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With new permanent teams, professional League of Legends will look more like the NBA

Riot Games is making a big change to its professional League of Legends championship series in North America. Back in June, the developer announced a major shift for the NA LCS, which would see the circuit move from a system of promotion and relegation to one with 10 permanent teams. Now, Riot is revealing the 10 franchises that will compete in the new league format starting next year, and the list includes brand-new teams backed by the likes of the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. “We wanted partners who shared our mindset for building for the long term,” says Jarred Kennedy, co-head of Riot’s e-sports division.

According to Riot, the shift to permanent teams was made with an eye toward the future growth of the league. With a guaranteed spot for each squad, the thinking is that each owner will be more likely to invest in their team for the long haul. That includes things like creating training facilities, as well as investing in areas like coaching, scouting, and player wellness. Each of the 10 teams will have an academy squad, designed to give up-and-comers a chance to learn before going pro, and Riot is also working to improve the standards for players, which includes raising the minimum salary to $75,000. (Riot says that on average League pros make around $150,000 per year.) The league is also creating a players’ association to support its athletes with financial, legal, and career-building resources.

The permanent franchise structure is common in North American leagues like the NBA and NFL, and the new slate of teams for the NA LCS includes a number of prominent names from the traditional sports world. Seven of the clubs previously competed in the league — Cloud9, Counter Logic Gaming, Echo Fox, FlyQuest, Optic Gaming, Team Liquid, and TSM — while the remainder are new faces. They include Clutch Gaming, backed by the Rockets; the Golden Guardians, which is owned by the Warriors; and 100 Thieves, backed by both former e-sports pro Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Much like the upcoming Overwatch League from Blizzard, Riot’s refreshed pro circuit features a mixture of big e-sports names as well as prominent players from traditional sports. “In creating a collection of partners, you want groups of folks that are going to compliment one another,” says Kennedy. “We looked at things like business acumen. We wanted folks who knew how to build a brand, to build and operate a team, bring in sponsorships, and engage fans in unique ways. We also wanted a history, or a track record, or a plan for building their fanbase.”

Logos for newcomers 100 Thieves (above), the Golden Guardians (left), and Clutch Gaming (right).

As part of the new structure, Riot is also introducing a new revenue sharing model, which will see all 10 teams and Riot contribute earnings from revenue streams like media deals and merchandise sales into a pot, which will then be shared out among everyone. Players will get 35 percent of the pool, owners 32.5 percent, while the rest goes to Riot. “It will create an incentive to work together and collaborate and build this league,” says Whalen Rozelle, the other co-head of Riot’s e-sports division.

With these changes, the NA LCS is starting to look a lot like a traditional sports league, something that’s becoming increasingly common as big sports clubs enter the space. According to Kennedy, the goal was to create something that mixed the best elements from existing leagues with concepts that were unique to the e-sports realm. “We didn’t look at any one template to say, ‘Hey, we want to be exactly like the NBA, or we want to be just like Premier League soccer.’ We picked and chose elements from various places,” he says. For now, that means that — unlike the ambitious Overwatch League — Riot isn’t looking at having teams based in specific cities.

“The concept of city-based leagues really relies on the fact that you have these teams that have to play in a location, so therefore you go to that location and watch them play,” says Rozelle. “But nowadays with streaming and playing online, you can watch anyone play from anywhere in the world. The potential downside is that [a city-based structure] may not be something that e-sports fans actually benefit from. It’s not a structure we necessarily want to force. That said, would we consider it in the future? Absolutely. If it ends up being to the league’s and fans’ benefit, it’s something we’ll do. But we’re going to take more time to understand the pros outweigh the cons.”

That said, while Riot is looking to emulate some of the enduring success of North America’s top professional sports leagues, Kennedy says that these kinds of changes aren’t being made in an attempt see League e-sports breakout as a big mainstream success on par with the NBA or NFL. “I think we’re OK without it breaking out,” he says. “That’s not something we’re looking to force. I think staying true to the fans who can truly appreciate the game, and who are at the heart of it, that’s the strategy that we’ve been successful with and we’re continuing to pursue. We’re laser-focused on the core fans that we have.”


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