The North American League of Legends Championship Series and the Overwatch League are on the cusp of creating huge moments in esports. Their approaches, though, couldn't be more different: As one grooms itself for success, the other seems to be struggling before it gets off the ground.
Riot Games' NA LCS is established; the Overwatch League is new. NA LCS has a $10-13 million buy-in; the Overwatch League is asking for twice as much. And as a result, the NA LCS has more than 100 applicants lined up hoping for an invitation; the Overwatch League has gone from an intriguing opportunity for new, wealthy investors to a hard pass for most.
Franchising in the NA LCS has forced the hand of many prospective owners who have kept their eye on the league. This could be the last opportunity, for the foreseeable future, to enter into the world's largest esports league, and the NA LCS has established itself to the point that it doesn't have to recruit owners. In May, the league made its terms public and sat back and watched the suitors come in.
Meanwhile, Blizzard's Overwatch League has sought out owners, traveling on a road show that included worldwide trips by Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick and Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer. Blizzard has stuck to its $20 million slot evaluation but has adjusted other terms in an attempt to attract buyers. But that hasn't changed the perception of OWL: It's a high asking price for a relatively new game with no guarantee there will be a payoff.
Several sports team owners and entrepreneurs who applied only for the NA LCS have told me they'd give $20 million for a spot in NA LCS. And if Blizzard was asking for $10 million instead? Those potential buyers would go for both.
Blizzard's uneven history in esports does not help it when making its case, either. The company swung and missed with Heroes of the Storm, a so-called League of Legends killer at launch that has been obscure in comparison to other esports peers. Blizzard asked endemic organizers like the Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA) and region-locked StarCraft II to meet Blizzard's demands, which turned StarCraft from the world's largest esports entity to one in need of a reboot.
Blizzard can ask for as much money as it wants, but it's alienated many prospective investors because of these demands. Meanwhile, NA LCS, a longer-standing brand that undercut its competition, is making Blizzard's ask look like an overreach.
The different levels of interest are reflective of the games' histories. Most investors, even those with billions of dollars, are hesitant to spend their money on something with little proof of concept. League of Legends has five League Championship Series seasons to back up what it's asking for; Overwatch has had two years of fledgling viewership for third-party-organized competition.
The League Championship Series started in 2013 by giving all the pro teams that had previously competed in League an equal opportunity to qualify. Over the course of the last few years, the league has seen owners enter and exit via the promotion and relegation system the league holds, which is soon to eliminated with the franchising changes.
"Several sports team owners and entrepreneurs who applied only for the NA LCS have told me they'd give $20 million for a spot in that league. And if Blizzard was asking for $10 million instead? Those potential buyers would go for both."
This has given Riot Games and its member teams time to gain experience and make mistakes.
Riot has disciplined owners and teams for poor decisions and actions, and the publisher has made its own missteps, too. It has expelled owners without much communication with the teams or the public (see Renegades in 2016). Riot has committed some public relations transgressions, such as the situation related to Team SoloMid owner Andy "Reginald" Dinh and company president Marc Merrill. Riot and its players and owners have made esports look unprofessional at times.
But one thing that's stayed consistent, especially in North America, is interest. The game's subreddit is littered with esports talk around events. Streams of regular-season games usually get more than 100,000 viewers. League of Legends works.
Overwatch can't say that yet. It is, by all measures, a very popular commercial title. But in the esports space, it hasn't yet climbed to the upper ranks.
Third-party competitions such as OGN Overwatch APEX in South Korea have been great from a competitive standpoint, but have been lackluster when it comes to marketing and outreach. Since the game's release in beta in late 2015 -- when it invited former pros of Team Fortress 2 and Battlefield and other first-person shooters -- its competitive scene has been run by everyone else not named Blizzard Entertainment until the Overwatch World Cup began in 2016, and Overwatch Contenders this year.
Luckily for Blizzard, there's a blueprint for success nearby. It has to look at what NA LCS has done right -- and done wrong -- to craft a better path for the Overwatch League. If Blizzard doesn't learn from those lessons, expect a rough road for its inaugural season and perhaps beyond Year 1.