Same ol’ digital goods

Team-branded digital items lack diversity

SKT Worlds 2016 Skins Splashart
World Champion Skins are one of League of Legends few esport skin lines. (Image: Riot Games)

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.

Emotes
Only MSI or Worlds participants get team-branded emotes. Other orgs are limited to having icons. (Image: Riot Games)

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.

MSI Finals RNG
RNG made history at this year’s MSI, but no in-game item will commemorate their triumph. (Image: LoL Esports flickr Album)

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 amounts 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.

 

All Star Vacation

A review of the ASE 2017 and the venue problem

ASE 2017 Review.jpg
Image taken from the LoL Esports Photos flickr Album.

The All Star Event (ASE) is supposed to be a celebration of League esports, a once a year tournament where popular pros from all around the world face off for regional pride and glory. The first iterations of this competition had a more relaxed focus,  fun was placed over seriousness and this allowed the event to have a unique identity. However, the most recent ASE restructured the format completely in favor of a more competitive one. This change received notable backlash from the community as it altered the event’s distinctive focus. Whether the format change was really for the better is up to personal preference, but as a fan who attended the live event, it’s difficult not to point out some of the notable flaws that came with this version of the All Star Event.

With the announcement that the All Stars 2018 will return to North America for a third time and thanks to a recent Travis Talks video that portrayed the problems of small venues for big League events, I’ve set out to write a very late review of the ASE 2017 to share some of my opinions and the experience I had as a live attendee.

The timing

Riot Games isn’t a company known for announcing their esports events with a lot of time left to spare, and the 2017 All Stars wasn’t the exception. The tournament’s reveal came a few days before the start of the World Championship Group Stage on October 3rd, leaving fans with only two months to plan accordingly if they wanted to attend the live event. Furthermore, tickets when on sale a short month before the competition, on November 10th, and the event’s schedule was published mere weeks in advance.  

The tickets

Ticket sales were handled reasonably well, even if these became available very close to the event’s date. Riot used Eventbrite as their ticketing platform implementing a first come, first serve system. If you had good internet, fast fingers and free time, you were good to go. I personally didn’t have any troubles acquiring tickets for the entirety of the event. Still, they were sold out in less than 10 minutes due to limited availability. This left thousands of fans out of the event and was mostly because of the small venue size. However, when comparing this situation to more recent ticket fiascos (NA LCS Spring Finals 2018), the All Stars ticketing system was effective, efficient and easy to use.

The venue

It’s impossible to not draw a comparison between the venues chosen for the All Stars 2016 and the All Stars 2017. Two years ago, the ASE took place in the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, Spain. The 17,000 seat arena was transformed for the event and the spanish fans made it a delight to watch from home. So, when it was announced that the 2017 ASE was going to be held in the NA LCS Studio, I was sincerely disappointed and a huge red flag came up. Whether this was because Riot lacked the time or the resources to plan the event elsewhere is still unknown, but the justification they give in their LoL Esports article doesn’t go beyond saying it was easier for them to have it in the studio. While I do recognize that the NA LCS Studio has top notch infrastructure, it has a extremely limited capacity for attendees. I can’t help but feel that this decision relegates the All Star event to irrelevant tournament status, similar to Rift Rivals.

Furthermore, the venue choice and size complicated things for the fans attending. Games had to be split between the Battle Arena and the Battle Theater in order to accommodate more people. This meant that you could only watch half the games with the players on stage. In addition to that, the schedule didn’t specify which games would take place in which arena, so if fans wanted to watch a team in particular, they couldn’t know where said team was playing until after they’d already purchased their tickets. I was lucky enough attend all 4 days, so I got to see all the teams regardless if they were playing in the Arena or the Theater. But fans who could only attend a single day weren’t able to guarantee seeing their favorite team live on stage.

The format

Probably the most surprising change of all to hit the ASE was the decision to move away from silly game modes and focus solely on serious competition. This left the event with a bit of an identity crisis, as it couldn’t be expected for teams to try hard nor play at their best when they’d only been together for a couple of weeks. Furthermore, individual preparation for the event was lacking, due to the fact that  most pro players take the downtime after Worlds to vacation. In an interview with Travis Gafford, Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg explained how he prefered to visit his family and loved ones over playing Solo Queue to prepare for All Stars.

Nonetheless, the most significant problems came as a side effect to this change. First up, the Wild Card All Star Event was scrapped. No emerging regions could participate in the event unless their name was Brazil, Turkey or Southeast Asia. The choice to include these regions specifically was justified in their all time international results across multiple tournaments. However, as a Latin American player and fan, this felt like a low blow and it truly invisibilized a huge chunk of emerging regions. Their votes meant less and they wouldn’t be able to see their favorite regional pros at the tournament.

In addition to that, a group system was implemented in order to accommodate all the teams. This meant that we had no games between NA and EU, one of the iconic international clashes, as they were in different groups and neither of them advanced to the knockout stage. The group system took away a lot of featured matchups in favor of including more wildcard teams from the get go, while making the game schedule complicated and dragged out. After two days, half the teams weren’t even playing as they’d already been eliminated. If the ASE is meant to be a celebration, it’s sad to see that so few regions were invited to the party.

The All Star 1v1 was the only part from previous versions of the event to remain. Yet, the ASE 2016 in Barcelona set the bar too high, leaving this year’s iteration of the 1v1 looking unimpressive at best. This time around, All Star coaches would select two players from their respective team to participate in the tournament, which lead to the brackets being significantly smaller. Additionally, there were no over top player introductions, no crazy hairdos and no cheeky overlays. Just standard, 1v1, League of Legends.

I can’t say that the format changes to the All Stars were beneficial or necessary. It felt like Riot wanted to innovate for the sake of innovating and radically modified an event that, in my eyes, had a very special feel to it. With Worlds and MSI (and Rift Rivals to a certain extent) being serious tournaments, why not keep All Stars as the fun tournament of the year? Change can sometimes be really good, but throwing out the core of an event without any real explanation doesn’t seem the best course of action. I would’ve liked to see subtle changes done to the format to make it more enjoyable for fans and viewers alike, not a complete restructuring.

The prize pool

If the All Star Event is to remain a serious competition, which I honestly hope it doesn’t, Riot should strongly consider implementing a prize pool, or another type of incentive. I know it’s not their style to give players any sort of compensation when they participate in smaller competitions, but it’s ludicrous that after eight seasons of esports dominance, the prize pools for League events are dwarfed or nonexistent. If the ASE transformed back to being a fun event, the lack of a prize pool, while still a problem, would be mildly justified. Fire and Ice skins from previous iterations of the ASE could return as way to make the victorious team feel like their participation was meaningful.

The onsite activities

Apart from the Battle Arena/Battle Theater debacle I explained previously, the live event was handled pretty well. Riot set up 1v1 stations outside the studio where fans could play against each other while they waited for the games to start. They also handed out a couple of neat goodies every day, including collectible trading cards with information on the pros. In addition to that, fans could meet players and personalities, take pictures with them and, in some cases, 1v1 them. I had the opportunity of 1v1ing William “scarra” Li and actually beat him. Moments like these made attending the event a fantastic and one of a kind experience.

However, fans had to sometimes choose between watching the games inside the studio or participating in the activities going on outside. Also, and if you were unlucky enough, you’d never find out what was going on in the parking lot, as the meet and greets and fan 1v1s were poorly publicized. There wasn’t a lot of on site communication between fans and event organizers for these matters, which in my opinion were the most important and gratifying part of the live event.

As a final and more personal note, the food available at the NA LCS Studio, while very tasty (specially the nachos), is not diverse at all, with only a couple options for food: hots dog and nachos. It would be nice to see Riot set up a more varied menu.

Concluding thoughts

The All Star Event returned to the US after what was a superb show in Barcelona. The bar was set incredibly high after 2016 and it was very probable that the 2017 ASE would disappoint in comparison to its direct predecessor. The choice of venue didn’t do Riot any favors and while the event was not bad, I expected more. And it seems like Riot will continue the trend of having big international events in small venues. This year’s Mid Season Invitational (MSI) will take place almost completely in their EU LCS Studio in Berlin, Germany.

I get it, holding competitions in Riot’s own studios is easier, cheaper and more accessible for them. Yet, it takes a lot away from the experience that the fans and the pros will have at the event. It’s not the same when a couple hundred people are cheering for their favorite team in a venue that they’ve been to time and time again than when thousands are doing the same in a huge arena. I also don’t mean that I want every single international competition to be in a humongous venue, it’s just that laughably small venues make the tournaments feel ordinary and unimportant.

What’s more is that the changes to the ASE 2017 were completely pointless.  It never truly felt like it was a serious competition or that the absolutely best team was winning. Even the players went out and stated that they didn’t practice that much to prepare. Removing the fun and relaxed aspect of the tournament also removed the only quality that made All Stars different from other League events.

In his Travis Talks video, Travis Gafford shares his brutal thoughts on All Stars 2017:  “Again, we went back to the NA LCS Studio for All Stars for what might be the worst event Riot ever put on. They made no effort to change the arena, make it feel special. The whole thing was just kind of a bummer.”  While I did enjoy my time at the ASE 2017 as a fan, Travis definitely has a point. Whether it was because of the venue, the format or both, last year’s All Star didn’t feel special or unique as a whole. The event felt rushed and poorly thought through. With League of Legends continuing to grow as an esport, I honestly hope Riot goes back to the drawing board with All Stars and takes note of what made the event memorable in the first place, but also that they avoid making the same mistakes they made at the ASE in other international competitions.