Lewis used to be the head of marketing for League of Legends, and she helped enact that game’s Partner Program, which rewards video-focused influencers with in-game perks, developer access, promotional support and the opportunity to participate in reveals. Other AAA studios have similar partnerships with streamers in place, notably Overwatch studio Blizzard.
With Valorant, Lewis’ marketing strategy has been to leverage Riot’s relationships with streamers and infuse the development process with their feedback from day one. Or, day negative-one.
“Our approach has been even more intimate with influencers,” Lewis said. “‘We need advice on our game, help us make this game good, help us make this live up to your standards as an FPS player.’ It was really crucial to get those influencers involved at an early stage.”
On top of offering early access, free games, networking opportunities and other perks to Valorant streamers, Riot has the cash to make deals with high-profile personalities if and when it wants to. League of Legends generated $1.5 billion in revenue in 2019, and tends to make between $1 and $2 billion a year. Not to mention, Riot is owned 100 percent by China’s largest internet company, Tencent Holdings.
Money aside, Riot is rich in relationships. The studio has been running League of Legends since 2009, it kicked off the game’s esports circuit in 2011, and it started the Partner Program in late 2018. The studio has been building connections with streamers, esports players and influencers for years, and these relationships are paying off with Valorant, the studio’s first new IP in more than a decade.
“The reason we’ve been popular with streamers is that we’re oriented toward getting to know them, having deeper relationships with them, understanding their feedback about the game, playing the game with them,” Lewis said. “We’ve got a lot of our developers out there playing with influencers and just sort of just bear-hugging them and welcoming them in. That was an explicit marketing strategy of ours.”
Valorant’s record-breaking Twitch debut coincides with a general uptick in streaming viewership tied to the global coronavirus pandemic. With country- and state-wide quarantine orders in place around the world, more people than ever are watching Twitch and YouTube videos, and with traditional sports on pause, esports are finding a hungry audience.
Valorant was built to be an esports powerhouse, and Riot has already laid out rudimentary rules for official tournaments. The studio’s esports plans include the addition of a mode that replaces in-game blood with sparks in an attempt to secure squeamish sponsors (and likely to appease strict Chinese censorship laws).
A handful of professional players and streamers have also announced their intent to play Valorant full-time, ditching other popular titles in the process. Fortnite World Cup runner-up Harrison “psalm” Chang is switching to Valorant, as is Overwatch pro John “Wanted” Lin. Jake “Poach” Brumleve announced in March that he’d be ditching Fortnite for Valorant, and in a Twitlonger statement he criticized Fortnite publisher Epic Games for mismanagement of the game’s esports league, writing,
“I hope I find what I’m looking for in Valorant. I have high hopes for the game and am very motivated to stream and try and compete. If it doesn’t work out, I will move forward as a streamer. I’m excited to be streaming again, I don’t feel boxed in by feeling forced to stream Fortnite anymore.”
This faith in Valorant speaks to the success, so far, of Riot’s streamer-first marketing approach. Lewis actually calls it “player-first.” She says Riot is interested in working with streamers and fans at any popularity level, not just top-tier Twitch personalities.
“Competition is the main point of Valorant, and so we expect that’ll play out really nicely in the esports scene,” Lewis said. “It’s been really exciting so far talking with team owners, talking to players of other types of games in the competitive scene and just gauging their interest.”
At the beginning of the year, Ludwig “Anomaly” Lagerstedt had a significant YouTube following as a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive player, with a small presence on Twitch. Today, he’s regularly the top name on Twitch, streaming Valorant. From April 13th to 19th, Anomaly’s channel clocked 13.85 million hours of eyeballs, and they were all on Riot’s new shooter, according to The Esports Observer.
On April 15th, Riot opened up the Valorant beta program and enabled key drops for anyone streaming the game on Twitch, not just certified partners. The drops are still running 24/7, and today, just over two weeks after the game launched in closed beta, Valorant is still at the top of the Twitch charts.
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