NA LCS: Franchising – good or bad?

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Four weeks ago, Riot officially announced that the time for franchising in the NA LCS is now. Several writers and content creators have debated the positives and negatives of Riot’s vision for the future of its professional scene. Specifically, the end of relegation – a move that marks the end of the Challenger Series and the beginning of a new Academy League – has drawn mixed opinions from fans and writers alike.

Dom Sacco of Esports News UK writes that “uncertainty is better than stability”, arguing that relegation adds an element of suspense and competition for every team involved. This is a fair point given that teams are defined by their success or failure. For example, Origen in Europe took the world by storm with a memorable EU LCS debut in the 2015 summer split, capping off their season with a strong run to the semi-finals of the World Championship as Europe’s third seed. Three splits later, Origen was relegated to the European Challenger Series after a winless spring, officially marking the worst season in EU LCS history. Relegation removes the flair for the dramatic, but as Dot Esports’ Xing Li points out, the move “should lead to better scouting and player development as teams will now have the opportunity to practice in a more structured environment than ever before.”

I’m inclined to agree with Li on this point. While removing relegation could potentially harm the amateur scene and stifle investors from spending money on a team that may be waiting years before being considered to join Riot’s organized league, the positives outweigh the negatives. There’s nothing to suggest that Riot would not expand the league to welcome more teams into the fold – a bold, ambitious task that might prove to be too costly for Riot’s own good – but the better argument to make here is to find the infrastructure to organize another league for promising young squads while working with Riot to allow those teams to earn their spot at international tournaments through the wild-card play-ins.

Perhaps ELEAGUE wouldn’t be objected to organizing a branch for League of Legends players to host a similar format to the LCS, especially considering ELEAGUE’s television deal with Turner Broadcasting. If it can host Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Street Fighter V tournaments, why can’t it do the same for League of Legends? Even if this what-if scenario was never going to be a possibility, that’s not the point. The point is, if there are people who are passionate about having a scene for the amateur players and young organizations, then take the initiative and create a league that can stand on its own compared to Riot Games.

In other words, make a new, different LCS. (With blackjack. And hookers.)

But let’s go back to the topic of the Academy League, which is a great move for Riot and the ten teams accepted into the franchise. This will allow teams to stock up on developmental prospects and take a better look at players who are serious about playing professionally. Here is an article I wrote last week on Team Liquid’s signing of Rami “Inori” Charagh that illustrates exactly teams stand to benefit from this development. The league will also give organizations valuable reserves in the events that a starter goes down due to injury, has an immediate emergency that will take his time away from the game, or has visa issues that will affect his availability.

But the most important aspect of the Academy League with franchising will be an organization’s ability to pull out underperforming starters in a lost season to give young players valuable time on stage, with the chance that those young players will earn long-term starting jobs. I’m sure Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett and Felix “Betsy” Edling can testify to that.

With the main league itself, teams will now have guaranteed contracts that will remain dependent on performance. Although I think the performance clause is too broad for those searching for a happy medium of turnover and longevity, that doesn’t mean it still can’t be a good idea in practice. Five splits, which is two and a half years’ worth of LCS games, is a fair benchmark for patience. All organizations will go through a rough patch and won’t find the same amount of success as years past. The rule respects those times of struggles.

However, Riot is making it clear that they will not tolerate intentional tanking or lack of effort. Teams who consistently finish near the bottom of the league will quickly be weeded out and valuable players will not want to sign with those teams in fear of ruining their chances at securing a job with a larger, more successful franchise that will take them to the next level. When the players avoid an organization like the black plague, so too will fans, meaning viewership and support will drop until the team is no longer in the league. Ask any team in major league sports and they will tell you that success drives most athletes to sign with their team.

Nobody willingly wants to be on a loser if they want to win now. But there will be the crops of players that just want to play and want to do what they can to turn the franchise around. Their jobs, and their organization’s jobs, will depend solely on their success. That’s the nature of the business and that’s the major reason why I believe franchising is a wonderful move for Riot’s long-term future. Teams will get long-term investments with a sense of security, but know they must perform in order to keep their business.

Players, in turn, will now be under a microscope from ten major organizations and will now be held accountable to a team’s success or failure. If a certain signing ends up making a team’s value drop dramatically, future teams will not look to sign that player. Likewise, if a player lights up the rift in spectacular fashion, every team will break the bank to secure that player to a contract, thinking they’ve now got the golden ticket to success. For the spirit of competition, franchising is a major improvement.

However, there are still questions remaining about the business model. The Rally Point Esports podcast does a sufficient job at illustrating the future concerns there could be down the road with the revenue share. It’s one thing that teams have to shell out $10 million just to participate in the league. But now, teams will be required to share part of their revenue (such as sponsorships or merchandise sales) with Riot. On paper, this is a fair deal considering the long-term security Riot is giving ten organizations to participate in their league. The bottom line for Riot, just like the teams in its league, is in the numbers.

The concern comes from the exact numbers that Riot will take from these teams in the long run and whether or not these numbers will allow organizations a chance to make their money back. Knowing that Riot has control over how much of a team’s share they take and how much they will give back, will investors still feel their long-term investment will be safe if Riot’s share turns out to be their biggest losses?

Organizations are already operating at a loss as it stands, which makes their income entirely dependent on sponsors, merchandise, streaming revenue, marketing, and player success. Riot controls the portion they will take from the teams, which could be potentially damaging to young organizations. I expect Riot to be able to crunch the numbers behind a team’s financial backing to determine if their organization is built to handle what Riot is building, but if Riot accepts a new organization into their league and that team can no longer field a roster after a year due to mediocre performance and low revenue, what does that say to future investors that do not have knowledge of the industry?

There is also a fair amount of concern over Riot’s player association. Again, this is an idea that’s solid on paper – Riot funds the association in its initial operation until the association has grown to a point where the players will assume full financial responsibility over the business – but the concern here comes with the representation.

As Xing Li puts it, although players can vote to reject Riot’s recommended candidates for representation, “the fact that Riot is vetting reps at all is somewhat troubling.” This could lead to a dangerous conflict of interest, such as this one with the Oceania Pro League’s Tainted Minds, where Riot was found investigating themselves and finding nothing wrong as opposed to leaving this matter to third-party investigation. This means that Riot ultimately will have control over the potential candidates, unless the news comes out that the representation was independently elected by the players. Still, this should be seen as a positive sign moving forward, and at least shows Riot’s commitment to improving the process for players in the present and in the future.

While the concerns for the future are worth a pause, fans should be optimistic heading into the future. From a pure entertainment standpoint, the potential storylines for the NA LCS are about to get even bigger with the moves being made for the future. Riot has shown they are listening to all parties involved with their product and they are slowly taking steps toward delivering the vision we all want for esports. The initial system isn’t perfect, but the vision for the future is promising and worth believing in. Riot deserves the benefit of the doubt here.

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