VCT EMEA Head eyes studio success, mixed-gender VCT, and fans losing their s**t
Ahead of the inaugural VALORANT Champions Tour long-term partnership season, GGRecon sat down with VCT EMEA Head of Esports Daniel Ringland to talk everything from the studio setting, partnership selection, international rivalries, Game Changers eclipsing and mix-gender VCT hopes, the threat of Counter-Strike 2, and why this season will showcase the best VALORANT that we've ever seen.
So, first off, congratulations on your launch of VALORANT esports so far, especially within EMEA. As a team, what do you see as your biggest achievement so far?
That's a good question. I think it would have to be what you're going to see on Monday. What I mean by that is that we started planning this year's season - I remember it very vividly - in the first meeting that we had on December 15, 2020. So we've been preparing for this for a long time.
Obviously, we've had some great moments along the way. VALORANT has had some incredible moments on the global stage, and on the EMEA stage. But really we've been building towards this format that we have now. So that's it for me. I'm really excited for Monday and the ten teams, and now that we have our Challengers and Game Changers.
There's just so much in the new ecosystem and a lot of people have spent a lot of time working on it and it's just really great to see it about to be in the light of day. The fans will let us know on Monday how they think, and, of course, their opinion is the most important, so hopefully, they like what we've been working on.
I think we feel like something along similar lines was coming. Obviously, you've got the LEC as a case study. But we are about to see a partner program for the first time in VALORANT. For EMEA specifically, what was the process like when selecting the teams?
Obviously, we know that there was quite a lot of interest for partnerships, but how did you and Riot land on this list of teams, and what criteria did the likes of G2, FPX, Guild and Ascend maybe not meet in order to make the final ten?
You're certainly not wrong. The level of interest was unbelievable, which was very humbling for us. I can say that we had to say no to amazing teams because there were so many applications that just blew us away.
There are a lot of great teams that missed out. We were looking for a couple of things. First of all, we wanted to understand, "can this team build a competitive roster?". There are ten teams in the International Leagues, so 30 around the world, we want this to be the best VALORANT possible.
"Can this team build a great roster? Do they have the right coaching structures in place?" All of that sort of thing. That was one consideration. Of course, we care how the business is, "do they have good revenue? Are they operating sustainably?". That was important to us as well.
We wanted to understand their operational capacity, "Do they have great staff? Do they have good facilities? Are they making awesome content?". That sort of thing was important, too.
But by far the most important criteria were, "How many fans do they have? And how many fans do we think they can bring in the future?". The ten teams we landed on were the teams we think will help bring us the most cumulative fans.
What you'll see when you look at where the teams represent is we've really tried to build a framework, where we'll be able to build national rivalries. So we have two French teams, so we can have a French derby. We have two Turkish teams, so we can have a Turkish derby. We're going to have awesome rivalries building between the Spanish teams and the French teams.
We kind of played a game of, "what combination of teams gives us the largest catchment of fans, but also looking at the geographical jigsaw puzzle of what, how do we build the best rivalry in history over the years?".
Fantastic. Obviously, we're in a bit of an economical crisis at the moment. What did you have to look at in terms of teams' finances and sponsors, and how has the "Esports Winter" affected that process?
It was definitely a consideration for us. Without going into any confidential details, of course, we asked them to share a large amount of information with us, and we looked at that and we had conversations with them to understand their track record. Ultimately, we landed in a spot where, with our ten teams, we are really confident that these teams are run by really professional people who know what they're doing and I have faith in all of them.
That's good. And how is the financial situation affecting you as an organiser and publisher? How have you found attracting sponsors for this year's EMEA Season?
Sponsorship for us is definitely important. We want to find the right sponsors. We're in no rush to just sign everybody we can as fast as possible or anything like that. So, when you look at the portfolio sponsors we have and those who we will be announcing in the coming period, they're all genuine partners to us. They understand our goals, we understand their goals. There's a lot of alignment between them.
Most importantly, we think that by partnering with them that we're going to offer a really great experience to fans, to help them grow their brand and their presence. We are taking, I would say, a cautious approach to making sure we find the right partners.
It sounds like you've got quite a lot of suitors and it's good to know that there are still a lot of interested parties and the league's going to be in a good financial situation.
It’s going to be the first time that we get to see VALORANT enter the studio atmosphere. You've been at Riot for a long time and have worked on other titles, namely League of Legends, who also operate in a studio setting. How do you think teams will adapt to this situation, and, in your opinion, what are the benefits of having a studio-based league?
The main benefit is that it allows us to level up the broadcast significantly. What you'll find is you're (fans) very close to the players, and we've designed that very intentionally. The word that I used when we were briefing the agency was we wanted to feel “intimate”. People have now already told me they feel like it feels intimate being here, so that's good. It seems like we potentially achieved that.
Having the players on-site allows us to do all sorts of things too. We’ve had four days worth of media days, before the start of the season, and we've got so much great footage of the players; all sorts of funny stuff and we've got some great interviews that we've unearthed. Fascinating stories.
EMEA, as you know, is a huge territory with a plethora of different cultures, and our players represent that. They all come with really great stories, history, and personalities. There are definitely some great personalities here. So having them here allows us to unlock that and put them on the broadcast. Hopefully, the viewers at home feel a little more connected.
That’s probably the main benefit, I think.
As for how the players will adapt, it's different by player. We've obviously got some veterans here that have played in front of huge crowds - I think the crowd at locking grand final was 7,000, that’s a solid crowd. But we've also got some players that haven't had that much experience at all.
So, the players will all adapt in their own way, and it'll be very interesting to see how that impacts performance and how that changes over the season as players get used to the live environment.
I'll have to find out, just like everybody else.
In other esports that we see, many of the regional playoffs are played in front of crowds. I know the LEC studio that you have only holds 150 fans, so, have you got any goals for something where we can put the EMEA playoffs in front of a bigger crowd and attract more fans to the teams that they support?
Yeah, we all love richer and large crowds.
I was fortunate enough to be in Brazil and experienced that and I've attended a bunch of roadshows over my time. So the aspiration is absolutely to have those. We're not exactly sure when though. This year, the priority was laying a foundation. This is a brand new facility, and we've got a lot of things we're doing for the first time. So for this year we really want to focus on nailing those foundations. I'm feeling pretty good about that, and then as the years go by we'll definitely see. But I would absolutely love to have a roadshow at some point.
I attended Masters Three 2021 and that was in a nice little studio in the middle of Berlin at the Verti Music Hall, which was great. So what are the benefits of having your own studio now in comparison to the other one and what can we expect to see?
The venue search is a complicated, complicated business. A lot of it comes down to availability and so we're going to be camped out here for a long time. The Verti Music Hall is a fantastic venue, but that's designed for events that come in for a week or two weeks, something like that. You can't camp out there all year.
Our existing LEC space is designed to have longer-term tenants, so to speak. So availability is one, of course.
The studio here has all the technology and infrastructure we need. They're probably the main two things: Is it available and does it meet our needs? This venue definitely does both.
Fantastic. What are the goals for VALORANT EMEA in the long run? Is there a stage of production performance that you want to achieve?
In the long run, to boil it down, we want to create an esport and a league that fans love and that they keep coming back to. Fandom is really important to Riot.
Ultimately that's what we'll judge success on, do fans love what we do? Off the back of that, the rest will follow. In the short term for us, this year, it’s essentially a reboot of our esport and the message I've had to the team and our partner teams and everybody involved here is “let's lay the foundations right”.
It's important that we're able to build the next decades of our esport, on top of what we're doing this year, and that's a lot of pressure. So when I think of success for this year, it's getting all the basics right. But in the longer term, the most important thing will be “do the fans love what we do?”.
I'm just gonna put your brains a little bit on the broader scope of VALORANT right now as well, starting with Challengers. Do you find that having a two-tier system limits the path to pro (given we’ll have no room for this fairytale runs), or do you think it's a better system where the partnered teams will have a better pool to scout from?
On the contrary actually. I think one of the great things about our ecosystem for VALORANT that makes it unique is there is a path for a Challengers team sitting in the Turkish Challenger League, for instance, where if they win their next split, they will play at Ascension, and if they win Ascension, they'll be here next year.
The fairytale run actually is a path that still exists. People can see it, and it's a reality that it is possible and someone will do it. A team will win at Ascension and they'll be here in 2024.
We feel really good about that. Tier two is really important to us, and one of the things we realized when we did the application process was that there are so many teams that want to be a part of VALORANT. We need to create a world where they can play in T2 but also feel like there's a path for them to progress.
I'm gonna move on to Game Changers a little bit, as we've seen the recent comments from Riot regarding the progression of women in VALORANT, including the limited fans for the GC Playoffs. There were mixed messages with the announcement, on one hand, not wanting to necessarily promote Game Changers, but to promote into a mixed-gender league that we host now instead. Do you have any comments that you can elaborate on with that?
Our goal with Game Changers is that we want it to be a ramp into the VCT. We picture a world, hopefully not too far away, where when we have our ten teams walking out on this stage, and there are both men and women. That's the goal.
This year we've expanded our Game Changers program significantly. Last year we had one large tournament essentially with 128 teams in it, in GC 3 last year. We looked at the data at the end of the year, and one of the things we realized was 70% of game changers in year games ended in the 13-0 score line, and that is not good for anybody.
It's not fun and you're not learning anything, whether you're winning 13-0 or losing 13-0. I've been there many times, you don't learn anything.
What we've done this year is we've taken the top 16, put them in their own league, and they'll play against each other.
They'll be playing more games against more opponents that are at their skill level and that will help them increase. We think that will give them what they need to join in with either a Challengers league, individuals in a challenger team, or even in a VCT team, which would be amazing.
But we also recognize that we do need a Game Changers series. So that's why we have Contenders and Emergence. I'm really happy to announce that we have 128 teams in the EMEA Game Changers. It is really, really close to being full after just a few days.
For me, there's no better indicator of whether you're doing a good job at what you're building than when the people participating in the thing are growing. That gives us a really good vote of confidence that what we're building is working.
I can't wait for the day when, as I said, there’s a mixed stage for VCT.
We've seen over the last couple of days Counter-Strike 2 be revealed. With a renewed interest in Counter-Strike and many VALORANT players that we host now coming from that CS background, is there anything that you guys, especially in EMEA are trying to do to retain those players and fans?
Not really, to be honest. Riot has a lot of people who play a lot of games. I'm old, so I started playing CS 1.5, so I'm absolutely gonna give CS2 a go. No doubt about it.
But we're just gonna keep focusing on what we do well. I think it's very healthy to have competitors out there. A healthy CS:GO esports ecosystem just encourages us to do better, as with all things in the world when there's competition. The bar will be raised. We're going to keep focusing on what we feel we do well and we'll keep focusing on serving our VALORANT fans and players.
I'm not too worried.
That's absolutely fair. I do believe that there is a world where both games live cohesively. One final question, what can we expect to see come the first spike planted in the league?
I just want to see fans in here losing their s**t and loving every moment. We've got some amazing teams full of amazing players. We're obviously coming off an EMEA team winning LOCK//IN. I think we're going to have a lot of hype moments.
I just want to see fans in here losing their minds. I want to look on Twitch chat and see people having a really great time, and I think we can do it. We've certainly got all the pieces lined up.
VALORANT EMEA kicked off on Monday 27 March, as KOI Esports started off their new Partnership status against Natus Vincere.