With news that the North American League of Legends Championship Series is moving to a permanent partnerships format, Team SoloMid owner Andy "Reginald" Dinh, Immortals CEO Noah Whinston and Riot Games' co-heads of esports Whalen Rozelle and Jarred Kennedy sat down with Yahoo Esports to discuss the details and their thoughts on the monumental decision for the future of League esports.
Here are the key takeaways from the extended interview with these key players in the NA LCS scene:
A common goal
"I think that there are a lot of teams that existed in the NA LCS two years ago that I don't think I would want to be business partners with..." - Whinston
One of the main themes of the interview centered around a true partnership between Riot, the owners and the players. The goal wasn't just to remove relegation from the picture and lock in 10 teams for the league, but rather to make sure all parties involved in North American League of Legends had a say in discussions about the future of the league and benefited financially from the success of the NA LCS.
Kennedy noted that the league is looking for partners that are serious about being competitive and building a fandom and a brand, not just those with deep pockets. He said they're not looking for teams that will just "bottom feed or don't try, just try to collect a check," and outlined that there would be financial ramifications and potential removal from the league for orgs that don't live up to the standards set forth by the other partners in this deal.
"If every team had [an Academy team], it would make us a lot closer to the [South] Koreans." - Reginald
Both the team representatives and Riot employees were keen to point out that long-term stability and additional investments into League esports in North America would boost the competitiveness of the region in general. Rather than relying on what Whinston referred to as short-term gap-stop solutions to team problems, organizations can use the new Academy league and their increased stability to plan ahead rather than just scrambling to finish higher than ninth every split.
Being competitive in the new NA LCS will come with benefits, as top teams will receive more revenue share than those at the bottom. And while there will still be money spread across every team, TSM's owner isn't concerned about his high-revenue team having to share with others. "From a TSM perspective, you do need someone on the bottom to beat on in order to really build a fanbase," Dinh said and jokingly added "If Noah didn't exist, we wouldn't be champions."
"Less than 50 percent of players are represented [by an agent] right now, maybe like 25." - Reginald
The development of a players' association is one of the key aspects of this announcement that extends far beyond just 10 static teams in the LCS and revenue sharing. Riot intends to fund and help kickstart a third-party player organization that helps NA League pros fend for themselves and better understand what they have to offer to teams and to Riot.
Kennedy noted that the plan is for Riot to provide funding and some vetted candidates to help the players set up their association and then take a more hands off approach, with the goal being that the players could eventually form their own independent union. Whinston added that since players are currently getting no revenue sharing, it's reasonable for Riot to be involved in this process, but there are conflict of interest concerns with the publisher setting up a player-focused organization.
But Whinston was pretty frank about his stance on the topic, noting "I would feel uncomfortable letting the players decide on their own the right law firm to use for this."
What if my team doesn't make it?
"Do we think it's one-to-one, every team is demonstrating all these things? No, we don't think that." - Kennedy
A key point of tension for current LCS teams is the potential that they may be left out during this franchise application process. Only 10 teams will make the 2018 season lineup, and they're not guaranteed to be the same 10 that end the 2017 season with a spot in the LCS. Kennedy noted that current LCS teams have a bit of an advantage since they currently have a real way to demonstrate the ability to resonate with a fanbase, understand how to run a League of Legends team, and care for a team full of pro gamers. But the quote above demonstrates that not every team is likely to make it into next year's franchise model.
"If you're an LCS team that can't go out and convince someone to invest in your franchise, you probably suck," Dinh added, noting that if money is an issue for a team joining the league, they probably aren't cut out to be a business partner in the new LCS. Teams will share revenues, meaning no owner wants a team acting as dead weight and simply collecting money with minimal effort. Again, as noted above, Riot will have mechanisms in place to get rid of teams like this.
All about the money
"A lot of people view this as a ticket to get in the door, I view it as a cost to build a factory." - Whinston
So what about that $10 million franchise fee? The Riot representatives were quick to point out that they're not looking to "make money" off of this deal, but instead wanted a price that was a barrier to entry for teams without the backing and business sense to afford it, but low enough to truly embrace the partnership nature of the league. Whinston added that he wanted "to know that the people [he is] permanently partnered with are not just scraping by."
There was a lot of talk from Rozelle about "growing the pie," which means bringing in more money by raising the collective revenue of the league, which is then shared to all teams. Since organizations will all have a common goal, there are opportunities for teams to work together on sponsorship activiations and other partnerships that weren't previously feasible. No longer is it a dog-eat-dog competition with each team fending for itself, there's a notion of doing things for the collective good of North American League of Legends.