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Riot delays, and threatens to cancel, League of Legends’ NA esports season amid player walkout

‘We would be prepared to cancel the entire LCS summer season’

All-Star 2015 Los Angeles, fans watch the game in the rain Photo: Riot Games via Getty Images
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Riot Games will delay the opening of its North American League of Legends esports summer series for two weeks after professional players voted “overwhelmingly” to walk out. The announced walkout meant players would not participate in the tournament should Riot Games not address concerns from the League Championship Series Player’s Association (LCSPA) about the future of the LCS and the amateur North American Challengers League. If the two groups cannot reach an agreement in two weeks, Riot Games said it will cancel the summer season. If the summer season is canceled, a North American team will not compete at the 2023 League of Legends World Championship.

The LCSPA represents the interests of all North American League of Legends professionals and is led by an executive council of five players. It also includes several player representatives and an advisory board led by executive director and former Evil Geniuses executive Phil Aram. The LCSPA was founded in 2017 by League of Legends publisher Riot Games, and it split from the company in 2020 — a separation planned since the initial founding of the organization. (The LCSPA still has a pool of money from Riot Games’ original investment.) League players have announced their intention to walk out and refuse to participate in the upcoming LCS summer season — called the summer split — after Riot Games announced a new direction for North America’s second-tier development League of Legends league, the NACL.

Earlier in May, Riot Games announced that it was removing a mandate that required LCS teams to fund a NACL team in addition to its LCS roster. Riot Games said it was asked to do this by the teams’ ownership; each team paid $10 million for an LCS spot when the league franchised in 2018, moving from a promotion/relegation system to having 10 permanent partners in the league. The company framed the removal of the NACL mandate as a way for teams to “unlock more operational and financial flexibility” and “support the continued, long-term success of the teams and the professional esports ecosystem in North America.” Shortly after the announcement, teams like Cloud9, 100Thieves, TSM, and Immortals dropped their development rosters. (TSM, for its part, is looking to sell its LCS slot entirely and move to a different region. This comes just after CLG sold its slot to NRG as the two companies merge.)

The LCSPA called it an “unprecedented decision to destroy the NACL,” leaving “as many as 70 players, coaches, and managers” out of jobs. If Riot Games was going to stick to this decision without player input, players were going to walk out.

The group also alleged Riot Games’ announcement was in “direct contradiction” to what it told the LCSPA earlier in the year — that the NACL would not be changed in 2023. The LCSPA is looking for Riot Games to support the NACL as a way to keep the North American League of Legends esports scene healthy as a whole, and to make sure players there can make a living while participating in the league. It cited second-tier leagues in South Korea, Europe (which recently and successfully expanded to regional second-tier leagues), and China as examples of successful, thriving League of Legends communities.

The League of Legends fan community was furious at the decision — with anger pointed towards both the teams and Riot Games. The LCSPA laid out its demands on Twitter following the decision, looking for a promotion and relegation process between professional and amateur leagues, a Riot Games-funded revenue pool to pay for NACL team salaries, an agreement for LCS teams to partner with NACL teams for cost-sharing, guaranteeing year-long LCS contracts for players who win the LCS summer finals, and agreement that NACL players on dropped teams could retain their spots in the league if they wanted to compete together.

Behind the scenes, Riot Games reportedly dropped a rank requirement that had mandated professional players must maintain a certain rank in League to compete in professional play, according to esports insider Travis Gafford. The removal of this mandate would have let participants play remotely and at any rank, a move that some said would have allowed teams to field “scab” players — people to fill in for striking players. The LCSPA asked amateur and collegiate players to decline these requests and to “stand in solidarity” with LCS players. Several broadcasters expressed support for the walkout and season delay as well, noting that they were not interested in participating in a scab broadcast. Tuesday night, Riot announced it would instead delay the season and potentially cancel it if no agreement was reached.

Riot Games’ global League of Legends esports head Naz Aletaha addressed the demands in a post on the company’s website on Tuesday. Aletaha dismissed the majority of the asks, but said that the company will invest $300,000 in a one-time payment to Rally Cry, the NACL tournament organizer. The money will be used to “support NACL teams during the transition to the new structure.” Aletaha also said the company already allows for cost-sharing between LCS and NACL teams. She contended that Riot Games supports a “robust, thriving development pipeline” with its amateur and collegiate scenes. “[We] know we need to do more to nurture those communities and bridge the gap between them and the professional scene,” Aletaha wrote.

When reached for comment, the company declined to comment further on the record.

The Players Association followed up via Twitter on Tuesday night confirming it has met with Riot Games and asking for daily meetings “to reach a resolution.”

“Tonight, one thing is back in clear focus: players are the LCS,” the LCSPA wrote on Twitter. “Without players, there is no league, and there is no esport. From day one, exclusion from the decision-making process drove the LCSPA players to vote to walk out. The future of the NACL and the LCS is too big to decide overnight and without player consideration.”

As players and Riot Games clash, the esports industry’s anticipated growth is stagnating, according to the New York Times. You can see this in the amount of teams that have laid off workers and cut players. Even in regions that are touted for success in this field, esports teams are struggling: Arnold Hur, CEO of Korean esports team Gen.G, said on Twitter Tuesday that Gen.G, despite being a top earner of sponsorship revenue, “has never turned a profit.”

“We have continued to invest into the esports scene but macro conditions continue to worsen,” he said. “A new business model is needed.”

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