‘Valorant’ Is Cutthroat, Punishing, and Addictive as Hell

At face, there’s a lot to love about Riot Games’ new team-based shooter, Valorant—first and foremost, that it exists.

It’s the second big game from Riot Games (jokingly referred to as “Riot Game”) since 2009’s League of Legends, which ushered in the era of modern esports and, for a time, held the title of most popular PC game in the world. Within the space that legacy has carved out, Valorant, while still in closed beta, has become a competitive gaming phenomenon.

The infrastructure that formed around League of Legends’ million-dollar international tournaments is re-creating itself piece-by-piece around Valorant. Esports teams are already on the hunt for budding talent. Top players are flocking over from esports like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch to stream it. It’s been the most-watched game on Twitch, even though most viewers can’t play it. In-game, it’s developing a highly competitive culture of super-serious, capital-g Gamers. That’s in part because of its closed-beta status, but also Valorant’s core design feels engineered in a petri dish to evoke the vibe players want out of an esport.

Riot has said that, with Valorant, its aspiration is “to build an esport worthy of your lifelong attention and interest.” Sorting through the competitive ecosystem the game is launching into—one that, a cynic might say, Valorant was designed to cultivate—it’s easy to forget there’s actually a super-solid game under there. I haven’t been able to stop playing it and have been gleefully riding its roller-coaster highs and lows every chance I get. On its own terms, Valorant is dope.

In closed beta with a summer 2020 release date, Valorant is a five-versus-five team shooter. Players pick one of Valorant’s 10 unique agents, each with their own special abilities. The attacking team wins if they take out the entire enemy team or plant and successfully defend a spike placed on an objective. The defending team wins if they prevent the spike from detonating or kill the attackers before it’s planted. The winning team earns a point after each round, and the first to 13 wins. Between rounds, players engage in a little resource management, purchasing tiered weapons, shields, and specialized agent abilities with money that accumulates throughout the match. Halfway through, the teams switch roles and lose their fancy guns and funds. Unfortunately, what communicates these mechanics is an art style that more resembles an antiquated Steam shooter than the next big esport.

For me, each stage of learning Valorant felt like another step on the galaxy brain meme. I figured out the guns I liked. Then, what the agents’ abilities do. I overused (and overspent on) those abilities and then reigned it in. Next, I grasped how the item economy works, rejiggering both my understanding of the guns and the abilities. Finally, I recalibrated all of it in an effort to piece myself into the team’s strategy. Anyone paying attention to Valorant knows that it’s been the most popular game on Twitch for a reason; its depth is easily appreciated once you get past its simple premise and off-puttingly plain aesthetic. (Also, some streamers are gaming the system with the promise of beta keys.)

Growing feels good. Playing doesn’t always. This is a punishing game that demands perfect mechanical acumen alongside quick tactical decisionmaking. Valorant has a low barrier to entry but a high skill ceiling that, in closed beta, seasoned tactical shooter players are quickly scaling. Playing too risky or too safely will get you quickly killed unless you’re some lesser-aim deity. Striking the right balances—from positioning to economy—takes a hell of a lot of practice, and Valorant’s closed beta environment is not nurturing. (Although Riot Games thankfully included a “report” feature, skill or gender-based toxicity has been relatively common in my games.)

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