Part 2 of an interview with Rod Slasher Breslau about VALORANT, both the game and the esport
We recently sat down virtually with renowned esports journalist Slasher, to discuss the state of VALORANT esports. Slasher has been seen on tournament broadcasts, podcasts, TV, and has worked for Sony, ESPN, Yahoo, and theScore, among many others. Mostly known for his industry insights and reporting, he is a self-described “esports boomer”, having competed in Quake in the past, and even very recently destroyed explosive young fps talent in Diabotical 1v1s. We reached out to him to delve into his perspective as someone who has been around in esports scenes for a while, and chat about VALORANT. In part 1, we discussed the game’s health, as well as the metrics for its success. In this part we delve into the game’s nascent esports scene.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What do you feel the environment is like for seasoned veterans of other games transitioning into VALORANT versus explosive young talent who we haven't heard of yet?
I think it would probably be pretty similar to how in Overwatch if you came from Team Fortress 2, which was the closest game to Overwatch, they’re the ones who had the most success. And because the game modes are so similar, if you played TF2, you already had a pretty solid understanding of how to play Overwatch, before the game was even released. Yeah, they had pretty different heroes, and yeah the game mode was not 5CP, which is the standard competitive game mode for TF2, but most of the other things about the game in terms of like how respawns work, how you think about the game in terms of a competitive level, if you had a lot of years of competitive TF2 experience, you were gonna be a really good player early on in Overwatch. But what you saw pretty quickly was that people who maybe didn’t have this experience, that were native Overwatch players, weren’t known players or had some experience in other competitive games, that really went all out on Overwatch, they're the ones that really became superstars in Overwatch. So I think it’s going to be pretty similar here in VALORANT, and we’ve already seen it a little bit - people who play Counter-Strike are gonna dominate. Just because the gunplay is very similar, the way you think about the economy is very similar. The way you think about rotations, how you’re playing defence, offence, setups. You know all those things you will bring over from Counter-Strike. And it’s very easy to see that they will be the best players for a very good while, too.
I don’t really see non-CS players going to do a whole lot very early on, and I actually think that Sentinels are gonna have some problems because of this. And that you don’t need to be from Overwatch if you played FPS games for a long time, and you can aim like a sinatraa or a zombs, it’s not like you’re not going to be really good at VALORANT, but most specifically Counter-Strike knowledge and Counter-Strike gameplay and Counter-Strike experience is gonna be the thing that pushes most players to be at the top. But I generally foresee probably within a year, once VALORANT gets its footing, similar to Overwatch, people that are playing VALORANT natively, and people that are really making a name for themselves, are eventually gonna be the best players. Not to mention that when Korea and China really start playing this game - I mean, I was sceptical of the Korean players really beating the early Overwatch players, and I was definitely making fun of - because I owned the professional Overwatch discord - early on we had the pros from all of the games and I remember playing with the LuxuryWatch players that went to NYXL later on, and I was like “you guys are never gonna beat us! We have too many years of experience playing first-person shooters, you guys are so far behind!” and obviously, it’s totally - that was totally wrong. And you know, those players that maybe didn’t have the years of Western first-person shooter experience came in and are obviously mopping the floor with everyone.
They still had Sudden Attack, Crossfire, all of the above. So do you feel like that's true for broadcast talent as well? And production? Is CS experience specifically going to be more important across the board? Or is that just for players?
No, it is pretty much gonna be true for casters. I would say VALORANT takes more from Counter-Strike even than Overwatch took from TF2. Especially with the money system, it is such just an almost direct component from Counter-Strike that years of theorisation and experience of knowing buy rounds, save rounds, force buys, and ecos, all of that stuff is almost a direct copy - there’s like, a few differences. All of the experience of casting that type of stuff and like the ebbs and flows of how a Counter-Strike game is casted is going to directly apply to this game. Of course, it’s different. The max number of rounds is different, the money system is a little bit different, there’s abilities and all this other sh*t, but if you have experience casting and analysing Counter-Strike, that is going to serve you extremely well in this game.
More so than other bomb-type games like R6 or even search and destroy in Call of Duty?
I would say yes. I mean, some people’s favourite Overwatch casters had no experience in first-person shooters before. I have been highly critical of those people over time. I do not feel personally like if you - and I spoke many times about this in Overwatch - including the Overwatch League casters, especially from the 2018 season that didn’t previously have first-person shooter experience or weren’t part of the TF2 community or anything. I felt like they didn’t know what the f*ck they were talking about. And, it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn and that if you don’t put in the work, and put in the effort, and spend time learning the game, and spend time watching scrims, and spend time doing the things you need to do, obviously you can be good. You don’t need to be a professional player to be an analyst or a caster for a game. But I feel like some people do not put in the work, and maybe it’s not as obvious to the average viewer of the lack of depth of or the lack of knowledge with some talent, but for me it was quite evident with some of the Overwatch League casters in the early seasons, and especially before the Overwatch League came out, there were so many people… By the way, I understand that esports is a business, and that people gotta live, people gotta eat, the industry is really hard, people are losing gigs and people need to work, I’m fully aware that people need to work and people need to make money and live their lives and pay rent and buy food and all that sh*t. I totally understand. But, you know, early on in Overwatch, there were a whole lot of people from other communities that it just looked like they were tryna come in to get that money. It didn’t seem like they spent the time or effort to know the game, to know the scene, to know the history of the players, and what games that they came from, and why, or how it helped form the early teams in Overwatch, or how that helped form what characters they played. There were a lot of things where if you didn’t understand the history you wouldn’t know why certain people were playing certain heroes. If you didn’t know that Pine used to be an all-star TF2 hitscan player and Crossfire player, you wouldn’t know that is why he became a legendary Widowmaker and McCree player. If you didn’t know that TviQ was a god, or if you didn’t know that TviQ and ShaDowBurn were projectile guys in TF2, you wouldn’t understand why ShaDowBurn was a Pharah god and TviQ was playing Genji early on. And I feel like a lot of that was lost because people wouldn’t understand the history, and I am concerned that in VALORANT if you’re coming from these other games and you’re not putting in the work to know the historical knowledge about the game, of like, why WARDELL is such an amazing Op-er so far in VALORANT, because you didn’t pay attention to Counter-Strike, and you didn’t know that he’s been playing with the AWP in Counter-Strike for ten years, it’s kinda frustrating to watch analysts or casts of this and have them not mention this at all, or…
To some people it’s not news that he’s so good with that gun because he’s had it in his hands since he was a child.
Yeah, I mean, you lose a lot of that context and history I think by not knowing those things. And that doesn't mean you can't learn but I do think that it makes it a lot more natural and organic if you’re already coming from a game where the players are coming from. To have that knowledge of what’s happening.
How long will it be before we get LAN events, and do we need LAN events to succeed or will everything sort of be fine through COVID?
Our governor just said New York City’s about to open, I’m sure everything is fine now. Just kidding. I don’t really know, I don’t honestly know what is going to happen here, I think it’s pretty evident that esports almost more than any other industry especially the sports industry can withstand COVID-19 because esports is centred on the internet. And competition is based on the internet, and the entire history of our industry is based on the internet. Therefore we can host tournaments online and have it be relatively okay. You’ve had LCS tournaments have hundreds of thousands of viewers in the past few months, you’ve had the ESL Counter-Strike Pro League break record concurrent viewership records with 400,000 people watching. So it’s not a total necessity that we need LAN events, and if there was one industry to be able to make it work, it is esports. However, there's something to be said about the stadium events that have multiplied over the years for all of the different games, and how really cool it is to be in a stadium with 20,000 people watching a computer game on a screen, and everyone cheering as it would be at a traditional sporting event, and how those cool experiences have been shown to the audience at home watching. So although it’s not like a necessity that we need things to come back, I don’t really think that VALORANT is going to be able to show its true potential until we can see it in a stadium, and actually see if they can even sell out the stadium. We don’t have any proof that it’s going to be as popular and be able to sell out a massive stadium like it has for Counter-Strike and League of Legends, the only two games that have really been able to do so. Overwatch has had a pretty good showing, obviously the finals can sell out the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and the one in Philadelphia, but those are the Grand Finals.
The homestands weren’t too bad either.
The homestands were pretty good, I mean Hammerstein [ballroom] was pretty packed, and the other ones around the country were pretty packed, but Hammerstein is not 20,000 people. Hammerstein is like, 3000, I believe. So, can VALORANT pack 20,000 people like Counter-Strike has on a regular basis? I actually have no idea if it can do that. I really think that is going to be a good test for the game and we need in-person LAN events to see if that’s going to happen. At the same time from the competitive standpoint, there’s really nothing like playing a game on LAN. You get to see people’s faces, you have competitive integrity ‘cause everybody’s in person, on 0 ping, none of that high ping problem bullsh*t, like “my internet went out”, crashing, etc. So for a lot of reasons we really do need in-person stuff.
You do have to wonder if the viewership hasn't been so great right now because we haven't had a LAN foundation for people to stand upon, to get people invested.
Immortals has recently built a VALORANT team, and we haven’t seen them play yet, but we have heard about their scrims and they’re apparently performing very well, with almost relative unknowns. The coach for the Immortals team, Gunba, built that team with Packing10, the head coach for their Overwatch League team, the LA Valiant. They said they built that team like they would build an Overwatch team, with trials, very stats-based and scouting, whereas every other VALORANT team that has popped up right off of the bat has been just groups of friends who happen to be top tier or Tier 2 Counter-Strike players. Which approach do you think is more valuable? In CS a lot of very successful teams are made up of friends, but that’s not always true for Overwatch. Which approach do you think teams need to take in order to find success?
I do really respect the way that Immortals is going about it. I’ve known Gunba for a long time, since Overwatch, so I understand the methodology of how they’re going about this, and I do think that going after really young players who proved themselves - it’s not like they're going for totally random people, they are picking people that did really well in the beta. I do think this is a really solid way to go about it. I will do a few caveats here. One, because they’re not picking known players, I’m sure they’re paying them, like, diddly sh*t. I’m sure the Immortals roster in terms of salary is like, so far from TSM or T1 or any of those other teams.
That’s true of their Overwatch League roster as well.
Yeah, you have to be mindful that the Immortals organisation - maybe they’re just not willing to pay for top talent. And maybe that is why they’re trying to build the roster this way, and not the other way around. Just to be critical of the organisation, maybe they’re penny-pinching, maybe they don’t wanna open the books, which admittedly might not be huge in a few months. Second caveat is, the Immortals Overwatch team early on did find a lot of solid talent in terms of like, GrimReality, Agilities, people that were hyped and so on, but that approach also has some problems for a long time. Immortals was never the best team, they were always lagging behind Envyus or Rogue, or other teams. So it’s not like it’s necessarily a winning approach in the end either, and it could totally backfire. So there are some caveats to why this might not work. At the same time, I am not convinced at all about this Sentinels roster, as I mentioned earlier. For the amount of money that they paid to pull over sinatraa and the amount of money that they paid to pull over some other players, I honestly foresee them not doing too well, and I do not think that that was worth it. I think that paying for the CS players is the best that they could’ve done. I’m not totally privy to how much Skadoodle is getting paid in salary - I’m sure it’s a lot of money - but I do feel like, you’re also building a brand. You’re not just signing these players to win a championship. I do think that is obviously a goal, but you’re trying to build a brand as well, and building these star players is getting a lot of attention on the organisation, which allows the organisation to bring in sponsors, and that is another way to look at it. Honestly, I think Gen.G easily has proven to be the best of those worlds. They’ve picked a team which has won amongst every North American tournament so far, and they’ve picked Counter-Strike players, but rather unknown Counter-Strike players who were in Rank S, Rank G, who had a little pro experience at the highest level, and they’ve been really able to get into the groove. I feel like Gen.G’s approach has been the best of all the types of teams.
Just before we go, do you think that inflated salaries are a problem for a 40,000 viewer esport? Or is the brand building, like you said, making it worth it?
I am conscious of the esport ecosystem and that most esport team owners are not making money. There’s a lot of team owners in the red, and they have to cut costs, but I’m never gonna shed a tear for a player getting a big contract. I’m all in support of the players. If Skadoodle or Brax or whatever can get 40k out of T1, good for them, get their money, get whatever contract you can, I don’t think it’s sustainable, and I don’t think it’s going to be sustainable going forward, and it probably is more money than is deserving for the current scene of the esport which doesn’t even really exist yet, but I’m not gonna be clamouring against it or something.
Well thank you much, that’s all I have for you, you spent a lot of time with me, this was a lovely conversation.
Yeah, thank you, y’know, good luck transcribing all that, you have fun.
You can find more of Slasher and his thoughts on everything esports @Slasher on Twitter.
Image via Cheddar, Blizzard Entertainment and DreamHack