Opinion: How Riot should change it's LCS and Challenger Scene structure
With Season 5 over, and Season 6 just around the corner, Riot recently announced a change to the LCS format for the upcoming Summer Split: the NALCS will be doing Best of 3’s for weekly matches, and the EULCS will be doing Best of 2’s, experimenting with both to see which format will benefit both LCS’ going forward into season 7. Replacing the often-loathed Best of 1 format is a tremendous step forward for Riot in terms of LCS development, and will surely lead to stronger competition across both regions at the competitive level. However, there are still issues with the competitive scene that Riot will need to address soon if, as they’ve said many times, they plan to keep competitive League of Legends going long term.
As the LCS becomes more competitive, in the current format, we can expect there to be a gradual decline from strong investors (such as the owners of the Sacramento Kings, Rick Fox, and the investment group behind Immortals) into teams. This all leads back to an issue that also is a topic of much debate in US Major League Soccer (MLS): promotion and relegation. A common practice in other countries around the world, promotion and relegation have never really caught on the US, in part because the American sports pyschy revolves around the notion of top level of play in sports being the only one worth watching. As American’s, we hate watching teams lose, like any good fan would, but if a team loses so bad that it can’t even stay in the top flight of a sport, it’s not worth the investment generally to stay a fan.
With League of Legends and the LCS, we can see this in teams such as Coast, TDK, and Enemy Esports: teams that fell out of the LCS and whose already small fan bases all but died off. It’s not just limited to small organizations either: in Europe, SK Gaming’s fan base also came crashing down after their relegation. For future investors, this is off-putting for them, as no one wants to spend millions of dollars and their time investing in a team that could disappear after 3 months. What's more, as the League becomes more and more competitive, the gap between Challenger teams and LCS teams will begin to grow, and we’ll begin seeing more and more Challenger teams fall out of the LCS after one split; a disheartening and demotivating endeavor that's led to many teams disbanding or scrapping their whole roster.
This whole situation drives many teams in the LCS, and even in the Challenger scene to look internationally for proven talent that will guarantee it a spot in the LCS over developing local talent, leading regions like North America struggling to inject new, ready local talent into their teams as older players phase out of the competitive scene. Because teams are so focused on proven talent and foreign exports for staying in the LCS, they don’t take the time to develop local talent for the future.
If Riot wants to prevent this drop off in investment, and promote a focus on teams developing players for the future, they’ll have to undergo a significant change on how the LCS and the Challenger scene operates; a change that could set itself as a prime example for Esports going forward in operating competitive scenes. That change is one common to traditional sports fans: locking and franchising the top flight of the LCS, and expanding and stabilizing the Challenger scene as a new semi-pro scene with promotion and relegation at the bottom.
Locking the LCS benefits stability in the pro scene, and promotes long-term player development for teams. No longer needing to fear falling out of the scene after a bad split, teams can spend more time investing in long-term development, picking up players with the potential, given the right environment, to become great, whether a split or even a year later.You’re likely to see within a year or two training teams begin popping up filled to the brim with developmental talent. Big-name investors are also likely to begin flocking to the scene, relishing in its new-found stability, and teams can begin franchising themselves much in the way NFL or Premier League teams have been for decades, growing their team brand beyond that of individual players,and developing strong, stable fan-bases that not only promote them, but also provide stronger points of revenue from merchandise sales, another key point LCS teams will need to work on to attract strong investor interest. What’s more, this extra capital gain can drive team growth and development in other Esports scenes, but more importantly, allow them to fund their training teams in the newly improved semi-pro scene.
It’s no secret that the Challenger scene has struggled to attract sizeable fanbase audiences. Teams rise and fall so rapidly, and mediocre teams play so few games, that below the near-LCS tier of teams at it’s top is a desolate wasteland of crumbled teams and players unable to afford more than a split at most of play. To fix this, Riot will have to fundamentally reorganize the system into a more stable platform, the League Semi-Pro Series (LSPS). Consisting of about twenty teams, with promotion and relegation at the bottom from the Challenger Scene. This league would be a place for LCS teams to form their training teams to develop their not-yet-LCS-level talent in a relative stable and similar environment to the LCS, as well as be a place for undiscovered talent coming up from the Challenger Scene to cuts its teeth in a competitive environment. By providing promotion and relegation at the bottom, it keeps intact the gamer dream of creating a team that makes it to a competitive level, while at the same time giving teams and younger or less invested-in organizations a place to prove their stability and ability to perform consistently with developing rosters before going into an LCS expansion tournament (more on that later). By having such a large number of teams, it prevents major shifts every split/season in the scene and promotes, much like the the new LCS, development.
The new LSPS would also switch to a regular sports-season system, like Major League Soccer (MLS), in which all the teams play each other, and the top 8 moving on into a playoffs at the end of the year (as the scene is no longer tied to the same timetable as the LCS), giving semi-pro players more competitive matches to strengthen themselves in, and promote a following of the scene amongst those who enjoy watching rising talent, like the Minor Leagues in Baseball or the United Soccer League (USL).
LSPS teams can advance into the LCS through Expansion tournaments, much as the MLS grows itself, though with the added twist of Expansion teams coming from the LSPS. For example, if the LCS is looking to expand to 12 teams, they can invite 8 teams from the Challenger scene to play a mini-season, in which all matches are Best of 5’s, where the top 2 teams at the end of the mini-season advance to the LCS. The LSPS can them take two additional teams from the Challenger Scene and promote them into the scene.
While these solutions look good on paper, there are still issues that will have to be eventually resolved even if implemented. LCS and LSPS teams will still need to deal with fan loyalty to players over teams, and establishing identities, especially for LCS teams that all live around LA. Oversight of both leagues and choosing which teams get promoted to both will need to be codified in league rules, and, very importantly, Riot will have to eventually deal with growing cries for it to competitive scene management under an independent judiciary (an issue unique to Esports, but one that all games with desires to stabilize their scenes will need to address). It’s likely that a plethora of new, undiscovered problems may even arise as well.
As Esports is a fairly new and unique phenomenon in the world of team-based competition, each game may have it’s own unique answer to stabilizing and developing it’s scene, and Riot may take a completely different route in changing both its pro and semi-pro scenes. All we can say for certain, is that the structure of the competitive League of Legends scene as it stands today will not be the one we find ourselves in three years from now.