Riot has ‘utmost’ respect for Valve, but wants ‘sustainable ecosystem’

Esports is on a meteoric rise

Esports is on a meteoric rise. Dota 2 just gave out $5 million to a single team in a single tournament, and ESPN broadcast games from that tournament online. Meanwhile, nearly 300,000 people watched the most recent Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament. But League of Legends is still the king of esports, and it’s gotten there shepherded by Dustin Beck—Riot Games’ head of esports.

At this weekend’s PAX Prime, the annual video game conference in Seattle, four League teams will earn qualification for the World Championships, the culmination of a year’s worth of competition. Beck is here to oversee the festivities.

But while this year’s competition is still ongoing, Beck and his esports team have their eyes set on making 2015 even bigger.

On Thursday, they announced the League Championship Series, the premier League tournament in Europe and North America, will expand to 10 teams in both conferences. At the same time, it will likely institute a circuit point system to decide which teams qualify for the World Championships.

The circuit point changes help make the regular season more exciting, but many fans complain that the regular season is just too long, with too many meaningless matches. Any plans to mitigate that issue?

I think circuit points are going to do a great job to keep the regular season a bit more exciting. We’re also doing some other things. We have the benefit of being able to be listening to what our fans want and pivot on feedback. And the LCS this past year has really been like our first time where we’ve really had a chance to brainstorm what we can do to address those concerns.

Circuit points is obviously a big one. We’re also trying to reduce the amount of regular season games that are played too as well as extend out what the playoffs look like. If you look at any other sport, playoffs aren’t just a week and done. That’s actually what we did in the spring split. We literally had the quarterfinals, semifinals, finals over three days. That’s a terrible way to build hype.

Hindsight is always 20-20. With the addition of circuit points and the addition of two new teams as well, we’re able to kind of re-jigger our schedule quite a bit so that fans are going to have a shorter regular season, more exciting games that are more meaningful, some diversity that’s brought in with more teams, and the playoffs are going to be a lot of hype.

Will the expanded LCS have a 6 team or 8 team playoff?

We’re still looking at our options. I don’t think we’ve really said anything on that. Playoffs should look relatively similar. The biggest difference is just going to be the timing. Teams will actually have ample time to prepare and prep.

Fans want more international tournaments. The LCS schedule means teams can’t go to many other events. Third parties aren’t holding many other events because of that. Will the circuit point system allow for more events that may play into the circuit points, or could the tighter schedule allow for more third party international events?

Unfortunately not. We’re still focused on worlds being the big lynchpin of international play.

Of course we have our all-star game too, although we are kind of rethinking format on that as well. Doing a mixed team of all-stars wasn’t really exciting for fans and we were straddling two different tournaments—which was a top team tournament and an all-star game, so we are refining what that mid season tournament looks like.

But those are going to be the only two big Riot published international events. We’re of course we’re doing one with IEM again, major this year and early next year do another IEM championship that has international play.

But outside of that we think keeping international kind of limited and focusing on regional play, so that when there is this international play its super exciting. There’s a lot of mystique and hype around those and so that’s kind of the game plan there.

One reason the current international slate doesn’t work is format. Teams only get to play in a handful of tournaments, and then only play in maybe one or two series at those tournaments.

Last year [worlds] was three weeks, this year it’s five weeks When we are doing these international tournaments we’re making sure to have a lot more game play and a lot more ability for fans to see those international teams compete. So the worlds format this year: We have eight teams in group stages for teams to really get their bearing. We learned a lot last year. Cloud9, they got auto-byed into the quarterfinals, they played one best of three and they’re out. That’s not a great format. We’ve learned a lot last year, we’ve learned a lot this year. Next year should be even better.

The changes to the LCS include adding two more teams from the challenger scene. What other plans are there for amateur teams? Is the amateur scene where you’d like it to be?

We have some enhancements that we’re making to the challenger scene. We haven’t announced anything official yet, but we’re trying to make it a better structure that’s more conducive for amaeteur teams preparing for the road to pro. We’re also excited about working with third parties to facilitate more competitions between amateur teams. We want there to be a robust tournament scene around that. So challenger scene is one of the we hope multiple options players have to hone their skills before going pro.

If you had infinite money to make it happen, what would your ideal format for the LCS and amateur scene be?

It’s less about money and more about kind of the bandwidth to promote high quality tournaments.

We really want the broadcast to be good. We want the experience for not only the players themselves and the viewers to be really good. So that’s really where our focus lies. We’re not trying to be the biggest sport out there; we’re trying to be top quality.

We want to be synonymous with a broadcast you look at when you watch an NFL, a FIFA, or any other pro sport. We want to make sure our semi-pro scene and these grassroots tournaments have an illuminated path to facilitate becoming a pro, and tournaments for amateurs.

A recent Polygon article caused some controversy when a Rioter reportedly said the company wouldn’t “beg” the community for money like Valve’s crowdfunded The International, a statement CEO Marc Merrill said would not be made by a Rioter.

Anything and everything is on the table. That was not a quote that represents Riot’s views or anything like that.

We have the utmost respect for Valve. I think their Compendium was a great program that was put together and the prize pool was pretty awesome. As for what we’re doing, we’re trying to create a sustainable ecosystem similar to any other sport, where the monetization and revenue is really fuelled by sponsors and partners and advertisers and broadcast rights and all that stuff. We think that’s a great model that we want to aspire towards.

Valve provides teams with many ways to monetize their brand, like selling skins. You sell avatars that send some revenue to teams, but it’s a much smaller program. Have you considered expanding that?

We really do want to explore ways to get our teams supported by the community, so I think we don’t have anything to share yet but we do explore those avenues.

You could argue that Riot Games has in some ways started to become the first “esports company,”  as opposed to solely a game developer. What do you think of a statement like that?

Our esports team has grown quite a bit and it’s grown to kind of meet the demands of what our player expect from RIot. We are still a video game developer and video game publisher first, and an esports team is a small small percent of what RIot is, but esports is of course a very highly visible aspect of our company.

It’s something we hang our hats on. We all love esports. We’re passionate about esports, but again our expertise lies in developing games. We’ve grown this esports division and we’ve kind of filled into our shoes now, but it’s not something that we had planned for or expected. We’ve done it to meet the player demand and we’re investing in it just like we would any other feature or division in the company.

Riot is investing in esports—what’s the return on that investment?

We are investing a lot of money into this, and there’s no real path to profitability that we see anytime soon. But again, we invest into this because our players love it. It’s an engagement… a sport that people are passionate about, that drives engagement for League of Legends, and gets people excited.

It’s an aspirational thing as well. You look at other sports and you see your heroes do something that’s just physically impossible for you to do, but with esports you have that tangible ability to go mimic what these professional players have done, you’re probably not going to do it as seamlessly or as fluidly as the pros are gonna do it, but you’re probably going to do it better than before and pull it off. It’s a great aspirational way to learn about the sport, to get better at the sport, to hone and craft your skills. People do want to get better and esports certainly helps with that.

Who is going to win the playoffs?

I have to say—–no comment. I do think its going to be some really high quality matches. Internally we’re super fired up about it and I think the fans are as well.

Do you think the other regions have a chance at Worlds against the Koreans?

I do. I think the skill differential between Korea and the rest of the world is shrinking. I think Korea is still the teams to beat, but every year that gap’s getting closer and closer and these teams in NA have particularly been really exciting to watch all season long and I think they’re going to do some damage this worlds.

Is there anything Riot should be doing to help close that gap?

That’s a good question. I think time is going to tell. We’re doing our best to provide structure and to provide structure to the league and that alone should help a lot. Korea is just a more advanced esports scene, these guys have been there and done that.

Just look at coaches: It’s tough to find great coaches in North America, these ex professional players. But in Korea you have a ton of ex-pro players who have become unbelievable coaches.

These guys were in Starcraft or other esports out there, they’ve been there and done that. Small things like that that make a really big difference are going to naturally happen. We’ve seen the skill gap close a little bit and it’s going to go down that route. Who knows when other regions are going to catch Korea, but we’re nipping at their heels.

Screengrab via Machinima/YouTube