As esports has evolved from a niche enterprise to a billion dollar industry, competitive video gaming’s leading pro leagues have continually pushed the boundaries by radically overhauling their structure. However, while the Overwatch League prepares for its potentially groundbreaking leap into local markets with a true home-and-away format that mirrors most traditional sports leagues, the commissioner of the North American League of Legends Championship Series says his outfit is not interested in following suit.
In an interview at last month’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, North American League Championship Series Commissioner Chris Greeley said he does not envision his league adopting a format similar to that of the Overwatch League in which individual teams would be assigned to specific “home” cities.
“The Overwatch model, I don't think works for us,” Greeley said. “There should be some model, but figuring out where in-between that lies is what we're working on.”
At issue is how fans of the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) identify with their favorite teams. While a traditional sport like football has to be played in an arena rooted in a physical location, competitive gaming is more ethereal. Diehards grew up playing matches with other competitors across the globe, at all hours of the day, and watching streams rather than attending matches. The teams that grew up around them weren’t tied to locations then, but rather latched on to team brands.
“How weird would it be if [Counter Logic Gaming] were the New York CLG?” Greeley said. “There’s something just bizarre about that, that I’ve never been able to wrap my head around. That’s just destroying the brand. Maybe in two years, you might play this back as you’re watching a game between the New York CLG and the Golden State GGS, or whatever they would wind up being, but there is, at least now, an idea that it’s not the direct area we should be in.”
The LCS is in the midst of its second year as a franchised competitive gaming league -- a trait it shares with the Overwatch League (OWL) -- and its seventh year overall. More established than the relatively nascent OWL, which began its second season in February, the LCS shifted away from a more open relegation-based system in 2017, selling franchises for a reported $10 million that guaranteed owners a spot in the league season after season. Other leagues like NBA 2K, which anchors teams to existing NBA franchises, and the Call of Duty World League, which will soon feature a franchise model, also pose competition for the biggest spot on the world esports stage.
Greeley, a former lawyer-turned-head of operations for the North American LCS circuit, acknowledged the potential benefit of geolocation in how it could lure new fans in the same way traditional sports fans grow attached their local rosters, identifying with teams based in or near their hometown. He also noted the appeal of allowing more fans to experience LCS matches in person. As Greeley notes, seeing an esports event live changes your relationship with the game and the league. The LCS currently plays the majority of its matches in its studio in Los Angeles, only rarely venturing out to other locales for larger matches like the coming spring finals in St. Louis.
“[LCS] should be a social experience,” said Greeley. He likens watching European LEC matches in the league’s office to watching traditional sports leagues, sparking discussions and debates as matches play out. “The same way I find myself talking about football or baseball, you're having those same conversations. We do want to find ways for our fans to engage in that other than through digital means.”
In that respect, the growing number of esports-centric venues might provide a more promising option for travelling LCS games. Comcast just announced plans for a $50 million gaming arena in Philadelphia. In Texas, Greeley’s team was looking at a newly opened esports stadium in Arlington, a venue he calls a “turnkey” setup.
While franchising did bring stability and an influx of cash into the league, as the LCS grows and expands, it has raised questions about the pipelines that will provide the league with its future players. Locking the league, and installing academy teams in the place of the promotional circuit, squashed a major pipeline for up-and-coming players, something Greeley freely admits.
“It's our single biggest miss, because the franchising killed the amateur scene,” Greeley said. “Took it behind the shed and took it out, Old Yeller style. And that wasn't our intention. There's a lot of really passionate people who are still out in the amateur community, trying to make it a thing, and it should be.”
Though the league has not yet made any announcements, Greeley says his team is working on ways to promote amateur competition, providing an avenue for players to learn skills that are difficult to obtain in solo online play that Greeley likens to an amateur trying to improve at baseball.
While the LCS is moving forward, to a degree, it is charting its course along the way. The important part for Greeley is not for that road be without bumps, but rather that it delivers the league to the best possible place.
“Ultimately, we tell our teams: we don’t need to be right, we just want to get it right,” Greeley said. “Whether that’s our idea or your idea, whether that means we make a mistake the first time and need to find a way to fix it and admit our mistakes, we’re happy do that. But that’s the way we think about it.”
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