It’s been a while since we last checked in on the esports industry or discussed any milestones it has reached. For a while there, we were seeing new ground broken on a nearly monthly basis, particularly during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite all of that growth, we did mention that it was also time for the industry to grow up a bit, namely in terms of recognizing that individual players, teams, and their personalities are what is going to ultimately drive the greatest interest in these leagues, no different than any other professional sports league. Basketball is a great sport, but Michael Jordan was a driver of interest in it.
Which makes it all the more prickly to see Riot dealing with a players’ strike for its North American League of Legends league. The motivation for the strike is Riot’s plans to consolidate the current N.A. Challenger’s League by essentially eliminating more than half the teams and, consequently, paid jobs for the league.
The LCS Players Association, the body representing the region’s professional players, say the plans will see an estimated 70 people—players, coaches, etc—lose their jobs. Riot, meanwhile, say the cuts were necessary to ensure the North American leagues remain “sustainable [and] economically viable”.
Tensions escalated a day later when news emerged that pro teams had been actively looking “to field scab players”, a move that the LCSPA rightly say would “put all players’ futures at risk”, as “crossing the line undermines player negotiating power”.
Now, for its part, Riot met with the LCSPA after rumors of scabs became public and its subsequent statement on the matter doesn’t carry any indication that scab players would be sought for use. It’s actually much worse than that. First, Riot admonishes the players for seeking to establish greater salary pools for player salaries, suggesting that its “Tier 2 leagues” are getting by just fine without those larger salaries overseas. That is typical sports management talk and it doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Lower tier leagues bring in less revenue typically and therefore are provided lower salary pools. Major League Baseball serves as a prime example of this sort of thing.
But the second key takeaway from Riot’s statement is that if the players don’t move off of their demands to something Riot wants to agree to within 2 weeks, then Riot will simply shutter the league for the year entirely.
Delaying beyond the two-week window would make it nearly impossible to run a legitimate competition, and in that case, we would be prepared to cancel the entire LCS summer season. Carrying this forward, if the LCS summer season is canceled, this will also eliminate LCS teams qualifying for 2023 Worlds. I want to be clear: That is not an outcome we’d want, but it’s unfortunately the reality of ensuring we run a fair, competitive global system.
It’s all worded to sound profoundly reasonable, but it isn’t. Labor negotiations under the gun of a 2 week timeline feels self-evidently silly. But timelines like this are a common sports league vs. labor negotiating tactic. And, helpfully for the players, this transitions things from a clear players’ strike, which fans generally blame players for, and into a combination strike and owner’s lockout, which fans generally blame the owners for in other sports.
But I guess if nothing else, esports continues to mature. A big boy labor dispute is a mile marker of sorts, after all.