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Emily Rand: Returning to best-of-ones reinforces Riot’s marketing-first philosophy for the NA LCS/League of Legends esports

The NA LCS will return to the best-of-one format next year
The NA LCS will return to the best-of-one format next year. Photo courtesy of Riot Games.

Riot Games announced Friday the return of the best-of-one format for the North American League of Legends Championship Series (NA LCS) starting next spring. Dropped right in between the play-in and group stages of the League of Legends World Championship, the announcement immediately dominated social media discussion.

Despite the fact that it further proves — in case there was any doubt — that the NA LCS places more value on entertainment than competitiveness, there’s a lot to unpack in Riot’s statement, community reaction, and how we evaluate team’s strengths internationally. It’s not a simple case of competitiveness against entertainment.

First, the consumers in Riot’s franchise model are the franchise owners themselves and not the fans — no matter what the press release states. The group of people investing the largest amount of money in this new franchise system is made up of the owners and organizations, not fans, and not Riot itself. It’s a bit like studying the economic model of a supermarket, only to discover that you, as a paying customer, are not actually the target audience, nor is your money particularly important. The largest consumers for a supermarket are the brands on the shelves, not the customers perusing them. These brands will pay for premiere end caps — where marketing can most easily draw a shopper’s attention — and other sorts of high-profile placement to further their name in shoppers’ minds. In this model, shoppers themselves are a sort of currency or feedback to how well the store’s advertising dollars have been spent.

In the LCS, fans are similar currency. They may think they are the paying customer, but they’re also proof of how well a brand is marketing themselves within the LCS. No franchise owner entering the business and tasked with building a brand from the ground up — or even taking over an existing LCS name brand like the Philadelphia 76ers did with Team Dignitas — is going to accept an NA LCS Stream 2 where they have to go up against the likes of Team SoloMid or Cloud9 on the first stream. A single stream forces viewers to focus on one match at a time and provides sexier concurrent views in one, concentrated place for further marketing. It’s a lot more impactful to market one stream with upwards of 100,000 viewers than two streams, one with 60,000 viewers and one with 40,000.

Although I doubt Riot intended for these to be presented in a hierarchical order, the order of bullet points and explanation for the changes is telling. If it was accidental, it still belies the game developer’s priorities. If it’s intentional, well, it concretely reinforces those priorities.

  • Be accessible for fans to watch weekly
  • Support balanced exposure for all teams, pros, and their sponsors
  • Send the best and most competitive teams to playoffs

Accessibility to fans is important not only for the fans themselves but for reasons listed above: flashy concurrent viewership numbers to tout success, and a higher concentration of viewers to market to at once. That leads to the balanced exposure reason, where franchises will be offered equal screen time for their investments. Sending the best and most competitive teams to playoffs is listed third.

When the release further expands upon the importance of these points, it briefly touches upon the idea that the LCS and esports could be taking away from actually playing the game. In case we somehow forgot, Riot is building an esports league, but ultimately, as the developer of the game, it wants more people to play League of Legends. That makes Riot an odd offshoot in this economic model. It’s in Riot’s best interest to ensure that esports acts like an advertisement for the game itself, though Riot could do better and recognize that perhaps an esports consumer is different than a game-only consumer. Esports and the game aren’t at odds with each other in the way that Riot seems to think. Either way, what ultimately matters in this statement is that it again gives us insight into what Riot is thinking. It serves as a reminder that marketing the game comes first, as included in the first paragraph below the bullet points. Competition comes last, in the final sentence.

The competitive idea behind best-of-three implementation was, according to Riot, to better prepare teams to adapt for international series at the Mid-Season Invitational and worlds. Friday’s statement about best-of-ones reiterated that. But listed before any potential competitive improvement for international events is this sentence:

“Looking back, showcasing every team on each day was an important part of growing the league from its infancy when team brands weren’t nearly as strong as they are today.”

That reiterates the importance branding will have in the upcoming franchised league. Again, with so much up-front investment from permanent league partners, showcasing every team on each day is now essential for marketing. It’s also important to consider what competition means domestically rather than internationally.

The elephant in the room of competitiveness at League of Legends international events isn’t necessarily how well teams perform at them. Instead, it’s that international events themselves, as they are designed right now, are often poor measurements of how good or how bad a team is. That is due to a myriad of factors, including the random nature of group draws, seeding by region, the limited amount of international events in a calendar year compared to domestic leagues, patch changes, and the best-of-one group stage among other things. In fact, you could easily make an argument that best-of-ones for NA’s regular season and best-of-fives for playoffs is a better representation of what NA teams will have to experience at international events than an entire regular season of best-of-threes.

To avoid comparing regions by strength as much as possible, here’s an example of three Korean teams at last year’s worlds. Samsung Galaxy made it to the finals instead of the ROX Tigers, who met SK Telecom T1 — the eventual champions — in the semifinals. Samsung made it further in the tournament, but that doesn’t mean Samsung was a better team than the Tigers. I’d argue that, despite the fact that they didn’t make it to the finals, the Tigers were still the second best team in the world last year. Similarly, I’d also argue that TSM was the best team of the three that NA sent to that same tournament, even though TSM did not make it out of the group stage and C9 did. A lot of it depends on group, matchups, and a dash of luck. Evaluating a team’s strength by how far it goes at worlds or MSI is only infallible for the champion of that competition.

I’d also argue — as much as it pains me to do so personally as someone who analyzes competitive play — that success at international events matters very little when it comes to exposure and marketing. In fact, it matters less than success in a team’s domestic league. As competitive League of Legends has evolved, nothing has become as important as the domestic leagues themselves when it comes to marketing to a fan base. A team doesn’t even need in-game success to be a strong marketing arm for its organization as a cursory glance at Team Liquid or even Echo Fox’s Delta Fox Challenger team of this summer proves.

Furthermore, it’s impossible from an outside vantage point to determine whether best-of-threes actually improved competition in the NA LCS and produced better teams. There are too many variables coinciding with the implementation of best-of-threes in the regular season, including an increasing amount of imported players and an influx of venture capital money.

If you’re evaluating this with MSI and worlds results — which, as I mentioned previously, is a faulty premise — you have a small sample size of only the 2016 worlds and this year’s MSI, where NA representatives performed at or below expectations depending on team. This will also depend on what happens with C9, Immortals, and TSM next week, but unless one or more of these teams make the semifinals, NA’s teams will have performed at about the level that they were expected to.

If you’re evaluating based on which teams made it into playoffs, the NA LCS finals, and represented NA at worlds, then I can’t think of a time — regardless of format — when a team won the NA LCS finals or went to a world championship and wasn’t NA’s best, or one of NA’s best teams. Both regular season formats still ensured that the best possible representatives for NA attended international competitions.

There are a few lingering questions I have with this announcement, and they’re not about competitiveness or entertainment, but about how this new franchised league will be set up.

Best-of-ones do seem like a raw deal for academy team members. Teams are more likely to find success in best-of-ones with cheese or specific strategies around off-meta or comfort champion picks, but they’re less likely to experiment with player substitutions when one game matters so much more than it would in a best-of-three.

There’s also the matter of how the players’ perspectives were told in this article, rather than having the Players Association make its own statement. This change affects the players and their practice along with the games that we see onstage. Although Riot says many things on the players’ behalf, it would have been nice to see the Players Association announce something separate in tandem with Riot’s own announcement, especially since this decision at the surface seems to favor the incoming or existing organizations rather than individual players themselves. Riot says it they will work with players on the efficiency of scrims and practice tools, but I would have liked to hear this from the players themselves because, when it comes to exactly how much this decision will affect competitiveness, there’s no better group of people to ask.

Some players have already spoken against the change, making it seem like they weren’t consulted at all, and are reacting to the news in the same time frame as the community. That is unacceptable for a decision that affects them to such an immense degree. Situations like this are exactly why a Players Association is supposed exist: to have a voice in league decisions. I realize that in-season, most players were generally unconcerned with helping form the Players Association and it was Riot that presumably forced its creation. For those players who feel like they didn’t have a voice, this is where the Players Association is supposed to help with negotiations, provided that the entire thing isn’t for show.

I’m personally sad to see the return of a best-of-one regular season — though I won’t miss the dual streams — but it makes sense from a marketing standpoint and arguably doesn’t affect competition as much as many people think (again, the results of the worlds group stage could change that and either way, it’s an admittedly small sample size).

Ultimately, the goal of the regular season is to prepare and seed teams for the playoffs. My preferred format is best-of-twos, but based on this release and the vehemently negative reaction when best-of-twos were introduced in Europe, it’s doubtful that format was even on the table for discussion.

Best-of-ones could also make more international events possible, so I’ll hold out desperate hope that more are scheduled in 2018.

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