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How a Game That Isn't Even Out Yet Became the Biggest Game on Twitch

By Stephen Lovely - Apr 18, 2020 at 8:11AM

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What the heck is "Valorant"?

In a single day earlier this month, the video game Valorant drew 34 million hours' worth of streaming views on Amazon's (AMZN 3.58%) video game streaming platform, Twitch. That's the site's all-time single-day viewing hours record. That would be impressive by any standard -- but what makes it truly eye-popping is the fact that Valorant hasn't even been officially released yet.

How can a game that isn't even out yet be the most popular one on Twitch? Actually, that's kind of the point. The company behind Valorant, Riot Games, found a clever way to make Twitch work alongside its game's beta-testing phase.

A man plays a video game on a TV in a living room.

Image source: Getty Images.

How Valorant became must-stream TV

On April 7, Riot launched Valorant as a limited closed beta. That means that the game isn't out yet, but a lucky few can play it early while Riot irons out any kinks in the code. But how do you get to play a closed beta?

In most cases, players get access to closed betas by signing up and being approved by the company. But that's not how it works with Valorant. For Valorant's closed beta launch, Riot turned to some of Twitch's most popular and respected streamers of shooting games. Streamers like summit1g (real name Jared Lazar) were the first to access the game, and they did so live on Twitch, introducing their fan bases to Riot's big new game in the process.

If Riot had just signed up a lot of top players to introduce its beta to the game's eventual target audience, that would've netted Valorant a lot of streaming hours on its own. These streamers are big stars, after all, and they regularly net thousands of viewers even when they're not playing some hyped-up new title. But Riot didn't stop after inviting the big guns (pun intended) to its new shooter. Regular fans were promised the chance to join the beta, too.

To get their beta access, though, fans had to tune in to the Twitch streams hosted by those already playing the beta. After linking their Twitch account with their Riot Games account, fans could receive access keys while watching streams of the very beta that they were trying to get into themselves. The streaming stars that Riot started with were tasked with handing out the random keys to viewers on their streams. There are a few rules (watching multiple streams at once won't increase a viewer's chances of landing a key, apparently), but that's pretty much it: To play Valorant, fans need to watch Valorant first.

It's a real win-win, of course: The streamers get tons of people tuning in, and Riot gets a ton of hype for its new game. That Valorant ended up breaking a huge Twitch record before its official release is a testament to how well this strategy worked.

Twitch, the video game tastemaker

Riot's strategy is novel, but Twitch streamers giving their fans prizes is nothing new. Twitch has long offered various in-game prizes, called "Twitch drops," to viewers streaming certain games.

To get their drops, fans first need to connect their Twitch account with an account associated with the game in question (in the case of Valorant, for example, this is a Riot Games account). Then these fans just need to use their Twitch account to watch a qualifying stream. The next time they go to play that game themselves, their connected account will have been gifted some kind of prize -- perhaps a loot box, a new outfit for their in-game character, or something else entirely (different games have different drops, of course).

Drops generally come from the company behind the video game (meaning streamers don't have to do anything to make their streams eligible), though there are times when companies work with individual streamers and allow Twitch personalities to offer exclusive drops to their viewers.

This creates a virtuous cycle: Streamers get more viewers, viewers get free stuff, and game companies get more hype for their games and enjoy more attention from top streaming stars. Of course, it's possible for viewers to mute the stream or walk away, racking up the Twitch drops without actually watching Twitch, but Twitch and its partners haven't seemed to be particularly bothered by this. In most cases, going "AFK" (away from keyboard) is a perfectly viable way to rack up streaming hours and improve the odds of landing drops.

Riot acts

What Riot is doing is taking all this to the next level. Here, the Twitch drop fans are hoping to snag isn't just a new in-game outfit or gun, it's access to the game itself.

Riot is no stranger to the power of Twitch. It's the company behind League of Legends, a game that is, by several measures, the biggest brand in esports. The game's biggest tournament, League of Legends Worlds, is also the biggest tournament in all of esports. Last year, League of Legends Worlds peaked at 44 million concurrent viewers and brought in a total of 100 million viewers.

Big events make big stars, and Twitch is full of personalities who draw huge numbers of viewers even when they're not competing in massive events like tournaments. Riot's clever strategy is a reminder of how important individual stars on Amazon's streaming platform have become in the video game world. Big Twitch streamers are the influencers of the video game world, and their endorsement can mobilize game consumers. If individual streamers are important (and they are), then the community as a whole is even more so. Trending on the platform can create buzz around a game.

Tuned in to the moment

Twitch is still growing, and video games are changing. The fact that Riot is essentially pioneering a whole new way of promoting a game is telling. It's possible that Riot's strategy will be so widely copied that it becomes the norm -- and it's also possible that some new and equally clever promotional technique is still waiting to be discovered. Twitch's ability to encourage relationships among its stars, gaming companies, and fans of watching and playing video games has the potential to make it more integrated than ever with the business of selling games.

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