Tech

A new free-to-play game from Tencent is poised to be the next billion-dollar franchise

Key Points
  • Riot Games, which is owned by Tencent, released its new first-person shooter game VALORANT on Tuesday.
  • The game is free to play, but players can buy virtual items.
  • VALORANT is poised to be another billion-dollar gaming franchise based on its early popularity, putting it in the same tier as other popular free-to-play games like Fortnite.
Promotional image of Valorant
Source: Riot Games

The excitement surrounding VALORANT, a new game by Tencent-owned Riot Games, could cement Tencent's acquisition of the games developer as one of the best tech deals ever inked. 

That's according to Roundhill Investments CEO Will Hershey as VALORANT launched on Tuesday. It's Riot Games' attempt at entering the free-to-play online first-person shooter (FPS) games market, where two teams of five players face off against each other with characters known as "agents," each with their own special abilities.

It's also the developer's first game with a whole new IP that deviates from the League of Legends universe, which Riot introduced to gamers over 10 years ago. Since then, League of Legends has grown into a worldwide sensation, and that has fueled the anticipation and curiosity around Riot's new release. 

The developer revealed last week that VALORANT's closed beta pulled in an average of almost 3 million players daily. It also set record stream viewership numbers thanks to a beta key drop campaign on Twitch, driving players to watch hours upon hours of VALORANT gameplay in hopes of getting early access to the game. 

This makes VALORANT not only a likely strong addition to the Riot Games portfolio, but it would also build on the immense success of the multiplayer online battle arena game (MOBA) League of Legends that initially prompted Tencent to take a stake in the developer.

Tencent originally paid $400 million for a 93% stake in Riot Games in 2011, a year after the games developer released League of Legends. The company bought the remainder of Riot Games four years later for an undisclosed amount. 

Even 10 years after its launch, League of Legends is the most-played PC game in the world, drawing in about 8 million concurrent players daily while still hauling in over a $1 billion for Riot Games every year. The game has reportedly generated $20 billion in revenue over its lifetime.

A member of Gen.G's "League of Legends" team practices ahead of a match.
Source: Gen. G

Hershey, whose firm runs the Roundhill BITKRAFT Esports & Digital Entertainment ETF (NERD), said that together, the sustained success of League of Legends, its extensions and now the addition of VALORANT have made Tencent's investment in Riot Games more than worthwhile.  

"[Tencent's] investment in Riot Games might be its best investment yet," he told CNBC. "In fact, one could make the case that Tencent's acquisition of Riot is among the best tech acquisitions of all time." 

Aside from Riot Games, Tencent holds a 40% stake in Epic Games, creator of Fortnite. It has also invested in other notable publishers like Bluehole (creator of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds), Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft and mobile games developer Supercell. 

For comparison, Fortnite Battle Royale amassed over 10 million players in the first two weeks following its release in 2017. Last year, Fortnite was the highest-earning game, generating $1.8 billion in revenue, according to SuperData, Nielsen's video game arm.  

This means that Tencent has its hand in the world's two highest-earning games.  

Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter says that together, VALORANT and League of Legends could generate "over $2 billion in a year or so" for Riot Games, although he cautions that "some cannibalization of the [League of Legends] core" may occur. 

He also said that as much as VALORANT can give Tencent another foothold in the growing Western first-person shooter (FPS) games market, competition is steep.  

"This is a growth industry, but a zero-sum business," he said. "If overall free-to-play is growing 10% on a $40 billion base, there's $4 billion available for VALORANT to capture. But it's competing with [Call of Duty] Mobile, Warzone, Diablo Immortal, and anything else that's going to launch this year, in addition to growth from the existing competitors." 

"It's hard to cede $1.5 billion to VALORANT without someone else growing more slowly, and I don't think we can assume that the shiny new object captures all of the industry growth," added Pachter. 

Riot Games co-founder Marc Merrill, however, told CNBC that VALORANT's reception during the closed beta "exceeded expectations" and that the developer's long-term dedication to the game will put VALORANT ahead of the competition. 

He also emphasized that the studio's history of working with a free-to-play monetization model – where players elect to pay for additional game content over time – has set Riot up to be more responsive to user feedback than many other publishers, which contributes to the longevity of a game as is the case with League of Legends. 

 "We want to make VALORANT the first truly global shooter," said Merrill. "We created a global community with League of Legends, and we're confident we can repeat [that worldwide success] with VALORANT." 

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