The sale of digital products, like skins, is the core of any free-to-play (FTP). It’s a way to keep the game fresh by consistently giving players new content to purchase, in addition to being a developer’s main source of income. Riot Games’ League of Legends (LoL), one of the most popular FTP games, reportedly made $2.1 billion dollars in 2017, with the majority of that coming from in-game sales.
Digital sales also play an essential part in generating revenue for the esports scene of a game. Team-branded digital content is perfect for fans who want to support their favorite organization. League of Legends is no different, as it releases a couple of esports skins, chromas, icons and emotes every year. Yet, even in an era of franchised leagues, there’s a huge lack of diversity in the digital esports products Riot offers.
Back in September 2016, almost two years ago, Riot Games published an article that detailed their plans for the future of LoL Esports. Revamping how revenue is generated and shared through in-game sales was one of their focal points. Thus, Riot added the possibility for fans to contribute to the prize pools of their main international tournaments, the Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) and the World Championship (Worlds). Furthermore, all past and present World Champions, along with their teams and domestic leagues, would receive a 25% cut from the sales of their personalized commemorative skins for their first year of release. These two changes paved the way for bigger prize pools and more income for top-tier teams.
Moreover, in this article, they stated that they “started with summoner icons, and have been working with teams to explore new items” and that the following year (2017), they would “be introducing new revenue sharing opportunities, such as team-branded in-game items and esports promotions”. It’s now 2018 and while Riot has kept their promise of introducing new digital products to the game, they’ve done so by only adding a small number of esports emotes, with limited availability, that are restricted to showing off a team’s logo.
Teams’ only opportunity to generate revenue through in-game items comes from icons, unless they win the Spring Split and go to MSI or participate in Worlds, in which case, they get emotes. If they win Worlds, they also get personalized commemorative skins, but that’s a big if. This seems quite unfair for a lot of teams, especially for those who partake in franchised leagues like the NA LCS. Even if a fraction of all sales of team-branded digital products is distributed equally among league partners, the NA LCS should definitely look to create more chances for its associates to earn money via digital purchases.
Additionally, it’s quite radical that a team has to win Worlds in order to get anything more than an icon or an emote in-game. Hell, MSI champions don’t even get a flimsy chroma to commemorate their victory. There isn’t a single in-game item that will pay homage to historic MSI triumphs like RNG’s at this year’s tournament.
The problem with League of Legends’ in-game esports products is the clear lack of diversity they offer. Of course, we get a batch of team icons every season, but they’re mostly bland and plain. Emotes and esports skins only come around twice a year for the big international competitions, and unless your favorite team is korean, you can forget about those TSM championship skins you oh so desperately want.
Other esports offer a wide variety of team-branded in-game items; Call of Duty, Halo, Gears of War, CS:GO, H1Z1, and Overwatch, to name a few. All of these games have dozens of esports skins you can use to support your favorite team in-game. To put things into perspective, Overwatch has over 600 esports skins (even if the are considered chromas by LoL standards) that represent all of their Overwatch League teams, while LoL has less than 50 esports skins.
Futhermore, it’s not like Riot makes this content for free or that it doesn’t sell well. In all cases, they keep a majority percentage of sales depending on the type of digital product and these items produce ridiculous amount of money. This year’s MSI skin, Conqueror Varus, made approximately $4 million dollars, with a quarter of that going to the event’s prize pool. Championship Ashe, last year’s Worlds skin, closed in on $10 million dollars generated through sales. (These estimates were made using the amount of money contributed to each event’s prize pool)
In 2016, Riot hoped that the changes they were making to prize pools and the revenue sharing of digital sales would “contribute millions of dollars in additional revenue to teams and pros each year.” This is obviously true for teams that can win Worlds or MSI, but it’s almost impossible to believe that anyone is making six figures off of icon and emote sales.
Realistically, not every team can become a World Champion. As a consequence, not every team will get to have personalized skins. These are reserved for the best of the best in the whole world, and they should stay that way. However, how come MSI champions, who deserve similar recognition, get absolutely nothing to represent their victory in-game? Why is it that with the NA LCS in its second split of franchising, and Europe soon to follow, there isn’t anything other than icons, and sometimes emotes, to support our favorite teams? It seems illogical that with such a huge financial investment in LoL Esports, they’re have been only minor efforts to create more digital content for fans and, therefore, so few opportunities for teams to generate revenue via in-game sales.