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‘Chainsaw Man’ is Nice, But My Favorite Part of Anime NYC Was This ‘Hidden’ Gem

It wasn't a killjoy to see.

Anime NYC's Alice and Killjoy from Valorant.

If you asked me to list my favorite three conventions, Anime NYC would be somewhere on that list. Every fall, I block off an entire weekend of my life to go check out the show floor and see what’s popping in the wide and wonderful world of anime weebdom. It’s always a blast, especially for my wallet.

A lot of things about Anime NYC 2022 didn’t surprise me this year. Chainsaw Man was huge. HoYoverse’s Genshin Impact merch booth line was nuts. And VTubers like Projekt Melody made a significant appearance in merchandise and apparel, from nude stickers to entire cars decked out in their avatars. For a lesbian anime fan like myself, I had plenty of opportunities to shop.

But there was one thing that took me by surprise this year. Valorant had a humble but noteworthy presence among fans and artists. I wasn’t expecting this hardcore shooter to pop up at the con, and it might just signal something about the game’s growing popularity in the geekdom world.

What is Valorant?

Valorant is a tactical first-person shooter created by Riot Games, the California-based development studio behind League of Legends. Inspired by Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, two teams of five purchase military-grade weapons and take turns defending or attacking objective points across a small range of pre-determined maps. Gameplay revolves entirely around either eliminating your opponents, or planting/defusing a futuristic bomb device called a Spike. Whichever team wins the best of 25 rounds takes home the victory, and there’s only one life per round. Your weapons also have recoil patterns, and you can die very easily two just one or two well-placed bullets. Yes, it’s a very hard game.

There’s two unique features that make Valorant stand out. First, the game merges some hero shooter elements from games like Overwatch and Rainbow Six with Counter-Strike-like gameplay to spice things up. Each player chooses a specific character (called an Agent) at the start, and depending on their hero, players can deploy smoke screens, poisonous puddles, blinding leers, and walls made of pure flame, just to name a few.

Reyna and Killjoy from Valorant stand for the viewer.
Riot Games

Secondly, and most importantly, Riot has put its best foot forward to create a unique range of interesting female characters. There’s Jet, the hot-headed duelist who can throw knives at her enemies for instant kills. Killjoy is a (surprisingly realistic) tech wiz who dresses like a Bushwick hipster and talks like a Berlin raver. And then there’s Viper, the tortured and traumatized scientist turned into a femdomy menace, who is my personal favorite.

Valorant lends itself well to fandom love thanks to its interesting characters and unique (albeit strange) lore, where Agents are fighting against each other in a world where people have gained superpowers (also, there are multiple dimensions, a climate crisis, and a woman who can kill you with your own fears). But despite Valorant’s enormous spike in popularity when it first launched at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve never really seen Valorant make the jump to IRL conventions. I only saw one Valorant cosplayer at New York Comic Con 2021, and when I went to compliment her on her Viper outfit, we both shared our shock that there was no Valorant cosplay at the show at all. I barely saw anything related to the game at Anime NYC that same year, and Valorant was notably missing from PAX East 2022 as well.

That changed this year when I went to Anime NYC. I saw several Valorant cosplayers across Friday and Saturday, including multiple Killjoys. Two separate booths had a range of Valorant merch, particularly stickers and charms based on the Agents, and I’m aware of a third booth that also had Valorant charms that I completely missed. Check out the cool Reyna charm I got from LOKIIart to see the kind of high quality stuff that was for sale.

Is Valorant Really That Popular?

A Reyna charm from LOKIIart on Ana Valens' backpack.
Ana Valens

Valorant, to be clear, really was a hidden gem at Anime NYC 2022. Riot didn’t have a presence, merchandise was relegated to a small number of booths, and cosplayers were relatively rare ⁠— especially compared to this year’s trendiest animes, like Chainsaw Man and Spy x Family, as I wrote for sister site We Got This Covered earlier this weekend. Even Tower of Fantasy, a slightly obscure Genshin Impact clone, arguably had a bigger presence thanks to its enormous booth at the front of the expo hall.

But if you looked for Valorant, it was there. And it makes perfect sense. Despite a recent drop in popularity, Valorant just enjoyed its longest sustained interest on Google since the game first came out. The 2022 Valorant Champions Tour, the game’s official esports tournament, just wrapped up in mid-September — and it was arguably its biggest and most successful tournament since the game’s release. Meanwhile, Riot keeps churning out new content, including more and more female Agents that are so interesting they give Overwatch’s character design a run for its money.

I can’t say for certain whether Valorant will have a continued and growing presence at conventions in the coming year ahead. Even if Valorant is more popular than League of Legends on Google, it’s still a new game that requires a niche skill set and an intense number of hours to get good at. But then again, League requires that too, and League cosplay and merchandise has been at conventions for years. All it takes is a couple years and a dedicated, ongoing playerbase to convince artists to create Valorant merch. Doubly so if Riot goes down the Arcane path and creates a Valorant Netflix series (hopefully with even more queer representation).

So if I had to hedge my bets, I suspect Valorant will have an even bigger presence at conventions in 2023. In the meantime, I’m happy with the little Reyna dangling from my Fjällräven.

(Featured image: Anime NYC, Priscilla Bampoh, and Riot Games, Remix by Ana Valens)

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Ana Valens (she/her) is a reporter specializing in queer internet culture, online censorship, and sex workers' rights. Her book "Tumblr Porn" details the rise and fall of Tumblr's LGBTQ-friendly 18+ world, and has been hailed by Autostraddle as "a special little love letter" to queer Tumblr's early history. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her ever-growing tarot collection.