While Riot Games is on the brink of a massive expansion as a developer, their esports aspirations in Australia are set to shrink massively. Teams and players in Riot's franchised league for the region, the Oceanic Pro League (OPL), have been informed that the developer will no longer pay professional teams an "operating subsidy" next year, according to an email seen by Kotaku Australia.
The email, sent in late October, confirms weeks of rumours floating around the Australian professional League scene that Riot's plans for professional League of Legends in Australia and New Zealand would be downsized. It comes despite the company announcing multiple esports-focused games in development, including the mobile spin-off of League, Legends of Runeterra, a new first person shooter, and a fighting game.
The reasoning is to ensure the OPL runs "on a cost-neutral basis", according to the email, even though international and Australian viewership of professional League games have grown significantly year on year. The subsidy provided to teams was designed to help offset operating costs for things like rent, internet, power and other utilities. According to a contract provided to Kotaku Australia, the stipend in OPL years previous was a flat payment to the teams from Riot Games, paid out each week over the course of the OPL's two splits. e When contacted for comment, Riot Oceania confirmed the operating subsidy had been cut for next year. "We can confirm we have removed the operating subsidy for the upcoming season in accordance with the plan teams were made aware of when they entered the league," Riot Oceania said over email.
"We can also confirm we have agreed as a concession with team owners to waive OPL’s minimum salary requirement. This decision wasn’t taken lightly - but with a view to sustainability - and was communicated to OPL players on October 23."
Its existence allowed teams to underwrite the cost of team houses, a necessity after the OPL rules changed forcing all teams to play their weekly matches in person at Riot's Sydney studios. With the removal of the stipend, teams will have to wholly fund the team houses themselves or shut them down.
"We are aware this change may drastically alter the intentions of some OPL players; for others less impacted by team decisions, this may not. Either way we wanted to convey this information to you ahead of the 2020 season," the email says.
As part of the removal of the operating subsidy, Riot Oceania and the owners of teams in the OPL agreed to remove the minimum player salary requirement. Former and current players have told Kotaku Australia that OPL players were previously required to be paid a minimum of $10,000 a year, which amounted to $500 for every week of the regular split. The new rules mean OPL players are not guaranteed to be paid at all.
Multiple sources, some directly affected by the news and others connected with those who are, raised concerns that Australian League players would retire or leave the country for another region. Others were more circumspect, saying they believed teams would continue paying the existing minimums particularly if organisations shut down their team houses and the associated overheads.
Regardless, the impact on the local scene will be significant. Multiple sources connected directly to the OPL told Kotaku Australia that Riot would continue holding offline matches in 2020, meaning any players not still residing in Sydney would need to be flown from interstate on a weekly basis for their matches. Kotaku Australia understands the cost of that is preferable for teams: not all players would have to be flown in from interstate, and the overheads are less than maintaining a large house in the Sydney suburbs. The equation is slightly different for teams not based in Sydney, such as ORDER and the Essendon Bombers League team, and all sources that spoke to Kotaku Australia believed the teams that had the backing of AFL clubs (Legacy Esports, Bombers) would weather the situation much better.
Still, the moves will force some contracted OPL players to go from full-time League players to juggling League with a second job. The effect will mean the quality of League play overall will decrease, making it harder for local teams and players to stand out at next year's World Championships, or the Mid-Season Invitational. While OPL players are not forbidden from playing other games casually, they are locked out from competing in tournaments for any other games.
"It's a shit situation because if players want to [play] full-time, they'll be living at home making less than minimum wage and its very hard to support that choice as a family member. But if people have jobs/study on the side, the level of play in the league is terrible, which means there's even less hope for players to succeed internationally, or get scouted," a source within the OPL told Kotaku Australia.
Mathew 'Judge' Brand, director of talent management at Evolved Talent Agency, which specialises in representing esports professionals, online content creators and influencers, said the removal of the subsidy was "not a surprise". "The wider industry knew that Riot was not going to hold hands with the organisations forever, and this expense would ultimately fall to the clubs to afford," he said.
Brand, however, was surprised by Riot's decision to remove the minimum salary requirement for players. "I’ll be curious to see how this plays out with the players especially because we are entering the free agency period following Worlds," Brand said. "No doubt there will be organisations that will look to dip below that previous minimum where possible in order to readjust, even if that is just one or two players on their roster."
Another member of the Australian esports scene with prior dealings with Riot Oceania and professional League, said the news would have a huge impact on the viability of funding Australian League teams. "[Organisations] in Australia are so reliant on sponsors for revenue as it is, it will not be viable for the [organisations] long term ... I think you're going to see some divestment over the course of the next few months which is going to send the esports scene back significantly."
A veteran of Australian esports who works with professional teams and other esports stakeholders, but is not directly involved with the OPL, said funding for League in Australia had gotten more difficult and the news was disappointing but "not surprising". "This is just reflective of the continued challenges we're seeing locally. I really feel for the players, first and foremost. It's awful."
Evolved Talent's Brand believed that Riot's decision to scrap the subsidy, however, wouldn't affect long-term confidence in Riot Oceania or League, due to the game's "regular broadcasting, quality content and a stable infrastructure".
"We will see changes across the playerbase and potentially some players leaving the game as salaries drop compared to past seasons, which might make way for the next talent to come up," Brand said.
Are you affected, know someone in League who is, or work with one of the teams impacted? You can reach out anonymously here, via Discord or Signal.
This report would not have been possible without the help of Hayley Williams.