Opinion: Riot's PR disaster shows a self-inflicted lack of awareness

After losing to Samsung White in the finals of the League of Legends World Championships 2014, Choi "inSec" In-seok looks down in disappointment. Provided by Riot Games

Update: Since the time of publication, Marc Merrill has posted a response to the community backlash.

After a recent interview by theScore esports with Team SoloMid owner Andy "Reginald" Dinh, Riot Games co-founder and League of Legends co-creator Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill took to Reddit to respond to Dinh's complaints about the competitive scene and the impact of upcoming patch changes on the game.

Although Merrill's response was edited, as seen in the tweet, his original response received pointed feedback from other owners within the scene and the League of Legends community, and a lengthy response from Dinh himself. Merrill not only angered the public but also has caused one of the largest Riot Games public relations disasters in recent memory. He has been openly vocal about his opinions in the past, as shown in the SpectateFaker situation in 2015, when he alleged a streamer was "e-stalking" another player's stream.

The League of Legends esports fan base has actively opposed those who disagreed with Riot's business decisions and propositions, such as veteran esports journalist Richard Lewis, journalist William Turton (who was effectively bullied out) and more. Parts of the fan base have also defended some of Riot Games' most mismanaged and opaque decisions, such as the recent ban of Renegades and Team Dragon Knights. But for the first time since SpectateFaker, the tables have turned -- like the Eye of Sauron, the community has shifted its aggressive gaze toward Merrill and Riot.

Merrill's original response to Dinh's criticism is appalling for many reasons.

First, just how out of touch is Merrill with the community that the game has produced? League of Legends' most beloved team, Team SoloMid, is at odds with Riot, and though this is one of the first times the rift has become public, that isn't why the tables have turned, as some have suggested. (Recently, multiple teams, including TSM, petitioned Riot to levy punishment at Apex Gaming because Apex was missing visas to compete in the 2016 Summer Promotion Tournament.) This time, the community is at odds with Merrill because of his lack of understanding of the space he oversees and his continued incompetence when addressing the public.

Merrill's response starts off with, "Maybe [Dinh] should spend some of the millions he has made / makes from League of Legends on paying them instead of investing in other esports where he is losing money" -- a statement that's not only an arrogant delusion, but a pure fallacy.

While League is sometimes profitable, depending on who you are and your investment model, the recent surge of League organizations that have expanded elsewhere is a sign of future-proofing. League will not last forever, and other esports, like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Super Smash Bros., allow teams to promote certain sponsors that are normally regulated by Riot Games.

Two examples of this are gambling and daily fantasy websites, such as DraftKings and AlphaDraft. Alcoholic beverage companies like Bud Light recently plunged into the space as well. None of these companies is allowed to be affiliated with League of Legends teams, despite being popular among non-League teams under the umbrella of Team SoloMid and Cloud9.

It seems that Riot Games' esports department is selling a false idea to Merrill -- that League of Legends is esports. This has been, and continues to be, more false over time. While League of Legends was the focal point of an investment boom at the end of 2014, League is no longer the only game investors are interested in, and it was certainly not the first (I'm looking at you, StarCraft II in South Korea).

In fact, investors have taken a heavy interest in Counter-Strike and the recent first-person shooter release, Overwatch. Both of these games market to a different, yet overlapping, audience, a la League of Legends. With the growing popularity of both titles -- Overwatch overtook League of Legends in popularity in PC Bangs in South Korea for the first time in years -- it's rare to see a major organization not involved in either game. And if these organizations aren't, they're usually pursuing a way to become involved.

Second, Merrill speaks about the market value of a League of Legends pro, which he seems to not understand.

"There is still a long way to go to help get all of our owners into a better state where the balance of power between players & owners is a bit more equitable," he says in his response. "It's not our call (nor should it be) to determine market pricing for players, but when owners don't want to shell out for top talent, that's a tricky problem."

While Merrill is right that Riot doesn't directly determine that worth, the limited playing options for a talented esports athlete lead to highly competitive salaries. Ironically, Team SoloMid is reportedly among the top-paying orgs in the game. Criticizing Dinh and his organization for not paying their players enough, in turn, is almost laughable.

Yet Dinh's criticism was mainly regarding the competitive patch schedule of League of Legends. The game is set to release a patch in the coming days to be used at the World Championship this year. Merrill's opinion is that owners and coaches, such as Dinh, are angry because this will "hide certain line up / skill deficits they may have on their rosters."

Simply put, that is not what the owners, coaches or players are frustrated about. They are frustrated with the timing of the patch, and with not being included in the process of making large, sweeping, in-game decisions that will drastically affect game play and players' careers. Riot Games did not notify the community before the changes were announced, and refused to allow the players the chance to push back on the timing.

The solution? Transparency.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, but Riot Games needs to do a better job of involving the teams and players in major changes. While the risk is potential leaks of changes, that risk is not nearly as terrible as the potential of putting some of these players' careers in jeopardy by negatively influencing their play. That could make some players lose their spots on their teams, which would be a direct result of Riot's lack of awareness.

Additionally, Merrill needs to at least appear better-informed. His comments, as many have said, make him seem utterly disconnected from the game he helped create. This isn't the Riot that helped push esports forward by offering salaries, arenas and a world tournament tour. To get back on track, the esports side of things needs a massive overhaul. Up the player salaries, have an open discussion on benefits of regulation vs. franchising, start getting competitive with freelance caster rates (and look to treat the in-house talent better), increase the prize pool, start bringing in sponsors ... the list goes on, but one thing is for certain: Something has to change. And change starts at the top.