Richard Lewis: Despite Riot’s hopes, Valorant will have cheaters

Richard Lewis. Last updated: Sep 08, 2020
ELEAGUE / Riot Games

It is no exaggeration to say that the expectations surrounding the full release of the new Riot Games title Valorant have been among some of the highest set for any competitive game release.

There are many factors for this. The huge popularity of their first game, League of Legends, players looking for a fresh take on the FPS genre and the sheer volume of high profile streamers that have expressed genuine enthusiasm after having played the game have all played their part.

Another component has been the supposed innovative approach towards solving age-old online gaming problems (especially cheating) that has been promoted by the game’s developers. It will be something of a bitter pill to swallow for Riot, then, that after the many interviews that spoke about the ways in which they were going to combat online cheating in Valorant, that it took only two days of closed beta for working private cheats to be introduced.

Valorant's in-built anti-cheat system.
Riot Games
Riot Games have pledged to tackle one of online gaming’s biggest issues with their anti-cheat software.

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Riot’s spoils-of-war

Let’s go back to late March and early April, when the promotion for the game started to ramp-up. Several interviews and supporting press had spoken at length about these measures. The most highly touted was the “in-engine Fog of War system,” that would supposedly make wallhacks and ESP (extra sensory perception) cheat software an impossibility.

This, they said, was achieved by having the game not render player locations on the server until they appeared to the player who saw them. This had been explained in advance to many of the influencers that were going to be playing the game — and the message filtered out to the community. Such an example would be that of popular CS:GO streamer, Craig ‘ONSCREEN’ Shannon.

This clip would elicit a direct response from Paul ‘Arkem’ Chamberlain, the anti-cheat lead on Valorant — who, at the time, had been responding to player’s questions on Reddit.

“Oh man, I feel giddy hearing people talk about our security tech on stream! I’m hoping to put more information about how the Fog of War system works soon. I’m thinking of writing up a blog post or something, but as you can imagine it’s a very busy time.

“ONSCREEN has it basically right though, the server withholds enemy locations until just before you could see them. So even if your wallhack is reading the game client’s memory, it won’t do very much because the enemy location won’t be in there.”

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More to Riot’s anti-cheat than meets the eye?

Much of the reporting about this system lauded this approach as revolutionary, but glossed over a couple of important facts. The first was that this system was essentially a repurposing of something they had already used to great effect in League of Legends. If you’ve ever wondered why map-hacks that reveal everyone’s position aren’t in a thing in the MOBA title and only zoom-hacks were, now you know.

The second point was that this system was incredibly similar to something that was rolled out by Valve for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in 2015. That update to the game made it so information about player models was not revealed over great distances – as it had been in the past – and instead they only would come into view when much closer than what was previously possible.

VAC review in CS:GO.
CS:GO’s VAC system requires players to review anonymous game demos, which adds an element of subjectivity to the game’s anti-cheat system.

While it was a huge improvement, it still didn’t stop the existence of such cheats and Valve’s Anti-Cheat (VAC) continues to be publicly maligned despite a plethora of sophisticated improvements.

Another talking point that was popularized as a result of an interview with Arkem from streamer, Nikola ‘NikolarnTV’ Aničić, was that the game could detect if you were using an aimbot.

“It’s an active research project, so it’s in-progress… But we make sure the server records all of the mouse inputs from players and we analyze those to detect whether or not you are using some sort of aimbot.”

Segment starts at 2:00 for mobile users.

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Valorant’s Vanguard failing?

The closed beta would launch on April 7, featuring those invited via the influencer outreach (disclosure: this included myself) and was met with widespread praise from those giving their initial impressions of the game. The peak 1.7 million people watching the game’s launch on Twitch edged past Fortnite’s ‘black hole’ event and came close to topping Riot’s League of Legends’ peak viewership. In general, it was a great day of celebration for Riot Games.

Then a video was posted to YouTube of cheats being used in the game’s built-in warm-up tool. It featured a red rectangle around enemy models, suggestive of an ESP, and an automated aimbot snapping to targets.

People were quick to circulate this video on Twitter and other social media platforms, but Riot Games staff were quick to point out the video(s) were fake. This was readily accepted as what short footage there was to go on was only used in the warm up mode and limited in what it showed.

However, there was no denying that cheat coders were taking a long, hard look at the Valorant’s ‘Vanguard’ and were looking at ways to get around it. One popular cheating forum that had multiple coders working on reverse engineering the software posted their collected findings on April 7.

Contained within the thread was a screenshot that looked very much like the videos that had been circulating shortly after the closed beta launch. It showed a coloured rectangle around an enemy model and information about the model’s health (common features of the ESP cheats popular in FPS games).

The same thread would also contain the “debunked” video that made it’s way on to Twitter. Overall, among all the code and suggestions, there was evidence of at least three different cheats being used within the game.

Among the discussion, several of the contributors claimed to be surprised by the absence of the much touted Fog of War system, with some even suggesting that it couldn’t have been implemented yet in the closed beta. “There’s no fog of war system to my knowledge” said one. “You’re able to pull everything from memory if you can decrypt the pointers.”

“I haven’t checked, but apparently that doesn’t exist yet. Maybe because it’s the beta, who knows. It would probably just be like how CS:GO does it though, so not some crazy new thing” another added.

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Who do we trust?

Now it is worth noting that when it comes to those who claim to be adept at coding cheats, you can mostly pigeonhole them into two categories. The first and most abundant are young community members looking for clout, that make grand and exaggerated claims about their prowess. These are collectively dismissed as ‘scriptkiddies’ — a joint reference to the likelihood of their age and the limitation of their abilities. It is not uncommon for these types to lie and exaggerate extensively, especially if they happen to have created some basic software they are looking to sell to people who know better.

The other category is occupied by talented coders, who have a great understanding of how to create software that injects into games and mostly focus on cheat programs (due to the potentially lucrative nature of the business).

While I’m sure many of you reading this will balk at the idea of praising the capabilities of folk you are supposed to demonize, it is something Riot Games themselves have acknowledged in the past, as a 2014 article I wrote demonstrates.

Regardless, picking apart who is who – and what information can be trusted – is entirely up to you. While I have covered cheating in competitive games for over a decade, I am certainly far from a coding expert and haven’t myself been able to verify the accuracy of the claims within the thread I am referencing (but avoiding linking to directly to avoid promoting the business of online cheats).

Volcano working on Riot Games' Valorant..
Riot Games
Cheaters are inevitable, but can Riot stay on step ahead of the game?

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The battle begins: Riot vs. cheaters

Fast forward to April 9 (two days into the closed beta) and former Call of Duty professional player, Mark ‘phantasy’ Pinney, posted a highlight clip from one of his games that showed another player with the username ‘weird’ making multiple kills through surfaces with pinpoint precision.

It coming so soon after the April 7 footage that was dismissed by Riot Games, many again questioned whether or not it was fake. Shortly after this clip circulated, a YouTube video was posted showing three minutes of cheating footage from a player with the username ‘weird.’

Within it was evidence of a fully functioning ESP-hack that showed enemy whereabouts at a much greater distance than a Fog of War system would be expected to reveal and, based on headshot percentage, one can assume an aimbot as well. The cheat was offered for sale and the YouTube video, which is still present on the platform, contains information on how to contact the coder.

Who’s got the upper hand?

At this point there was no getting around what was now becoming clear; there were indeed cheats available for Valorant — a game that had only been in existence for a few days. Riot Games’ Arkem had to publicly confirm they had banned the game’s first official cheater and that there were likely more bans on the horizon.

Chamberlain would post to the subsequent Reddit thread saying that they were in the long haul to combat cheaters and that they acknowledged there were no “magic bullets” to stop cheaters appearing. Interestingly though, despite all the evidence to the contrary and the comments on the aforementioned cheat discussion forum, he claimed that the Fog of War system was functioning as intended.

“Fog of War is working! Enemies that are not in line-of-sight or just around a corner from the player don’t have up-to-date positions. Your hack can draw them on the screen anyway, but you’re just showing obsolete info. More info about Fog of War coming out next week hopefully.”

This comment may very well be cause for concern. A feature that was lauded as being a game-changer by those the principle was explained to, seems to be far from the panacea for wallhacking that it had initially sounded like.

Even with “outdated information” being sent, on the evidence of the footage so far publicly posted, positions can still be revealed in such a fashion to give cheaters an unbelievable advantage when it comes to playing the game. It isn’t clear if the system can be further improved beyond the state it is currently in, but an article expected to land sometime next week might be able to shed some more light on this.

Now to the rub. While Riot’s commitment to battling cheaters is admirable, it has to be acknowledged that their marketing campaign spoke about it so much because it was clearly designed to catch the attention of disgruntled players of rival titles. In particular, Counter-Strike players have complained about a supposed abundance of cheaters in their game.

When placed alongside the like-for-like replicas of signature CS guns and the loud proclamation of their use of 128-tick servers, it is clear that the intimated promise of an environment where cheating is a rarity, is part of their aspirations to attract players from that community to their game. When viewed through that lens, the reality is more than just disappointing and questions need to be asked about how realistic they were being about their anti-cheat’s capabilities in the promotional push prior to closed beta.

Netcode in Valorant.
Riot Games
Will cheaters always be one step ahead of the game?

Rather than attribute any malice, though, it is most likely that the development team were genuinely excited about the new ideas they were implementing and perhaps even believed it would give them an edge in the online cheating arms race. Unfortunately, the sophistication of cheats for online games continues to evolve at a pace that will surprise most of the people tasked with preventing.

There is nothing here in Valorant currently to suggest that the endless game of ‘cat and mouse’ between game developer and cheat coder will go away. As such it would have been far better for Riot to under-promise and over-deliver; because now not only will the doubt creep in about the abilities of adept players being legitimate, but it will also creep in about Riot’s ability to deal with the problems it will face between now and the game’s official launch.