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One year later: How franchising changed the LCS

Franchising’s impact on the LCS has been subtle, but welcomed as the league pushes into the future of esports

Riot Games

League of Legends esports is nearly a decade old now, but the scene couldn’t look any more different from its early days as a side event at Dreamhack 2011. Even when thinking of 2013 — the League Championship Series’ (LCS) inaugural year — the landscape is vastly different in both the scope of its size and level of professionalism.

Pro players are more than gamers at the peak of competition — they’re brands that define their respective organizations and leagues. Leagues across the world are evolving from glorified advertising campaigns into defined franchised systems seeking to become profitable and sustainable. As one of the oldest leagues and first to franchise, the LCS is near the forefront of that movement, aiming for an approach that feels sluggish at times, but ultimately searches for long term stability in a burgeoning industry.

Branding

Originally known as the North American League Championship Series (NA LCS), the LCS franchised in 2018, pulling in ten partner organizations to become the second franchised league in the world, following suit of the rapidly growing Chinese LoL Pro League (LPL). Despite that, the LCS has faced a fair amount of criticism for its lack of big time sponsors, in addition to a slick and clean broadcast that rarely changes.

In comparison, the EU LCS didn’t just rebrand in its first franchised year, it changed practically everything. From new graphics and broadcast segments to a plethora of new sponsors, namely oil company juggernaut Shell, the League European Championship (LEC) has moved forward in a way that people didn’t expect. Some changes didn’t stick — week one’s creative, but visually obtrusive pick/ban graphics come to mind — but it was a refreshing change of pace and arguably one that the LCS should adopt in the future.

The biggest takeaway is that the North American side of things should be courting sponsors bigger than State Farm or Jersey Mikes, while also aiming to bring more fun to the broadcast. There are excellent segments like Sion Speedway, where players drive Sion’s ultimate through a crash course on Summoner’s Rift, but this content is often saved for the end of a broadcast. Like all esports broadcasts, viewer retention following the final LCS game is relatively low, leaving fun segments like this either un-watched or difficult to find. LCS players and talent have all the personality in the world, but the league has been slow to deliver.

Still, there is context for Europe’s rapid facelift. Since 2013, Europe and North America were sister LCS regions piggybacking off each others’ ideas. The regions share a playful rivalry as LoL’s premier Western regions, but the production has largely been the same since 2013. Now, Europe has the opportunity to be itself while North America continues to hone a long-lasting formula. In short, LEC is a new brand striking the iron while it’s hot, while the LCS continues to refine and polish a consistent product.

Riot Games

Even so, the LCS recognizes a need to spice things up on the broadcast front and has done a good job of it recently. Whether it’s Sam “Kobe” Hartman-Kenzler casting a game immediately after consuming a Habanero pepper or the entire LCS analyst deck suffering the same fate, the broadcast has taken more and more steps outside of the box. The fans are loving it and the players are too — especially Flyquest jungler Lucas “Santorin” Larsen.

“I think both regions are doing a good job of trying different things, like different types of content,” Larsen said of the respective LEC and LCS broadcasts. “For example, with LCS, they’re doing these weird bets where you have to do things when you’re wrong. I think it brings that extra bit of hype to the match. I also want to watch it because of this. Making the fans more interested in the games will always be beneficial.”

Just a few weekends ago, former LCS pro and recent addition to the analyst desk Hai Lam even struck a bet with the LCS analyst desk to dance to K/DA’s “Pop/Stars” in the event that Flyquest didn’t beat Team Liquid. In the middle of the LCS’s second year, Riot is slowly adjusting its traditional sports style broadcast to cater to its core gamer audience, sprinkling in more fun for everyone involved.

Stability

As Larsen says, driving fan interest is among one of the most important things for the LCS’s future. League of Legends is a wildly popular game, but keeping people interested in the competitive scene is the key to success. Ultimately, the LCS is opting for a conservative approach to fan retention, assuring a stable product and viewerbase, so as not to lose dedicated fans over sweeping changes.

At this current juncture, the LCS faces criticism for doing little to evolve the broadcast, but in the name of stability, two key changes were made — the end of relegations and beginning of the Academy League. Both directly promote organizational investment in long term talent, while also indirectly aiding in the brands of players who have twenty teams to choose from, no longer subject to a cannibalistic Challenger Series system.

As a player who participated in five relegation series and “lost all of them,” Larsen was personally relieved when the franchise system was announced. In addition to that, he is also a big proponent of the academy system that is currently in place.

“It’s something I personally really like. I always pondered during my time in TSM and wished that I could play in the Academy League for them and learn under an experienced jungler,” he said. “For new grown talent, I think it’s a lot easier now. They can literally just go watch the better guy play and learn from him to see what he does well. For me, it was very hard to understand what a jungler should do, when and where.”

The only issue that stands out with the current academy arrangement is that its broadcast rights are currently loaned out to the LCS franchises, with Riot not producing regular season games. Each LCS team is responsible for broadcasting their own academy games, giving more opportunities to amateur casters, observers, and production, but ultimately makes the viewing experience less consistent for the average viewer. Still, more eyeballs are always nice, but in the end, the academy system’s goal isn’t to provide fanfare or add revenue to the pot, but to give a consistent space for aspiring pros.

Pushing forward for pros

As the LCS pushes forward, its relationship with its own professionals becomes even more important. Traditionally, players have the responsibility of streaming and competing in the LCS to provide maximum exposure for their team in the LCS. Cloud9 AD carry Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi remarked about his first experience with streaming responsibility.

“I remember that we kind of had a team talk with Jack [in 2014]. We were saying ‘I think we all deserve more money’ and Jack was like, ‘Well none of you guys really stream and I think that’s the biggest part for getting more money,’” he said. “Most of us started doing that a lot and I stayed pretty consistent. My stream just kind of took off from there.”

Riot Games

Sneaky’s anecdote is one of many linking together the importance of streaming and esports, but also signals the importance of player branding in conjunction with organizational branding. For the LCS, the relationship is the same. Realistically, the LCS is nothing without its stars and that necessitates a proper relationship for the two parties to work and grow together in a franchised future.

Segments like Sion Speedway are Riot’s way of showing off player personalities, but organizations are just as instrumental. Perhaps most notably in the LCS, Flyquest’s YouTube content brilliantly highlights players on a weekly basis, from short quips between teammates to sending AD carry Jason “Wildturtle” Tran to cover the World Championship in South Korea last year. Recently, Golden Guardians also had top laner Kevin “Haunzter” Yarnell and jungler Juan “Contractz” Garcia review One Piece on their youtube channel.

It’s content like amateur journalist trips across the world and silly anime reviews that will make fans in the long run — more so than week to week gameplay and raw analytical content. As the LCS grows, it will only become more important for players to display themselves as more than elite competitors, but also as relatable human beings that have the same quirks as everybody else. It’s a mission that everyone benefits from, as players become more marketable, organizations become more appealing, and the league becomes more interesting.

On top of being personalities and competitors, pro players are also employees seeking the best for their livelihood. In a bustling new scene trying to find itself, the professionals themselves are reaping the benefits, but once the business bubble stops being pumped with venture capital, LCS players also have the most to lose. That’s where one of the most important factors of the post-franchising LCS era comes into play — the LCS Players’ Association (LCSPA). LCSPA president and Counter Logic Gaming top laner Darshan Upadhyaya speaks to the differences that have amplified player quality of life amidst franchising.

“The infrastructure is just so much different now,” Upadhyaya said. “In season 2, I was playing from my parents’ house. In season 3, I was playing LCS in a gaming house. Now, in season 9, I have my own apartment and I commute to an office where there [are] a lot of coaches.”

Riot Games

Changes like this are closer to the organizational side of things, but now that the LCS and its organizations are partnered, players must protect themselves as their own entity. Darshan expands on what the players’ association means for the future, emphasizing a need for work balance and long-term health.

“If League is going to be franchised and going on for many years ahead, a player’s association needs to be useful,” he said. “All the things at a regular job are going to be important. Having healthcare, understanding the importance of health and stretching so you can play ten years from now and not have scoliosis or your backs destroyed … Everyone should be able to be a pro gamer and have options once they’re done.”

The LCSPA has only pushed forward one significant rule on its own accord since its inception, an extended signing period for players dropped 48 hours before the roster lock deadline, but as the league extends its years and players fold in and out, the third party will only become more important. Darshan believes the LCSPA is “not as active as it could be,” but that they’re always ready for their next battle.

Slowly, but surely

The LCS is far from perfect one and a half years into franchising, but the general results are solid. Interest in the league is far from declining and the talent lineup continues to bring new concepts to spice up the broadcasts. The NA sponsor wheel is still a bit thin compared to the lavish brands in Europe or China, and that’s the league’s biggest concern going forward.

For dedicated fans of the LCS, the current time period may be frustrating, but the product hasn’t diminished and the league continues to entertain. Players are happy, the standings continue to shake up, and the LCS is here to stay. Still, more should be expected from the LCS if the league truly wants to shine.

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