League of Legends is the worst, best esport.
Sixty seven million players. Over 350 contracted, salaried, professional players competing all across the globe in several fully funded professional leagues. Two million dollar finals peaking at 11.8 million viewers, higher than any eSport has ever seen before. League of legends is the largest major eSport, but it's also one of the worst.
League of legends, co-founded by Brandon "Ryze" Beck and Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill is the world's most popular video game with the largest and most developed eSports scene. The spiritual successor to the popular Warcraft 3 custom map, Defense of the Ancient (DotA), League of Legends is what RIOT would call a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA). Released in October 2009, League of Legends established itself as a competitive Free To Play (F2P) online multi-player game. With it's free to play model, it's then unique micro-transaction system and it's competitive yet easily accessible nature, league of legends quickly gained traction in the PC gaming world. By 2012 it had become the most played PC game in both North America and Europe as well as the #1 title in PC cafés in South Korea, the Mecca of eSports.
Being such an easily accessible game, League of Legends maintains a rather shallow learning curve, but what it lacks in complexity it easily makes up for in game design and game play, often praised for it's balance between focus on individual and team play. RIOT's hands on approach has seemingly been rather successful thus far but it is often subject to a ton of criticism from the League of Legends community and other moba communities alike. They're often accused of dictating the meta and being far too close minded in their approach to balance and feature changes. A major concern within the League of Legends community right now is RIOT's reluctancy to implement voice chat, replay systems and a sandbox mode. Features that are now considered standard in other video games.
With major competitive tournaments as early as 2010, eSports has always played a significant role in League of Legends. League of Legends boasts a rather robust history with RIOT games taking a much more hands on, active approach in helping develop the eSports scene - an approach the fans of other eSports continue to beg for. Partnering with major eSports leagues such as IEM, MLG and IPL as well as announcing their own million dollar World Championships, League of Legends propelled itself as the premier eSport.
Announced in 2012 and launched in 2013, the League of Legends Championship Series, RIOT's fully fledged and fully funded professional league, is RIOT's approach to standardizing eSports. Divided into the spring and summer split RIOT's investment promised guaranteed salaries for the players and a regular schedule for the viewers. It also promised to raise the overall professionalism of the eSports scene as well as giving professional and amateur players alike the opportunity they've all been looking for. Unfortunately for the fans and players alike, the LCS comes at a rather steep cost.
The League of Legends Championship Series. RIOT's premier professional league. Hosting 20 teams and offering salaries for all the players and coaches, RIOT's LCS offers the best players in North America and Europe the opportunity to compete against each other domestically as well as an opportunity to qualify for the League of Legends World Championships, a month long event held at the end of each season. The LCS is a weekly event with matches play from Thursday till Sunday. Thursday-Friday being for Europe and Saturday-Sunday for North America. Teams are scheduled to play one opponent each day. The league is divided into two splits, the spring and the summer. Each of them last 3 months and contain a regular season, playoffs and relegation phase. Every team plays every other team in a best of one twice per season. The LCS offers a structured system and consistent content throughout the weekend.
As I've mentioned previously RIOT's LCS comes at a cost for the fans and the players. The LCS is RIOT's premier professional league... this means League of Legends pro's don't have any option outside of LCS. In my opinion this wouldn't be an issue if the LCS included more teams; if there were more than two splits per year; if the LCS relegation and qualifier system were better organised and formatted or if the LoL amateur scene, to put it lightly, didn't completely suck. RIOT's implementation of the LCS has resulted in the removal of the open circuit. I'll go over why that's an issue in the next section.
Another issue is the format of the LCS itself. The use of best of one causes for rather noncompetitive seasons. Teams aren't given the opportunity to adapt to their opponents. Professional teams only play two professional matches a week - in comparison to other esports, teams have the opportunity to play anywhere from 5-15 matches a week, sometimes even more - Only playing two matches a week leaves very little room for experimentation, adaptation or garnering any sort of experience. The LCS is also very bland from a spectators perspective. Because the matches are best of one most of the matches are rather low quality. Teams don't have many chances to play professional matches which means they don't have much opportunity to improve in that perspective. Also, because the LCS has every team playing an equal number of games you're often stuck watching a mediocre team get overpowered by a clearly superior team, or even worse, two mediocre teams playing a very low quality game. I've noticed that I have opted to tune out of hours of LCS broadcast due to this. Overall, League of Legends is not very competitive for most of the season.
The LCS is played on a LAN environment (local area network) at the LCS studios in Berlin, Germany and Los Angeles, California. This necessitates the need to move into a gaming house near the LCS studios. As a result players are forced to drop out of education and move hundreds of miles away from their friends and family. Players and teams are also expected to practice anywhere from 6-12 hours a day. Obviously this leaves little to no time for any sort of socializing and because most LCS players are teenagers or in their early twenties, they often miss out on many life experiences and are often lacking in social and life skills. All of this for RIOT's $25,000 per year salary and an opportunity to play two professional matches a week. (Before people mention that LCS players earn more money via sponsors and stream, i'll go into that in the next couple of paragraphs.) In contrast, professional players in games such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2 and Starcraft are rarely obligated to drop out of school early on or move away from their friends or family. They have every opportunity to experience life just like any other young adult while also having the opportunity to travel the world and compete.
Too add onto these issues; the LCS only lasts three months per split and there are only two splits a year. RIOT's contract states that LCS professionals are not allowed to compete in non-riot affiliated events. As a result, if you're an LCS professional and you don't qualify for the LCS you have six months where you can not compete in a single professional event. Six months... Most other esports have more than 12 events during that time.
And if that wasn't enough, professional players don't have the opportunity to create new teams and play professionally or at an amateur level, unless they grind their way through ranked 5v5 ladder in an incredibly short time and qualify for the challenger series, otherwise they are forced to sit out of competitive league of legends for an entire season.
One of the biggest issues in eSports in general is player contracts, and the League of Legends Challengers Series fails to do anything about this. Players are still getting "screwed" in their contracts and RIOT's anti-poaching rules have resulted in players being stuck on inferior teams even though they might have better opportunities and larger salaries in other teams. RIOT's approach has failed to support the players but rather heavily biases the organisations. It's incredibly frustrating as a spectator and fan to see incidents like Ex-Copenhagen Wolves FORG1VEN sitting on the bench for an entire split because his former organisation had a personal vendetta. With the promise of a more professional and structured league I'd have hoped for much better treatment of the professional players.
Most of the issues I've raised in this section don't exist in other eSports and I'll explain why in the next section.
The open circuit
RIOT stranglehold on their professional scene means League of Legends no longer has an open circuit. As a result, only three times a year do we get to see the top professional teams from every region compete against each other. In comparison to other eSports, you get to see the to professional teams and players play against each other in major competitions every couple of weeks. Fans from across the globe get to cheer on their favourite teams vs the best teams in the world. This is a luxury which league of legends lacks.
Just to expand on a previous point, the open circuit allows for professional players to travel the world competing for $100,000's every couple of weeks. League of legends professionals are stuck in Berlin or LA practicing 12 hours a day to play two professional matches on the weekend. They don't have the same opportunities to travel the world and they don't have the chance to compete for as much money. They also get much less experience playing versus the better teams.
The lack of international competition in League of Legends forces the best western teams to compete domestically versus inferior teams. Rarely ever do they get the opportunity to compete or practice versus the best Korean or Chinese teams and as a result, It'll be extremely hard for any western team to ever catch up to the east.
Previously I commented about how LCS players are paid a $25k salary. Yes I realise that LCS players have the opportunity to earn significantly more via sponsors and streaming revenue, however, players in other esports also have that exact same opportunity. The difference is players from games like dota and csgo also have the opportunity to earn 100's of thousands if not millions from all the international competitions and online tournaments available for them. LCS pro's aren't allowed to compete in online tournaments or non-riot affiliated international tournaments, because of that LCS pro's earn significantly less than their counter-parts in other eSports. In addition to that, LCS pro's don't get to experience competitions like other professionals. Most LCS pro's only get to play the regular season and one bo5 in front of a small LCS studio. Most of them have never traveled to worlds or competed in a major international competition. They've never had the chance to play in front of a massive audience. It's honestly sad to think seven out of ten teams only ever get to play in LCS and the odd IEM tournament every now and then.
RIOT's grasp on the professional scene also results in formats that they think is the best, in consequence no League of Legends events currently use double elimination, a format that has provided 100's of great esports tournaments throughout the year. We also don't see much variation in group stage formats and we're stuck with double round robin best of one in the LCS.
Overall, open circuits provide a much more competitive scene and a much more enjoyable spectator experience and that's something that the League of Legends pro scene severely lacks.
The Amateur Scene
League of Legends amateur scene is pathetic quite honestly. Everything about it is pathetic. The viewership isn't there, it lacks tournaments, it lacks sponsorship's, it lacks opportunities for aspiring amateur players. The LCS is amateur scene is an absolute joke, and the challenger series is just the cherry on top. My biggest issue with the League of Legends pro scene as a whole is how terrible the amateur scene is, in particular, the challenger series which just so happens to double up as the LCS qualifiers.
Let me highlight some issues with the challenger series:
- The league is limited to 6 teams.
- There are only two splits per year.
- The teams only play two matches a week and they're both against the same opponent.
- RIOT only broadcast one day of gameplay.
- The players and organisations aren't protected like the LCS teams and professionals are.
- The qualifiers are absolutely horrendous.
To go into more detail, the CS qualifiers uses the 5v5 ranked ladder as a qualifier. That's an issue in itself but to add on to it, they don't reset the ranked ladder at the start of a new split. New teams are given very little time to climb the ladder and players that have just been released have little to no time to build a team and grind the ladder. Consequently players are forced to sit out of competitive play for an entire split.
Another issue is the qualifiers themselves. They're limited to eight teams, for whatever reason, and the first couple of rounds don't use double elimination or a proper seeding system. As a result we have many cases where the best teams don't qualify for the challenger series.
The fact Challenger teams rarely ever get to play against professional teams in competitive matches is also a massive hindrance for the amateur scene as a whole. As mentioned in the previous section, to improve you have to play stronger opponents and because of the lack of competition between LCS teams and Challenger teams, the overall level of the challenger scene is extremely low. In comparison, in china the top LSPL teams often compete against the top LPL teams and as a result the LSPL is wildly considered a second professional league rather than a challenger league. It is assumed that LSPL teams are even stronger than most LCS teams... Of course we'd never know because RIOT detest international competitions.
An easy solution to all of this is to adopt a more open format for the amateur scene. Rather than two splits create a weekly tournament where any challenger team can sign up and compete in. In the end accumulate all the points and the highest earning teams get to compete in the LCS qualifiers. Of course you have to make sure the LCS qualifiers are double elimination.
Another important solution is to allow for more domestic tournaments rather than just the LCS and CS. Let LCS pros compete in online and live events versus challenger teams. This helps the challenger scene improve and it also helps LCS teams improve because they get to garner more experience from competing in tournaments and playing longer series. It's not a secret that playing more often results to improvement.
League of Legends the game
Besides the professional scenes structure and format, League of Legends the game is incredibly overshadowed by games such as CS:GO, SC2 and Dota 2. From missing key features like a replay system and a sandbox mode, requiring years of grinding and a lot of money to unlock specific champions and runes as well overall being a much simpler and more casual game, league of legends is objectively inferior as an eSport.
League of Legends doesn't require the same mechanical prowess or strategical depth as either of those games and the nature of the game doesn't allow for as much action. However, League of Legends does boast the advantage of being much more accessible and much more noob friendly, because of that, League of Legends continues to be most popular game and the most successful eSport.
To reiterate my point earlier, RIOT's approach to League of Legends has been both beneficial and harmful. Their philosophy on balance and eSports has resulted in a massive public outcry but League of Legends continues to be the most popular game and esport out there. Their hands on approach and dictation of the meta has resulted in a stale, less entertaining game without much experimentation or variety yet professional LoL continues to be incredibly entertaining...
Recently RIOT have publicly announced that they are not interested in implementing a sandbox mode or a spectator mode and while the community is outraged, League of Legends continues to be the most played, most spectated and most entertaining game... It's a peculiar dilemma. RIOT are terrible and everything they do is terrible but their game continue to be amazing...
It's incredibly strange how a game could have so many issues yet still be so great, how an eSport can be so terrible but still be so incredibly enjoyable... Is it magic? Are RIOT brainwashing all of us? Are we all just incredibly addicted? It's a strange situation...
League of Legends is objectively worse than so many eSports... but incredibly, it's still the best eSport.