It has been over a year since VALORANT, Riot Games' character-based first person shooter (FPS) game, was released in June 2020. In just its first year, the game has quickly risen to be among the most popular FPS titles in the world with an average of 14 million players on PC every month.
While VALORANT can credit much of its current popularity from North America and Western Europe, Southeast Asia has also emerged as one of the game's top regions.
In an interview with Yahoo Esports Southeast Asia, Justin Hulog, Riot Games' General Manager for Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, said that the Philippines in particular has emerged as one of the main drivers of VALORANT's popularity in the region.
With that said, VALORANT ending up as a hit in the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia came as a welcome surprise for the developer when considering circumstances in the region around the time of its release.
"I was actually kind of surprised at first with the popularity of the game primarily because — in the Philippines and Indonesia in particular — COVID happened last year. The main way that we thought people would get to know about the game was through PC cafes, but most of those were closed and shuttered," said Hulog.
While the coronavirus pandemic and the closure of PC cafes all throughout Southeast Asia meant that not as many people were able to play VALORANT, the lockdowns still had a silver lining for the game.
Livestreaming games on platforms such as Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook boomed as COVID forced virtually the entire world into lockdown last year, with viewership across all platforms reaching over 8.2 billion hours — nearly doubling figures from 2019 — according to a report by Streamlabs. VALORANT notably rode that rising wave in streaming, with tracking site SullyGnome listing it as the fourth most-watched game on Twitch in 2020.
That significantly boosted VALORANT's popularity in the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia, where you can watch some of the most active streaming communities in the world. Hulog noted that, throughout last year, VALORANT was the game being played by "a lot of popular stars" with massive followings in the Philippines.
"I have a friend who is in showbusiness and we've made these VALORANT face masks for the pandemic, it has the VALORANT logo and is just something you put on your face whenever you go out. He kept asking me for more masks and I was like, "Why are you constantly asking me for these masks?" Hulog recounted.
"Then I found out that a lot of his friends, who are also movie and pop stars in the Philippines, were playing the game and they saw his masks and got really jealous and so wanted one of their own."
Hulog further credits the strong endemic gaming culture and community in the Philippines for driving VALORANT's popularity in Southeast Asia, with a significant chunk of the population being involved in gaming by either playing games themselves or by watching others play through livestreams.
According to a report by gaming data firm Newzoo, the Philippines was the world's 25th-biggest market by game revenues in 2020 with over 43 million Filipinos spending over US$570 million on games. The firm notably found that 60 per cent of the country's online population watches gaming video content in some form, with as much as 10 per cent even watching others play games more than they actually play themselves.
"[Streaming] was a way for people to connect during the pandemic and there were a lot of people playing the game who were streamers and had the ability to spread the news," added Hulog.
But while VALORANT's popularity in Southeast Asia despite the pandemic may have been a rather welcome surprise for Riot, the developer is well aware of the reasons why their game has been such a hit.
Hulog notes that, despite the dominance of mobile and Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games in Southeast Asia, FPS is still "a very, very popular genre" in the region thanks to titles like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG).
"We always knew there are a lot of FPS players in SEA. I'm from the Philippines and I recall a lot of players were playing CS:GO when I was there, so it has always been a very popular genre," added Hulog.
In addition, Hulog said that VALORANT was very different from most "realistic and military-focused" FPS titles and that seemed to have been appealing for a lot of Southeast Asians.
"One of the things that is really unique about VALORANT is that the abilities and the actual world that the players are in has a sort of magical component to it, which I think is a fresh take on how people can play and inhabit a FPS game," added Hulog.
But more than anything, Hulog credits Riot's "player-focused" development of VALORANT as the biggest reason why the game has become, and stayed, so popular.
"We're thinking about not just the design of the game and addressing some of the complaints that have come from FPS players over the years, but also creating a content and update cycle that keeps the game fresh," said Hulog.
"We have a pretty robust schedule of when content is released and we have interesting backstories that come with the agents, I do think that's part of what kept the game going and fueled the growth that we've seen over the past year."
While VALORANT's initial PC version exceeded expectations in Southeast Asia during its first year, Riot will be looking to further build on the game's popularity in the region with a mobile port that it first announced during the game's one-year anniversary last month.
Hulog is optimistic that VALORANT's mobile port will "do really well" and that the Philippines — which has cemented itself as one of the biggest mobile gaming markets in both Southeast Asia and the whole world — will once again be a driving force behind it.
"I'm very hopeful that Southeast Asia will rise to become one of the top regions in VALORANT both on PC and mobile. VALORANT on PC has done so well despite extremely challenging conditions in the pandemic in a region that is mobile-first and during a time when access to PC's was constrained. Once you bring that gameplay to mobile, I do think there will be a lot more growth," said Hulog.