The LCS dilemma: fleeting viewership and how to fix it

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect DraftBuff’s views.

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The Problem

On February 7th 2013, Riot Games brought the NA LCS to life. Two days later its counterpart the EU LCS also launched, and ever since then, the two leagues have been running side by side. While technically speaking there is a friendly relation between them, the production team for each league strives to outdo the other, fostering a friendly rivalry between the two. For a long while the NA LCS (today known simply as the LCS) would beat out its EU counterpart in both viewership and resources. It seemed like every time the EU LCS brought something new to the table, it was simply ineffective or had already been done better by the NA LCS. Eventually some fans had their suspicions that this was by design and that Riot simply poured more effort and funds into the NA LCS. Whether there is any truth to this or not is up to debate but one thing is for sure, the battle for viewership took a complete 180 ever since franchising became involved.

The 2018 season brought a big new change to the North American scene as we used to know it. The franchising system was brought in and replaced the promotion and relegation system. Along with a new way of operating, this also attracted a lot of attention towards the LCS as well as a lot more partners, sponsors, investors and overall funds. Not only for Riot Games but also for the teams and their owners. It seemed like the NA LCS was about to put the final nail in the coffin on the viewership battle and fully surpass the EU LCS in terms of viewers. And while that didn’t end up happening, the first year of the franchised NA LCS ended up doing alright for itself. But then came 2019 and things took a turn for the worse.

Finally deciding to address the issue of the EU LCS not receiving enough love or attention from its makers, Riot Games decided to also franchise the league and rebrand it into the LEC. However, instead of simply changing the system and relying on that, the LEC made an effort to showcase their ten teams and use social media as a means to promote their league and give it a clearer identity, something that would also bring more attention as well. This was a clever and well thought out idea and it ended up being a resounding success as the LEC enjoyed more success in its first year of franchising than the LCS did. But that was also the catalyst for a long-lasting effect on the viewership battle.

Ever since then, the LEC has enjoyed a stable growth rate while the LCS continues to decline in viewership. What started out as years of domination by the LCS slowly turned into a landslide victory for the LEC. But that brings about the question of what exactly caused this huge turn of events? Was it one specific thing? Or a series of events that happened one by one?

The Reasons

Like any complicated issue, the reason for the LCS’ slow decline in viewership doesn’t trickle down to just one thing. It’s a plethora of reasons:

The dethronation of Team SoloMid

For a long time, TSM were known as the “Kings of NA”, the “Dynasty of NA” and “the team to beat”. They have always been North America’s most popular team and even during present times where their grip on the region has loosened, they still remain the most popular team. There is no denying however that their decline in performance and results since the start of the franchising era has had a negative effect on the league’s views. Along with TSM not being the top dogs of NA anymore, this also means that their popularity has taken a hit despite still being strong. In the past TSM chants at international events were accepted as a respect gesture, despite being a nuisance for other fans. In the present the TSM chants are mostly seen as a meme and this is largely due to the fact that TSM simply isn’t the team to beat in NA anymore. They do remain one of the stronger teams in the region, but not having won a single split in close to three years is starting to degrade their reputation as a dynasty and a powerhouse. 

The formulaic broadcast

In the past both the NA LCS and EU LCS would try new segments and ideas for side-shows. Though not all were successful, it was clear that there was a good amount of effort put into keeping the broadcasts fresh and exciting. Since franchising became a thing, the LEC has continued this trend and keeps trying to innovate and keep the ball rolling. The LCS however is another story. After franchising was put in place, the broadcast has become more formulaic and stagnant as the splits go by. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Yes and no. In theory it’s not a bad thing. If you have a working formula, there’s no need to fix it right? That’s true but it doesn’t apply for the LCS. League of Legends is an evolving game and that is something that fans of the game are used to. Similarly, it was always a big plus that the broadcasts were evolving too. However with the introduction of franchising, the LCS has stopped evolving and innovating and follows a very similar formula which goes something like this:

LCS Countdown -> Ads -> Game 1 -> Ads -> Post-Game Analysis -> Ads -> Game 2 -> Ads -> 

In theory having a formula in place which brings structure to the show is a good plan. But the viewers of competitive LoL are not the same as the viewers of traditional sports. They have different tastes and the more stagnant and formulaic a broadcast becomes, the more easily they will take notice of that.

The lack of branding and identity

As already mentioned in the first section of the article, a big difference between the two leagues is that while the LEC made an effort to create and flesh out its identity post-franchising, the LCS didn’t put in the same effort. Instead of making a strong push to showcase the LCS to a broader audience, the league simply relied on the fact that it’s going to be using a system that the North American audience is already used to. This new system was in turn used to generate hype. But hype needs to be generated in an authentic way and simply relying on an artificial catalyst such as having a new league system is not strong enough. The LEC knew this well and that’s why they learned from the LCS’s mistake and produced introductory videos for their accepted franchised teams to go along with their marketing plan. Regardless of how big of a factor it is, there is no denying that the LEC put in more effort to try and stand out on its own two feet while the LCS relied more on artificial means.

The inconsistent and unfriendly schedule

Contrary to LoL being an evolving game and the broadcasts needing to stay evolving, the schedule of a broadcast is the one thing which can stay static and unmoving. Although the LEC is guilty of this too, the LCS has suffered a hefty amount of changes to its schedule over the years. The days on which it broadcasts haven’t changed too much but the broadcast time has become less and less friendly, primarily for European viewers. The one thing LCS always had going for it which helped boost its viewership was that it would start broadcasting immediately following the LEC. Nowadays however this only happens one day during the week. Not to mention that the start time for weekend matches has been pushed up and has made those games quite hard to watch for any European viewer due to the games simply starting way too late.

In the LCS’ defense, the timezone difference between Europe and North America is quite large so it’s not so easy to balance it out. But the current system that is put in place definitely isn’t the most optimal and can be improved upon.

The recycling of players

Unlike most other leagues, the LCS heavily relies on using imports or veteran players. Rookies in NA are a rare sight and a good chunk of them end up not developing their talents very well due to having a poor environment for that kind of thing. A lot of the players we see in LCS are ones that have already played for teams before and have more or less shown what they are capable of. To be fair, any player always has the chance to improve. CoreJJ started out as a bottom tier ADC in NA before becoming a World Champion in South Korea and moving back to become one of the strongest supports in NA. That being said, the LCS as a league is guilty of relying way too much on recycling players of a known quality and not giving younger blood a chance. This in turn is a factor behind a decrease in viewership. If the league keeps having the same players just shuffling around teams, it’s going to lose its interest after a certain time.

The Solutions

How does Riot Games fix the LCS’ declining viewership? Is it even possible or has the ship already sank below too far?

One thing is for sure, the fix is not one simple action or deed. A number of things would need to happen to boost the viewership.

Trashtalk needs to be a thing

“I think– I think League of Legends, dude, OK, back when I started playing, League was super going uphill. The trajectory was like sky high and it was just exploding. (…)

And, you know, it’s like the fastest growing whatever competitive–yeah, sport, whatever they want to call it. And I think it’s gotten kind of boring, to be honest, because nobody’s willing to speak their mind. Because you get absolutely shit on by the community, you know, on Reddit, on Twitter, and whatever.

People just love tearing you down. And they love making you eat your words or whatever, even though you’re just talking shit because it’s fun. And I think watching esports should be fun. So I mean, now that we’re winning, I can have the luxury of doing this. Like, players should be able to put stuff on the line when they play. And it’s been missing for a long time. It’s always just been like, we’ll be a champion one day, and I hope my team has practiced harder than our opponents.

They are very honorable and deserve respect. It’s like, that’s so boring. How many times can you say that in like a different way? So yeah. That’s how I feel about the last couple of years of–NA LCS and EU LCS has been relatively tame. The biggest news that usually generates the most drama is roster swaps. So that’s kind of boring.”

TSM Doublelift, August 8th, 2016

These words from Doublelift may have been said a long time ago, but they stay true to this day. The LCS has over time become more and more tame, with players being unwilling to speak up their mind. Not only for the sake of good publicity but in order to not get crucified on social media if their words backfire on them. However the simple truth of the matter is that both the players and the teams themselves have to get over that fear. Whether they trash-talk or not, they are going to receive criticism sooner or later. There is no avoiding that. No matter how much you win or how well you do, the moment you start losing, you will face criticism.

Players in the LCS should therefore be more willing to speak up their mind and not be afraid of the backlash it may cause. The backlash is an essential part of sports and esports all across the world. Competition breeds trash-talk and trash-talk breeds backlash. But it’s not solely on the players either. Teams should also be more willing to allow their players to speak more freely and to not be afraid of any kind of trash-talk being seen in a negative light. Trash-talk is something that is often seen in traditional sports and it can help make an uninteresting match into something truly exciting.

However the trash-talk itself should happen naturally by the players and teams themselves. It shouldn’t be something that is forced onto them by Riot themselves. If it’s not genuine and authentic, then it’s going to feel forced and won’t connect with fans. If it is genuine though, it will bring more interest into the product and matches by default will have more stakes attached to them which will naturally spark more interest into the viewers.

Rookies should be used way more than now

A common counter-argument to the “rookies need to be used more in NA” statement is that NA doesn’t have much talent to effectively use rookies. This is factually wrong as the LCS has produced talented rookies who still play on a top level today or at the very least used to play at a high level and were respected as potential star players. These names include but are not limited to: Licorice, Dardoch, Biofrost, Cody Sun, Vulcan, Blaber, Contractz, Akaadian, Stixxay, Zeyzal, Solo, Hauntzer, Hakuho.

The second factor in favor of using rookies is something that the LCS orgs seem to struggle with and accept. It is the simple fact that rookies are rookies for a reason. Some may develop and grow faster than others, but in-general rookies take time to develop their potential. And it’s not as simple as just using a rookie and telling him to play. The right coaching staff is needed to properly nurture and develop the player. The LEC, LCK and LPL all understand this and apply it brilliantly. They not only give rookies time to develop but also do a good job at developing the rookie’s skills. LCS on the other hand has always been the league that expects instant results when using a rookie and if these results aren’t presented, then the player is simply given up on and labeled as “not talented enough”.

The broadcast needs to be more innovative

Remember the “TSM vs CLG, losing team’s owner has to dye his hair pink” bet? Or the similar but slightly different “TSM vs CLG, losing team’s owner has the winning team’s logo drawn on their forehead” bet? Or the “TSM vs Dignitas, losing team’s coach gets a bowl cut” bet? All of these were silly but fun bets that served to spice up the broadcast. Does that mean the LCS currently doesn’t have unique segments or shows? No of course not. They do. But most of them are aired on the LCS Countdown while the main broadcast itself is used purely for games and analysis. While this by itself isn’t a huge problem, it ends up creating the formulaic and straightforward broadcast which we already touched upon. Sprinkling the main broadcast with funny and unique segments would be something that would freshen things up and would change the mundane routine of the current LCS. These unique segments don’t need to be done every match day. They can be spontaneous and random. But the point is that they would bring more variety and a new feel to an otherwise stagnant product.

The schedule should be more friendly towards Europe

This was already mentioned but if the LCS makes an effort to make the start time of their broadcast on weekends more acceptable for European viewers, it would bring in a nice viewership boost. While the two leagues do compete with each other for viewers, there’s no reason why they can’t help each other out if doing so doesn’t harm the other.

Conclusion

While fixing the viewership is not a simple process and can’t happen overnight, it is quite factual that it has been going down and changes need to be made to fix things. Whether these changes are what was proposed in this article or something else entirely, if things stay the same then nothing good will happen and viewership might just keep declining. This is however a team effort. It’s not only the broadcast team that should put an effort to make the league more entertaining, but the players and teams as well. The LCS would not be broadcasting if it wasn’t for the thousands of fans that tune in weekly. These fans need to be given more incentives to keep tuning in, while new fans should be given reasons to stick around and become long-term fans. It’s not a fast process but it’s something that can be accomplished through unity, dedication and commitment.

Photos courtesy of Riot Games