As part of the Perestroika ongoing at Riot Games, I was invited to participate in their closed beta launch for Valorant. I graciously accepted, and in the spirit of glasnost said I would write up my experiences, as well as provide a review from the view of someone who has not only been playing games since we loaded them via cartridge and cassette tape, but also a veteran of the crazy world of esports.
Before that, there was the small matter of launch day. Even a limited, closed beta launch these days is a huge part of the operations that go into making a successful game. I’ve seen too many bungled and botched attempts from which games have never recovered.
Your first day can really set the foundation on which the rest of the game’s fortunes are built. With the almost unprecedented amount of hype and interest around Riot’s second full title there was always a risk it wouldn’t live up to expectations. Especially if that hype and interest were being manufactured by careful spending from a company with more money to spend than almost anyone else in the space.
There had been rumors of paid endorsements circulating for a few days. People seemed to believe streamers had been bought and paid for, that only those willing to praise the game and Riot as a company would be invited to the party.
My inclusion alone, as possibly the only journalist that was critical of Riot Games during their ascent to the top of the esports space, should discount that last point as being accurate. I’ll also confirm that to my knowledge there hasn’t been a single paid endorsement, that no influencer took a check to promote this game. The same can not be said for other, similar releases.
That isn’t the whole story, of course. There’s a reason why these people want to be included. It is now ingrained in those who want to be successful influencers, especially those who haven’t already achieved it or have flagging careers, that getting in on the “ground floor” of a new big title will be the boost they need. And so they fawn and gush over a game they’ve never even played in the hope that when it finally lands they will be the big names, the star commentators, the top streamers, the most respected players and that they can synthesize this into cash and status. In truth, if you have a product with enough hype behind it you’ll never need to pay one of these people to preach about its virtues.
Also, the existing success stories know that the combination of their brand plus the hype for the game will equate to more subscriptions, more views, more donations and new fans that will then further equate to more of those things in the future. It’s a long term strategic move for them to be involved and honestly, it benefits both parties without the need for a tawdry direct financial exchange.
I’m a cynic of course but I’m just trying to inject some nuance into the proceedings. I’ve seen too many idiots make false claims that everyone is lying and we’re all depositing money from Riot into offshore bank accounts while lying through our teeth. On the other side, I’ve seen the usual sycophants and hopefuls dismiss concerns by saying “Riot didn’t pay anyone” without acknowledging the financial realities that come with being associated with this product.
You SHOULD be wary of influencer culture because their label alone tells you they sell INFLUENCE. My Valorant coverage will try and cut through the bullshit, but anyone expecting either Riot bashing or page after page of preaching about the virtues of the one true god Counter-Strike are going to be disappointed. Spoilers: so far I have found the game to be enjoyable, polished for a closed-beta and one that could certainly ease newer players into an unforgiving genre. It’s also worth letting you know that while the launch did have some kinks and weirdness, it mostly went well. Let’s look at the stories that came out on launch day…
First, a shoutout to the hustlers out there trying to get this bread in these uncertain financial times. Oh yes, closed beta access Valorant accounts were selling on the black market like stockings and chocolate during World War 2. For $150 you too could be playing on launch day and people were actually paying it. Of course, if any account is discovered to be purchased Riot will ban it on site but many people wanted to run the risk anyway. We don’t know how many accounts were issued via the drop system through Twitch so it is impossible to grasp the scope of the problem. What I can tell you is those game developers, whatever they say publicly, love seeing things like this. When a game is being sold illicitly for the same price as a gram of raw, they think they have got a winner on their hands.
The launch did come with a cloud over it due to the whining of some League of Legends team owners. I already wrote about the situation here but let’s provide a summary. Riot invited many influencers, journalists and personalities to have access to the closed beta on April 7. No bullshit, No NDAs, and people can stream and say what they want. One of those influencers happened to include Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag, a man with many claims to fame.
In this instance, though, let’s think of him solely as the founder of 100 Thieves. 100 Thieves own a North American LCS team. Because other team owners were invited through the Esports division, that stipulated streaming would commence on the 8th April for those invitees, and some owners were given no access at all, they complained to Riot. That’s right, grown men, some millionaires, complained to a games developer that another owner could play and stream a video game 24 hours before they could. And you thought I was petty on Twitter.
The argument supposedly made is even more stupefying. While I could maybe see a rationale that by Haag going first it would show favoritism from Riot, some of these owners argued it would give his organization a competitive advantage because he could “scout talent” a whole 24 hours before they could. Brain worms. As such it was now changed that anyone associated with a League of Legends team active in one of Riot’s leagues had to hold off from streaming until the 8th. Words I’d never thought I’d type: I sympathize with Riot here. I know the pain of dealing with whiny esports bitches with huge egos and huge bank balances that think they should get their way all the time too well. Fortunately for me as I am beholden to no-one I can call them what they are. For Riot, these people represent long term strategic business partners so they had to give the baby its bottle.
In a weird and twisted way, it actually worked out for Riot. Even with this reduced load, the sheer volume of people all logging in at once, streamers popping out of bed like kids on Christmas morning, overloaded the servers. Timeouts while connecting were reported and many players couldn’t get into games despite queuing for some time. Some even reported their games crashing partway through. Even though the Valorant team described the experience as “humbling,” I doubt Error 43 will live on infamy. Day one of a closed beta? Hot-fix rushed out quickly? I’m all about consumer rights but, let’s be honest, what is a launch without error? When has a launch day for an online game ever gone smoothly?
I won’t say it’s something we should accept as a matter of course but it is the new normal and all the chest-beating won’t change that. As I put the finishing touches on this article, we’re now into day two. No more problems. They got on top of quicker than Activision Blizzard did for Diablo 3 or any of World of Warcraft’s expansions down the years.
Day 1 of Closed Beta has been incredible but humbling as we scale our servers. For now, we have to pause stream drops until tomorrow morning (PT). We'll let you know as soon as they're back. We hear your questions and concerns about CB access and will clarify as soon as we can.
— VALORANT (@PlayVALORANT) April 8, 2020
Despite these issues, the attention the game got on Twitch was phenomenal. 1.7 million people were watching at peak interest, which is close to the record Fortnite set with its black hole stunt. It is impossible to tell what that number means in a broader industry context, whatever anyone who claims to be an expert will try and tell you. What this expert gleans from it is the game is going to hit the ground running in terms of interest. That said, it is too early to see where these numbers are being drawn from and if they are taking a bite out of other games’ audiences. The bulk of these numbers come from variety streamers who will, for the foreseeable future, be streaming this game almost exclusively.
While you will see a lot of CS:GO pros play this game, maybe even on stream, it is not unusual for those who excel at a game as demanding as Counter-Strike to have a “sidechick” game they use to unwind. Early feedback from my colleagues seems in line with that, although they might just be scared I’ll publicly call them heretics of the one true faith. What is more interesting is when you see the still-contracted Overwatch League MVP Jay “sinatraa” Won say he’s going to be streaming Valorant almost exclusively upon the game’s release. The game is more like Counter-Strike than Overwatch but Riot might end up with the audience they end up attracting over the one they coveted.
gonna be streaming 8-12 hrs a day starting the 7th when val comes out, pull up
— Jay Won (@sinatraa) April 4, 2020
A large part of Riot’s marketing for the game has to been to try and seduce disgruntled Counter-Strike players. Naturally, there had been a lot of talk of Valorant’s anti-cheating measures. It’s no secret that there is a significant portion of CS players that labor under the delusion that every game they play is infested with cheaters, that Valve’s Anti Cheat (VAC) does nothing and that because of several profit-based conspiracies Valve doesn’t even want a cheat-free environment. Never one to miss a trick, Riot tapped that well of crippling insecurity and made a lot of promises about the game’s anti-cheat Vanguard.
A lot of these statements feel too good to be true, especially for those of us who have been around long enough to see many other games that were declared “cheat-proof” left sheepishly admitting such a thing isn’t possible. The game is said to feature an in-engine “fog-of-war” system that will prevent players from seeing opposing players’ locations until line-of-sight contact is made. Viable? Possibly. It also sounds a lot like the measures implemented into CS:GO in 2015, none of which stopped the viability of radar hacks or using aim-locking to gain information on the whereabouts of opponents. It is also worth noting this wouldn’t even be anything new to Riot since they already have a similar system in League of Legends, which is why any site offering a Dota-style map hack can be dismissed as a scam.
There was also an interview with streamer Nikola “NikolarnTV” Aničić, where one of the game’s devs spoke about the anti-cheat, saying the following:
“The main thing that differentiates us from other games is we’re planning on putting a lot of effort into this, both in the past before we launch the game, but also going forward into the future too,” the dev said.
I’ll add, if you’re someone excited by this statement and yet you ignore the effort Valve put into improving VAC via machine-learning and other sophisticated methods, you might want to get tested for HYPOCRID-19.
“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” the dev also added.
Again, these are measures that have been used in many anti-cheat programs in the past so it’s nothing new. It being framed as such does feel part of a marketing push. Not to mention when they say “we analyze,” what that means is hugely important. Do they mean manually and retroactively? Do they mean algorithmically and in real-time? Both of these systems, when implemented into anti-cheat measures in the past, have yielded false positives. Will this be another example of a game developer declaring infallibility?
It was my prediction that there would be cheats on day one of the launch. In my mind, that didn’t necessarily mean early into the closed beta but more about the first day it was open to the public. However, by the time I’d got my first game under my belt, there were videos on the internet showing what was claimed were working cheats for Valorant. I won’t link the videos here for obvious reasons but as it happens they were quickly declared to be fakes and I’ll believe that for sure. There’s many a con artist looking to cash in on scrubs hoping they can cheat their way to being noticed in a new game. Yet anecdotally people were claiming that they had encountered cheaters in the game. Still, I’ll put that down to them being the exact same deluded fucks that were crying in Counter-Strike. Guess that seduction technique is working.
Cheats are inevitably coming for the game. Online gaming will always be one of cat and mouse between developer and cheat coder. That’s the eternal struggle. Where developers win, in my humble opinion, isn’t in the press by making promises that their anti-cheat will be the one that finally thwarts the insidious scourge. A robust banning system, hardware ID and a corporate pledge to take anyone selling cheats to court, Riot having already done the latter, is where the battle can be mostly won.
Anyway, despite hiccups and some doubts around the long term viability of the cheat-free environment, I found the launch to be mostly smooth, which is no small feat. I played without any problems myself, having waited out the initial rush through the floodgates and I look forward to writing a review about a game seeking to take the best qualities of multiple genres I have enjoyed down the years.
There was also a heavy tinge of nostalgia to it all as I played my first few games with strangers. Timid communication, people sharing knowledge and asking questions, people laughing off mistakes due to a tacit acceptance none of us really know what we’re doing. It was a time warp for me, reminding me very much of games gone by and how online gaming starts before it is inevitably spoiled by the sheer volume of differing expectations and ideas. A topic for another time.
Speaking as someone that played the frankly awful and janky 2009 beta of League of Legends you can see the lessons the company has learned across the board. Riot has put their best foot forward here and can be proud of day one. Now for day two.