League of Legends is a game that, rightfully so, evokes awe and admiration from many across the world. A game with humble, if controversial, beginnings became one of the most widely played games in the world and spawned a competitive scene that was, for a period, unmatched.
A few years following its inception Riot Games, the company behind this hugely successful game, created the League of Legends Championship Series, or LCS. The idea was to create a stable, consistent competitive scene for the best of the best to compete against one another for glory. It was modelled off traditional sports leagues like those in football and was hailed as the best way to make eSports viable and above all else, sustainable.
For a time, that seemed to be the case. Viewership grew exponentially every season and the brand value of teams that made it into the LCS flourished with the exposure. The corporate world was climbing over itself trying to rush into what was quickly becoming a digital goldmine that tapped into a target market that was passionate and deeply invested in the scene.
Fast forward to a few days ago where Andy “Reginald” Dinh, founder and owner of arguably the biggest brand in League of Legends, Team Solo Mid, shed some light on the current financial state of teams in LCS and the stressors pro players face. It didn’t paint Riot Games in a positive light.
The backlash from the community was swift and Riot was widely condemned. Marc “Tryndamere” Merrill, CEO of Riot, responded to the criticism in a hopes to curb the negative community reaction. However, it only served to add fuel to the flames. His response reeked of ignorance, false statements and an overall poor attitude towards team owners and players.
Soon after his response, which he hastily edited when he realised it was having the opposite effect, major names in the scene weighed in. Everyone from seasoned analysts to former League team owners to heavyweight casters had their say – Reginald even responded to Merrill’s statement. A recurring theme throughout was that Riot was a company that ruled with an ironclad fist.
The Tyrant That Rules The Rift Part I: Control
The idea that Riot is an excessively controlling entity was not just a continuous theme throughout all the responses across those in the scene, it also came across clearly in the way Merrill responded. The very first remark was a statement essentially telling Reginald how he should be spending his own money.
Riot’s control is also reflected in the economic landscape of LCS. Stipends for teams have barely increased since LCS began. Many are attributing this to Riot’s alleged greed but it’s far more complex than that. It’s not that they’re being greedy, it’s that they absolutely have to control all revenue streams and in doing so, end up hoarding all the money League of Legends is generating.
Riot also prevents teams from wearing branded gears provided by sponsors, eliminating a crucial advertising benefit of companies sponsoring League teams. Additionally, Riot is the judge, jury and executioner in all disciplinary hearings related to its game. This was evident when it ruled that former League teams Renegades and TDK should be banned from the NA LCS for violating ownership rules. No evidence was presented in this ruling.
Riot’s control does not just extend to not allowing sponsors on the gear of League players, but Reginald alleged that Riot threatened his team with fines for any sponsored content on its YouTube channel. With Riot’s oppressive style of ruling, teams do not get to participate fairly in the revenue model. It’s alleged that Riot did not even compensate SKT, last season’s World champions, for the skins that were created in their honour and wearing their team’s kit.
The Tyrant That Rules The Rift Part II: Players
Riot often claims that it wants to protect the pro players and what they do has their best interests at heart, but evidence often suggest the contrary. As stated previously, the idea that the world champions who had skins made in their team’s likeness were not at all compensated, does not show Riot as a company with pro players’ interests in mind.
A longer season and more games being played means that pro players are left exhausted and overworked. This doesn’t include the additional international tournaments that top teams attend. This idea that players have to train 12 hours a day and then compete every week for sometimes two “best of three” series is also encouraged by an often changing meta which is fueled by frequent patch updates from Riot.
The timings and frequency of these patch updates never take into account how much they affect pro players. Having a patch update just before playoffs is hugely unfair to players who have excelled all season to make it to top playoffs. Patches essentially change the way the game is optimally played, leaving some players crippled heading into a crucial time of the season. The timing of some patches effectively throws away a season’s worth of work for some teams due to a unfavourable meta and due to the uncertainty of navigating a new patch in a high pressure situation.
None of this sounds like the actions of a company that cares about pro players would make. In the eyes of Riot, the onus is always on team owners and organisations to look after players. That is a common thread throughout Riot’s responses to many of their actions in the past. The responsibility lies with someone else.
The King Who Hides His Crown
Even in Merrill’s original reply to Reginald’s interview, he was deflecting accountability and responsibility to anyone but his company. If League teams aren’t making enough money, it’s because they’re losing it in other games. If players need to be making more, team owners should pay them better. If patches are hurting teams, it’s because teams are fielding weak rosters. Not once did Merrill’s response ever hint at basic corporate introspection or self awareness.
This is evident in the way Riot responded when a team was banned from picking one of its most successful champions due to a game altering bug. This was ruled in the middle of the first game of the series. A Rioter responded that the team shouldn’t have to depend on one pick anyways as true champions would excel regardless. That team ended up losing the playoff series 0-3 but still, Riot refused to acknowledge that they severely crippled a team and never gave them a chance to recover and regroup.
A Fool’s Tale
All the arguments around Riot and how they choose to run their competitive scene boils down to this question: Is LCS merely a marketing tool to promote the game to casual players and get them to spend money on it or is it a real bid to create a long lasting competitive scene? If Riot sees it purely as a marketing tool and not a serious competitive scene, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – They just can’t have it both ways.
For a company that‘s always touting “competitive integrity” as a justification for so many of its actions, it’s worrying we even have to ponder what the purpose of LCS is. If Riot is serious about making League of Legends a sustainable game, there are ways to fix this situation.
A Journey of Redemption
First and foremost, Riot needs to acknowledge their shortcomings. There’s no shame in being wrong – and by putting it all out there, the whole scene can move on and seek to improve.
Secondly, they can fix the revenue model: Stop making those involved in the scene mere bystanders as more and more revenue streams into the game. Help teams and players be active participants in the revenue model.
Riot needs to stop playing ruler of the Rift and rather be a participant in an incredible and inspiring competitive scene. And what an incredible scene it is. Let’s not forget everything Riot has done up until now to make the game what it is. They can still change and do right by everyone, including those that play the game.
Despite the war of words between owners and Riot, a way forward seems on the horizon. Shortly after writing this article, Marc Merrill released a statement and the tone was worlds away from his initial one. You can read the full statement here. He seems to acknowledge some shortcomings from his previous response and states that he agrees with a lot of what was said by the community. He also outlines some plans Riot already has in the pipeline to address revenue streams.
Soon after that, Reginald released a response that also read more amicably than his first. He states that team owners have put together a proposal for Riot and that they’re looking forward to working together. Several LCS owners tweeted their support of the proposal, saying they had signed it and backed it.
Only time will tell if this will all lead to an end to Riot’s unflinching rule and create an environment where everyone can work together in a fair and sustainable way for the good of a game many know and love.
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Last Updated: January 4, 2017