Riot revealed Nov. 10 that next year’s Worlds, as its commonly referred to by fans, will take place in Shanghai. It will be only the second time since League championships began in 2011 that the event has taken place in China, by far the sport’s biggest market. “To be clear, next year we’re really planning to go bananas,” says Riot CEO Nicolo Laurent. “It’s going to be the 10th season for us, and we’re going big.”
On nearly every front, Riot is planning on bigger: This year’s lead up to the finals took place in three European cities; next year’s will tour six across China. This year’s finals took place in front of a crowd of 15,000 attendees; next year’s will take place in a stadium that seats over 50,000. Instead of a month or so of pre-finals events, Riot would like to stretch out the calendar of preliminaries much further. “That means a lot of complexity, a lot of complications, a lot of effort,” says Leo Lin, head of Riot China. “But we are committed to that vision.”
That makes sense given the popularity of League in China. It is the third most popular professional sport, according to the games company, behind soccer and basketball. Of Riot’s 13 regional leagues around the world, China’s League of Legends Pro League (LPL) is the biggest and most popular. The LPL currently has 16 teams and may expand to 17 or 18 next year.
And now, Chinese teams have taken the top spot at the finals the last two years in a row. “Korea used to lead in esports on a number of fronts, competitively, in terms of infrastructure, as a business. Now it’s China,” says Laurent. (Riot Games, which is headquartered in Los Angeles, was fully acquired by Chinese technology giant Tencent in 2015.)
League is seen as a lifestyle brand in China, according the company’s top executives, making it easier to draw in sponsors. Riot has already signed long-term deals in the country with Nike, Mercedes-Benz and Mountain Dew. Lin says to expect more collaborations like this year’s Louis Vuitton trunk case, which housed the Summoner’s Cup trophy, and fewer plastic backdrops littered with sponsor logos. John Needham, Head of Global Esports, adds that “China as a region is a good three to five years ahead of all of our other regions” in terms of understanding how to market esports.
Not that it’ll necessarily be smooth sailing. The announcement that Shanghai would play host to the 2020 finals comes at a time when the administration of President Donald Trump is playing hardball over trade with China, and business relationships between China and large game publishers, as well as sports leagues, have come under public scrutiny around the protests in Hong Kong. At the recent BlizzCon gaming convention, hosted by software publisher Blizzard, some 40 protesters voiced their displeasure of the company’s suspension of a pro Hearthstone player after he issued support for Hong Kong demonstrators in a post-match live stream. The NBA was also caught in the middle of a controversy when one of the league’s GMs likewise offered support for protesters, resulting in several Chinese media companies stating they would not air NBA games.
Riot has not been touched by the controversy to date, with Needham issuing guidance to players during these past World Championships to refrain from making political statements during broadcasts.
The company is clearly working closely with arms of the Chinese government in the run up to 2020. Shanghai Vice Mayor Ming Zong delivered a short but slickly produced video message in Paris inviting players to Worlds 2020. Needham says a number of other Chinese cities are currently bidding Riot to host aspects of the games.
Geopolitics aside, the 2020 site will present several logistical issues. Worlds’ 2020 finals will take place at Shanghai Stadium, a massive, open-air venue. Because what players see on their computer monitors must be clearly visible to the audience, giant floating screens are necessary. In smaller stadiums, several enormous displays can be set up in the middle of the arena. Not so for a larger venue, given viewing distances.
In the past, including Worlds 2015, that has meant the company could only really use half or two-thirds of the venue’s space. If Riot hopes to break records for esports attendance — its China finals four years ago set the previous one at 45,000 attendees — it will have to find a way around that problem. Laurent is confident his team has discovered a solution. “Next year we’re going to have a full stadium layout,” he promised without revealing more.
For fans, the greatest concern will likely be keeping the sport competitive for Western teams. This year’s finals were seen by many as the best hope for a Western team to close the skills gap between North American and European teams on one side and Korean and Chinese teams on the other. Instead, China’s FunPlus Phoenix easily crushed the European team, G2 Esports, 3-0. “I believe there will be fierce competition,” says Lin. “G2 is still very strong.” Laurent interrupts him, adding “especially if Doinb retires,” referring to FunPlus Phoenix star Kim ‘Doinb’ Tae-sang.
Needham says his organization is working to improve the balance of the sport. Two Latin American leagues are being consolidated, he says by way of example, to concentrate the talent pool. “That’s going to lead to better international competition.” He adds that Western leagues are studying their competitors’ farm operations and importing players as well.
Laurent, the CEO, chimes in to add that most important is for Riot to find ways to “delight” its audience. He pauses before adding “But, to be honest, that is really scary. Every year, the day after Worlds is like, can we really do it again next year?”