When I wrote my Homeric epic about attending League of Legends' Championship Series, one of my biggest fears was that Riot's stranglehold on its own game's eSports scene could eventually suffocate pros and the scene itself. A game creator, after all, will inevitably have different priorities than a dyed-in-the-wool sports organization - especially compared to the way eSports leagues currently operate. And yet, here we are. LCS season 4 contracts are now in the hands of pros, and they contain some sticky stipulations. The most worrisome among them? The one that forbids all contracted pros from streaming DOTA 2, Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, StarCraft, Heroes of Newerth, World of Tanks, and many more for the duration of the season.
onGamers originally obtained the document, which has since been confirmed as authentic and accurate in a Reddit post by Riot director of eSports Whalen Rozelle. The full document, which you can view below, is quite lengthy and includes pretty much every major MOBA. More curiously, it's also dotted with non-MOBA games, anything even vaguely related to gambling, and, er, tobacco products.
Streaming, for the uninitiated, is the practice of using services like Twitch to broadcast gameplay sessions to, well, anyone who'll tune in, really. In eSports, it's especially important as a means of allowing pros to directly interact with their fans while also attracting new ones, via games both related and unrelated to their sport of choice. Blizzard's Hearthstone, for instance, has become an immensely popular compliment to League of Legends, as match times snuggle up perfectly with LoL queues.
Naturally, then, outrage flowed thick, bitter, and sanguine in the immediate aftermath of these restrictions' confirmation. Riot's Rozelle, however, broke down the company's reasoning:
"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."
"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 suppose that kind of makes sense, but pro gaming isn't the NFL. It's a different creature entirely, and blindly plastering a frankly ancient definition of "professionalism" over a still-nascent sporting culture born of an entirely different, hyper-connected era poses all sorts of problems.
First off, Riot's comparisons to other sports don't even really pass muster. Restricting MOBA streams? Sure, I guess I can understand that. But blocking games in entirely different genres just because they're part of a competitor's library? That reeks of corporate muscle-flexing - of kicking and biting and using any means necessary to be more visible than everyone else. This also means that, while LoL trundles onward and upward, other games' eSports exposure gets trampled in the process, directly affecting pro gaming's ability to expand and diversify.
What's good for LoL is not necessarily what's good for eSports in general. Yes, this is business. Yes, other sports do this to an extent, but this just seems like overkill at this point.
There's also the pros themselves to consider. Streaming is a huge part of building up these "personal brands" that Riot is so eager to cite, and dedicating the majority of your time to a single game carves off thick, meaty chunks of your potential audience. Even as one of the biggest eSports out there, LoL isn't a guaranteed millionaire-maker, and some players need streaming money to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, the pro limelight doesn't flicker into a slow sunset so much as it bursts. Pro LoL careers span a few years, not decades. Players need every tool they can get to build personal brands and cushion themselves for the future, or else Riot needs to double down on efforts to provide them with benefits and some form of alternate career path. I understand that players are on Riot's payroll during the season, but Riot needs to consider how these sorts of sacrifices could hurt its players further down the line.
So long as Riot is the only company to adopt this one-man show mentality, it's likely to give otherwise talented, exciting young pros pause. Why practice until your eyelids slam shut and put out tiny "out of order" signs for a hyper-restrictive game when others offer more freedom and a chance at future viability?
This also raises questions about the role of streaming in games in general. I mean, it's a truly new means of interacting with games and their fans - a largely unprecedented wrinkle born of Internet culture and the increasing ease with which we can broadcast, well, anything. So how do we categorize it? Is it akin to a friendly game of [insert ballsport here] with friends - a casual, ho-hum day in the park made public - or is it a full-blown business enterprise mired in incomprehensible legalese and labyrinths of red tape?
The fact of the matter is, people treat it both ways, and many end up somewhere in the middle of those two ends of the spectrum. But in the end, there is money in streaming. Where there's money, there will naturally be people and businesses looking to control and own it. Streaming is still in its Wild West phase right now. Pretty much anyone can do it as a for-fun side project, and no one bats an eyelash. I very much doubt, however, that it will stay that way. Riot has set a precedent here. Even if it ultimately steps back and decides to trade its iron-fisted grip for a gentle hug with arms made of rainbows, more companies - publishers, developers, eSports entities, whatever - will attempt to restrict or otherwise control streaming. It's bound to happen.
For now, though, the ball is in Riot's Staples-Center-spanning court. It can clamp down and do what it (I would argue erroneously) thinks is best for its own game in the short term, or it can reconsider. Personally, I'm pleading for the latter. There's more to this equation than LoL and its attempt to dominate the multi-laned beast that is legitimacy. Riot's own pros and the wider eSports scene matter too, and reverberations from this decision stand to have seismic effects on both. If Riot fails to acknowledge that, then nobody comes out of this battle looking like a winner.