Complications in the ‘League of Legends’ Challenger Series

Something has to change for League of Legends, and it just so happens that any major decision will have long term consequences not just for LoL eSports, but for eSports as a whole.

In an outcome no one found surprising, Cloud 9 Challenger (C9C) earned a spot in the next competitive season of League of Legends. It’s normal for a team in the Challenger Series to earn their way back into the regular LoL eSports series (the LCS). However, this particular success story is marred by strange circumstances. See, the Cloud 9 eSports organization already has a team in the LCS, and they’re not allowed to have a second. C9C will not actually be joining the LCS at all. Instead, they’ll sell their spot for a profit.

There’s a pretty clear consensus from organizations, players, and eSports fans that something is terribly wrong with this picture.

From a viewer’s perspective, these events undermine the contest of the Challenger series final and the premise of the series as a whole. The stakes of the final match are diminished when (whether they win or lose) the teams fighting for a spot aren’t going anywhere. Also, the premise of the LCS is that the best teams in each region are fighting it out all season to climb the rankings. By letting in a team that bought their way in, instead of earning it, is to erode that premise.

Another concern is that Cloud 9’s role in the Challenger series diminishes the prospects for new eSports players trying to prove their worth at a higher competitive level. Most of C9C’s roster are pro veterans, former starters for C9’s original roster. This might be the case for a handful of other Challenger team rosters, but it gets at what I think is the heart of this issue: How do you build a consistent pool of fresh talent in eSports without destabilizing existing and long-lasting organizations? If the Challenger series is meant for up-and-coming players, is fielding sister-teams stocked with former pros adhering to that tenet?

The easy answer might be to limit how many teams any one organization could field at all. If C9 were not allowed to field a Challenger team, then the controversy over selling their LCS spot wouldn’t be happening. However, I’m inclined to agree with Hai, C9C’s team captain, when he said in the interview below that C9C provides opportunity and tutelage to fresh faces, albeit to the few that are actually new on team.

Perhaps more importantly, Cloud 9 brings the full legitimacy and bureaucracy of an established eSports organization. He’s not wrong to call out some shady practices in the Challenger circuit. Hai’s organization can, at least, pay their players on time and at a more competitive rate.

Perhaps another solution is doing away with the Challenger series entirely, cementing League of Legends eSports organizations with a franchise model. This would mirror many traditional sports and ensure that organizations who pony up the sizable investment necessary to play have the opportunity to improve their team and recoup some of the costs of starting an organization in the first place. This also creates the added benefit of increasing fan loyalty, since it’s hard to continue to follow a single team when organizations drop in and out of the competition after every split.

However, we’re again stuck with the problem of creating a consistent pool of highly skilled players to grow the eSports scene. If Riot implemented a franchise model, they could scrap the Challenger series in favor of supporting collegiate teams and competitions, recreating the model that the NFL uses to bring in young talent. Or Riot could continue to host the Challenger series as an entirely separate competition, truly creating a Minor League aSports. Existing organizations who field Minor League teams would then have feeder squads, teams of players that they could hone into the next eSports prodigies to bring onto the primary team as other players move on.

I don’t have any good answers here. Time and again I look at eSports today and see an amazing opportunity to shed the dangerous norms that have appeared in traditional sports entertainment. FIFA is constantly dealing with one scandal or another, and the NFL and NBA suffer from their own forms of corruption and exploitation. I also find collegiate football a blight on the American education system as well, so I would hate to see the same model used in professional eSports.

Something has to change for League of Legends, and it just so happens that any major decision will have long term consequences not just for LoL eSports, but for eSports as a whole. I don’t know where this will all lead, but this conversation is an important one to have. As more and more money flows into eSports, we risk losing the opportunity shape its future.