[19 June 2014]
I used to hate American football. From a viewer’s perspective, especially one who grew up watching soccer, it doesn’t make any sense. Not only is there a glut of obscure rules and strange plays (The onside kick? What’s that all about?), the sport is also extremely slow paced. Half the team sits down while the other half takes its turn defending or moving the ball up the field in short individual bursts. In fact, a Wall Street Journal study estimated that the average time the ball is in play during a given football match is a mere eleven minutes. What a bore.
Then, several years ago, I started playing fantasy football. For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s that thing all of your coworkers talk about during the football season, even the ones who never go to a game. Each participant in your average fantasy football league drafts individual players from the entire NFL and fits them into specific slots on their team. These teams then face off each week, earning points based on the performance of real life players. If, say, Tony Romo throws four touchdowns, your team might come out big. If, on the other hand, Romo gets sacked and fumbles the ball, he could actually earn negative points for your team that week.
Overall fantasy football success depends on a smart draft, attention to individual player trends, and keen repositioning depending on any given week’s opposition. Play enough fantasy football, and you’ll find yourself with a newfound respect for the excellence and strategy on display each week, just as I have found an appreciation for football, even if my allegiance is to my own fictional team. And I’m not alone. Some 33 million Americans play fantasy sports every year.
Now, in another bid to move League of Legends closer to the realm of sports, Riot is fully embracing the fantasy metagame with their Fantasy LCS. Four weeks into the eleven game season and the weekly pro-player faceoffs are already showcasing the strengths and weaknesses of the fantasy sport genre, if we can call it that. It seems natural for a company trying so hard to push eSports into mainstream entertainment consumption to borrow so heavily from football.
Much like fantasy anything, Fantasy LCS follows much of the same drafting and scoring rules with some adjustments for the digital space. Each participant drafts a team of professional players for seven different roles and three bench positions. The squad consists of the same meta-roles familiar to most MOBA players. Top, Jungler, Mid, AD Carry, and Support are joined by the Flex position, which any player can fill regardless of their role, and Team, which tracks points based on objectives and wins scored by an entire team.
Just like some criticisms of fantasy football, Fantasy LCS suffers, perhaps, from a hyper focus on individual success over team success. My team, for example, includes Mimer from Supa Hot Crew, LemonNation from Cloud 9, and Rekkles from Fnatic, among others. While I also own the entire Fnatic team, during team fights I find myself rooting for Rekkles and cursing xPeke, his teammate, for stealing kills. The logic of a team based game crumbles in a way in the face of individualizing success.
This attention to single players is a double-edged sword. It can undermine our appreciation for team dynamics or team pride, losing some of the elements that make the World Cup so damn exciting, but it can also spotlight amazing individual prowess missed by viewers with less game fluency than others. Those not entirely familiar with League of Legends may not find themselves rooting for Fnatic, but if they have Rekkles on their team, they may newly recognize his excellent positioning during team fights. Focusing on the minute can create opportunities to learn and respect details.
The same can be said for even the Team position on a Fantasy LCS roster. Those unfamiliar with the game may not always understand the importance of fights for Dragon or Baron. By issuing points based on team objectives (something only mirrored vaguely by Defensive Teams selections in fantasy football), Riot emphasizes the importance of League’s objective-based gameplay and honors those teams who play to the game’s more unique elements.
Of course the unique elements of League of Legends offer their own double-edged sword in the fantasy context. By defining players by position (Top, Mid, Jungler, etc.), Riot locks in the dominant MOBA meta of dedicated laners, each player in a strict position. A fantasy team’s roster may not reflect the varied and unpredictable way the most insane League matches will play out. As the creators, Riot naturally shapes the meta as they see fit, and it behooves their mass-consumption efforts to standardize play for casual viewers, but for those interested in mixing things up, the strict positioning template in Fantasy LCS could be disconcerting.
In an eSports landscape already rife with labor concerns, perhaps fantasy’s most potent hazard is its commodification of players. Just like issues raised by fantasy football, Fantasy LCS turns players into numbers. Fantasy football players are already familiar with the boiling animosity towards a running back guilty of fumbling a clutch point for the team. Adding another layer of guilt or failure to an already underpaid and overworked group of players may not be the most fruitful social trajectory for League of Legends and eSports.
I’ve got three wins under my belt this season, so maybe I am a little biased, but I still think the pros overwhelm the costs. Many of these concerns can and should be addressed, especially those relating to labor relations for professional players. In the long run, perhaps the best question to ask is if Fantasy LCS will have the power to bring new fans into the eSports scene, including those who do not watch or even play video games? I think the answer is yes. I used to hate football, now I want nothing more than to display my league trophy on my desk with pride. There’s plenty of room for an eSports trophy right alongside it.