valorant esports. Red Bull and Secretlab are global partners of LoL Esports, Verizon sponsors the North American LCS, and HyperX partnered with European Masters in 2019. They’re all also sponsoring the ongoing Valorant First Strike tournament series.
CS:GO not being under one roof means a prospective sponsor, let’s choose bookmaker Betway as an example, would have to enter three deals to sponsor the entirety of top-tier competition. ESL, Flashpoint, and BLAST all hold competitions including the best teams in the world, and are separate entities. Sponsoring events from all three companies — rather than a single entity — could well be much more costly, require more attention to stay on top of, and it’s unlikely that the three would be happy to have the same activations as they want to stand apart from their peers.
While a closed ecosystem eliminates the chance of underdog stories with teams, it makes more sense commercially in many instances. Not to mention, teams partnered with Riot Games for leagues like the LEC and LPL are incredibly happy with the price they’re paying and the security provided with no chance of being relegated. It not only pleases sponsors but those taking part in the scene too.
Valorant esports has its own problems that definitely affect the commercial viability for the organizations looking to get involved, however. Salaries are rumored to be inflated to an insane degree among top teams like Team Liquid and G2 Esports, and having to fork out thousands and thousands each month — beyond what you may be able to recoup — is not healthy. This will need to be addressed unless teams can generate revenues that are not currently present in CS:GO.
Nonetheless, the future looks dazzling for the shooter. It would take either a colossal disaster on Riot Games’ behalf, or a host of great changes on Valve’s end, for Valorant to not be commercially superior to CS:GO in the realm of esports.
It won’t kill CS:GO, but it will be a better investment.