The Case Against NA LCS Expansion

HTC Esports invites Travis Gafford to walk us through his argument against the call for an expansion to 12 teams

SEP 20, 2017
No, Riot shouldn’t expand past 10 teams for NA LCS next year – Travis Types

Since Riot announced “permanent partnerships” (read: franchising) for NA LCS earlier this year, there’s been a great deal of talk about what additional changes could come to the structure of the league in 2018. It makes sense – this process marks the most radical rethinking of what LCS is since the league was founded in 2013. Esports as a whole has changed dramatically during that time. When reports began to surface that “more than 100 applications” had been submitted to the league, Tyler “Fionnonfire” Erzberger wrote an op-ed calling for the expansion of NA LCS from 10 to 12 teams.

I consider Tyler a close friend and I respect his work, but I could not disagree more.

Fans already don’t care about half the teams

TSM commands the greatest share of NA LCS fans. If you aren’t a TSM fan, you probably declare your allegiance to Cloud9, CLG, or Immortals. The masochistic cheer for Team Liquid. Based on general observations of the audience, viewership, fandom, social followings, etc., I would guess that less than 10% of the total NA LCS fanbase would declare their primary team to be one of the remaining five. This is not meant as an attack on the other teams, they’ve had less than two years to build up their fanbase (with Dignitas getting the reset). Immortals is only just starting to break into the top five, and that’s due to consistent results with fan-favorite players.

Adding two new teams just gives the existing audience two more teams to ignore. The issue may compound itself because…

We’ll likely see several existing teams denied NA LCS partnerships

If I was an existing owner hearing that over 100 applications have been received for franchises next year, I would feel very nervous, increasingly so if I wasn’t in those aforementioned “top five” teams. Can you imagine the situation facing the Riot Esports selection committee as they look at that stack of paperwork? Even if we cap the number at 100 and decide that half of them are instant rejects, you now have to decide how to take 50 quality submissions down to 10. If we see an expansion next year, it’ll be because it was too hard to reject so many (a terrible reason, in my opinion).

Tyler writes:

"So since the 10 current clubs are committed to the future of the NA LCS -- and since no team is a doormat for the rest of the league -- it'd be disheartening to see any club ushered out of the league after a year in which it fended off all challengers from the minors."

A team leaving the LCS is only disheartening in a world where the fans care about that team more than the incoming team. We already know that from a broad perspective, few fans care about the bottom five. Consider the possible names on those applications. Will anyone care if one of the newer teams is replaced by Musk, Cuban, the Patriots, or the Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe a few dedicated reddit commenters, but not the majority of the audience. Even if they do, the League audience has shown that loyalty is short lived when a fan-favorite exits the scene.

We’ve now established that fans will likely have new brands to get used to (and hopefully, eventually, care about). Beyond this, we’ve also realized that the existing brands might not be as necessary in the eyes of Riot Games as they are in Tyler’s.

Viewership is decreasing, not increasing

It’s generally accepted that 2016 was a healthier year for NA LCS viewership than the past 8 months have been. There are many theories around what has caused this decrease but a portion of it can likely be attributed to the change in formats from the best-of-one to best-of-three. The switch gives fans up to 3 times as much viewing time and often causes popular teams to steal the show from the newer teams by forcing the audience to pick between simulcast matches.

An expanding audience, hungry for more League, could readily flow into the proverbial stands for additional teams - a much less likely scenario for a decreasing one. An increase in teams may risk giving the fans even more of what they don’t want: games they don’t care about.

More organizations means more mouths to feed

“Where Blizzard has had to actively recruit big-money investors and traditional sports owners for its inaugural season of the Overwatch League, that same money is standing in front of Riot's headquarters, ready to take the leap into a league that has established itself as a juggernaut on Twitch, YouTube and other online streaming services since the spring of 2013.” - Tyler

Even with the viewership decrease, I do agree that the NA LCS continues to be a streaming juggernaut. Sadly, all those eyes have yet to show dramatic profitability. Sponsors are infrequent and few on broadcast, especially outside of international events. The majority of the teams themselves are almost certainly operating at a loss.

Franchising is an exciting attempt at solving this issue for all parties. Instead of the existing environment of mistrust and competition between Riot, team owners, and the players, all three are contractually incentivized to work together in an effort to secure and maintain sponsorships as well as other revenue streams. There’s no guarantee that this will work, however. Even if it does, it may take quite a while to succeed in dramatic ways.

With a team expansion unlikely to greatly increase viewership or fandom, these new brands do not make sense from an ROI perspective.

You can always add more later

Since its creation, team values and investor interest have only gone up. Even a basic understanding that “esports is a thing” continues to increase rapidly among the general public and behind boardroom doors. As long as LCS remains healthy, individuals and investment groups will continue to be interested in team ownership.

"A year of waiting could dissuade current applicants, and by the time Riot is open to adding them, they may already be committed to the Overwatch League or out of esports entirely, on to the next venture to invest in." - Tyler

There’s no evidence that the right team owners can’t own both an NA LCS team and an Overwatch League team. Several already do. There’s also no evidence that Overwatch League will look like a compelling esport to own in a year.

It’s hard to imagine a situation where the NA LCS looks strong enough in viewership and revenue numbers to expand but can’t find a buyer.

Ultimately, an expansion next year would contribute to a dilution of (already low) fandom and resources. While there are undoubtedly amazing candidates waiting to be added, it’s unlikely that Riot views all 10 of the current teams as invaluable partners. With an already high likelihood of new organizations entering the league next year, the NA LCS needs to focus on building those new brands before expanding beyond the current allotment. There’s no rush, as a healthy league will always attract great partners.

It’s fine to believe that the NA LCS should expand. Unfortunately, you also have to accept that you will be adding more teams to a pool of brands that few fans care for (and are possibly getting replaced anyway), that doing so may further decrease your viewership, that you will be less profitable overall short-term, and that you could have always waited longer to do so.

Besides, this whole argument is likely a moot point anyway. Riot told me directly they wouldn’t be expanding when they announced franchising several months ago.

Photo Credit: Riot Games