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LCS franchising: A double-edged sword, a line in the sand


When the NA LCS came forward about its intentions to franchise, the reaction was lukewarm from fans.

While the prospect of a stronger esports market in North America certainly appealed to everyone, the threat of loss and aversion to change meant the masses were fairly split. Especially when it came forward that the EU LCS would not be following suit.

In the chaos since franchising, we’ve seen pivotal EU LCS orgs flock to apply for North American slots, and seemingly everyone that has ever heard the words “League of Legends” scrambling to put together the funds and institutional support that Riot sought in its new partners.

But we’ve now seen what those requirements mean for the North American scene. Largely, it’s the loss of teams we know and support, and the addition of some new major financial players instead.

For the viability of esports, the jury is still out on whether franchising is the right move. But for the integrity of a region built on the sweat and tears of its competitors, it seems like a miss in several ways. 

The dividing line

When it comes to what qualifies organizations to be involved in the North American LCS, a scene built on competition and determination to succeed, it’s hard to support the dividing line being the money orgs can raise from investors. 

But as we’ve seen from the organizations that were accepted, and the organizations that were declined in the process, it seems the process really only boils down to that, the money.

Finance is a notoriously cold world, often one devoid of passion and boiling down to the bottom line and nothing beyond it. Venture capital is its most dim example. And now, for North American League of Legends, it’s the driving factor to even participate. 

Of course, the money will (largely) be put to good causes.

For starters, revenue sharing will more evenly spread the leagues’ profits to its teams and players. Things like minimum salaries as well are most certainly a positive change for the integrity of the scene. It’s all that fans could ever want for the players they support day in and day out.

But in the process, we are losing teams that have proven themselves to be competitive success stories, teams that took the risk to be here first, and are now being priced out for their efforts.

The sacrifice an organization makes to qualify for the NA LCS, retain its slot, and continue pushing the boundaries of North American League of Legends is hard to quantify. But for Riot, it prices in at just about $3 million per new team, on a payment plan tailored to the NA LCS’ convenience, meaning new orgs can defer this payment or even waive it to a degree depending on the success of franchising. 

Now of course, we’ve not gotten full confirmation for anyone’s acceptance into the franchised NA LCS. We are still working under the impression that rumors, albeit some very well supported rumors, are in fact true. This is because non-disclosure agreements are fairly hard to navigate, making the confirmation of reality needlessly tricky. 

But with organizations like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, and Golden State Warriors (all from the National Basketball Association,) reportedly making the cut, and teams like Dignitas, Immortals, and Phoenix1 falling short, we’ve been left to connect the dots.

They form a dollar sign.

What keeps esports unique?

Esports has been nothing short of a movement in the modern day, an entire industry built on the fervorous support of its fan base. We can see it in the growth of games before League, and most certainly in the growth within it. 

Competitive League of Legends went from five players meeting in solo queue, to five players staying in a small house together, to a squad and support staff in a 9,000 square foot training facility. Things have certainly scaled up.

And of course, fans are the reason this has come to pass. But more than that, more than perhaps any fanbase before it, esports fans have catalyzed this growth directly. Not just in their views and likes, but from their own wallets.

Over half of the 2016 World Championship’s prize pool was contributed right from the pockets of its fans.

And fans have been significantly adding to Esport prize pools for a very long time, not just in League of Legends. 

In Dota 2’s International 2017, its equivalent to the World Championship, its fans contributed a record-breaking $19 million to the tournament’s prize pool. Valve, the company that made Dota 2, only contributed $1.6 million

The rise of esports has been met with criticism the whole way, but right in the face of the skeptics, fans have fueled an entire movement that no one can even curtail, let alone stop. That passion is something few other industries could even dream of capturing.

But in the NA LCS’ move towards cutting out previous orgs to replace with better financiers, it seems to undermine all that the fans have done to get League of Legends to where it is today. 

And sure, fans will support the Rockets, and the Warriors, and the Cavaliers. It might even be exciting to see such mainstream acceptance of our passion, validating all of our time supporting a budding movement. But as esports grows in the general conscious, making strides in mainstream coverage and in viewership numbers, we risk losing what defines the scene as unique. The passion behind it.

The reality is, to many, our passion is a cash cow, plain and simple. Even whole-heartedly donated funds read as a potential market to seize to anyone with any sense of financial credibility. 

In setting the bar to entry at a dollar amount, we’ve taken steps toward this end.

But it’s not all doom and gloom in franchising.

Despite the financial potential of esports, as it stands, the love isn’t exactly getting shared evenly. For teams like H2k (albeit across the pond,) a major competitive org that should be enjoying all the success in the world, this couldn’t be any more true.

So in a move towards better financial backing instead of competitive League of Legends presence, at least in North America… is Riot making the necessary choice?

What will keep League of Legends growing?

The ceiling to competitive League of Legends may seem endless now, but that’s been the story of many games before it.

Ask Warcraft, or Starcraft Brood War of the early 2000’s, or games like Starcraft 2 and World of Warcraft afterward, and you’ll find that the oasis can dry up much faster than you think.

The reality is that while esports as a whole is continuing to grow and permeate to the general public, its downfall is in the rise and fall of its individual games. While basketball and baseball aren’t exactly aging or getting replaced, video games do.

Sure, right now, competitive drive and passion behind League of Legends seems certainly at a record high, but that could nose-dive in a second if the grass is ever greener on the other side.

In acting now to better push League of Legends forward to as big a market as possible, with as strong a financial backing as possible, Riot may be acting against this potential downfall and for the interest of League of Legends’ future as a game. With some loss of its history and integrity, it might just be a necessary evil to survive any coming turbulence.

Conclusion

If this change is for the fans, it’s for some of them. If this change is for the teams, it’s for some of them. If this change is for the game, it’s for some aspects of it. If it’s for the money, it’s for all the marbles.

Whether or not franchising in the NA LCS is a success story or failure largely determines the trajectory of competitive League of Legends for years to come (if there are years to come.)

And while some may feel the methods have been unfair, or the choice has been misguided, no one can argue that for this scene to succeed to the levels it potentially can reach, it needs the whole-hearted backing of its fanbase and the potential fanbase its trying to reach.

If franchising is the way to secure this future, which it very well may be, the fans will have to get with it or get out as the line in the sand has been drawn.

Now that the fans have felt the bite of franchising, and the teams plenty more so, we look forward to the fruits that we hope come from it. But for Riot, and for League of Legends as a whole, this can’t be a failure.

What do you think of the NA LCS’ effort to franchise, and what it means for the game’s future? Let us know in the comments below!

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Brandon Ridgely

I'm the League of Legends Editor for Realsport, and a longtime competitive League of Legends fan. I focus most on the LCS but watch a bit of everything. I'm probably the only person that misses Team Vulcun. Well met.

LCS franchising: A double-edged sword, a line in the sand

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