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Original Reporting

Kiara ”milkyway” Makua’s VALORANT career began similarly to most players who tried out the first person shooter’s beta in April 2020. She was still playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive competitively, but there was something about Riot Games’ latest title that drew her in.

“I switched to VALORANT because they were more inclusive,” she said. “They were already presenting all-female tournaments.”

Milkyway, who recently signed with VersionX alongside her other teammates on Just Breathe, was completely convinced after competing in the first VALORANT Champions Tour: Game Changers event in North America. She and her original team, Dignitas Female, didn’t have a ton of time to prepare for the tournament.

“We winged it and placed fourth,” she said, before adding that the result contributed to her switching over to VALORANT full-time. “I switched it because it had more opportunities for women in gaming.”

VersionX
Milkyway and the rest of the VersionX VALORANT squad. | Provided by Version1

A long time coming

Riot Games has accomplished something that the majority of other esports-centered studios and publishers have put little effort into. The League of Legends developer has led the charge in building a vibrant community of women at the competitive level in VALORANT, which is a stark contrast to how women have been treated within the company in the past according to a lawsuit by the Department of Fair Housing and Employment.

“The ‘bros before hoes’ thing is so ingrained even though they claim to be a meritocracy,” said Jes Negrón, a female former editor on Riot’s editorial team in a 2018 report by Kotaku. “People say ‘meritocracy’ there with an undercurrent of sarcasm. Everyone secretly knows that’s not the case.”

Riot Games has since tried to improve its culture, but many have said that it still feels like a boys’ club. The Santa Monica-based publisher agreed to pay out at least $10 million to women who worked at the company in the last five years as part of a settlement in a class action lawsuit over alleged gender discrimination in 2019.

The discussion and mood around VALORANT has felt like it was made by a different company, or at least a different internal team.

“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,” head of esports partnerships Matthew Archambault said in an interview with GamesBeat. “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.”

Promises made, promises kept

Riot and the VALORANT team have come through on many of their promises. Women from Call of Duty, Overwatch, Counter-Strike and even League of Legends have flooded the VALORANT servers due to the opportunities present in its competitive scene. Where other games have next to no major organizations signing female players or publisher-run tournaments, there’s no shortage of either within VALORANT.

“Seeing this number of teams signed to pretty large organizations within VALORANT is so amazing,” said Digintas Female IGL Emmalee “EMUHLEET” Garrido. “That’s something we’ve been wanting and striving for so long.”

VALORANT Game Changers
Game Changers tournaments in North America have each featured $50,000 in prize money. | Provided by Riot Games

VALORANT was widely considered a success before officially launching due to Riot’s long history of competitive success with League of Legends. Major male players from a number of games jumped ship. Female representation in major esports has been historically small in many other games, including League of Legends.

That wasn’t the case with VALORANT. 30 to 40% of VALORANT players are female, according to Archambault. That player base has made it clear that they want a seat at the table when it comes to shaping the VALORANT ecosystem.

“The first 50K that we competed in and won was a community thing with Galorants and Riot jumped in,” said Cloud 9 White player Katsumi. “A lot of the success for women in general has come from them being active. I think that would be silly to ignore.”

Riot Games coupled that grassroots effort with support, starting the VCT Game Changers Series and Game Changers Academy for up-and-coming female players. They’ve also given support to female broadcasters and production staff in an attempt to increase representation in more areas within esports.

The League of Legends Championship Series has its own Game Changers event as well, but it’s only one week long. Other leagues have had all-female tournaments and events, but they’ve never reached the level that VCT Game Changers has in terms of number of tournaments, top tier organizations and even viewership.

It’s all about promoting VALORANT’s women

“VALORANT has its tournaments promoted in-game,” said Gen.G Black player Lynn “Lynn” Clarke. “You’d never get that sort of exposure in other games. Riot streams Game Changers on the main channel. That’s been the big spotlight for the female scene.”

VCT Game Changers Series 3 concluded on Oct. 3, marking the end of the first full circuit for the shooter. This series, along with other tournaments like Proving Grounds, has shown players that Riot is serious with its efforts to promote inclusivity in VALORANT. Multiple players have agreed that Riot has been open and concerned with feedback from its players. The studio made changes, like some regions including co-ed rosters in some tournaments to give female players the chance to face off against their male counterparts.

Cloud9White VALORANT
Cloud 9 White has dominated the Game Changers Series. | Provided by Cloud 9

“This isn’t a pivot in the broader Game Changers strategy for EMEA,” said VALORANT EMEA product lead Felix J Morgan about co-ed competitions. “We’ll still have lots of women-only tournaments. We just heard a lot of feedback from pros that they wanted to compete with and against men. So this is creating an additional opportunity for them to do so.”

The majority of players who’ve competed in VCT Game Changers have been happy with their experience within VALORANT’s short lifespan. Some hope to see the swiss system format, where teams face off once against opponents who are supposedly equal, permanently replaced with a round robin format or a groups stage. Everyone is eager for a Game Changers LAN after seeing VCT teams perform in Iceland and Germany.

Otherwise, they are pleased with the relative stability and platform the series has given longtime veterans and newcomers. The biggest challenge many North American teams have ahead of them is finding a way to beat Cloud 9 White, who have won all three tournaments in the 2021 season.

“Literally beat C9 White, they’ve been on the top for so long,” milkyway said. “They just had such a head start, it’s only a matter of time until someone beats them.”

Aron Garst looks at esports from a different point of view by tackling the ways games are molded and broken by players around the world. He covers Call of Duty, Fortnite, Super Smash Bros, and everything else for Upcomer. You can read his previous work at WIRED, Rolling Stone, ESPN and elsewhere. Rise up red sea.
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