Abandoning the Challenger Series could save grassroots European LoL

Grassroots League of Legends could potentially have received a massive boon yesterday with the latest news from Riot Games regarding the future of the European LCS.

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Yesterday’s announcement outlined a number of key changes to the League of Legends Championship Series. Whilst some of the adjustments were leaked ahead of time – including a reversion back to a best-of-one league format and an increase in the annual stipend paid out to teams – other updates are new, such as a planned swap in broadcasting schedules from Thursday/Friday to Friday/Saturday.

Those changes are largely aimed at increasing viewership and helping to support struggling European organisations, who have made no secret of their difficulties in financing EU LCS teams. An additional incentive has been offered to those organisations in the form of a ‘viewership bonus’, which will allow teams to profit from the extra exposure they help the league generate over the year.

One of the least-discussed changes, however, is one that could have the largest impact. The European Challenger Series, which has been run by Riot since 2014, has long been a breeding ground for individual and team talent, acting as a second tier of competition below the EU LCS. In this latest announcement, Riot describes plans to scrap the league altogether.

Fans may remember Origen’s incredible run to the semi-finals of the 2015 World Championships, and Misfits’ surprising strength to push reigning champions SKT T1 to 5 games in this year’s quarter finals, both of which came off the back of recent promotion from the Challenger Series to make it to Worlds competition. With the dissolution of the Challenger Series – both in Europe and North America – those fairy-tale stories will no longer be possible.

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Instead, the Challenger Series will be replaced by a new pan-European system which will promote European regional leagues (‘ERLs’) in an as-yet unannounced format. The top teams from individual regional leagues will qualify for a new pan-EU tournament that will run twice a year. Established ERLs will feed into the new system, and Riot has committed to helping support further countries to allow everyone a fair shot at the competition. 

Whilst the jury is still out on how this will affect the European scene on the whole, certain immediate observations can be made on the repercussions of Riot’s decision. The strongest argument against the change could surround the strength of the competition on offer for teams outside the LCS – with the Championship Series removed, teams of near-LCS calibre will be going up against much less advanced national teams, where the skill disparity should be evident. In turn, that might have a negative knock-on effect for the best regional teams, where the lower level of competition could, in the short term, prevent organisations from reaching their full potential.

However, one team’s loss is another’s gain – and there will be plenty of teams who will benefit from the regional focus afforded to them by Riot. In the old system, national leagues comprised the third tier of European competition. Now, your country’s best teams are more important than ever, and they will be able to participate in and learn from matches with a higher calibre of gameplay.

Without a real claim to any particular fan support, Challenger Series teams also historically drew relatively small viewing figures, and for teams in ERLs the numbers were often negligible. With a focus on regional pride, national level teams will now undoubtedly be the beneficiaries of a lot more attention, particularly if they end up competing in a mini-Worlds format against the cream of the crop from other European nations for spots in the LCS. This rise in priority is complimented by the announced EU LCS swap to a best-of-one format – with less games to view from Europe’s very best, diehard League fans will have more time to spend watching their country’s top talent perform instead.

Overall, this change by no means provides an answer to all of Riot’s problems – with EU LCS team revenue-sharing delayed until at least 2019, Europe’s organisations will likely fail to prevent their strongest players from migrating to more financially powerful teams in north America. But beyond the year of catching up Europe will have to play to its American counterparts, this announcement could herald a bright era for the region to continue to produce some of the greatest and most diverse talent in League of Legends.