Can Riot's latest initiative save the League of Legends pro scene?

League of Legends' creator attempts a heel-face turn.

To say that Riot has had a mixed month would be an understatement. The company has had a flurry of ups and downs over the last few weeks: on one hand, they’ve released some exciting new projects, including a critically acclaimed board game. On the other hand, there have been doubts about their long-term prospects. Marc “Tryndamere” Merrill has ended up with egg on his face over a couple of occasions, including the now infamous Reddit comment that kicked off a war between Riot and team owners over the economic sustainability of the LCS.

While the #LCSForever moment was a charming end to the whole fiasco, akin to the freeze frame high five during the triumphant climax of a Disney movie, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Riot has addressed their long term plans for the future with a new statement, and there’s a lot of good news to start off with—as well as a few lingering doubts about whether Riot will be able to meet the ambitious plans that they’ve laid out.

Economic overhaul

The first piece of good news is that Riot has been made aware of the financial situation facing owners, and have laid out a clear action plan including new LoL esports revenue streams, as well as collaboration with team owners. The language here is vague, and beyond sharing revenue, it’s hard to tell what, exactly, Riot has planned. However, the fact that they’re working on it at all is a fantastic first step. Tryndamere’s comment on Reddit suggested a remarkable ignorance of the economic situation of LoL team owners and their realities. Riot is stepping back, reassessing their viewpoint, and working to bring team owners in on the solution.

There’s already one very big statement that they’re making: an adjustment to the Worlds prize pool. Fans have been begging for a crowdfunding option for years: it has seen massive success in Dota, boosting the pot up to incredible numbers. LoL, on the other hand, has always gone with the conservative route. Riot has even rejected the idea of crowdfunding before, referring to it as ‘begging’. By paying salaries and avoiding huge pots, the idea is that they avoid one team making out big while another barely gets by. However, as League becomes more and more competitive, and the Worlds events become more of a statement for the company, the relatively paltry prize pool has drawn criticism.

Microtransaction expansion

Riot is responding by “unlocking digital revenue”—25% of proceeds from the sale of the Championship skin and Ward (this year’s candidate is Zed) will be added to the prize pool. This also gives a glimpse of the massive amount that Riot is making from microtransactions. If they had applied this to Championship Shyvana, they would have more than doubled the Worlds prize pool. 25% of Challenger skin revenue will be added to the MSI pot, and Team Championship skins (Fnatic, TPA, SKT twice over, and Samsung White) will all be subject to the revenue share program.

In addition, League is going to be introducing branded in-game items and boosting the summoner icon program, giving teams a cut of those profits. This, Riot claims, will “contribute millions of dollars in additional revenue to teams and pros each year.” Riot also promises that they’ll have more plans regarding sponsorships and merchandise.

All of the above changes go beyond being a band aid solution: they’re a major step forward to repairing the damaged relationships and economy that the LCS has suffered, and it’s also definitive proof that Riot is willing to admit their faults and forge a new path forward. The rest of the statement is glowing with praise for fans, which is either an apology and a promise to do better or a slick PR statement designed to win over doubters, depending on who you ask.

While this is a great start, one question remains: is this enough?

Wrong side of the tracks

Before these changes, the dialogue around LCS economics always acknowledged that while top tier teams were doing fine, lower-tier teams would struggle. Part of the reason that the situation has become so tense is even teams like Team SoloMid, arguably the biggest brand in all of esports, were struggling under the current LCS ecosystem. Changes to the prize pools will only affect the top teams. Merchandise and branding are great for the TSMs, G2s, and C9s of the LCS, but what of the lower-tier teams? Will a team like Apex or EnVyUs be able to get in on those millions of dollars of revenue from microtransactions?

Riot has stated that they intend to build the trust of the fanbase back over the coming months, and making prize pool improvement a priority was a smart way to do so. Now that they’ve won some good will, they’re going to need to follow through. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes, and we can expect to see more details of the coming sponsorship and merchandise plans in the coming days. Whether it’s from an honest realization, or the teams arriving on their doorstep and demanding a difference, Riot are overhauling their own policies and admitting their mistakes.

Part of Riot’s effort in days to come is going to have to be focused on not just making changes, but re-establishing their image with the community. Riot has always yearned to be a company made up of your friends: they want the community’s trust, the ability to reach out to fans, and a positive image among their players. Tryndamere’s comment did a lot to harm that, as well as other decisions they’ve made in the last few weeks, such as declining to invite veteran OGN caster Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles to Worlds.

It doesn’t matter whether you think these decisions were warranted or not; what matters is that players are looking at Riot as a corporate monolith, uncaring and sometimes incompetent. Riot, on the other hand, seems to recognize the importance that the fans have to their future: after all, it’s listed as the first point on their three step plan. If they want to secure their fanbase and keep their image alive, they’ll need to keep the initiative going. One big gesture may not be enough to regain all of that lost trust, not even one as grand as saving the LCS.  

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