A power move by League of Legends’ owner and its subsequent walk back have once again revealed the unique way the most popular game in esports is operated.
Riot Games last month submitted a trademark application over the League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) with reported plans of splitting the rights between longtime broadcaster OnGameNet (OGN) and cable network SPOTV.
On its surface, the idea seemed convenient. A staggered start for matches would keep things moving and prevent viewers from missing any action. But after a visceral reaction from fans, Riot has reversed course, and OGN will retain broadcast rights.
Still, the scuffle raises a bigger issue about Riot’s power over how its game is — and perhaps should be — played around the world. As owner of the game, Riot can deny any organization the right to host a tournament, but there’s a history of third-party events.
Before the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) debuted in 2013, independent organizations ran all the tournaments. And they did it better.
In 2012, the IGN Pro League 5 had a much better format than Riot’s own Season 2 World Championship, which included a random drawing to determine the teams that got to skip the group stage.
OGN was first in creating a streamlined league, and its best-of-three format has long been more advantageous for fans and players than the LCS’ best-of-one, which Riot has finally overhauled.
Even the most recent world championships had format problems, with North America’s Counter Logic Gaming being seeded equal to Korean powerhouse (and eventual champion) SK Telecom T1.
Riot continues to learn from its mistakes and (eventually) listens to its users, and the LCS changes are an improvement, but an underlying theme remains: One entity cannot hold all the power, whether it be Riot, The Korean eSports Association (KeSPA), or anyone else.
It leads to tournaments and events that are not of the maximum potential quality and the quality of these tournaments are of the upmost importance if the esports industry wants to be taken seriously.
Riot has shown no inclination at this point, however, to loosen its grip. Despite contracts that can be quite limiting to players, in the bigger picture, Riot does seem interested in keeping them in an important light. A direct example of that is last month’s recent rule change placing a maximum term on players’ contracts.
Riot wants to make it clear: The LCS brings stability.
“We want the suite of allowed tournament formats to be palatable for our players,” Riot commentator David “Phreak” Turley said last month. “How many games are they playing in a day? How many continents do these guys have to travel to in a given month? What are their conditions like? Hotels? Practice…we aren’t going to allow that for our players who are dedicating their lives to this craft.”
The LCS also eases the problem of dominance by top teams in major tournaments. It gives teams a fallback plan, providing opportunities for newer, less-established organizations to grow without worrying about traveling to multiple tournaments in various locations throughout the year — when they might not make it that far anyway.
On the other side, an LCS team who doesn’t quality for the best tournaments might play only one or two in a year.
Duncan “Thorin” Shields, a widely respected esports historian and journalist, said the LCS can cause burnout, especially for European and North American players.
“I’ve never seen professional players in the West burned out faster and with less official matches played in their careers than LoL pros in the LCS era,” Thorin said. “The grueling schedule of having to practice all week to play a couple of matches, week in and week out, destroys players.”
There are a few examples of that in the West. Old Moscow Five/Gambit Gaming had problems adjusting to the league format in Season 3 (2013). Carlos “ocelote” Rodríguez Santiago, with SK gaming, said in an interview with Thorin that his drive waned in the LCS system. (Phreak, for what it’s worth, didn’t buy burnout as a game-wide problem and said it could be monitored and prevented by teams.)
Tournaments are more spectator-friendly because every match matters more than in league play. In the past, every tournament was played on a different patch, and the excitement of seeing each new and improved meta-game choices was much bigger.
So, where does it go from here? Maybe Riot can take a page from other sports — as it loves to do — such as golf, and combine the LCS’ stability with the excitement from the tournament days of the past.
The hype for May’s Mid-Season Invitational and the fall’s world championships are the best things to happen all year, but imagine if fans could enjoy that same experience every month?
Joe “Pistallion” Cannavino is a staff writer for Slingshot Esports and a diamond-level League of Legends player. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org