The witch is dead, League of Legends pros can once again stream whatever they want, and eSports is saved! OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit, but I really didn't like the potential implications of Riot's decision to contractually forbid its pros from streaming Dota 2, Hearthstone, World of Tanks, and tens of other extremely popular games. Fortunately, after copious uproarious outcry, Riot decided to rethink its portentously controlling decision. Now pros are able to stream whatever strikes their fancy or tickles their murder bones, though certain sponsorships/promotional angles are still off-limits. This is admittedly much better, but I'm still concerned about Riot's position near the top of the eSports food chain. Allow me to explain why.
Riot took to Reddit to both clear the air and explain the rationale behind its previous stance on the matter:
"First, background on why we did this: there’ve been instances of other game studios trying to buy access to League fans by using (or trying to use) LCS teams/players to promote their competing games on stream."
"The way we chose to deal with this was clearly an overreach. It hit our goal of preventing companies from advertising through LCS players, but it also encroached on pros’ ability to have fun and entertain viewers during long Challenger queues – and we realize that’s not cool."
"After reading all of your comments and having a LOT of internal debate over the last 24 hours, we’re going to be changing the LCS team requirement to something that more closely matches our intent. While under contract to the LCS, teams and players can’t accept sponsorship from other game companies to promote other titles. Besides that, they are free to stream any games they want."
That's definitely a big improvement, though I'm still not entirely pleased with how this played out. The first version of that contract was indicative of some very problematic priorities on Riot's part, and it only ended up in history's mighty paper shredder after customers - the people who give Riot money - stormed Riot's lanes with pitchforks and torches aloft.
I applaud Riot for stepping back and making the much-needed change, but the original contract still came from somewhere. And whether it was a highly calculated maneuver or some horribly uninformed lawyer given leeway to frolic about and deck the halls with boughs of red tape, it doesn't speak well of Riot's prioritization of pros.
Meanwhile, in the above response Riot talks about pros more like they're entertainment/promotional tools than valued employees or people with a career limelight akin to a ticking time bomb. Their well-being, as well as that of eSports as a whole, is not getting the public attention it should. 'We champion eSports better than just about anyone,' Riot essentially boasts, 'but, you know, only when it directly benefits our game.'
On some level, that's perfectly natural; Riot is a gaming company first, and an eSports promoter second. And League of Legends is a very good game with a particularly rabid player base. It's not like giving those things preferential treatment is unjustified or born of some stumbling, out-of-touch madness or something. Moreover, this was Riot's public-facing response. Perhaps treatment of pros is getting more discussion deep in the burbling belly of the Riot machine, away from prying public eyes. But again, based on this most recent incident, I can't help but be skeptical of some of the conclusions Riot is coming to in this area all by its lonesome.
The fact is, Riot has become one of the single biggest forces in eSports, and - whether it wants to accept responsibility or not - it is setting precedents for the evolution of the entire scene. Traditions, rules, and regulations that could stick around for years to come, carving bones and molding flesh for a beast entirely independent of its own will and priorities. There is incredible power in this, but also tremendous danger if it's wielded haphazardly or with a heavily skewed agenda.
I think some sort of player's union or association is definitely in order - something to protect pros when Riot (or any another entity) makes a decision that's blatantly not in their best interest. Yes, these sorts of things have caused some of sporting history's biggest controversies, but pros deserve a voice in all of this. A voice that companies like Riot can't help but listen to. There have been some attempts in other countries, but we need more of that in Western nations and more unity between players in general. Unfortunately, eSports' relative youth, players' extremely short career spans, and a squirming smattering of other issues are making that very difficult at the moment.
If nothing else, however, eSports are growing and picking up speed like a snowball rolling down a friction-less mountain. Very little is actually set in stone, and change for the better is obviously still possible. Here's hoping for a bright future, or at least one that's healthy for all parties involved - not just the ones who want to pull the strings behind the scenes.