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Riot Games Mull Over Franchise System to Increase League Control

Several team owners have contacted Breitbart Tech to make them aware about a series of changes that Riot Games is currently contemplating surrounding their League of Legends professional league.

The radical overhaul being discussed would see all teams enter into a partnership with Riot Games where they are leased the league slot for their own purposes. Any potential sales would now need to be discussed with and approved by Riot. In addition to this, we are also informed that under this system Riot would be able to issue “forced buy-outs” for any team owners they didn’t wish to be operational in the league any more. This has been framed internally as a means to stop unethical team owners from using the status of their league to facilitate exploitation of players; however many team owners suspect it is simply a means to increase control and stop team owners speaking out about some of Riot’s less palatable policies.

It is true that the League of Legends Championship Series has been viewed as “the big show” in eSports for some time now, boasting a regular viewership in the hundreds of thousands on streaming platforms such as Twitch. This exposure for gaming organisations and the sponsors that support them has led to them going to extreme lengths to ensure that they have a team in the league. Recent reports have exposed organisations involved in suspected collusion, financial impropriety, and dubious acquisitions all undertaken in pursuit of this goal.

Conversely, the teams that have enjoyed a stable position within the league have managed to build brands that now carry serious reputations and financial clout in other eSports titles. Examples of this would be Team Solo Mid, founded in the same year League of Legends was released, who now possess title-winning competitors in Counter-Strike and Smash Brothers, or Cloud9, whose organisation grew substantially after developing one of North America’s most consistent teams.

While it is true that Riot Games absolutely prefer the known quantities of such organisations ahead of newcomers, there is also a sense that these organisations have too much power within the current structure, leveraging their status and huge fanbases to their advantage when in dispute with Riot Games. Under the current model, they can also profit from the selling of an LCS slot to somewhat ridiculous degrees. Recently UK based team owner Michael O’Dell, who is behind the Team Dignitas brand, can attest to this. After his European team qualified for their regional LCS division, to go alongside his already established North American team, he was compelled to sell one of the slots under Riot’s rules to prevent conflicts of interest. He announced the bidding would start at $500,000, and he spoke of receiving bids of as much as $750,000, enough to fund his organisation for many years.

Several team owners informed Breitbart of these incoming changes but wished to remain anonymous to avoid any reprisals. It is worth noting that Riot includes clauses in its contracts that prevent any form of criticism. The specific clause, entitled “be nice,” reads as follows: “I agree that I will not make, publish or communicate to any person or entity in any online or other public forum any defamatory or disparaging remarks, comments or statements concerning the tournaments, the Riot Parties, the Game, or any other software, products or services of the Riot Parties, or employees, officers, directors, agents, officials, investors or sponsors thereof.” As such, we respect their request for anonymity.

“While nothing has been agreed upon,” one team owner told us, “the forced buy-outs are something they really want to implement. They simply don’t want to have to deal with anyone who isn’t on the same page as them anymore. This clause definitely has the potential to improve the league in terms of quality but it also is a really powerful weapon to hold over a team owner’s head.”

They added, “I doubt this proposal would have even been looked at if it wasn’t for the recent Chris Badawi situation.”

A summary of the “Chris Badawi situation” would be this. A new League of Legends team owner spent his time making behind closed doors queries to contracted players about the potential of joining his team. While these approaches were certainly viewed as discourteous and unprofessional, they were not covered by any Riot rules at the time, as the only rules they had in place for “tampering” or “poaching” were LCS team specific. Despite this, Riot Games put a new rule in place, then retroactively applied it to Badawi’s actions, issuing an unprecedented one year ban from team ownership. Previously, those found guilty of such transgressions were given small fines and short bans.

While the ban was issued it also appeared that the affected team owners banded together and used popular League of Legends interviewer Travis Gafford to publish a collective report to try and exaggerate the severity of Badawi’s actions. This bizarrely included statements from teams who admitted they had never had interactions with Badawi. A later report from The Daily Dot uncovered evidence that some of those giving statements lied about his actions in a bid to scandalise him. Still, there has been no retraction or reduction of the penalty by Riot Games.

Another discussion on the table is the possible withdrawal of the seasonal stipend that is paid to teams in order to ensure their players are salaried. Under the current model Riot Games pays $12,500 per starting player per competitive “split” — a seasonal competition that lasts three months —  as part of their goal to professionalize the sport. It was also a great form of enticement to ensure the world’s top gaming organisations supported League of Legends teams, increasing exposure of Riot’s product at a time when they were accused of engaging in tactics against rival MOBA titles such as Valve’s Dota 2.

However, it seems Riot are getting disgruntled at paying this amount of money to organisations who then simply use it to fund entry into the league without paying anything from their own pocket. True enough, some of the smaller teams who have taken part in LCS have used the exposure to secure sponsors and then completely crashed and burned when they have exited the league. Riot believes removing the financial dependence will mean that only self-sufficient organisations will enter into their new-look league structure.

A European team owner told us that Riot’s desire to implement this came directly from their head of European Esports, Jason Yeh.

“He told us they were going to take away the Riot money as soon as they possibly could,” the owner informed us. “They said they want the organisations to be self sufficient, which is fine but I think they underestimate how many teams only support their game for the money they provide. He was complaining about organisations being ‘cheap,’ which is hilarious given they haven’t increased their salary since it was introduced despite making more demands of players and the organisations.”

By contrast, Riot are reportedly looking to pump money into the Challenger Series division, the league that would best be described as semi-professional. One of the proposals in place is that all teams in the LCS would be required to control an amateur team. This has been framed as a way to ensure that talent is developed and supported by organisations that Riot deem to have passed the suitability test to enter their league. Such a move would undoubtedly lead to an improvement in the conditions under which Challenger Series players are expected to operate, many receiving no salary, being treated as revenue streams due to over-reaching contracts with high buy-out clauses, or simply mistreated by unscrupulous managers.

It was also suggested by a third North American team owner that the plan is to provide a stipend, potentially of equal value to the one currently paid to LCS players, to compensate the amateur players who, to all intents and purposes, have to lead very similar lifestyles to their professional counterparts.

“Right now I think we all know Challenger is a fucking mess,” they grumbled. “Owners are assembling the best talent they can, usually cast-offs from the LCS, and it becomes about which organisation is willing to pay the most just to get promotion. Most teams don’t salary their players, so they can’t compete with the few who do.”

While there are clear and inarguable benefits to the Challenger scene should this happen, the speculation about this likelihood has caused its own fair share of problems. Some team owners see it as simply a move for the existing LCS teams to “double down,” adding a safety net to relegation should their semi-pro team achieve promotion. It would also create a barrier of entry to “new blood” coming in to the league.

This potential barrier has already started something of a feeding frenzy in the Challenger Series, with several high profile buyers looking to come into the scene and offering exorbitant prices for doing so. Several Challenger teams are now commanding buy-out fees of over $1 million as companies look to beat this potential entry deadline. Such an amount for a Challenger level team would have been unthinkable at the end of last year.

Specifically the Challenger Series amendments are to be discussed in a meeting between Riot and the team owners, with a tentative date scheduled for sometime in October/early November, most likely after their World Championships.

Follow Richard Lewis on Twitter @RLewisReports.

Breitbart Tech is a new vertical from Breitbart News covering tech, gaming and internet culture. Bookmark breitbart.com/tech and follow @BreitbartTech on Twitter and Facebook.

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