League of Legends esports is in chaos over low pay, untimely patches, and more (UPDATED)

The League of Legends esports scene is surrounded by controversy right now (Jeremy Wacker)
League of Legends is MireD in controversy (Jeremy Wacker)

The League of Legends esports scene is a mess right now.

In the past few months, tensions between Riot Games and team owners within the LCS have been rising. There is a rift (sorry) between the owners and Riot due to disagreements about how the LCS and the rest of League esports should be run. Riot has a history of doing whatever they want and when they want to do it, and the owners aren’t terribly happy about it. Whether it’s Riot’s tendency to release game-changing patches at questionable times, the alleged low pay of players and talent, or simply the way that they communicate with the scene, the grievances have piled up and we’re reaching what appears to be a boiling point.

A few weeks ago, Riot Games dropped Patch 6.15. The update to League of Legends effectively removed the option to lane swap, a staple strategy in high level competitive League of Legends. The changes were met with resistance from players, analysts, and team owners alike, leading to an interview with Team SoloMid owner Andy “Reginald” Dinh voicing his complaints by way of an interview with theScore eSports. When Riot co-founder and CEO Mark Merrill responded on Reddit, the firestorm began. Tweets, blogs, vlogs, and every other form of media lit up with responses, most of them negative. It’s been a difficult week for League of Legends.

So how did we get here? Don’t worry, we’ve got your back. We figured it’s time to break down exactly how the scene got to this point.

The LCS was founded in 2013 (Riot Games)
The LCS was founded in 2013 (Riot Games)

Genesis (February 2013)

Back in 2013, Riot Games created the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS). At the time, it was revolutionary, as Riot would pay any team playing in the league a stipend for their players to earn a salary. The idea was that, with that stipend, organizations would be able to reliably field a team without worrying about the unreliability of relying on winning tournaments for money.

In the early days of LoL esports, it was incredibly effective. The LCS was established, grew, and eventually helped League of Legends become the biggest esport world. And that was largely a result of Riot’s ability to stabilize the scene around the league.

In theory, it’s a great idea. The problem is, it effectively killed off many third-party League of Legends events. The tournament organizers that helped define LoL esports in the early days either folded (IPL) or moved on to other esports (MLG, ESL). Eventually, the LCS and its equivalents were the only game in town.

Darius was nearly permanently picked or banned at Worlds 2015 (Riot Games)
Darius was nearly permanently picked or banned at Worlds 2015 (Riot Games)

The Juggernaut problem (August 2015)

While there were certainly disagreements throughout the first two years of the LCS’s existence, the starting point for the current drama was likely Patch 5.16 and the creation of the Juggernaut class within League of Legends. With Gangplank having been reworked just two patches before and already in permanent pick/ban status in competitive play, 5.16 added two more champions to the “Ban me or lose” list: Darius and Mordekaiser.

That in and of itself isn’t a huge problem. Patches buff and make champions overpowered all the time. But this time, the patch came just before the 2015 World Championships, forcing every team to adapt or perish.

Teams were upset, as they had been practicing the previous patch for the entire season, and now had to play an entirely different style than they had been perfecting that whole time. Eventually, Riot admitted their mistake in releasing the changes so close to such a big tournament, and promised to be more cognizant of the pro scene when making sweeping changes in the future.

It happens again (August 2016)

And yet, almost exactly a year later, they did it again.

As pro teams were prepping for playoffs, Riot dropped Patch 6.15, which effectively killed lane swaps in professional play.

With the Juggernaut changes, teams were forced to adapt right before Worlds, but with Patch 6.15, they had to respond just before LCS playoff season. And this wasn’t an issue that could be changed simply by banning out a specific champion, it was regarding lane swaps – a meta that was so pervasive, so permanent in the scene that its removal changed the way the game was played almost entirely.

Essentially, teams that were good at lane swaps now had to learn how to play without them. A large portion of early game strategy in League of Legends had been removed in favor of forcing standard lanes. Such a severe change to the game means that teams who got into the playoffs by nailing down precise and effective lane swaps were now put at a disadvantage behind those that prefered to play standard. If the change had been made during the offseason, it would have given teams time to respond, but due to the immediate nature of the forced adaptations, players and orgs were upset.

This time around, the pro scene wasn’t going to take it sitting down. Team SoloMid owner Andy “Reginald” Dinh, in an interview with theScore Esports, voiced his dissatisfaction with the way that Riot was handling pre-playoffs patching, setting off a firestorm of drama.

Reginald and franchise player Bjergsen sit together at the NA LCS studios (Riot Games/Lolesports)
Reginald and franchise player Bjergsen sit together at the NA LCS studios (Riot Games/Lolesports)

Drama time

Marc Merrill, the co-founder and CEO of Riot Games, entered the fray surrounding Reginald’s interview by way of a Reddit post (now edited). You can read the unedited text right here, captured by our very own Travis Gafford.

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The comment wasn’t exactly received well. The tone of the now-edited first paragraph was decidedly condescending, but the real issue was Merrill’s comments on how he believes that teams make money in the LCS. Many disagreed with his beliefs, most notably Reginald, who promptly responded the next day.

His response is thorough and lays out exactly what the issues the owner of the biggest organization in professional League of Legends has with the way the LCS is run. Of note are the aforementioned issues with sponsorships coming into the league due to uncertainty, quite literally stating that it is “irrational to invest even more money into LCS, given how restrictive LCS is on our team coupled with the potential of being relegated every split.”

He also touches on the patch timings in the LCS, claiming that huge patch changes coming when they do can actively harm the longevity of a team’s existence and players’ careers, and that big patch changes right before huge tournaments result in lower quality play.

“I have played as a pro for 5 years and Marc and others may not understand how disruptive this is to the careers of players and to the integrity of Worlds gameplay,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest revelation here is that, according to Reginald, the “LCS stipend only covers a fraction of the cost of an LCS team’s operations. As a result, revenue from team sponsors is absolutely necessary, but the current LCS system is leading team sponsors to reduce support or – much worse – consider shifting support to eSports other than LoL.”

Others jump in

Longtime shoutcaster, LoL analyst, and owner of Team Renegades (who were banned from the LCS earlier this year), Christopher “Montecristo” Mykkles has also chimed in via a video in response to Merrill’s comment. He largely agreed with Reginald, but added in his own take on the situation.

According to Montecristo, LCS teams don’t make much money in comparison to their counterparts in games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. He believes that the amount of money Riot Games is making on their pro circuit and the marketing that comes along with it is not commensurate with the amount of money they are giving to the teams within it. In fact, the stipend that Riot gives to the teams in the LCS hasn’t been raised since 2013, a time in which the scene was much smaller and less profitable than it is now.

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He also brings up the long-standing controversy surrounding caster pay in League of Legends. Earlier this year, Montecristo and a pair of other casters from the Korean professional scene declined to attend the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational due to offers they received from Riot they deemed to be well below industry standard. Because Riot refused to raise the payment after negotiations, Monte and his colleagues decided against attending. This may seem unconnected to the rest of the controversy this week, but according to Monte, it is indicative of the way that Riot runs their competitive scene with complete control.

Finally, he goes into the late patch timing, stating that it can only be harmful to the remaining competitions in the season. Echoing much of what Reginald said regarding the patch, he voiced his displeasure and stated that Riot seems to be “out of touch” with the way that the esports world works.

So, now you’re caught up. We will be updating this story as more information comes out.

[UPDATE 8/24] Marc Merrill responds again

Riot CEO Marc Merrill has decided to jump back into the fray via TwitLonger. This time, he elaborated on the idea that he and Reginald were on the same side, both looking to make sure League esports will be sustainable in the long term.

Merrill has promised that next season will include “new in-game team-specific items with revenue-sharing for teams and pros,” as well as officially licensed jerseys for profit sharing. It’s unclear how much money the teams will be making from these additions, but it will help for the future.

Most interestingly, he admits fault with the Juggernaut changes last year, but doubled down on his commitment to Patch 6.15:

“This year, our laneswap changes once again didn’t give teams much time to prepare, but we moved forward believing it will lead to better games and a better viewing experience for fans,” he wrote. “We will do a better job of communicating sooner and will ensure that changes such as these that significantly impact esports happen earlier on in the split to give players more time to adjust.”

[UPDATE 8/24, PART 2] Reginald to send “detailed proposal”

Reginald has responded to Marc Merrill’s response in yet another TwitLonger, saying “Marc, I agree that these urgent issues need to be addressed immediately. There is a detailed proposal signed by NA LCS teams and players headed to your inbox today. We’ll solve these problems together.”

It remains to be seen what details will are in the proposal, but we will be sure to be keeping our eye on it.

HTC has offered their opinion on the controversy from a sponsor's perspective
HTC has offered their opinion on the controversy from a sponsor’s perspective

[UPDATE 8/25] HTC brings a sponsor’s perspective

Consumer electronics company HTC is the latest to jump into the fray, this time offering the perspective of a company looking to invest into the League of Legends esports scene via the HTC eSports Facebook page. Responding to a comment from director of esports Whalen “Magus” Rozelle about why Riot Games asked Team SoloMid to remove an ad for the virtual reality system HTC Vive from their own YouTube channel.

Rozelle’s statement reads, “Real talk, that TSM sponsorship wasn’t an actual HTC ad. It was a promotion for a VR video game for TSM to play (the title of the YouTube clip is literally “TSM plays raw data” [sic]). Regardless of whether HTC organized this or not, it’s a tactic advertisement for another game.” As such, he says, the video ran afoul of LCS rules.

HTC eSports takes umbrage with that allegation, stating that Survios (developers of Raw Data) held no financial ties to the video, nor did they suggest the video be made. Instead, HTC says, they created it with the help of TSM simply to advertise the HTC Vive.

They continue, “as we examine the landscape of advertising in the LCS community, we find ourselves at an impasse. If Riot does not want us making videos that feature our sponsored players playing other games, we do not have many options for showcasing our products…Sponsors are now very limited in what we can do to market our brand and products while still supporting the League of Legends scene.”

The result is simple, they explain. “With less avenues for advertisement in League of Legends, stemming from the restrictions on the teams and players, restrictions on the [r/leagueoflegends] subreddit, and the lack of available marketing opportunities at competitions, it is becoming difficult to justify our investments into the scene.”

Read the full statement here.

More to come.

Follow Taylor Cocke on Twitter @taylorcocke.