Last week, one of the world’s best known sporting brands dropped out of the European League of Legends scene. The very same day, a top team submitted an open letter of concern addressed to Riot. With all eyes locked on a glamorous World Championship in China, a struggle is escalating for the European scene’s future survival in the world’s biggest esport.
Paris Saint-Germain was the name on everyone’s lips last week when they announced their withdrawal from the European Challenger League on their website. Their decision came after talks with Riot Games left “numerous uncertainties” that did nothing to allay fears over an economic imbalance, forcing them to exit the esport altogether as they focus on endeavours in Rocket League and FIFA. The statement follows a poor showing in the Summer Split which saw them fall to joint bottom of the standings, taking just one win from five matches.
Then Unicorns of Love followed fellow European heavyweights H2K in writing an open letter to Riot, describing the trials of running a team without financial security. The statement, titled ‘About EU – problems and future‘, delves into the club’s monetary situation. A family-run club (with possibly the smallest running costs in the league due to management and volunteers working for free or the “lowest compensation”) is barely breaking even, according to the post.
So why now? What has changed for these organisations to have reached a financial breaking point?
The answer lies in one thing that both statements have in common – they both mention a rise in player wages making their current positions unprofitable. Add that to the current uncertainty over the future of the league, and they quickly become untenable.
The future of the EU LCS
Across the pond, the North American LCS is undergoing something of a revolution. With a change to broadcasting format, and the introduction of franchising and revenue-sharing, the league is looking much more attractive to investors. So attractive in fact that four of the top teams from the EU LCS – Fnatic, G2, Splyce and Misfits – reportedly applied to join the model, with sources claiming G2 have progressed to the second round.
The EU LCS, however, had no such plans. Whilst their partner league across the Atlantic mapped out their future with admirable transparency and clarity along every step, European fans had to find out from an ESPN article that Riot were planning to split the league into four regions for a 24-team Champions League-esque format. UoL’s statement was published in response, pointing out the need for significant short-term cash injection – mostly to compensate for the dilution of resources (such as sponsorship) across 24 teams instead of 10.
Riot’s quick fix
Riot’s solution was to reportedly abandon the Champions League-inspired format altogether, at least for now. Instead, the next season of the EU LCS will mirror the NA LCS with a revert back to a double round robin best-of-one structure, with ten teams in a single league. They’ve cut the league relegation in half by removing promotions between the spring and summer splits, effecting a degree of stability. And they’ve significantly increased the stipend that teams receive from €350,000 (£313,000) to €500,000 (£447,000).
So why the blatant doom-mongering? And how could this affect Europe’s Worlds chances?
It’s true that Riot’s changes go some way to answering fears that organisations have. With less relegation, sponsors will be more likely commit to teams, and the increased stipend should help counter some of the rising player fees.
But the truth is, this announcement leaves a lot of key issues unanswered. H2K claimed in their open letter to incur annual losses of over a million euros, and demanded minimum yearly team compensation of at least €850,000 (£760,000) in order to be convinced to remain in the league. Riot’s extra investment doesn’t come close to those figures.
Then there’s the fact that whilst the EU LCS will receive a slight boon next year, the NA LCS will likely see much, much more investment from teams courtesy of the franchise model. With European teams barely covering current player wages, how will they cope when the inflation continues and the best talent can receive much more overseas? Losing the cream of the crop is something European teams are all too familiar with, and the problem only looks to be worsening over time, which will surely affect their international hopes in the future.
But possibly worst of all is the way this whole saga has been handled. Imagine you’re an outside investor interested in a League of Legends team. To learn that Riot has been so poor in communicating its proposed changes ahead of time is one thing. Add that to the fact that they were unable to offer cash injections significant enough to convince teams to follow through on those changes, and you might be unconvinced of Riot’s capacity to protect investors. But then if you also take into account that Riot still hasn’t announced a decision on the long-term future of the league, you would be forgiven for holding off on any investment in the EU LCS until things change.
I don’t believe Riot will rest on their laurels now. After all, the European League Championship Series is an integral part of the global ecosystem, and vital to the future of League of Legends as an esport. But in order to recover the region’s stability, they need to offer more investment, provide more transparency around decision-making processes they take with teams, and most importantly, they need to make a decision on the future of the league, sooner rather than later.
For EU LCS fans, the damage might already be done. Indecision has set the region behind its North American counterpart, and it might be some time before the gap is bridged. And eight years into League of Legends’ lifespan, one has to ask themselves – when the region catches up, will there still be an esport left to compete in?