E-sports re­laxes rule oust­ing bad teams

The ‘League of Leg­ends’ league plans to lock in teams as per­ma­nent mem­bers.

Los Angeles Times - - TECHNOLOGY - By Paresh Dave paresh.dave@la­times.com Twit­ter: @peard33

The world’s most pop­u­lar e-sports league plans to soften a con­tro­ver­sial rule ban­ish­ing bad teams and to add a new panel made up of pro­fes­sional gamers.

The “League of Leg­ends” North Amer­i­can league re­places its two worst per­form­ing teams with a pair of up­starts at the end of each year. Un­der a new plan an­nounced Thurs­day, the prac­tice of rel­e­gat­ing teams while pro­mot­ing oth­ers would be re­laxed.

Start­ing next year, “League of Leg­ends” de­vel­oper and league op­er­a­tor Riot Games plans to lock teams in as a per­ma­nent mem­bers — al­though teams that strug­gle could still lose their spot.

The struc­tural changes also in­clude the Los An­ge­les com­pany fund­ing and or­ga­niz­ing a play­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion. It’s meant to help com­peti­tors in the five-ver­sus-five base-de­struc­tion game as­sert more power in ne­go­ti­a­tions with team own­ers. The as­so­ci­a­tion would serve as a sin­gle voice for Riot Games to con­sult.

The ef­forts rep­re­sent some of the big­gest moves by the gamemaker to make its league a more wel­com­ing place for the spon­sors, play­ers and busi­ness part­ners that are cru­cial to turn­ing com­pe­ti­tions viewed by millions of peo­ple on­line each week into a mon­ey­maker.

E-sports has emerged in the last five years as an ex­cit­ing fron­tier in en­ter­tain­ment and sports. It’s at­tract­ing grow­ing in­vest­ment from the world’s big­gest video game com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Ac­tivi­sion Blizzard, Elec­tronic Arts and Riot Games par­ent com­pany Ten­cent. Other in­vestors in e-sports ven­tures in­clude own­ers of NBA teams, pro­fes­sional ath­letes and me­dia moguls.

But the ex­pand­ing com­mu­nity craves a move from free­wheel­ing growth to sim­plic­ity and sta­bil­ity. Al­though no one’s cer­tain whether “League of Leg­ends,” “Counter-Strike” and other video games will have the last­ing power of base­ball or foot­ball, the po­ten­tial of sev­eral new multi­bil­lion-dol­lar sports is spurring in­ter­est. Most of the teams are based in Los An­ge­les.

Drop­ping un­der­per­form­ing teams from the Riot Games’ league has been pop­u­lar among fans. For one thing, it gives them a rea­son to cheer for their fa­vorite teams all sea­son long. But own­ers feared that be­ing knocked out would wipe out their mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar in­vest­ments in de­vel­op­ing teams.

“Re­mov­ing the un­cer­tainty around rel­e­ga­tion will en­able teams to be able to bet­ter plan for their fu­ture, and to make long-term bets and in­vest­ments in the league,” Riot Games said in a state­ment.

In place of an­nual rel­e­ga­tion, Riot Games would boot teams that fin­ish 9th or 10th in five out of eight con­sec­u­tive sea­sons. Riot Games holds two sea­sons each year.

Later this year, teams must ap­ply for se­lec­tion in the league. Riot said it would of­fer fran­chises to team own­er­ship groups that are well­funded and pri­or­i­tize player wel­fare, in­clud­ing by of­fer­ing coach­ing and post-ca­reer ed­u­ca­tion. Teams would pay a $5-mil­lion up­front en­trance fee to Riot Games. Any ex­ist­ing own­er­ship teams that don’t make the cut would have the op­tion to sell their player con­tracts and get exit pay­ments from the league.

Each team would have a mi­nor league squad in what’s known as the Chal­lenger League.

Riot Games plans to dis­trib­ute some rev­enue from league-wide deals to teams and ex­pects teams to share a por­tion of their rev­enue too.

Last year, Riot Games struck a seven-year, $300mil­lion stream­ing rights deal with BAMTech, a di­vi­sion of MLB Ad­vanced Me­dia (Walt Dis­ney Co. and the Na­tional Hockey League also hold stakes in BAMTech).

Riot Games e-sports se­nior man­ager Chris Hop­per said the com­pany would keep 32.5% of such deals, with an­other 32.5% fil­tered to team own­ers. About half of the team share would be flat, with equal pay­ments to ev­ery fran­chise. But to en­cour­age them to per­form well, what they re­ceive from the re­main­ing por­tion would drop depend­ing on their po­si­tion in the stand­ings. The last-place fin­isher would re­ceive no stand­ings­based cut, though the team would still be el­i­gi­ble for a bonus tied to view­er­ship and other yet-to-be-de­ter­mined data.

The new player’s as­so­ci­a­tion marks a big ex­per­i­ment. E-sports is the first field in which la­bor law ex­perts have seen man­age­ment more cog­nizant of the ben­e­fits of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing than the work­ers them­selves.

Own­ers say unions would help pre­vent ugly dis­putes that arise when play­ers don’t read their con­tracts and later ob­ject to their pro­vi­sions. It also could de­liver salary caps and other mea­sures that cre­ate a pre­dictable op­er­at­ing en­vi­ron­ment for team own­ers. But play­ers haven’t given much thought to or­ga­niz­ing.

Peter Dager, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the team Evil Ge­niuses, said a game de­vel­oper kick-start­ing a play­ers’ or­ga­ni­za­tion was wor­ri­some be­cause of the ex­tra power it could grant the com­pany. But he ac­knowl­edged that might be the best so­lu­tion to warm play­ers to the union­iza­tion idea.

“It’s not the worst thing,” Dager told The Times last week.

Vet­eran play­ers briefed on Riot Games’ new ini­tia­tives Wed­nes­day said the big­gest ben­e­fit they’ll see is the abil­ity to sign more lu­cra­tive con­tracts. With di­min­ished fear of rel­e­ga­tion, own­ers and spon­sors should be will­ing to sign play­ers to longer deals.

“You can ask for more be­cause over time, you bring more value to a brand or team,” said Yil­iang Peng, who plays at­tack­ing char­ac­ters in “League of Leg­ends” for Team SoloMid. “You can be a fran­chise player. You can be on that team’s prod­ucts and pro­mote them well.”

But most of the gains would come to new play­ers, who will come into a sys­tem with more hand-hold­ing and less strug­gling for work­place pro­tec­tions, said Eugene Park, who plays a mid­field po­si­tion in the game for Im­mor­tals.

“League of Leg­ends” com­peti­tors would get ac­cess to agents, lawyers and fi­nan­cial ad­vis­ers as part of the as­so­ci­a­tion. Riot Games would of­fer rec­om­men­da­tions to play­ers on as­so­ci­a­tion man­age­ment.

The min­i­mum player salary would be raised to $75,000 from $25,000, and play­ers could re­ceive a bonus that’s a per­cent­age of their salary if ag­gre­gate spend­ing on play­ers comes out to less than 35% of league-wide rev­enue.

The com­pany said the as­so­ci­a­tion is in­tended to serve as a buf­fer that pro­tects play­ers from be­ing taken advantage of by un­scrupu­lous peo­ple en­ter­ing the in­dus­try.

Play­ers would elect lead­ers among them­selves by ma­jor­ity vote to rep­re­sent their in­ter­ests dur­ing league meet­ings. And Riot Games said it hopes and ex­pects that play­ers will as­sume full fi­nan­cial con­trol over their as­so­ci­a­tion. Riot Games de­clined to say how much seed fund­ing it’s pro­vid­ing.

Josh Le­fkowitz Getty Images

THE OPEN­ING ROUND of the “League of Leg­ends” Col­lege Cham­pi­onship takes place May 25 at the West Los An­ge­les com­pe­ti­tion broad­cast stu­dio of Riot Games, the e-sports league’s de­vel­oper and op­er­a­tor.

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