It's been an interesting week for League of Legends. On one hand, a handful of teams are gearing up for their final — perhaps only — shot at qualifying for the world championships through the International Wildcard qualifier. Amidst all that, the co-founder of Riot Games is having a public disagreement with one of the more prominent League of Legends teams over avenues for advertising, money and the overall health of the scene.
A co-founder of a company and the head of the scene's most recognisable teams butting heads is always going to attract attention. But things have escalated a notch this morning, with HTC weighing very publicly into the fray.
Image: Riot Games
The whole debate was triggered by an interview with Team SoloMid's founder, Andy "Reginald" Dinh. It wasn't necessarily related to money at first, but how he felt a recent patch had negatively impacted the competitive scene. But the conversation eventually drifted towards money, at which point Dinh called on Riot for asking for higher prizes, better player infrastructure and better "revenue opportunities for [League of Legends] teams".
That's when the sparks began to fly, and the co-founder of Riot, Marc Merrill, responded in kind. He took to Reddit to say that LoL teams were the ones responsible for paying players, and openly said that if Dinh was at all concerned about his players' financials then perhaps he "should spend more of the millions he has made / makes from League of Legends on paying them instead of investing in other esports where he is losing money".
The back and forth continued, but Dinh's main point of contention remained firm: Riot was restricting the amount of opportunities for teams and players to generate money with heavy-handed restrictions that prevent them from leveraging their brand. Logitech, according to Dinh, was one of the team's most supportive sponsors but "they simply can't get visibility through us competing in LCS because we can't wear their headsets while competing".
Merrill followed up later this week saying that Riot would add "new in-game team-specific items with revenue-sharing for teams and pros", as well as working more closely with teams to open up more doors for merchandising. But the prohibitive restrictions and Riot's desire to have approval on promotions has more critics than just Dinh and Team SoloMid, and that's where HTC comes in.
While all of this was going down, a user on reddit asked why Riot was initially opposed to a video of TSM's League roster playing Raw Data, a co-operative VR shooter for the HTC Vive, and promoting it through their YouTube channel.
Whalen Rozelle, otherwise known as "RiotMagus" replied that the sponsorship wasn't actually an advertisement for HTC at all. "It was a promotion for a VR video game for TSM to play ... regardless of whether HTC organised this or not, it's a tactic [sic] advertisement for another game," Rozelle argued.
Rozelle, the director of esports for Riot, exclaimed that this violated the League Championship Series (LCS) rules "because LCS isn't a platform for other game companies to advertise on — yes, this means there's a category that teams don't have access to but for any sport, letting quasi competitors advertise on the league [sic] doesn't make sense".
According to the official rules for the 2016 LCS season, teams can sign any sponsors they want but "products or services from direct competitors" are not allowed to be displayed "during the use or play of [League], adjacent to [League] related material, the LCS, or any Riot-affiliated events". And as far as Rozelle was initially concerned, using the League players to advertise a VR game qualified as League-adjacent material for a "direct competitor".
Obviously, HTC wasn't too impressed.
In a lengthy post on Facebook, HTC says that "it has now become public knowledge that Riot threatened to fine TSM" if the Raw Data video wasn't pulled from the team's YouTube channel. That's already an exceptional move to take, and it's not exactly the best message to send to sponsors if you're trying to court them into the long-term infrastructure of esports.
"We are sorry to hear this allegation as it was never our intention to advertise anything but the HTC Vive, nor were we strategically trying to circumvent any rules Riot has with its LCS teams and players," HTC Esports wrote.
They explained that TSM chose Raw Data on the grounds that they figured it'd be the most interesting for their audience, and that the developers of the game did not have anything to do financially or otherwise with the making of the video.
"For effective outreach, we must showcase the many experiences and games available, much like how game consoles such as the Xbox, PlayStation, or even laptops are advertised. We simply cannot market the Vive without people playing it and showing the gameplay, and we hope that Magus and others at Riot Esports will understand this."
It's a pretty simple point on HTC's part. If Riot wants them to align themselves with esports, Riot has to give HTC a way for people to see their product. You can't put the HTC Vive as a sticker on someone's jersey — not that Riot's rules would allow that, anyway. And Riot is fine to control the messaging for League, and LCS, as much as it wants.
But if they want sponsors to invest, they need to give something back — and they'd better be a little bit clearer on what is, and isn't allowed.
But going forward, it would be helpful to have clarification on the questions necessary for us to operate effectively as a sponsor. For instance, what is the difference between an LCS player streaming Deus Ex and making a YouTube video of a Vive game? What is considered a competing title and what is not? Is there a certain category or degree in which the promotion of another game on a different platform goes too far?
But as we examine the landscape of advertising in the LCS community, we find ourselves at an impasse. If Riot does not want us making videos that feature our sponsored players playing other games, we do not have many options for showcasing our products. In addition, the /r/leagueoflegends subreddit mods do not accept any of our original video advertisements, including videos as well produced as “Retirement Home,” or others that prominently feature our sponsored players. Sponsors are now very limited in what we can do to market our brand and products while still supporting the League of Legends scene.
As one of the first major non-endemic sponsors in the West, we believe we have helped pioneer marketing in esports, and we’ve loved every second of it. But with less avenues for advertisement in League of Legends, stemming from the restrictions on the teams and players, restrictions on the subreddit, and the lack of available marketing opportunities at competitions, it is becoming difficult to justify our investments into the scene.
Going forward, we would love to see clear and reasonable guidelines on how sponsors can market in the space and more marketing opportunities open up with our LCS teams. This will lead to more companies willing to invest in the LCS and create a healthier and more sustainable ecosystem. As a sponsor who genuinely wants to see esports grow, we ask for Riot to understand our difficulties. We hope to see a solution that will benefit all parties involved and ask for proper avenues to discuss problems with our videos and marketing activities if they arise in the future, rather than being informed after the fact by our teams of any issues.
The post is pretty much a fuse under what's been a long-burning powder keg. Riot is well known for being very hands-on when it comes to League of Legends. But sometimes that control extends too far, and it becomes doubly difficult when you don't provide a lack of clarity to the brands and companies you're trying to court.
Whether Riot likes it or not, they officially have a problem on their hands. At the start of the week it was a spat between two old heads in the League of Legends scene about a patch that was maybe pushed out too early. Now it's something much bigger, and it needs to be dealt with quickly.