Game as Sport: The Issue at the Heart of the LCS Dilemma

In 2013, Riot Games decided to evolve the system of professional League of Legends from a series of third-party tournaments (like many other games) to a full-blown league, complete with a regular season, playoffs, and a larger world championship. This change saw the competitive field officially split into regions with locked groups of teams for every split. We saw players obtaining salaries rather than just prize winnings, teams making long-term plans, and a drastic rise in popularity, capped by a championship tournament that took place in a stadium and drew in 32 million viewers worldwide.


Sound familiar?


In creating the LCS system we know today, Riot stopped overseeing a game, and accidentally created a sport.


The Fundamental Flaw


It was an esport, sure. League of Legends wasn’t pulling in Superbowl levels of viewers or revenue. But everything seemed great for League, compared to sports as a whole, but especially for “just a video game.” But there’s always a side that many don’t see, especially unseen confrontations and politics, and lately, some of those tensions are starting to boil over in public ways, including Andy “Reginald” Dinh’s thoughts on how the current system (and patch changes) are hurting professional players and owners, Marc “Tryndamere” Merrill’s response, and Christopher “Montecristo” Mykles’ response to the whole situation. An impending resolution between Riot and the team organizations is supposedly in the works, aiming at giving players and staff the freedom and compensation they deserve for the commitment they make to the game. Though we don’t know the details of it or what will come as a result, we can speculate on what we hope will happen. In fact, many prolific figures in the game have done just that, speaking up with their individual perspectives.


It can be hard to pinpoint the root of the problem. One perspective of what that is can be directed at the nature of how Riot operates, or rather what the company’s purpose is. Riot Games created League of Legends, and has actively tried to sell it (and the optional purchases involved) to more and more players, as any business would do, and professional competition serves to help to sell the game. Under the old system of third-party competition, much like professional tennis and golf operate, this would be of no concern, as the teams would govern themselves, with their own interest at heart, just as Riot has theirs at heart. However, the LCS works much like NFL or NBA, where an organization oversees the competition, organizations, and players. Here lies the heart of the problem: the company that controls the sport is the same company whose focus is selling the game. Think of it as if the NBA made everything needed to play basketball — balls, hoops, shoes — rather than Spalding. Their priority would lie with selling the products, and pleasing the customers and fans so they play more, rather than with creating a healthy system for professionals. Such is the essence of Riot, and such is also how we ended up where we are.


Most recently, a source from LCS told PVPLive that Whalen Rozelle, the acting esports director, may be implicated as the cause for this disconnect, stating the director is “unequipped to deal with all the issues, and few people with true ecosystem operations background to solve the issues. They’ve never had consultations from the NBA or NFL to bring in, the League Ops department has been understaffed, and the people in it have been incompetent.”


The result has been a competition-based system of professional play that exists to sell the game as a product rather than itself as an entertainment industry (because that’s all sports really are, right?), with players acting as spokespeople where there should instead be athletes. A company that makes a literal product is partially masquerading as a professional sports organization. The product and the sport can’t both be a priority, and the time has come to pick one.


Selling a Game


Which one of these ought to become the focus? Does Riot use the sport to sell the game (as is happening currently) or use the game to sell the sport? The first option nets the company revenue of course through in-game purchases like skins and summoner icons, as well as game-related (but not team-related) merchandise. In catering to customers and the average player, it would be necessary to hand off handling of professional play to a different entity. The LCS system could stay in place, or it could not, but owners would be more in charge of how they sought revenue outside of prize pools (streaming/content, merchandise, sponsors, etc.), and if they were successful, their players could reap the benefits in the form of increased salaries. Riot could still have a hand in pro play, including the Championship as it always has, but wouldn’t dedicate as many resources to it as it currently does.


This doesn’t solve one problem though. As TSM coaching staff member Weldon Green noted recently, there is little incentive for a player to play professionally, beyond the glory of success (in a North American society that doesn’t even place much glory in esports). He points out that, players devote their entire lives to play at the highest level, and are “pushed to the edge of burnout”, while their peers can stream for the duration of standard business hours, and make more money from sponsorships on their content.


Selling a Sport


The other option is for Riot to go all in creating a sport, and profiting from bringing in interest in watching the best of the best fight it out. They could keep the LCS structure the same this way, but would likely have to increase the stipend they offer each team (to make up for ticket sales that go to the franchises in traditional sports), loosen up restrictions on sponsoring, and keep control of team merchandise sales in the hands of the organizations. The individual organizations would see returns proportional to however more or less successful the eSport was. This would also allow Riot to continue to maintain the game as they do now, but with the end goal of keeping more players “dreaming of going pro”. All of this doesn’t even begin to touch on the popular subjects of franchising or selling broadcasting rights, but that’s a story for a different day.


With a more serious environment, players could finally achieve (in time) the lucrative deals worthy of their commitment. Many tradeoffs exist however, including the fundamental shifting of an entire company’s purpose, and the logistic problems is could cause short-term. Additionally, many have worried that a full sports system (complete with franchising) could trade competitive integrity for unnecessary security. Only time would tell how it played out.


Where do we go from here


Of course, these solutions are the extremes of the spectrum, and it is likely that any changes made will fall somewhere in the middle of it. Some more business-minded people, or perhaps video game purists, may desire the first option, foregoing the LCS aspect for a more devoted effort to create a game as close to perfect as can be. Others (like myself) may wish to see Riot double-down on professional play, in hopes of sustaining success more through competition and less through constant changes to the game itself. Reginald said in his last response that there was “a detailed proposal signed by NA LCS teams and players” headed to Tryndamere. What comes of that proposal could very well dictate the future of League.

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Mr Fidori

Obsesses over League of Legends a little too much. Writes for Break the Game. In that order.