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By any measure, League of Legends has been an enormous success for Riot Games for more than a decade. But when it comes to the diversity of the esports stars in the multiplayer online game, it’s clear that women are missing. And since the company is more aware of diversity issues than it was in the past, Riot is taking a more proactive approach to its next big esports game, Valorant.

Valorant has a lot going for it. Riot recently announced that its team shooter game has reached 14 million monthly active PC players and half a billion games played in its first year. The new Valorant Champions Tour (VCT) in North America is hitting new peaks with each event, with more than 8.7 million hours of tournaments watched, 360,000 peak viewers, an average of 560,000 viewers each minute, and similar good results for regional events. Riot Games is still investing heavily ahead of making profits with Valorant, just as it has done with League of Legends.

But Valorant is different from League of Legends in another respect, as about 30% to 40% of the players are female, said Matthew Archambault, head of esports partnerships at Riot Games, said in an interview with GamesBeat. One reason that has happened is that times have changed, Riot has matured since being accused of sexism in the past, and it can put more resources toward making sure the ecosystem is diverse.

“If you look at the FPS space, that’s kind of amazing because if you look at other FPS titles, you can see they are mostly men,” Archambault said. “We wanted to ensure that we could create this very welcoming experience for women and marginalized genders.”

And to stoke their interest in Valorant esports, Riot Games announced in February it was creating the Valorant Champions Tour (VCT) Game Changers program. It’s an esports tournament initiative to supplement the competitive season by highlighting women and people of marginalized genders. Riot wants these events to foster an inclusive environment for competition and create safe opportunities for women to compete without fear of identity- or gender-based harassment. After all, esports is something where the sexes should be equal, since, unlike in traditional sports, there isn’t a difference between men and women when it comes to playing a computer game with a mouse and keyboard. There isn’t a physical difference that explains why there aren’t enough women in esports.

“I worked on [League of Legends Championship Series] LCS for a really long time as well. And there are no female players,” said Shelby Ulisse, an event producer at Riot Games and head of the Game Changers Initiative. “That’s the reality, and I think it is a huge bummer and missed opportunity. We’ve had females enter and come into the pro scene on League of Legends. And so this time around, we were like, ‘That can’t happen again.’ We need to make sure that from the beginning, from the inception of what this esport is, women are at the forefront of our mind, because we want to see mixed teams, we want to see all of those teams and a variety of different people represented.”

Promoting women at the beginning

Above: Verizon’s Diego Scotti and Riot’s Ana Donlon.

Image Credit: Verizon

The year-long effort will help build a tour that is more representative of the diversity of the Valorant community. And the hope is that if women see other women in the top levels of the game, then they will conclude that the ecosystem around Valorant will support them as well. Valorant has a good chance in part because Riot Games has gone through some big changes in the wake of charges about sex discrimination in recent years. Getting Valorant right at the very beginning could have a big effect on Valorant esports for years to come.

“The Valorant Game Changers program is so perfectly aligned with Riot’s mission to provide women with more experience, training, and mentorship within the gaming industry,” said Valorant executive producer Anna Donlon, in an email to GamesBeat. “We celebrate and support Game Changers and how they’re inspiring the next generation of female and marginalized gender players that want to build a career in the Valorant ecosystem – or any game for that matter.”

Donlon appeared on stage at Verizon’s E3 talk this morning, where she said that women have the added disadvantage in esports because they have to deal with so much identity and gender-based harassment. She said she has experienced that herself as she spoke with Diego Scotti, chief marketing officer at Verizon.

“When it comes to competitive gaming, women still find themselves at a huge disadvantage and it has absolutely nothing to do with skill,” Donlon said. “They can’t focus 100% on the game. Instead, they have to spend so much energy dealing with harassment they faced. Having experienced first hand myself, it can be daunting and it takes away from dealing with the actual competition. How is that fair?”

There are a number of women behind the scenes trying to make sure this works.

“When we were trying to figure out the best way to approach supporting women in esports, especially Valorant esports, we were looking at what we had done for League and we felt like we just hadn’t done enough,” said Ulisse. “We wanted to support women even more since we have so many learnings from starting League as an esports.”

They concluded that they didn’t want to create an additional women’s league for Valorant that was separate from the regular competitive league.

“But we did want to provide some additional support and opportunities for women in the scene in general,” Ulisse said. “We approach that in a few different ways.”

VCT Game Changers Series

Cloud9's all-female Valorant esports team.

Above: Cloud9’s all-female Valorant esports team.

Image Credit: Cloud9

First, Riot Games created the VCT Game Changers Series as a set of top-tier competitions that will take place around the world over 2021. These events and their prize pools will be similar in scale to last year’s Ignition Series tournaments, with the first event scheduled in late March for North American competitors and hosted by Nerd Street Gamers.

The company wanted to support women who were already at the pro level, particularly those who migrated from Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Riot Games created a Valorant tournament series for the women in women-only tournaments dubbed VCT Game Changers. This is in addition to the normal VCT programming and it highlights signed and unsigned female talent. It’s not a separate league. It’s another way to gain more visibility and increase the fan base for women, Ulisse said. And all of the women who participate in Game Changers can also participate in the normal VCT events.

On top of that, if esports organizations enter an all-women Valorant team, they can enter two teams in the VCT. So they could have an advantage over the teams by having two entrants in a tournament, rather than just one. Cloud9 has a particularly competitive womens team.

VCT Game Changers Academy

Sage in Valorant.

Above: Sage in Valorant.

Image Credit: Riot Games

The VCT Game Changers Academy program hosts monthly tournaments, giving players even more opportunities to compete at the semi-pro and grassroots level. Academy events are organized in partnership with Galorants, one of the largest communities within Valorant on Discord.

Galorants previously helped organize the “For the Women Summer Showdown” tournament in September 2020. Both the VCT Game Changers Series and Academy will help build the next generation of leaders who aspire to succeed within the competitive Valorant community.

The VCT Game Changers Academy program is “more about those that are still in the pipeline who definitely could grow into the pro scene, but aren’t quite there yet,” Ulisse said.

“I genuinely think those folks need a lot of support, too, from a community of people around them. And so we created Game Changers Academy,” she added. “And this program essentially is us working with the Galorants Discord server, which is an all-female Valorant server that has been around since pretty much the beginning of Valorant. It’s an incredible community growing really fast, and we thought they were doing some really good work already. And we wanted to support some low-stakes competition within their server, to try and encourage people to practice and get a good understanding of what a tournament really looks like.”

The wider Valorant ecosystem

Valorant in action

Above: Valorant in action

Image Credit: Riuot Games

Donlon said it’s also necessary to help women understand their career opportunities in gaming. She had a good mentor who suggested that she become a game producer at a time when she didn’t even know what a game producer was.

“That reinforces how important mentorship is,” Scotti said.

Ulisse noted it can be nerve-wracking to enter a tournament, even if you’re one of the best players. Giving players the ability to practice and play in a lower-pressure environment could help them grow, she said.

On the broadcast side, Riot Games is also working with Verizon to train more women to be the talent for being “casters,” or those who do the play-by-play commentary for fans at tournaments. It is training six women as casters for the Valorant scene, and it is providing them with vocal coaching and other tools for being a caster.

“I think it’s important to get representation in front of the camera in a variety of ways,” Ulisse said.

Donlon said that this program provides a pipeline of female talent that is “so sorely lacking.”

Riot Games is publicizing the Game Changer competitors on social media, and it is working with teams like Dignitas to highlight women. Sponsors like Verizon and Aim Lab are also helping to underwrite Game Changers.

“There are some really great big names behind us supporting these programs,” Ulisse said. “And on all of our social channels, we’re pushing these women’s esports programs, which is exciting.”

With Valorant Game Changers, sponsors have seen that some of the women esports events are getting record viewership, Archambault said.

“We’re creating this ecosystem, where it’s not just also about bringing women to be a professional gamer, but also getting them into the space into coaching or into production or into casting,” Archambault said. “What’s really amazing here is that it’s not just there’s a singular path to pro for one person to become the next great player.”

Valorant also has a strong base among influencers and streamers when it comes to women, Archambault said. “We’ve also been lucky enough to have two partners come and support it in Verizon and Aim Lab. They have both female and male creators influencers as ambassadors for their program.”

“I believe it really doesn’t matter what your gender is,” Archambault said. “It just comes down to your performance. And that the one thing I think is truly amazing about gaming and esports. It’s not like how you can’t play in the NBA or the NFL. If you have reaction time, and you can get in front of the computer and get on the internet, you have a chance to play.”

Reducing toxicity and alienation

Riot Games is trying to diversify the games and tech industries.

Above: Riot Games is trying to diversify the games and tech industries.

Image Credit: Riot Games

Lastly, Riot Games is also working hard on reducing toxicity, as women can bear the brunt of that, around all of its games. Donlon said Riot is committing to enabling women to compete without fear of identity or gender harassment.

One of the main points is that women who are playing on the casual or amateur level can look up to the pros.

“We absolutely need to keep investing in and prioritizing innovations that help fight against harassment,” Donlon said. “Honestly, the game industry needs to take a more active role in the community it is creating.”

If women see other women in those ranks, it gives them the inspiration to continue.

“Right now, I feel being a female in the space can be very alienating sometimes if you don’t have a community around you,” Ulisse said. “And so we really wanted to just show that women are part of this in so many different ways. And no matter who you are, you could be part of this. The great thing about games is that, unlike physical sports, for instance, where [it depends on] your body strength or your physical ability, you don’t have the same barriers. We are excited to give women additional opportunities to really show that they’re just as good as men in these games.”

Archambault said that having a pathway for women means that there can be a groundswell where the momentum just grows over time.

“It’s the right trajectory. This is not a two-year thing for us,” Archambault said. “This is the next multi-generational esport. We’ve done it with League and we want to do it with Valorant.”

Making a living

The employees of Riot Games .

Above: The employees of Riot Games in 2018.

Image Credit: Riot

Creating a fan base for women is important because that helps them generate income (through donations from fans) and be able to spend more time training so they can be the best.

“Increasing their fandom gives them more of a chance to be signed,” said Ulisse. “It gives them a lot of visibility publicly.”

Riot Games has other programs in the works to improve diversity when it comes to underrepresented minorities and other people.

Ulisse said she has enjoyed working on the program.

“I’m a female in gaming. And so I feel really personally invested in this program,” she said. “And when I created this program, I didn’t want it to feel like we’re just supporting women to support women. There are so many women behind the scenes working on this that really deeply care about this because we’ve faced the same issues in gaming. We really believe in this and we want to expand it even more. And hopefully, 2022 is going to be one of the best years yet for a woman in esports.”

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