Every league has its "moment." For the NFL this came with the 1966 NFL/AFL merger that saw the advent of the first Super Bowl. The NBA had varying degrees of popularity but exploded in the 1980s thanks to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. In 20 years time we could be looking back on Schalke 04 buying a spot as that moment for the EU LCS.
Initially this might feel like a labored metaphor, but consider that for the first time we have a major sports organization with a $655 million value throwing its considerable weight behind esports. This isn't an angel investor or an interested individual, it's a well-oiled machine used to fielding a competitive team in Germany's brutal Bundesliga that now has at least part of its attention turned to League of Legends. That matters.
The "why" is fairly simple: Schalke like to make money. They are good at making money. This means a combination of marketing savvy, excellent competitive play and a different approach to what we've seen from other esports teams thus far. A brand with Schalke's gravitas, carrying the Schalke name will not stand for the petty infighting and team drama that we so often see from professional organizations. The stakes have been raised, whether League fans realize it or not.
For now Schalke will keep most of Elements' roster intact -- as any sports team does when it enters expansion -- but make no mistake, this will be a results-driven experiment. If the current team can't perform to exacting standards there will be repercussions, and that's what makes this the most fascinating. Schalke are used to operating in a league and sport with no salary caps. They can headhunt players at will, sign them to the highest offer and the only concern on the back-end is team chemistry. This small, struggling team now has the deepest pockets in the world -- and winning makes money.
This isn't to say Schalke has been some dominant figure in soccer either. In fact, they're the perennial underachievers of the Bundesliga. I asked SB Nation's soccer editor Kevin McCauley to explain their history in Germany.
"Schalke are known as the most notorious chokers in German soccer. They're top three in fan membership and revenue, and they boast one of the country's top youth academies, but they've never won the Bundesliga. Their on-field struggles and their willingness to let their top players run their contracts down instead of selling them for a profit creates a bit of a "chicken or the egg" situation. But completely deserved ridicule aside, they always field a competitive team and they haven't faced any financial struggles in recent times. They appear to run a competent business and sporting operation."
SK Telecom T1 might have the biggest sponsor in its corner, but this is different. Carrying a name for profit is one thing, being branded as the esports wing of an established organization is another. The way you make money in sports is by winning and having stars on your team. It's that simple. Balancing those two factors is often difficult, but the equation itself doesn't take a lot of hard work to figure out.
The question isn't "Will Schalke win the EU LCS?" because the answer is probably "no." Instead we should be asking "What will Schalke be in a year's time?" That's the one we need to focus on. Sure, there's a chance this is a failed experiment and their EU LCS spot is sold, but I wouldn't bet on it. A major organization has its foot in the door, now we'll wait to see how much money Schalke are willing to throw around and whether we see soccer-esque headhunting enter the world of esports.
This is the start of an arms race in League of Legends and things are about to get fascinating. We've seen big money in NA, and momentum has been in North America's corner, especially with CLG's high finish at the Mid Season Invitational -- but this could, in time, change that. Welcome to your "moment," EU LCS.