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A brief history of relegation and the North American Challenger Series

Changes to the NA LCS have eliminated relegation and abolished the North American Challenger Series.
NRG and Echo Fox compete in last summer's relegation tournament. Relegation will no longer take place in the NA LCS. Photo courtesy of Riot Games.

With Riot Games’ announcement Thursday about the evolving structure of the North American League of Legends Championship Series, one of the biggest changes is with regards to the North American Challenger Series, which will no longer exist the way it has. Relegation is no more, and in place of the Challenger Series will be an “Academy League” featuring teams operated by LCS organizations.

With that, it’s worth taking a look back at four years of relegation and the Challenger Series, and the effects both had on the North American League of Legends scene. In theory, the Challenger Series existed to help develop professional players and give them a chance to reach the LCS. It served that purpose in parts, but its own evolution in many ways led to the impasse that was resolved today.

Following the announcement of the LCS in August 2012, relegation was first introduced with the 2013 summer promotional tournament. It was large in scale, as a total of 12 teams were present: four from the LCS spring split, four from Challenger qualifier events, and four from the Ranked 5s Qualifier. Team MRN and compLexity were the first teams to be relegated, as Quantic Gaming — which eventually became Cloud9 — and Velocity Esports replaced them.

Riot’s official Challenger league, dubbed the Challenger Series, started in 2014 that ran as a direct bridge to the LCS. A pool of 20 teams was divided into five brackets of four, with the top five teams placed in Challenger Series No. 1, and after a single elimination round, the top three proceeded to Challenger Series No. 2 where 20 more teams went through the same process.

The 2014 spring promotion tournament was scaled down to nine teams, as it was comprised by the bottom three from the LCS and six teams from Riot’s first Challenger league, but there were no changes whatsoever. For the summer split, the all-Chinese LMQ team stepped over XDG Gaming after its qualification from the challenger.

The following year added a qualifier for the Challenger Series for both spring and summer. The spring featured 16 teams from the ranked ladder, divided in to four bracket of four, and the winner of each bracket advances to the CS. The summer qualifier featured 12 teams, 10 from the ladder, in two groups playing in single elimination.  The Challenger Series was further downscaled to six teams starting from the spring, which included Riot’s one-time expansion tournament for the spring split.

The 2015 summer promotional tournament was further scaled down to four teams; the bottom two from the LCS and top two from Challenger Series. Team Dragon Knights overstepped Winterfox to qualify for the LCS, and would later go on to place 10th in the LCS summer split, which resulted in relegation back to the Challenger Series.

Rule changes

For a while, relegation from the LCS had two elements. The last place team in the split was automatically relegated, and the other teams that qualified for relegation (the number of which varied throughout splits) played Challenger teams for their LCS spots.

Riot changes the rules heading into the 2016 season and eliminated auto relegation. Instead, the bottom three LCS teams would play the top two teams from the Challenger Series in a best-of-five tournament. Dignitas was relegated that spring, with Apex Gaming qualifying for the 2016 summer split (which is interesting because both organizations were acquired by the Philadelphia 76ers, and Dignitas has since returned to the LCS).

There was never more buzz about relegation than perhaps las summer’s relegation tournament. Two LCS teams, Liquid and Cloud9, had Challenger teams make the tournament and play three teams — Echo Fox, Phoenix1 and NRG — that all had high-profile ownership. The idea of “LCS farming,” came to be as C9 and Liquid knew they couldn’t own two teams in the LCS, so if they loaded their Challenger rosters in hopes of those teams qualifying for the LCS so they could sell the spot for likely seven figures.

The collateral damage resulted in NRG, one of the first traditional sports organizations to enter esports, being relegated, losing its spot and getting rid of its team. The moment led to another rule change for this year, that LCS-owned Challenger teams couldn’t play in the promotion tournament, and also gave the owners more evidence that relegation needed to stop.

 

Why it had to go

The gap in value between LCS and Challenger teams widened as League of Legends grew and more people — particularly with mainstream sports ties — wanted to get involved. The amount of venture capital injected into LCS teams created a larger infrastructural gap, while challenger teams did not enjoy the same benefits. As such, the difference between the LCS and Challenger Series was so large that it was essentially a sunken investment for any team that was relegated.

Phoenix1 co-owner Michael Moore said in an interview that if his team would have been relegated last year, “it wouldn’t make financial sense to continue. Team Envy’s Mike “Hastr0” Rufail said keeping his LCS spot this spring was worth more than if his Counter-Strike team would win three Majors. CompLexity’s Jason Lake echoed those sentiments in an interview with Slingshot last month.

“Until they get to franchising, League of Legends is an expensive gamble, particularly in North America, where you just play not to get relegated,” Lake said. “Everyone is in there investing lots of money, and the majority of them are struggling just not to get relegated. You saw what happened with NRG. They invested seven figured and they lost that investment in a very short amount of time. When investors and sports teams and other intelligent people see that loss, it raises major red flags and alarm bells start going off.”

And so now we’re here. Franchising has come to the NA LCS, relegation is no more and the Challenger Series is gone. But for a few years, it supplied some drama at the lower tiers of competition and the hope — if only minuscule — that anybody could make the LCS.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games

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