It’s hard to build hype for something new. Whether it’s a new company, a new brand, or just a new product, generating interest in something unfamiliar is a massive hurdle for even the most experienced marketers. Humans are creatures of comfort and habit, after all; it’s no wonder that the big summer blockbuster films are now all endless sequels and new installments in established franchises.
Video games aren’t immune to this trend, either. With AAA games increasingly taking upwards of $100 million to develop and market, publishers want sure things. They’d much rather throw their money behind a new Halo, the next Legend of Zelda, or another God of War than take a chance on something unproven. Building interest in a new game, like launching a new ecommerce store or just releasing new products on the market, is tough.
Unless, apparently, you’re Riot Games.
Tomorrow, June 2, Riot, best known for online juggernaut League of Legends, finally puts the “s” in “Riot Games” by releasing its second major game: Valorant, a tactical first-person shooter (FPS) in the mold of games like Counter-Strike and Rainbow Six: Siege. This highly anticipated launch comes on the heels of the game’s closed beta test, which ran almost two months from April 7 to May 28.
I’ve been playing Valorant nightly for just about the entire run of the beta test. As a gamer, I’m impressed by Valorant’s tightly designed gameplay, polished mechanics, and vibrant sense of aesthetics. As a marketer, I’m blown away by Valorant’s new product launch strategy. What Riot has done with its influencer marketing is brilliant, and all of us in the industry should take notice.
Whether you’re selling food, software, or apparel, here’s what you can learn about new product marketing from Riot Games and Valorant.
Valorant Streamers and Twitch: Marketing for Free
OK, let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room: You aren’t Riot Games. Riot is a multi-billion-dollar company backed by Chinese giant Tencent. Millions of people play League of Legends every day. Riot could have released Valorant without any warning at 2 am one night, and it would still have been successful. But even the smallest ecommerce startup can still learn lessons from what Riot did.
So, what did Riot do? To start, let’s define some of the terms that might not be as well known by people who aren’t involved in the world of video games. A beta test is a test of a game before it’s finalized and released, but where it’s in a much more playable and presentable state than an alpha test. Alpha tests tend to be internal, where beta tests are the public’s first look at your game. Betas are used to find bugs, see how the wider community responds to your game – if there are any flaws you haven’t noticed in the design, for instance – and to test how well the actual player experience works.
There are two main types of beta tests. An open beta is available to anyone – you sign up, you download the software, and you start playing. A closed beta has its access limited. You can sign up, but whether or not you’re chosen to get access is far from a sure thing. It can be completely random, or there can be other criteria involved. Typically, closed beta tests are earlier, whereas open beta tests are closer to launch, when the game developers want to see how their product holds up at scale.
Valorant was, for the most part, a closed beta. You could download the game, but you couldn’t log in without your account having been granted access. But the interesting part is how Riot gave out Valorant beta keys: They were “loot drops” on Twitch.tv.
Loot Drops on Twitch? Now You’re Just Making Things Up
For non-gamers, it probably sounds that way! Twitch.tv, owned by Amazon, is the largest game streaming platform in the Western world. Twitch partners with hundreds of game publishers, letting users link their Twitch accounts to their in-game accounts. Subscribers to the paid Twitch Prime service will regularly get in-game loot rewards, like new characters or cosmetic options. Even people who don’t have Twitch Prime can still get loot.
Riot’s strategy for beta keys was elegant in its simplicity. The Valorant team granted access to people who streamed games on Twitch. Then, provided a user had linked their Riot Games account to their Twitch account, Valorant beta keys were randomly given out to people who were watching Valorant streams on Twitch.
In other words: The only way to be able to play Valorant before its release was to watch other people play Valorant, sometimes for dozens of hours or more.
It was so simple. It was so brilliant. In one stroke, Riot Games said to the gaming community: Are you even slightly interested in playing Valorant? Then you’d better watch Valorant. Look at all these people having fun playing Valorant. This game looks great, doesn’t it? I bet you really wish you could be playing Valorant. Better watch some more!
Instantly, Valorant became the most popular game on Twitch, with well over a million people watching streams. According to Riot, it peaked at 1.7 million peak concurrent viewers, with over 30 million hours watched in a single day. For comparison, at time of writing, Fortnite is the current top game on Twitch, with 317k people watching streams right now. Valorant, a new game, nearly sextupled pop-culture kingpin Fortnite. That’s nuts.
This brings us to the first lesson of new product marketing: Let people experience your product.
It doesn’t have to be directly – we’re not saying you should mail copies of your new smart watch to anyone who wants one – but people should be able to see it in action, ideally outside of a scripted setting. This makes it feel more real and authentic, like it’s being enjoyed by normal human beings. Just like they are.
Unsurprisingly, social media influencer marketing tends to be one of the most common ways to do something like this. It’s not unreasonable: Influencers have, well, influence. They have many followers who trust their opinions, and letting influencers demonstrate your product can be one of the best ways to drive interest ahead of launch.
Influencer Marketing Strategy: What’s in It for Them?
Influencers, you may be shocked to hear, are not mindless automatons who will hawk your products just because you want them to. It might be a lot easier for us if they were, but that’s not the case! Influencers are people with bills to pay and their own goals and desires. You can send them all the product samples you want, but they might never do anything with them unless you answer this question: “What’s in it for me?”
There are several ways that Twitch streamers are able to turn their following into a full-time job. Monetization of Twitch, broadly speaking, comes down to three things:
- Direct donations. Are you enjoying this stream? Tip the streamer a couple of bucks with a compliment in the message.
- Twitch streamers can run ads while they take breaks – everyone’s gotta use the bathroom every now and then, right? – and the more people who see the ad, the more money Twitch pays the streamer.
- If you really like a streamer, you can subscribe to their channel, setting up a regularly recurring micropayment every month.
All three of these revenue streams have one thing in common for a Twitch influencer: The more people watching your stream, the more money you get. That’s more people who will donate to you, more eyeballs on your ads, and more potential subscriptions if you really impress them.
So, when Valorant is suddenly the most-watched game on Twitch by a healthy margin, with hundreds of thousands of people eager to get a beta key, the calculus is obvious. If you’re a Twitch influencer or game streamer, you can’t afford to not be streaming Valorant.
This linked feedback loop turned into a win-win for streamers and Riot Games alike. People wanted to watch Valorant content, both because they were interested and because they wanted key drops. Streamers who played Valorant got massively higher audiences. A Twitch influencer streaming Valorant wasn’t just offering free marketing for Riot’s new shooter, they were directly benefiting themselves.
The second lesson of new product marketing can, therefore, be summed up thusly: Let influencers use your products to benefit themselves.
Admittedly, this can be a little trickier – for most concrete physical goods, there isn’t the easy, self-sustaining feedback loop that Riot Games and Twitch were able to achieve through the random drops. It’d be great if you could randomly award samples of your product to people who, say, engaged with one of your influencer’s posts on Instagram, but we’re not quite there yet.
One time-honored way to do this is to send influencers enough samples of your product that they have extras that they can then give out to their followers through contests and raffles. This isn’t quite as seamless as the Twitch marketing variant, but it’s the same principle: Influencers make money through demonstrating high audience engagement, and things that boost said engagement positively benefit their bottom line.
Hype Marketing Only Works if it’s Worth Hyping
When a new game is about to launch, it often has what’s called a “review embargo,” where critics agree to not publish their review of said game before a set date and time.
A review embargo, on its own, is hardly anything shady – there are plenty of valid reasons to set one. A review embargo ensures that critics have time to play through a game in its entirety, savoring and truly experiencing it, rather than just making a mad dash through the game in order to be the first to publish and get those sweet, sweet clicks. It puts large review outlets, which can assign editors full-time to new games, on the same playing field as indie reviewers.
While a review embargo isn’t inherently a bad thing, gamers and game journalists have a rule of thumb that’s often correct: The closer the embargo date is to the date of the game’s release, the more likely the publisher knows that their game is a real stinker. Embargoing reviews to a day or two before launch – if not launch day itself – comes across like you’re trying to get a few suckers to buy the game before word of mouth spreads about how bad it is. If you’re not giving the game time to shine, it tells every gamer this: You don’t have faith in your product.
What Riot did with Valorant was the opposite of this. There was no review embargo; there were hundreds of content creators playing the raw game, unfiltered, in front of over a million viewers on Twitch. This was Riot Games throwing down the gauntlet and saying “Yeah, this is Valorant. We think it’s pretty good. What are you gonna do about it?”
This strategy was bold. It was brazen, even. Riot judged that the first look at its new FPS anyone got after carefully curated gameplay snippets released by the game’s official Twitter account would be raw gameplay, and by the many gods of the Freljord, it worked. This strategy showed incredible pride and confidence in their new product. Riot thought its new game was slick enough, fast enough, good enough to be shoved in front of the masses, and Riot was right.
Confidence is key; it’s the same for marketers as it is for first dates.
So, our third lesson of new product marketing is, therefore: Have a product worth standing by and hyping.
This sounds pretty obvious, right? “Make and sell a good product” is, like, Free Market 101. It isn’t any less true, though – if what you’re introducing isn’t as good as what’s already out there, why are you selling it? If you’re launching your new product and it’s already obsolete, or doesn’t solve a problem that isn’t currently being solved, people won’t buy it. No matter how good your marketing campaign is.
Have a new product worth marketing, and stand behind it with confidence.
Time will tell how successful Valorant winds up being. Valve Corporation, one of Riot’s chief rivals, already dominates the tactical FPS space with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Valorant, out of the gate, is trying to take on a goliath. There are many examples why it might wind up not being nearly as successful as its creators had hoped.
For the moment, though, marketers can learn lessons from its brilliant pre-launch marketing campaign and the many ways Riot used influencers to build hype.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m coming down with an illness. Probably won’t be able to work tomorrow. What am I sick with? Uh, valor…itis. Yeah, valoritis. That’s the one.
John Funk plays Cypher because he’s terrible at aiming.