EXCLUSIVE: Riot execs Whalen Rozelle and Anna Donlon talk Int’l Events, VAL Mobile, and more
Esports Inquirer sat with Whalen Rozelle, Chief Operating Officer, Esports at Riot Games, and Anna Donlon, Senior Vice President, Executive Producer for VALORANT to talk about the possibility of international events coming to the Philippines, get some VALORANT Mobile updates, and more.
Q: How did Masters come to Tokyo?
Whalen: We love fans [in Japan] and this is our first Masters outside of Europe post-pandemic when sort of things have normalized in [the world and VCT]. We want to go to where there are passionate fans that care about the game, because at the end of the day, these events are celebrations of the community and celebrations of players.
When we were seeing our early events, you know the early Masters and Champions and you had two hundred, three hundred thousand Japanese esports fans who love VALORANT watching at 2:00 AM, that was like an incredibly clear signal to us that there’s a very passionate community here.
So Anna and I, when we were talking about where we wanted to bring our “first” Masters, Tokyo was the absolute no-brainer. We were tremendously excited to have made it happen.
Anna: You know, when we launched the game, I really don’t know what we were expecting out of Japan, but like it was almost immediately that we saw those servers filling up and we were so excited. Even in that moment, we were like “how quickly can we bring an event to Japan?” It was almost immediate.
And then we wanted to make sure that the player base would want us here and they’d be excited to have us. We felt so welcome here. The game is welcome here, the event has been really welcome here. I think the Japanese community has been amazing [as a host country]. I kinda wanna come back!
W: It’s also really nice to give Japanese esports fans a chance to watch VALORANT at a reasonable hour.
Q: Anything about the fans that surprised you? Did fans from a certain region surpass your expectations?
W: Look, anytime you go into an event where there’s no local team, you get a little worried, but [the Japanese fans] have been so respectful and here to cheer on every team. Seeing this crowd show up for all the games, cheer on every player, stay late and applaud the team that was eliminated – it’s been very surprising.
Yet another reason when we talk about, “hey, we’d love to come back [to Japan] at some point” it’s because you bring all teams from around the world. That’s what Masters is, and the Japanese fans are just here for all of them.
A: It totally makes sense for countries to have a local favorite. I think that’s just part of it, right? I think we still felt that with Paper Rex, you could feel a lot of energy towards Paper Rex when they were doing really well. So then it’s like you start to see them kind of triangulate around the teams that are part of their region.
Q: Did putting VCT 2023: Masters Tokyo in an Eastern timezone affect viewership?
W: The way timezones work, it’s always going to be really bad for one region, great for one region, and kind of OK for the other in terms of how things shake out. I mean, we actually saw, you know, Masters tends to peak over about a million viewers. We have that peak with EDG like some of their matches because it’s not just a convenient time for the [Japanese and Korean] fans, but also the Chinese fans. Shoutout to Zmjjkk, that was a fun run!
What’s great is that VALORANT, being such a global game, has different communities who are able to rally together and support. What ends up happening is that viewership actually tends to be really great, but it comes from a bunch of different places. Before I came over I stayed up very late watching these matches, but you see Asian viewership being fantastic, you see European viewership being pretty good as well. It always tends to balance out and so we saw the same thing here this time.
Q: Can you speak more on the content creator side as well? Tarik was here in person co-streaming the event, and even though he’s a Western streamer he was hitting higher numbers on his stream.
A: [Tarik]’s like a celebrity.
W: The way that this audience has reacted to Tarik, he is a celebrity. He’s walking around we have to make sure he’s okay because everyone’s crowding around Tarik. That kind of fandom, transcending international boundaries – he can be a giant celebrity when we’re in Turkey, but he can also be that celebrity here, that’s really fun to see. It’s like one big community and we love the people who are part of it.
A: We really love that we do co-streaming. I think it’s been such a big part of what’s made VALORANT feel so special. You can watch VALORANT with your favorite streamer and get their takes; maybe that feels more comfortable or more exciting for you.
They have a different perspective on the game than what you would get on the main broadcast. We were a little nervous when we started that strategy, like “Is it okay to move our viewers all over the place?”
I think ultimately it’s been pretty incredible for us. Because what you have is people who are fans of watching VCT with Tarik and they’re like “I probably wouldn’t stay up late all night to watch these games, but I would absolutely do it if I get to watch Tarik be a part of it.” I think it just makes the entire sport better as a result, all right.
Q: Can VALORANT fans in the Philippines expect a big international event soon?
A: There’s a lot of players in the Philippines, yeah. I think anything is possible.
Q: Can you talk more about what your vision is for Premier?
A: Premier is one of those features that we always knew we wanted to do. Even before we launched the game, we were like “something like this would be absolutely incredible.”
Players usually have to go outside of the game itself to be part of tournaments and actually feel that climb. We didn’t know if we were to have an esport when we launched the game.
[What we did was] wait and see how the community responds to the game and then make sure we get that feeling of team competition in the game in a way that feels really good, and where players can feel that climb.
We started talking to the esports team and we’re like, “hey, if esports is going to be a thing, can we actually connect these two ecosystems? Can we actually make that path to pro real”
I don’t know how many stories we’re going to see where the team of 5 dudes in their bedrooms get all the way there. Can you imagine the day that happens and we see one of those matches? Who doesn’t want that feeling?
By connecting Premier and [the VALORANT esports scene], you have those moments where it’s not just “I’m the best in my in-game tournament system.” It’s “I’m the best” in a way that could actually become a thing. We’ve all just been incredibly excited to get it out there and see how it does. It’s something we’re feeling really committed to right now.
W: It’s something that Riot in general has wanted. It’s always been frustrating that if you’re an aspiring pro it’s unclear how to get there. It really helps clarify that – it starts inside the game. Do the thing that you love to do: play with your friends. Then hopefully, eventually, you can rise to the top.
Q: Any VALORANT Mobile news?
A: I think people are really hungry for an update on VAL Mobile. We have not given one and we’re very consciously not giving an update right now because I think as soon as we do, players are going to start wanting to know when it’s going to launch and all that.
Our main focus right now is on making sure that we’re making the right game that feels really good on mobile. We won’t launch the game on mobile unless it feels amazing on mobile. That has been challenging but fun and I feel like we’re making really great progress right now.
I think our next biggest update on [VALORANT mobile] will be when we’re actually ready to talk about if it’s going to come out and when it will come out. Until then, no great updates. But, I will say we absolutely understand the opportunity. We know the [VALORANT players] in regions right now on PC that could be much better served by having the game on mobile. For us, it’s like it’s definitely something that we want to see through. It has to be a good game first and foremost, and we’re still on that journey.
The game is absolutely being designed to be a competitive shooter on mobile. That is the goal, which is why it’s hard to make.
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