Riot talks LCS problems, Olympic weirdness at MSI
May 21, 2023
Prior to JD Gaming’s MSI 2023 grand final victory over Biliblili Gaming, Riot’s president of esports John Needham, global head of League of Legends esports Naz Aletaha, and League of Legends EMEA esports director Max Schmidt sat down with media for a roundtable Q&A session.
First on the agenda was the presence of League of Legends, and esports as a whole, in Olympic and other international athletic events. Needham revealed that he’s “super excited about the Asia Games this year” as “a lot of government agencies have gotten involved with our teams to field national teams, and we just can’t wait to see how that plays out.”
“I think you will start to see esports, and specifically LoL esports, show up in these third-party competitions like the Asia Games going forward, and we love that,” he said.
Eyebrows were raised by the announcement of an Olympic Esports Series for 2023, namely the odd choice of titles that did not include any popular esports games but did include some games that were yet unreleased.
“We talk to the IOC fairly regularly,” Needham explained, “we weren’t surprised by the suite of games that they were introducing this year.”
“I think Asia Games is going to show how real esports are and how esports can show up in those types of competitions. We’ll continue to talk to the IOC as they evolve their plans to incorporate esports.”
Next was the future of North America’s LCS, a region with dwindling viewership and one where one of its most famous teams just announced its intent to leave the region. Aletaha took the question of whether Riot is concerned by the LCS’ trajectory.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re concerned about it. We think there’s still a healthy player base in North America. There’s certainly still a healthy fanbase in North America. Our focus is going to be on how we can evolve what the LCS looks and feels like so that we are meeting the needs of the fans in North America,” she said.
“We’re also looking at how we grow the fanbase of the LCS, even just outside the borders of NA. That’s a benefit that a lot of our other leagues (the LEC, LCK & LPL) really have. They’ve grown their fanbases to expand beyond their borders and we think that the LCS is ripe for that potential.”
She went on to highlight changes in the broadcast as a source of encouragement, including the addition of a Spanish language broadcast – adding that viewers should “expect more of that.”
Aletaha also discussed the future of the NACL (North American Challengers League) following recent rule changes which have led to the majority of LCS teams ditching their academy rosters.
“We really want to rethink what the tier-two system, not just in NA, but the Americas, can and should look like – really drawing inspiration from what we’ve seen work really, really well here in EU.”
“You’ve seen that evolution in North America kind of take place over the course of just the last couple of years where, once upon a time, it was just the ten academy teams playing each other. We’ve expanded that out to the NACL and we see a potential to expand it further to provide more competitive opportunities for players at that level. Whether the LCS teams participate or not, we’re going to stay committed to that system and build it out further,” she added.
“The team’s actually going to have more to share on what that will look like for the Summer split in the next week or so, and then we’ll be working on what 2024 and beyond will look like.”
Needham added that “If they [teams] don’t see value in having a team competing in the NACL then we don’t feel like we should be mandating that.”
The trio were quizzed on the potential for expansions of their current franchised leagues, something that has been rumored to be in the pipeline for the LEC. However, Aletaha was quick to shut down any talk of additions.
“We’re not looking at that currently for our franchised leagues. At the franchise level, we’re not looking to expand or open those up. We really partnered closely with the teams in those leagues, and we want to honor those commitments at this time.”
“We’re really focused on sustainability, both for our teams and our leagues, going forward. Until we feel really good that we’re in a sustainable, healthy position as a business, we’re not going to expand.”
She was also asked about any potential League of Legends Game Changers-style circuit, to which she expressed inspiration from what’s been done within VALORANT.
“Many of our leagues around the world are doing versions, within their region, of Game Changers. So we’ll be looking, in future seasons at how we can bring this together to create something a bit more cohesive at the global level.”
Needham then discussed the recently announced Worlds virtual pass – specifically asked what challenges Riot faced in creating it and why it wasn’t done sooner, though the latter was not directly addressed.
“What we want to do with the virtual pass is deliver something that enhances the experience of watching Worlds for our fans. It gives them an opportunity to express their fandom through physical and digital items. The tricky thing is, doing this for the first time, is that we always want to deliver value to our fans. We want to sell them products, digital services, digital products, that are really great, exciting, and premium. That they look at and are proud to own.”
“So that will be the challenge this year, it’s very much a test this year with the virtual pass. We’ll have a limited quantity of them that we sell because we want to understand what’s valuable. What’s actually good and enhances the experience? This year’s very much a test. We’ll see what we learn and then we’ll expand on it for next year,” he said.
Finally, Schmidt spoke on the recent inclusion of the MENA region to the LEC, with the league now encompassing the entirety of EMEA. He was asked what plans the LEC has to help inclusion for the newly added regions who may feel that the league is currently still very much European.
“We wanted to strike the right balance between ensuring that the European audience still identifies the LEC as their league that they’re passionate about while ensuring that the adopted regions also feel like they have a place.”
“The two major steps that we’ve taken are including the TCL and Arabian League in EMEA Masters. Moving forward, we’ll obviously build on that to ensure that fans of the regions really identify with the ERL and the EMEA ecosystem but also obviously become fans of the LEC as a whole.”