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Valorant may not need casual players to become a massive hit

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Game developer Riot’s first major new title in more than a decade, the tactical shooter Valorant, launched on Tuesday with understandable reservation. The understated moment was a tonal far cry from its splashy and successful beta back in April, largely due to ongoing and widespread protests over police brutality in the US and around the world following the death of George Floyd. As a result of the crisis, numerous gaming companies have delayed online events and announcements, many of which were already scheduled in scattershot fashion due to the pandemic. Yet Riot forged ahead.

“Despite the challenges we are facing in the US and across the globe right now, we want you to have the chance to come together and create positive memories in the midst of all that is weighing on us,” wrote Riot CEO Nicolo Laurent in a blog post published earlier this week. “We hope Valorant will be a small bright spot for you during an otherwise dark time.”

That the company went ahead with the Valorant launch may be both a testament to its faith in the long-term success of the game and its belief that the beta launch performed most of the heavy marketing lift it needed to get the product off the ground with the players that matter most to its business: the pros. (That crowd extends, to a lesser extent, to gaming personalities and streamers, many of whom are former pro players.)

Valorant is the first big-budget online multiplayer title of the last few years that bucks the battle royale trend by reviving a pre-PUBG era of competitive gaming. And unlike perhaps its largest contemporary in the competitive gaming space, Blizzard’s 2016 hit Overwatch, Valorant pitch rests almost solely in its appeal to older, more traditional PC shooters. While Overwatch was accessible, multi-platform, and sought mainstream appeal through storytelling and worldbuilding, Riot’s shooter is unapologetically hardcore and uninterested in either narrative or casual players. That sets the stage for a fascinating showdown of esports strategies that will test the wisdom of competitive gaming’s most high-profile companies.

Image: Riot Games

Valorant’s history is rooted in games far older than Overwatch. Tactical shooters dominated Western esports in the late 2000s, before the rise of Riot’s mega-hit League of Legends and similar battle arena games made Asia and that particular strategy genre the undeniable center of the esports universe. The pinnacle of the tactical shooter remains 2012’s Counter Strike:Global Offensive, off which almost all of Valorant’s core design is based. CS:GO remains one of the most popular games on the planet, often topping Steam charts and remaining the only game of its kind with a global esports circuit that is still alive and well.

Using CS:GO as a springboard to modernize the genre, Riot has created a derivative but otherwise highly polished game engineered to be a hit. The studio has mixed in elements of the similar but more chic hero shooter genre, led by games like Overwatch and Apex Legends, by giving its distinct playable characters all unique powers and abilities to use alongside a fairly bland and narrow slate of firearms. It then bound it all together into a free-to-play product that Riot hopes will become a competitive esport, a massive money maker, and a passive entertainment source for Twitch viewers all rolled into one.

It’s impossible to discuss Valorant as a gaming product without acknowledging the ambitions of its creators and how those ambitions are largely unconcerned with the casual players that will make up a bulk of its fanbase. Because to be a successful esport requires impassioned viewers invested in the pinnacle performance levels players can achieve in the game, and it is unclear right now how many players Valorant can attract and retain given its hardcore nature. But if Riot’s all-in esports approach proves successful, Valorant could become the roadmap from which all future competitive games are designed, marketed, and nurtured over the months and years after their release.

Valorant’s design seems particularly directed toward fostering a professional scene. So while it has all the trappings of any other free-to-play game — like an e-shop for digital goods and a battle pass — it’s not quite right to think of Valorant as just another online multiplayer game you might slot into your rotation and play a little bit here and there for fun. Play is highly organized around team coordination and verbal communication, prioritizing fast reflexes and deep strategic and collaborative playmaking. The game also has an extraordinary high skill ceiling that allows individual talents to shine and an intense, singular game mode with matches that can last close to an hour. (Valorant’s launch did introduce a simpler, shorter mode called Spike Rush that allows for quicker games, but it is far from the primary focus.)

In my experience playing and getting almost uniformly crushed for making rookie mistakes, Valorant is not for the faint of heart. Many of the people who will play this game obsessively — and perhaps spend real money on it and become core fans of its esports circuit — will have to, by default, take it very seriously, regardless of whether they’re capable of ever going pro.

Riot has taken everything it’s learned turning League of Legends into one of the most popular, lucrative, and successful competitive games of the last decade and deployed it here in Valorant, seemingly with the sole intention of creating another mega-hit that can dominate the competitive gaming circuit for years to come. If you’re a young shooter player with the skills to play games for a living, there is likely no better game to focus your attention on right now than Valorant.

That raises some interesting questions for how a property like Valorant grows as both its own slice of gaming culture and as a business. Many games that have become popular esports do so organically, because of their at-the-time unprecedented design and the natural growth that comes with striking gold on a new idea.

But since the launch of Overwatch, a game built from the ground up to be the foundation of a globe-spanning big-budget esports league with aspirations for mainstream recognition, the industry’s biggest studios have become more deliberate and esports-focused in their game development and design. Valorant is the most mature product of that environment to date, readymade for esports and Twitch with a corporate infrastructure so trusted that existing pro players began realigning their careers before it even launched.

But what does Riot’s approach mean for the everyday players, those who know without a doubt they’ll never be good enough to play the game professionally? More importantly, how does the title fit into the broader attention economy in which everything from Fornite to Netflix to Twitter competes for a diminishing amount of our free time? Playing a game you’re terrible at, let alone investing time and energy into its pro scene, is a tougher proposition when there are so many alternative sources competing for our eyes. And while games can become popular esports despite lacking a large fanbase of causal players (Rainbox Six: Siege, for instance), other games’ pro circuits have waned because of a lack of overall interest (Apex Legends comes to mind).

The path Valorant takes over the next six months, and how well it’s received by pros and casual players alike, will offer some answers and a telling portrait of the state of esports in 2020.

Image: Riot Games

Riot achieved record-breaking numbers on Twitch and waves of positive press and influencer attention during the Valorant beta by gaming the streamer ecosystem. The developer gave early access to popular personalities and incentivized viewers to tune in for a chance at receiving a rare beta access key.

But now, a few days after launch, many of those same streamers — who no longer or never did compete in esports — have retreated to their familiar haunts, be it Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Fortnite, or the tried-and-true MOBAs and single-player games that continue to top the Twitch charts. On midday Thursday, two days after launch, Valorant was sitting in eighth place in overall Twitch viewership with a little over 100,000 active viewers.

That might not matter all that much, as the game’s esports community has already coalesced around new teams and a slate of high-profile players poached from existing Overwatch League rosters and other competitive gaming circles. Valorant’s primary pitch is not that it’s a new, unique experience, but rather a fresh coat of paint on a traditional one. Those who will love Valorant either already know it’s their kind of game, because they played CS:GO, or will know after their first match that it’s not for them. It’s a hard game to learn to love, especially if you don’t have a dedicated team to play with and don’t want to invest the amount of time and effort to improve as one would in, say, a serious hobby or a real-world sport.

In that way, Valorant feels like the anti-Overwatch. Blizzard’s team shooter arrived in 2016 as a hyper-polished, player-friendly game with Pixar-like levels of detail in its characters and game world. It became an instant hit because its design and visuals were world class, and its esports ambitions were industry-altering in their scope and the depth of the financial commitments made to kickstart it. For casual players, Overwatch was inviting, attracting even non-shooter players into its world by making all of the characters unique and fun to play and giving even the most thankless jobs on the team moments to shine.

Yet for as much as it initially seemed like a home run across the board, Overwatch was an experiment in community-building that came with inherent risks. Blizzard hoped that by making an esports-ready game more accessible to the mainstream, it would cultivate a legion of fans that didn’t care if they were no good at it or couldn’t compete at its higher levels. That way, those players would stick around, playing casual game modes and consuming new story trailers and the ever-expanding lore (while also spending money on lootboxes and copious merchandise).

When the Overwatch League launched, those players would transform into sports fans organized around local, city-based communities. Even if the overall popularity of the game shrank, the competitive community could keep the entire ecosystem humming along. That strategy has more or less worked, even if OWL is now experiencing a rough patch following the implosion of the Vancouver Titans, high-profile players like Jay “Sinatraa” Won departing to play Valorant, and the complexities of launching Overwatch 2 some time in the next couple of years.

Valorant is trying none of that, so far. Teams are already sprouting up among established esports companies like Gen.g, Sentinels, and T1 And although the specifics have yet to be announced, Riot has given us no reason to believe it will diverge from the vertically integrated method of control it developed for League of Legends, where Riot organizes, records, and broadcasts the biggest and most important tournaments and reaps a lion’s share of financial rewards. The game also doesn’t really have a story to speak of, although it is trying an Apex Legends-style form of worldbuilding through online trailers. The game is overwhelmingly concerned with competition. Riot does not seem at all interested in even pretending like it is fit for casual play.

As for whether Valorant can make up for a potential lack of mainstream popularity with its esports-first approach, the enduring popularity of CS:GO is a strong precedent in its favor. It suggests Riot could similarly cultivate a sizable, albeit more niche, community of players that follow its pro circuit closely and help keep it healthy and lucrative. Not all of those players may play the game regularly to remain fluent in its more subtle changes, but enough of them might to ensure a CS:GO-level of interest. That will be especially true if the highest-profile pros don’t abandon it for other games or the more lucrative and stress-free life of a streamer.

What is undeniable right now is that Valroant has enormous potential, both for the esports community and for the business of competitive, free-to-play games. Esports remains fresh and ever-evolving, and there is no definitive rulebook as to what one game can do to become a popular product and a highly-watched sport at the same time. Some games, like battle royale titles, can at first seem exhilarating to both play and watch, but over time the sheen of the trend has worn off and the copycats have become derivative and exhausting. Team shooters can be a blast to play, but sometimes boring or chaotic to watch. MOBAs require colossal play time investment to even comprehend what you’re watching in the first place.

With Valorant, Riot is reviving a simple but deep shooter genre that is easy to understand and watch but often punishing to play yourself, and it’s hoping the world’s most talented players will become invested enough to turn it into the next League of Legends. It’s a big bet, and the pay off will prove whether or not Riot can become one of the industry’s legendary hitmakers.

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Sealed copy of Super Mario Bros. breaks record for most expensive game ever sold

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Super Mario Bros. keeps breaking records three and a half decades after release. A mint copy of a US version of the 1985 game just sold for $114,000 at Heritage Auctions, breaking the previous record set by a copy of Super Mario Bros. in similar condition that sold for $100,150 at an auction last year.

That makes it, according to game collector and journalist Chris Kohler, the most expensive game ever sold to date.

A sealed copy of Super Mario Bros. just sold at auction for $114,000, which is a new record for the sale of a single game. Bet the owners of the $100,000 one, which is an earlier printing, feel great today. pic.twitter.com/lVdcla8d19

— Chris Kohler (@kobunheat) July 10, 2020

What makes this particular version so coveted? Well, it’s graded at a 9.4 out of 10, which means it’s in near-perfect condition, with everything sealed in the original packaging. It’s also a particular version of the US retail edition, which went through quite a few iterations over time. Here’s Heritage with a neat explanation of the so-called cardboard hangtab that makes this unit so rare:

What’s the deal with cardboard hangtabs? one may, understandably, wonder. Cardboard hangtabs were originally used on the US test market copies of black box games, back before plastic was used to seal each game. As Nintendo began to further establish their company in the US, their packaging was updated almost continuously. Strangely, the addition of the plastic wrap came before the box cutting die was altered to remove the cardboard hangtab. This rendered the functionality of the cardboard hangtab completely useless, since it was under the plastic seal.

There are four sub-variants of the plastic sealed cardboard hangtab box (this particular copy of Super Mario Bros. being the “3 Code” variant) that were produced within the span of one year. Each sub-variant of the cardboard hangtab black box, produced within that timeframe, had a production period of just a few months; a drop in the bucket compared to the title’s overall production run.

In short, a cardboard hangtab copy of any early Nintendo Entertainment System game brings a certain air of “vintage” unrivaled by its successors.

Heritage also outlines the broader picture in terms of the game’s value and nostalgia factor: it is the highest-selling game on the original NES console of all time, in addition to being the first entry in the Super Mario Bros. series and marking the first appearance of series villain Bowser.

Yet why, of all items, is this one worth $114,000? We can’t be entirely sure, as the auction winner remains anonymous. Typically, these buyers, often very wealthy, like to stay that way. That said, it’s certainly believable that someone with the money and dedication to building out the rarest of Nintendo or video game collections would want something like this on the shelf (or perhaps sealed in glass or in a safe).

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HBO Max is getting a Batman spinoff show based on the upcoming Robert Pattinson movie

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HBO Max has announced a new TV series focused on the Gotham City Police Department, which will be a spinoff of Matt Reeves’ upcoming The Batman film (which is set to star Robert Pattinson at Bruce Wayne / Batman).

The new series will be set in the same world as Reeves’ film and will be produced by Reeves and Dylan Clark (who’s also producing The Batman). Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter is set to write the series.

The series promises to “build upon the motion picture’s examination of the anatomy of corruption in Gotham City” and “further explore the myriad of compelling and complex characters of Gotham,” with the goal of launching a “new Batman universe across multiple platforms.”

The new TV series emphasizes how important DC properties are to the overall HBO Max strategy. By tying a TV series to its next big Batman film, Warner Bros. is hoping to leverage the popularity of its DC characters to help drive subscribers to the new streaming service. It’s a similar motivation that’s fueling the slate of already-announced DC series coming to the platform and the upcoming release of the Snyder Cut of Justice League that’s planned for next year.

The Batman isn’t the only property that WarnerMedia is looking to expand to HBO Max. The company is also set to try a similar experiment with its upcoming Dune adaptation. It’s already announced a spinoff for HBO Max, Dune: The Sisterhood, which will explore the larger world of Dune and the characters in it. It will be produced by Dune director Denis Villeneuve.

WarnerMedia isn’t the only company trying to tie its blockbusters to streaming: it’s a cornerstone of Disney’s strategy for Disney Plus, too, which has emphasized its Star Wars series (like The Mandalorian) and the upcoming Marvel shows like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier or Loki as ways to drive subscriptions.

There’s no release date yet for the upcoming Gotham PD HBO Max series; The Batman is scheduled to release on October 1st, 2021.

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The world is finally coming around to Starship Troopers

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The Verge is a place where you can consider the future. So are movies. In Yesterday’s Future, we revisit a movie about the future and consider the things it tells us about today, tomorrow, and yesterday.

The movie: Starship Troopers (1997)

The future: Two hundred years from now, Earth is governed by the United Citizen Federation, a new world order where people are defined as either citizens or civilians. To be a citizen, you must enlist in the UCF marines, which will earn you the respect of your peers and the right to vote. Not much is divulged about the lives of those not enlisted; it’s implied they don’t really matter much. Everyone wants to be a good citizen, everyone wants to enlist.

The UCF needs a steady stream of recruits, too: they’re in a seemingly endless war against the Bugs. If they have a proper name, no one is told. They’re just hostile, overwhelming, and need killing. If they were provoked, the UCF does not care.

Starship Troopers follows a group of new recruits from the end of their compulsory schooling to their enlisting in various branches of the military. All-American jock Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) becomes an infantryman, his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) becomes a pilot, and his weirdo pal Carl (Neil Patrick Harris), who seems to have psychic powers, joins the military’s Intelligence division.

Viewers see the future through their eyes, and it’s one forged on the equitable distribution of violence. Voting is violence, and those who use actual force are the only ones qualified to exercise that privilege. Women and men are equals in this militaristic future: they bleed the same, play on the same arena football teams, and buy into the jingoistic propaganda with equal enthusiasm. They don’t question their roles, the war they fight in, or the fascistic nature of their government, their uniforms, their attitudes. All that matters is that they fight, and they’ll gladly die in a war that doesn’t make sense.

The past: Upon its release in November 1997, Starship Troopers almost immediately flopped. Audiences and critics hated it. Roger Ebert called it “the most violent kiddie movie ever made” in his two-star review. Ebert conceded director Paul Verhoeven seemed to be angling for a satire of fascism but argued the film lacked humanity, considering its action soulless spectacle.

It didn’t help that the movie arrived in a tremendous year for film. Titanic would steamroll box offices a month later, and the preceding months saw more successful genre fare like The Fifth Element and The Lost World: Jurassic Park rake in millions. Perhaps Star Wars didn’t help, either: in 1997, the Special Editions had been released both theatrically and on home video, and the mean contrast of Verhoeven’s film might have been difficult to swallow.

Starship Troopers seems to be an obvious satire now, but the movie and its marketing mostly played things straight. It was an unpretentious sci-fi action film with a $100 million budget and great special effects. Why shouldn’t it be fun? And in the heady glow of late-’90s American prosperity, it wasn’t particularly obvious that the people Starship Troopers was critiquing might have been us.

The present: As Atlantic writer Calum Marsh noted in 2013, the tide has been slowly turning on Starship Troopers. Like a lot of prescient satire, the times changed until the movie’s point was made for it, and its targets became obvious — even though its story in retrospect could not have been more plain.

Revisiting the film in 2018, Verhoeven stressed how Starship Troopers consciously evoked the iconography of fascism on every level, from the casting of blond and square-jawed Casper Van Dien in the lead over known names like Matt Damon to the uniforms they wore.

“I decided to make a movie about fascists who aren’t aware of their fascism,” Verhoeven said, citing the United States’ refusal to limit firearms and the escalating number of executions in Texas under then-governor George W. Bush as aspects of American policy that could easily give way to fascism.

In a recent piece for The New Yorker, David Roth argues that the movie is especially potent in 2020, as American institutions have all but failed, with fascism the only avenue for them to persist.

“For most of Starship Troopers, humanity, in every possible facet, gets its ass kicked. A culture that reveres and communicates exclusively through violence—a culture very much like one that responds to peaceful protests with indiscriminate police brutality, or whose pandemic strategy is to “dominate” an unreasoning virus—keeps running up against its own self-imposed limitations,” Roth writes. “It’s not a realization that anyone in the film can articulate, or seemingly even process, but the failure is plain: society has left itself a single solution to every problem, and it doesn’t work.”

It’s worth noting that it’s still easy to misinterpret Starship Troopers if you’re not necessarily expecting satire. There is nothing to compare the fascistic UCF against other than the bugs — aliens shaped like things we already abhor, who don’t speak or seem to want anything other than to be left alone. It’s full of long, corny action, characters who don’t seem to think about much, and very little growth.

On this level, it’s a mindless blockbuster that’s easy to ignore, which is precisely the problem. It’s been easy to ignore our society’s very obvious ills. The atrocities of 2020 are not abnormalities or acts of God; they’re the logical conclusion to decades of careful work on the part of some and negligence on the part of others. The rot is slow, like the online propaganda videos that Starship Troopers uses for exposition that all end with a link asking “would you like to know more?” It’s a shadow of the way algorithms would serve as accelerant for radicalization nearly a decade before YouTube.

Starship Troopers asserts that the spectacle is the point. Its final act, a last, desperate push to clear out a bug stronghold, is exceedingly dull and senseless, violence made mundane. It plays it straight with no clever asides for the audience to pick up on, no character to channel the experience through, no one to ask the viewer why they have this urge to find this violence meaningful, for having the temerity to think that violence would have a meaning. I’m here to see the fireworks, and rare is the blockbuster that is interested in forcing me to question that.

Besides, would people even care? If we gave the Avengers an S.S. paint job, would people love them any less? We don’t just cheer for the “good guys” with guns anymore, but the ones with literal superpowers, and they’ve taken over the world.

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