NA LCS franchising reflections

How has franchising impacted the NA LCS? (4:06)

Riot Games turned a lot of heads when it announced plans to move to a franchise model for the NA LCS. Emily Rand joins Victoria Arlen in our LA studio to break down how the franchise model has affected the league. (4:06)

LOS ANGELES -- At the League Championship Series Arena in Santa Monica, three endemic League of Legends team logos adorn the rafters. If you look up, directly beneath a web of moving spotlights, lighting tracks and pipes that cross the ceiling of the stage, only three names are visible on 10 championship banners.

Team SoloMid
Counter Logic Gaming

Photographs, blown up onto large canvases, decorate the walls. They feature various iterations of these three teams raising the NA LCS trophy in celebration and smiling through the rain of confetti. This weekend, in Miami, a new team will finally join the ranks.

In January, Team Liquid and TSM played the opening match of the NA LCS franchise era. Based on their offseason roster moves, and prior history in the case of TSM, both franchises were expected to perform well and contend for the spring split title. While TL delivered on these promises, TSM fell in the quarterfinals to a new franchise owned by the Houston Rockets: Clutch Gaming.

This is the first time in LCS history that TSM will not play in an NA LCS title match, marking a sea of change in the league's hierarchy.

This was not a dramatic transformation. In fact, the NA LCS chugged along as usual this split, returning to a Best of 1 format with little fanfare. One of the only visible differences was a sponsored analyst desk. Yet, beneath the surface, new franchises like Clutch Gaming and 100 Thieves not only challenged proven endemic winners, but steadily improved throughout the split in order to best them. In the case of 100T, they've formed an organization around the league's veterans -- William "Meteos" Hartman and Zaqueri "aphromoo" Black, for example, have been around since the LCS' inaugural year -- bolstering their brand power thanks to Matthew "Nadeshot" Haag and investment from Cleveland Cavaliers' Dan Gilbert.

"I think the organization is run really well," Meteos said. "Nadeshot's great. The staff has been great to work with."

When the NA LCS launched in 2013, it marked the end of a different era. Gone were the days of a loose circuit of tournaments. This new system would provide a structured league for teams in the west -- much like OnGameNet's tournaments for South Korean teams -- and hopefully prepare them enough to contend with South Korean teams at international events. While the latter outcome has yet to happen, and will likely never happen as long as League Champions Korea exists, the stability of the LCS has allowed for certain franchises to thrive -- this is especially true for the three present in the LCS Arena rafters.

"It feels really collaborative with Riot," Jack Etienne, owner of Cloud9, said. "We all want to make a really strong, sustainable league.

Back then, the NA LCS promo featured a combination of North American and European players. The headliners were TSM's Andy "Reginald" Dinh, CLG's George "HotshotGG" Georgallidis and Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng, Evil Geniuses' (formerly CLG.EU) Stephen "Snoopeh" Ellis, and SK Gaming's Carlos "ocelote" Rodríguez Santiago, among others.

The tagline read, "Who will rise?"

Reginald and HotshotGG were playing for franchises that they had founded themselves in TSM and CLG. These two organizations combined have won eight of the past 10 NA LCS finals. Ocelote would go on to build his own brand, first as Gamers2 and then G2 Esports, the latter contending for its fifth EU LCS title. Only Doublelift, now on TL, still competes.

By contrast, the first video of the franchising era featured locales across North America that tied directly into teams' franchising partners and investors. Under the tagline "Rise up," this was a casual bookend to Riot's first foray into the league system.

The city of Cleveland under the banner of 100 Thieves, the city of San Francisco for the Golden Guardians, New York for CLG, Houston for Clutch Gaming, and so on. Players like Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black, Fabian "Febiven" Diepstraten and Tristan "PowerOfEvil" Schrage were featured alongside their representative cities.

"We're trying to figure out how to get sponsors involved in a good way," Etienne said. "We have a long way to go still in getting us from where we are to where we want to go, but it feels good. It's such a huge change of pace that it just takes time."

Since their days as Team Curse, Liquid has struggled to make the finals, often hovering right outside of the Top 2. Owner Steve "LiQuiD112" Arhancet poured his offseason monetary investments into a state-of-the-art training facility and a star-studded lineup that has finally brought TL to an NA LCS final. Meanwhile, 100T has combined intelligent veteran players and smart branding into their own NA finals appearance. With commitment from older endemic esports brands and newly-formed franchises, the upcoming finals clash between TL and 100T is a fitting combination of old and new, two teams united in the new age of franchising.