The route from just playing for free online to the top of the World Championship ladders is so confusing and circuitous that most press outlets don't cover it, most players don't follow it, and even most eSports fans couldn't explain it all. There's a jargon to it (littered with player and team names full of weird capitalization and strange spellings) that's about as complicated to understand as the notoriously complex game itself.
Riot's Vice President of eSports Dustin Beck even says that a recent tournament he attended was a big mess on its own: "The tournament kept pausing, it never started on time, you didn't have a schedule to know when your favorite teams were playing. It wasn't a fun experience, for me."
Still, eSports is one of the biggest factors in League of Legends' overwhelming popularity, with thousands of people attending these tournaments, and millions (almost ten million, in fact) watching live online. So how does Riot plan to smooth out those wrinkles that keep an even larger audience out of the game? The company will take the game into Season 3 within the next few weeks, and with it begins Riot's eSports headliner, the League of Legends Championship Series.
Here's what The Championship Series is, in plain English. Over the course of a series of already-held qualifying matches, Riot has picked eight teams from North America and eight teams from Europe to compete over two different halves of a full season. Each half will take about 11 weeks, with an "All-Star break" in the middle.
At the end of each half, the teams have a playoff tournament. The playoffs at the end of the first half will determine who gets replaced or who stays in the league, and the playoffs at the end of the second half will set up the final teams in each region for the World Championships. Those will take place on October 5, and will pit teams from the game's five regions (North America, Europe, Southeast Asia, Korea and China) against each other for supremacy across the world.
That's it. No gimmicks, no crazy partnerships (though there are some sponsors – more on that soon), no weird quirks in scheduling, no wild shakeups. For the week to week games, says Beck, there will be "four games a day on Thursday and Friday in North America, and four games a day on Saturday and Sunday in Europe. Now you know what teams to look for, you know what times they're going to be playing, and you know who they're going to be playing against."
Riot's goal is to smooth out the schedule, and to make the entire road, from start to finish, clear for everyone. "We need to establish a structure that's going to create an allegiance for our fanbase," says Beck.
Even with those plans in place, there are still chances to fix anything that might go wrong. Riot's plan for the first half of the season is to include some promotion/relegation series tournaments, so that they'll be able to move teams up or down, depending on how they play.
And Beck says that the eSports team is on the lookout for "toxic behavior" – LoL's eSports scene has been plagued by a few accusations of cheating, but Beck says that "we shouldn't see anything similar to this during our regular season, unless there's a unique situation that pops up." Riot is also paying salaries out to players competing in the regular season, which should not only provide motivation to play fair, but to stick around and commit to the game as a full-time sport.
The company is committing on its end as well. Beck says the eSports division at Riot has gone from just four to over 40 employees over the past year, and in addition to building out a brand new broadcast studio for eSports coverage in Los Angeles, Riot has plans for a full website dedicated to eSports. The company's also put together a 50-page rulebook for its tournaments, in addition to all of the work it's already done to support its community and player base.
What is Riot after with all of this work? High "viewership numbers are great and we'd be lying if we said they weren't," says Beck. "But we've already been so shocked and humbled by the numbers thus far it's been way more successful than any of us have hoped for. So we're just trying to continue with that momentum." Sponsors and their money serve as another side goal for the company: Beck says Riot has signed American Express as a sponsor, and is looking to pick up other financial support, though he says the company would rather be The Masters instead of Nascar in terms of sponsorship models.
But Riot PR Manager Chris Heintz says Riot is ready to "lose money forever" on eSports. "It's part of the League of Legends experience. You're just watching at that point, so you need to remove 'player,' but it's part of the fan experience, if you want to call it that. It's not really promotion," he adds. "We don't view it as a marketing expenditure, we view it as a feature."
"We don't claim to know all of the answers," says Beck. "What we do know is that we're going to remain nimble and flexible with everything. If something we do is missing the mark, we have the ability to give and take on a lot of things that will appease our fans."
And Beck says he hopes the structure of the Championship Series and all of Riot's work on the project elevates not just League of Legends' standing, but the world of eSports in general. "We think that by developing this top tier structure of the pro league, it's going to help bring eSports to a whole new level of success that gets it on par with traditional sport."