The eSports scene has been steadily growing in North America and Europe, but it's not growing fast enough for League of Legends' developer, Riot Games. Last year, they promoted esports with a multi-million dollar tournament and free HD livestreaming of international matches all year long. How do they plan to top that in 2013? I asked, and Riot was happy to answer.
Dustin Beck, Riot's VP of eSports, and Whalen Rozelle, Senior eSports Manager, are confident that eSports can become mainstream. I sat down with them last week to talk about all the changes coming in Season 3, the big annual patch hitting LoL's servers in February that will define the game's major mechanics for the next year, and how those changes were designed to help eSports thrive.
Dustin Beck, VP of eSports: "I think consistent programming has been lacking in eSports. There have been intermittent tournaments that occur every month or every couple of months, but being able to have appointment-based viewing for our viewers is something that we're fired up about. It's like Sunday night football or Monday night football. As a fan, you can expect the content to be coming out then. It's going to be done at a high quality with high production values at our battle arena. It's exciting for us, it's exciting for our fans, and we can't wait to get started."
Whalen Rozelle, Senior eSports Manager: "If you're a fan of TSM or CLG, you can look ahead to weeks four and eight, and say, “Oh, they're playing against CLG next at 5PM on Friday.” You can plan out your week or set up a viewing party or do anything else that traditional sports fans have the luxury of doing. It's pretty exciting."
In case you missed our earlier news post about this , Riot is hosting its own league, dubbed LCS (League of Legends Championship Series) that has pro teams playing every single week, year-round. Starting February 7, NA teams play on Thursdays and Fridays, and EU teams on Saturdays and Sundays.
Beck: "We have the battle arenas in Los Angeles and in Cologne, Germany—that one we're partnering with ESL on. This is going to be our stadium. It's where our teams go to play in weekly matches. If you watched the qualifier, it took place at the arena. We're using a bunch of high-quality cameras and backdrops and settings. We went big on both of these arenas so we could have a production level similar to any other traditional sport."
Rozelle: "We've brought in producers with backgrounds in the NFL and the Olympics, so that they could take advantage of all the dynamic footage we're going to have and do a lot of storytelling throughout the year. That's another benefit that we get from the LCS structure."
Beck: "A lot of the teams are moving local to LA and to Cologne so that they can have gaming houses nearby. The cool thing about the structure of the league is that this is now a legitimate, viable profession for these guys. They no longer need to worry about playing in tournaments and playing for prize money or eyeballs for sponsorships. These guys are in the league. They're going to be seen every week. They're getting salaries that allow them to dedicate their career to playing League of Legends. It's going to up the level of competition and put the U.S. and Europe on a similar playing field to the Korean teams...
"We're creating an ecosystem for these players. It didn't really exist in North America and Europe. I'm sure you know that the Korean teams don't pay salaries, for example. All of the revenue that was coming in went towards those top few teams that were winning tournaments. [The LCS] allows a sustainable league and ecosystem to exist. Now you have these teams that are all making this money. They don't need to worry about coming in fourth place at a tournament and actually losing money because they need to pay for travel and hotels. This allows them to focus on what they do best, which is playing League of Legends."
Beck: "As you probably saw, Team MRN actually qualified through ranked and made it [into the LCS]. They're this Cinderella story. It's not just that, too. This helps our amateur leagues as well. We're not going to win at eSports if we just have successful pro teams. We need a top-to-bottom ecosystem that mimics the NBA, where there's high school and college and different tiers within the NCAA. At these challenger events, like an MLG or an IPL, you're going to have amateur teams competing for significant prize money. They don't have to compete against the likes of a TSM. They're playing against other amateur teams for legitimate prize money that will help their progress if they want to make it into the pro leagues."
Rozelle: "That's also exactly why we're doing stuff like the [in-game player ranking] league system, which is also launching at the same time as Season 3. We want to create a structure from top to bottom where you have fun playing competitively. If you're a Bronze player, or a Silver player like Dustin... [laughs] But also, we're going to have the Challenger Tier, which will be the best of the best aspiring teams. You know exactly how to become a pro at this point. You can play Ranked [team matches], get a Challenger Tier team, and then go to the MLGs and the IPLs and do well and qualify into the LCS. It's a very direct, easy-to-understand path, which is something that eSports really needs to survive long-term."
Beck: "Whalen mentioned the league system, which is different from the League Championship Series. The league system is our internal client where people are playing through ranked. The top tiers of that are going to filter into promotion and relegation matches that help them qualify for the League Championship Series. An MLG or an IPL are still valuable partners of ours. We go black on the weeks that we have their tournaments. We go lights-off, and we send not only all of our League Championship teams to their event, but we also have an amateur segment of the tournament that you could think of as like the NCAAs. Top amateur teams are going to be competing for some legitimate prize money, as well as that golden ticket, that berth into the promotion and relegation matches."
Rozelle: "...That's the number one thing I want to see more of, just more teams that understand how to become pros and are serious about it and want to tread that path."
Beck: "A lot of other companies are doing good things in eSports, and so are partner leagues like MLG and IPL. The benefit that we saw as far as doing it ourselves, because we're the game's developer and the publisher is that we're able to make changes in the game to help make the sport a more compelling viewing experience and playing experience for our whole community. It's helped us. That's what motivated us to do that, especially when we saw the appetite for eSports within our community. That drove us to do it ourselves."
Rozelle: "Yeah. Our players want it now. That's one of the main reasons we're going big. We're beholden to our players. We do our best to give them what they want and give them the best possible experience. That's why we wanted that."
Chris Heintz, PR Manager: "eSports is awesome. It's growing organically, and there's a ton of acceleration. But like Whalen said, our fans want it now and we want it now. We're going to do whatever we can to deliver, as rapidly as possible, the level of gaming experience and the sport that they're looking for."
DB: "One of the cool things we've seen as a by-product is that a lot of other companies have started going bigger with eSports. We think it's great for the scene in general. We hope that there are some other successful eSports as well, because we think it's going to help the industry in general."
On page two: Drama, pro player feedback, stealing from other sports, and evolving the metagame.
Rozelle: "The design team is extremely open to feedback. They look for feedback from all kinds of places, and one of those places is pro players. We brought a bunch of pro players to Riot HQ to work with the designers. They got a chance to sneak a peek and try everything out and give feedback to the designers. There's a constant feedback cycle that they were able to take advantage of."
Beck: "It's cool that we have this opportunity to get these guys' feedback. They understand the game as well as anyone. They're playing so many games. They understand the intricacies of the game on so many different levels. Getting their feedback was super valuable. We're going to have a great feedback loop during the season to get their thoughts on everything we're doing. It's been a cool by-product of what we're doing."
Rozelle: "They're completely bought into eSports as well. They're watching every week and sending us feedback on how eSports can get better. It's a really good partnership... We do take everything they give us with a little grain of salt."
Beck: "One thing we're laser-focused on is that we're going to start to bring out the personal pieces on players and on teams. I don't know if you saw our story on [the pro team] Curse or what we did for Ocelote [SK Gaming's AP carry], but we're investing a ton into that. It's hard to get a sense for who these guys are when they're playing in front of a monitor and talking to their team and focused on the game. When we're able to focus on these guys outside of the game, that's what's going to be compelling. That's going to be the cool thing. Like when you see Ocelote actually supporting his family with League of Legends. Things like that. Those human interest pieces are what's going to get fans attached to certain players and certain teams.
"We also like drama, too. I don't know if you saw the tournament last week, but a player on M5 did a pretty unsportsmanlike gesture towards the Korean team. It generates that drama. You like that in sports. Ron Artest is a bad boy, but a lot of people love him. Granted, he's gone over the line a couple of times, but that kind of stuff is fun. Rivalries are fun. Rivalries don't really exist that much right now. There's CLG and M5. Those guys don't really like each other. But now that these teams are going to be playing consistently over the course of a 10-week period, rivalries are going to start to be established. That's really exciting for us."
Rozelle: "Especially playing around in the established structure that we have, with trades and free agency. You're going to see more things like the CLG/Curse thing, where Curse is the ex-CLG members and they have that grudge match, coming back and fighting it out at PAX. You're going to see a lot more of that. Our focus on storytelling and narrative is only going to enhance the fact that we'll have that awesome experience."
Beck: "We're all sports junkies on the eSports team. It's one of the requirements to join the team. We've been able to look at a lot of structures. Promotion and relegation doesn't exist in the NBA, but it does in European soccer, so we took that. There's a lot of things that each sport does well that we're able to cherry-pick from. We're in a unique position where we get to build this league from scratch. It's been cool crafting that. We're not reinventing the wheel here. We're looking to other sports for cues on how to do this. It's been fundamentally helpful in getting this thing going."
Rozelle: "Yeah. They've had hundreds of years combined to get their act together. We might as well take advantage of their experience."
Beck: "It's fun. We wish we had an extra year of time to do it, but… [laughs]... We're learning as we go. We brought on these big producers from the NFL and the Olympics, so they're bringing a ton of experience into the live broadcasts. We have so many people on-site at the battle arena—from our office side, from our IT side, from our events team—and we suspect that each week is going to be a learning and growing experience. It's a learn-as-you-grow type of thing."
Rozelle: "You can see an example from day three of the world playoffs to the world finals even. There was only a week in between the two, but we saw the evolution there about how we learned from building up a stage, or setting up the venue. Just having all of our Is dotted and Ts crossed and making sure that we're paying as much attention to detail as possible."
Beck: "It's going to be challenging, because eSports is unique from other sports in that it's so dependent on technology. Streaming is not a mature platform, or not as mature as broadcast television or cable. The audience is depending on people running an online game. With the world championships we brought in a server that we developed, and we're using that in the battle arena. We're going to do everything we can to look forward and navigate around potential land mines. If we hit one, we'll learn from it and never make the same mistake twice."
Beck: "One nuance that we're weaving into our regular scene is that they're going to be single-game matches now, as opposed to best-of three or best-of-five. The playoffs will have the same format of best-of-three and best-of-five, just like the NBA does, but these single-game matches are going to be pretty impactful. You're going to see new strategies. Teams are going to have to scout one another. It's going to add a whole new element now that they're single-game matches. It also helps people do appointment-based viewing. It's hard to plan on catching a second best-of-three match because you don't know if the prior one is going two games or three games. "
Rozelle: "I hope [we'll see more experimental team compositions]. For the fans and for the people watching, that makes it fun and interesting. For the players it'll drive the meta-game. If you follow the eSports scene, you'll know that North America gets a bad rap for not innovating in the scene. I think our pro players are ready to take on that challenge and evolve the game from there. We're hoping to see that. It'll be exciting and fun to watch."
Beck: "It's cool, too, seeing these different meta-games evolve in the different territories that we have. I hate comparing it to chess, because I don't really like chess, but there are different strategies in different regions. Americans are more defensive, Russians are more aggressive. You see these different strategies evolving in each of these territories. It makes an even like an all-star game or a world championship that much more compelling."