Riot is increasing support of regional amateur League of Legends [official site] teams and will be giving a UK squad a chance at joining the EU pro scene's Challenger Series. That's the one which carries with it a chance of promotion into the top tier of play - the LCS.
By now I suspect RPS readers are familiar with the existence of seasons of top level League of Legends play taking place around the world. I'm less sure how many of you know about how LoL works for the lower level teams so I'll go into a bit more detail about how that works and also why this particular move is interesting, because it's not just the UK getting a dedicated regional spot. Germany, Spain, France, Poland and the Nordic regions all have them too.
(FYI: Germany, Poland and Spain are in the mix for this spring split while the other three arrive in Summer)
Okay, so. Bubbling away just below the EU LCS is the Challenger Series. It used to be this cyclical thing which drew from the ranked 5s ladder (that just means the mode where you can play as a team and try to move up the ranking tiers). What would happen is the top 20 teams from ranked 5s would participate in a play-in event then the five best teams would go through to a sort of mini league called Challenger 1. They would be joined by the bottom three teams from a promotion tournament between the top three previous Challenger teams and the bottom three previous LCS teams which decided who was relegated, who was promoted and who stayed where they were.
The top three teams from Challenger 1 would go on to the next mini league, Challenger 2 and be joined by 5 more teams culled from the ranked 5s ladder via another play-in. The top six would go through to play-offs, the winner would nab a trophy and the top three teams would take part in another promotion tournament against the lowest three LCS teams.
You can also see how perhaps the same names and teams would come up again and again given this setup.
The CS has been rejigged now so eligibility comes through doing well in an open qualifier as well as via national leagues. The latter is where the idea of a UK (or a French or a German or....) team comes in. After those teams are decided there's a bracket stage, some finals and THEN AND ONLY THEN we get to the EU CS.
Promotion of regional competition is something I've been going back to a lot, particularly since the Smite World Championships. That competition was one where the dominance of EU and NA felt obvious while many of the other regions had that thing where they were clearly the top dogs back home and the lack of fellow teams on their level to provide a challenge meant a lack of further learning experiences.
Worlds is good on that front because it does give different experiences and real competition even if just in small doses. The teams can take those learnings back to the regional scene where they [hopefully] filter into that level of competition. It's a slow process though, and fraught with pitfalls and problems as well as questions about natural expansion rates and division of resources.
I've also had a not-insignificant number of conversations with people about how teams and team loyalty works, where fandom springs from and whether there are "local" teams to support in the same way that they are for football or rugby or baseball.
So this is where my interest in the national spots for the qualifiers is coming from. One is whether targeting specific countries will actually lift the competitive scene in that country, and the other is whether it would lead to anything approaching that sense of regional pride or affiliation you get with sports that have a local stadium/base of operations - something more connected to a city or a county than a country or a continent.
According to James Dean, managing director for ESL UK which runs the League of Legends UK Premiership (the route for the specific UK slot):
"We’ve witnessed first-hand massive growth in both viewership and tournament participation, and some of our most promising national sides have started to contest the rest of Europe in major competitions. The UK scene still has a way to go until we can challenge the strongest teams across the globe, but the inclusion of the Challenger Series slot allows the community to continue its progression."
I should maybe point out that the LoL comments sections have a lot of speculation that this will be THE WORST and encourage people with regional slots to not try as hard and that it is cruel to everyone who doesn't have a regional path to the qualifiers. I should maybe also point out that this is the standard response to everything in League of Legends. More interesting have been the discussions about general tournament availability in various regions, the idea of needing practice in extended best-of match formats and whether this whole thing will help or hinder when it comes to sponsorship opportunities.
Rather than outline a further set of qualifying requirements I'll just link to the information on joining and competing in the ESL UK Premiership here. Maybe YOU can become the Manchester United* of esports.
*1. I appreciate perhaps using United as emblematic of gaining local support is problematic but SHUT UP you know what I am getting at.
2. What do you mean "fifth in the premiership"? And why are Leicester second? HOW LONG HAVE I BEEN ASLEEP?