I want to make it very clear, if it wasn’t already, that this blog is not a news source. I do cite facts whenever I’m able to, and the original purpose was to report on the progress of a developing game, but all that is done now. This article, like all the others I write, is an opinion piece. And I want to mostly stick to opinions that I think might actually be interesting or unique, not my list of the Top 10 Worst Special Move Names In Fighting Games.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about Riot and their attitude toward eSports, their competitive players, and how their actions may be setting precedence for everyone else to follow.
Recently there were reports that the contracts Riot issued to their players for the upcoming League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) has clauses that restrict players from streaming many games that could be seen as rivals to League of Legends. onGamers.com later reported a comment by Whalen ‘RiotMagus’ Rozellemade, head of eSports for Riot, made in a Reddit thread about the contracts:
We say this all the time: we want League of Legends to be a legitimate sport. There are some cool things that come from that (salaried professional athletes, legitimate revenue streams, visas, Staples Center), but there’s also a lot of structural work that needs to be done to ensure a true professional setting.
We recognize there may be some differences of opinion in the perception of pro players’ streams. In the past, pro gamers only had to worry about their personal brands when streaming and, at most, may have had to worry about not using the wrong brand of keyboard to keep their sponsor happy. Now, however, these guys are professionals contracted to a professional sports league. When they’re streaming to 50,000 fans, they’re also representing the sport itself.
I can’t stress enough how these guys in the LCS are on the road to being real, legitimate athletes. This is new territory for a lot of teams (especially in esports), because the transition goes from being a group of talented individuals to being real icons of a sport and a league. Similarly, you probably wouldn’t see an NFL player promoting Arena Football or a Nike-sponsored player wearing Reebok on camera. Pro players are free to play whatever games they want – we’re simply asking them to keep in mind that, on-stream, they’re the face of competitive League of Legends.
I’m sure everyone who cares has already formed an opinion about whether this is right or ethical by now, and I don’t have anything significant to add to that discussion. I’m much more interested in what Riot’s big picture is. They already managed to get League of Legends recognized as a sport in the USA, which I’m sure will eventually turn out to be a big deal for other games, but that, along with these contracts, and the way Riot runs their tournaments in general, shows a fundamentally different approach to eSports compared to other developers. It also shows a different approach to sports in general.
What really sets League of Legends apart from other sports, besides the whole eSports thing, is that it’s the first sport where a company own and controls not only the league, but the game itself. Regular sports are not like that: the NBA is a professional basketball league, but anyone is free to play basketball whenever and wherever they like, and even create rival leagues. Not so with League of Legends, where Riot runs all the major leagues, and also owns the game they play. It wouldn’t even be possible for League of Legends to have a KeSPA situation on their hands, like Blizzard did with Brood War, where another company is using the game to run their own leagues, or any number of professional sports leagues that have popped up over the years as alternatives to the established organizations. (Remember the WHA? Or XFL?) If Riot doesn’t want someone playing their game they can stop them from playing. This puts Riot in a much stronger position if and when players ever try to form a union, as pro athletes have in every major sport. There would be no alternate option for a League of Legends player who didn’t like their contract, except to switch games entirely.
Blizzard learned from Brood War, and so has Riot, and I doubt anyone will let that happen again. In fact, it was probably KeSPA’s overwhelming success at turning another company’s product into their own profit that prompted every developer to create their own eSports department.
I’ll admit that my views on eSports are still informed by years spent with fighting games, where eSports itself is still a bad word, and watching professional Brood War, which was unique. I have always thought that one of the primary reasons for how the fighting game community plays their games, aside from it mostly forming in a time when developers didn’t really care about competitive gaming, was that the games they play were completely static. They were given a game and had to make of it what they could, where, say, an FPS player would at least have the option of mods to fix things they didn’t like. In the time before time (aka the 90s and early 2000s) there weren’t even patches. So fighting game communities had to form their own sets of rules, which were usually as simple as round limits (a 3/5 standard where arcades might be using 2/3 to make the games faster), but could be as extreme as the Smash Bros. community banning all items and special power-ups.
But at least Smash players had that option, because Smash wasn’t supposed to be a competitive game in the first place. The biggest difference now is that every developer knows that players will be streaming their games, that videos will be all over youtube. They usually encourage, or at least tolerate that, because it’s free advertising for them. But what happens when what the developers want and what the competitive community wants start to clash in this new era of social networked gaming?
The Smash example is a little played out, so here’s something more recent: Dead or Alive 5. Compare these two videos, one the grind finals from a recent tournament, the other a promotional gameplay video.
Clearly the promotional video is a better advertisement for the game, but why, exactly? For a start, the tournament players pick flat stages and disable the Danger Zones (the big explodey things that change a stage’s architecture mid-fight), and also never use Power Blows (the slow-motion special moves that allow players to knock each other into Danger Zones), which are the two biggest gameplay additions in Dead or Alive 5 (the 3rd being a special critical state that also seems to be rarely seen in the tournament footage I’ve watched). You could watch 45 minutes of tournament videos and not even realize Danger Zones or Power Blows existed. The players don’t use them because they don’t want to, and the players set the rules for tournaments. Now imagine if they were in the same situation as the League of Legends players. If Tecmo was running all the tournaments and making the rules would they disable some of the game’s core features to appease competitive players?
How long till these options become a thing of the past? Probably a while, but think about how the new consoles have decided to integrate video streaming, which catches them up to PCs, where video game streams are big business for major personalities–which is one of the reasons Riot created those contracts. There has already been at least one major incident of a developer censoring a video game stream for giving their game a bad review (that developer, after public humiliation, removed the copyright block). And that was a youtube dispute between a small indie developer and a well known personality. Imagine a major developer dropping a blanket censor on certain types of content being streamed. Before now a person who wanted to see competitive or critical gameplay of a game had to at least type the request into a search engine and click on a link, but with the new consoles the option to watch other people playing is much more immediate. Which is more likely: that these streaming options will be used to lovingly show off a game’s core features in a way that usually only happens in the wet dreams of an advertiser, or that the streams disseminate game-breaking glitches and multiplayer exploits like a plague.
Many people still watch Street Fighter tournaments and think, “Why won’t these scrubs ever stop spamming fireballs?” And they had to find those videos on youtube before making that judgment. What if someone who is thinking about maybe buying Dead or Alive 5 decides to watch the most recent media available, and only sees a mirror match replay of a tournament game on the smallest, least interesting stage in the game, labelled by the community as, “Excellent! Best game of DOA5 I’ve ever seen!” Somewhere, a Team Ninja employee wakes up in a cold sweat.
At the same time, Riot really is doing something different. Even Valve, who puts down a lot of money for their annual International DotA 2 tournament, still leaves it to 3rd parties and the community to organize and perpetuate the competitive scene. Which is why there are still problems and outrage. Unlike the Fighting Game Community™ and the DotA community, which have been around for long enough to have set ways that frequently clash with public perception, Riot got to start competitive League of Legends with new stock (Most DotA 2 pros were DotA 1 players, while many League of Legends players had never played another game competitively before.), which allows them to influence their players and their public image, and that’s not even counting the contracts. Not to say there aren’t incidents–these are a bunch of kids, for the most part, and stupid things will happen–but they don’t have to deal with well known players and organizers saying that they tolerate things like sexism and racism because that’s how it’s always been. (And to be fair to the older communities, it’s not easy when a bunch of people who have known each other long enough to accept each other and become friends suddenly have their conversations broadcast to the public. I mean, I’ve personally said many things at tournaments and gatherings that would probably get me lynched. I was even told that I had to change how I spoke if I wanted to do stream commentary, because sponsors were starting to get involved.) The NBA controls how their players dress when off the court, and would have no problem fining them for saying things they didn’t like. Don’t expect Riot to do any less, because apparently the NBA is what Riot wants to be.
I don’t play or watch League of Legends, and probably never will–and I doubt I’ll be buying either of the new consoles until they actually get a game worth playing between them–but I recognize that Riot, hand in hand with the gamification of social media and free-to-play systems on modern consoles, is going to completely change how many people think about and experience video games in the years to come. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, for everyone involved.