Valorant released during the pandemic. Codenamed Project A, this game was designed and built during normal world operations, only to have social interaction collapse on itself when a potentially deadly virus swept the planet. As we all rushed to understand this new isolated way of life, Riot had a game almost ready for release and kept its head down, determined to release it anyway.
Instead of a trip to see Riot Games and meet everyone behind it in Barcelona, it was 2020 and I was sitting in my parents’ basement with my cobbled-together new set-up in a Discord of hundreds of people. We listened to the developers explain little bits about what the game was, what it was supposed to do, and how it was supposed to be played. I then got to play with some of the best shooter players in the world, making it the hardest and possibly most personally miserable introduction to a game I’ve ever had. Fast-forward a few years and not only is Valorant a huge shooter that boomed during the pandemic, but it also boasts one of the most successful esports scenes in the world. And so much of that happened from people’s homes.
I attended Masters in Copenhagen earlier this year and had the opportunity to speak with Arnar Hrafn Gylfason, Valorant’s senior game director, about building a game and esports in a pandemic. At the time, Masters 2022 marked the first time Riot Games held an in-person esport for Valorant, more than two years after the first physical event was set to take place. A lot had changed for everyone, but I was still interested in learning more about what it took to make Valorant the success it was, even when the world was turned upside down.
PC Gamer: Valorant has become one of the biggest esports almost overnight when it comes to the viewership that some games compete with. What’s it like building an esports game from the ground up?
Arnar Hrafn Gylfason, Senior Game Director: It’s funny because I’m going to butcher this quote and misattribute it. But overnight success takes years of preparation. I wasn’t on the Valorant base team, but I’ve been with Valorant for five years. And when I joined the team it was very clear that while there were certainly concepts that this might one day become an esport, the goal was never “let’s make a great esport”. The goal was “let’s make the absolute best tactical FPS we can”. Let’s bring something new to the genre, let’s create something that’s tight, feels good and is expressive, is creative and fun to play, and is a very competitive integral part of the player. And it’s just that the genre we’re in and the visual aesthetic of the game and how approachable it is – not stark or dark, it’s more kind of bright and blooming – it just lends itself really well to esports. And while of course we always hoped in our hearts that it would be a successful esport, I wouldn’t say we built it specifically for esports. We thought it was a great game.
By drawing from our experience, from Riots’ experience with League of Legends, and from much of the developers’ experience with games they had worked on or played professionally, we knew which doors we didn’t need to close in order to be successful. become and support an esport should it ever become so. And here we are. And while we’re certainly happy with how Valorant esports got started, Masters is absolutely amazing. I think we always feel like “oh, if only we had done a little more for this tournament it would have been so much better”. So from a developer’s perspective, we’re passionately invested in our game and continue to make it the best tactical FPS, the best competitive shooter you can get your hands on. But we are just as passionate about making sure our esport is taken to the next level and getting whatever support we can give to build on it.
Obviously there was development before the launch of Valorant and then development after the launch. Development of agents and cards that have spread over both sides of it. What was that shift like?
Yeah, I’d say it hasn’t really changed. We don’t make our cards or agents with esports in mind, we create them with an eye on how they play at the highest competitive level and how they play on the…maybe lower levels of competitive play. How do they play when you’re having fun and don’t think too much about winning or losing. But when we think of the agents at “hey, how’s this going to play out in a five-on-five, highly skilled, highly coordinated team environment,” we get to the esports angle as you talk about it. We’re always thinking about our cards, our agents, our content, our gameplay from a perspective of: What does peak performance in this gaming space look like? And in terms of is it pleasing to the audience? I think luckily, if it’s fun to play, it’s also fun to watch. And so we were lucky to have a twofer with that one.
Valorant is an interesting game because it really nailed the landing in terms of esports focus, but that doesn’t happen with every game. When Valorant arrived, the kind of comparisons were CS:GO and Overwatch. The CS:GO esports scene was thriving, but Overwatch didn’t reach the same heights. What do you think about Valorant it helped stop the landing when other competitive games struggled.
I am woefully underprepared to answer in every detail or intelligence. But I don’t think at any point during the kind of early beta days or pre-beta, when we were very nervous, we were about to ship, did we think we were going to get this so quickly. We were hopeful. Wouldn’t the best case scenario be great? But I think even the best scenario we had in mind wasn’t this. Neither from gameplay nor from an esport perspective. And so to begin with, this is incredible.
What made it stick? I think from our perspective, I don’t know if it’s magic, or just luck, or whatever. But I think from our perspective, we’ve never looked at it from the lens of how we get more viewers or how we even get more players. We looked at it from the lens of creating the best competitive shooter we can, the best tactical shooter we can, what do we think are the right ingredients? And I think we were right in many ways. That resonated with the audience of people from Overwatch, people from CS, people from Fortnite and Apex Legends. We have an incredibly diverse background of players coming from other games. And they all seem to get something they’ve been looking for in Valorant. And we’re just, we feel very lucky and fortunate and privileged that we’ve been able to do that.
The launch of Valorant coincided with everything shutting down. I can’t help feeling that launching with nothing else to do would have attracted people and of course people had a lot of time to get good at the game pretty quickly. Can you talk about launching an esport in a pandemic?
Yeah, wow, launching an esport in a pandemic, I think, presented us with a series of issues and challenges, just unexpected things on top of launching a new game, which does that anyway, which we never expected. I don’t even know how to say this, but I can never be thankful enough to the team we work with. On the esports side of the publishing side on the development side but you know a month and a half into the scariest unknown circumstances many of us have ever been in landed sticking to our data shipping a game that’s an esports supports it on a global scale, able to figure out how to do online tournaments. for a company that really only knows how to do big big events. I feel incredibly blessed to have worked with all these people who have done a damn good job. Does that get me in trouble? They fucking nailed it.
When it comes to launching something that’s good for all levels of gameplay, from here at Masters to Iron 1, how do you come up with a good mix of geometry for all players?
How do you find out? Phew, I mean, we start with a premise of, you know, what are the challenges that we expect the map to pose to the players on the defense side, on the offense side? Are those challenges accessible to players of just about any skill level? If we want to talk about challenges, it’s like Icebox. Hey, want to erase 30,000 corners, does that challenge you? Are you having fun now? With Haven, you understand how to set up in three locations instead of two. With Fracture, there’s no middle ground to argue, right. So all these cards have different challenges that make players think about the game in a different way. And I think because we’re approaching it from that angle, we can fine-tune the maps a little bit, and once the premise is right, not to be too challenging for our more fun players, while obviously still very challenging. And I’ll just say this, looking at a map like Haven that’s been in the game for so long, played yesterday and seeing that wall and Raze bag that I haven’t seen before. It’s been two years since launch and we’re still finding new ways for players to take on the challenges the maps presented to them. And that’s the beauty of seeing these cards played in competitive play, that even if we roughly know where the floor is and where the ceiling is, it still grows. And that is super exciting.
Valorant is constantly evolving its cards and agents to fit different playing fields, from casual to professional. How does Riot still find that balance?
Creating gameplay content that is equally viable at all levels of play is, of course, a challenge, one that we are constantly trying to improve on. But the reality is that player skill has a big impact on how an agent plays or how he uses the card space. We cannot assume that gameplay changes will have an equal impact on all players, but we should always ensure that the impact is not too great for a subset of players.
Another aspect of this is also how players approach competitive gameplay at different levels, which is something we’d like to see evolve when Premier [a new feature of Valorant that allows all players to host their own season of pre-scheduled matches as if they were esport competitors] becomes available to players around the world. Practicing team play, having fixed agent pools and squad compositions, and running drills on a fixed map pool can change a lot in how players of any skill level approach the game.