On Monday, professional League of Legends players in the North American League Championship Series (LCS) voted to walk out just ahead of their summer season beginning this Thursday.
The vote—which was in response to a highly criticized recent rule change from developer Riot Games to no longer force franchised teams to field an amateur roster and allow younger players a shot at breaking into the scene—“overwhelmingly” passed according to a tweet from the LCS Players Association with widespread support from esports content creators.
Here’s what all gamers and creators should know about the League of Legends walkout.
Why are League of Legends players striking?
League of Legends is a PC game developed by Riot Games where the goal is to join a team of four other players to destroy an enemy base. Using one of 163 unique champions, you control characters like magical archers, giant polar bears, or chain-welding mages. Though it was released in 2009, the game is still incredibly popular, boasting around 150 million players in the past month, according to ActivePlayer.
The LCS was created in 2013, offering a fully professional ring for the game’s top players to compete in. The LCS scene quickly grew, with high-stake tournaments pulling in millions of viewers and teams pulling in sponsorships from brands like Grubhub, Logitech, and Samsung.
In 2018, the league became franchised, offering a select group of teams a permanent spot for $10 million. Top players became celebrities and content creators earning record salaries—Luka “Perkz” Perković was paid more than $2 million a year in 2021 for team Cloud9, and Hu “SwordArt” Shuo-Chieh received a $6 million a year contract in 2020 (he left the year after).
But the good times haven’t been lasting, and the esports bubble has already started to burst. Viewership has started to stagnate, with the 2023 LCS Spring final only having a max of 271,376 viewers, according to Esports Charts, the lowest of any final since 2017. Either because of this lack of interest, or just the overall market changing, Riot Games has decided to invest less heavily in their North American esports scene.
Profits over people
On May 12, Riot Games announced in a blog that at the behest of teams, they would be removing the “mandate to field a team for the North American Challengers League (NACL).”
The NACL is an amateur league that gave up-and-coming players a shot at playing in the big leagues and developing the skills needed to turn full pro. It’s a crucial part of the ecosystem that allows homegrown talent to flourish in a scene that’s heavily denominated by international imports. All but three teams (Evil Genuines, Team Liquid, and FlyQuest) opted to abandon their NACL roster.
After the announcement, the LCS Players Association (LCSPA) tweeted that “as many as 70 players, coaches, and managers will lose their jobs overnight” with teams disbanding their amateur rosters and firing supporting staff.
Phil Aram, the LCSPA’s executive director, told esports journalist Mikhail Klimentov on his Substack that the LCSPA wasn’t told about the change beforehand and that “Riot lied to us, … and the outcome of that lie is that half our players’ jobs are gone overnight.” (Aram told Passionfruit that the LSCPA is postponing interviews until “after today’s meeting with Riot.”)
The LCSPA tweeted a series of demands for Riot Games: They want a “revenue pool” of $300,000 for each NACL team per year, a minimum contract for the five players that win the LCS summer finals, and to institute a rule where three-fifths of NACL rosters that have already been released get first priority for the next season.
So a vote was called on May 28, and according to independent esports journalist Travis Gafford on Twitter, it took less than “60 minutes.” In addition, a media day was planned for Tuesday, but according to Gafford, it was canceled less than an hour before it was supposed to begin due to the strike moving so quickly.
“This really is a historic moment,” Gafford told Passionfruit. “I do think the results of this action will either motivate or discourage other pro esports players who hope to organize and make demands of teams, leagues, and publishers in the future.”
The LCS season is broken into two splits: a spring and a summer season. Despite the LCS walkout, the 2023 summer split is still expected to start on Thursday, with Gafford claiming on a YouTube live stream that the ranked requirement for players for the season has been removed, allowing technically anyone to compete.
In response to the news, it’s unclear if some people outside of the LCS will cross the picket line as “scabs”—aka, those who break strikes and work against unions. Players are urging the community to stay united and take a stand.
A striking resemblance
Traditional sports have been shaped by player unions. The MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL all unionized in the 1950s and 1960s, guaranteeing them healthcare and increased minimum salaries. Now these players are some of the most well-paid in the industry, thanks to their collective bargaining powers. In other non-unionized sports like the WWE, pay discrepancy is a lot wider, with top players earning millions while those at the bottom earn $250,000, according to pro wrestlers.
“Players standing up and organizing for their interests bears a striking (pardon the pun) resemblance to player unionization in traditional sports in a way Riot should really take seriously,” Klimentov told Passionfruit.
Not only does the League of Legends walkout resemble the demands of sports unionizing, but also bears a resemblance to the ongoing Writers Strike. Beyond just “more pay,” one of the key issues the Writers Guild of America is currently pushing for has to do with the way TV writing careers are built over time and corporations’ prioritization of short-term profits over long-term careers.
Response to the League of Legends walkout has been overwhelmingly positive for the players, especially from esports content creators. YouTuber Jake Lucky called the walkout on Twitter “a historical moment for esports right here” and TikToker David Szajnuk tweeted that “Riot is point blank refusing to go to the table” with players and teams.
“If Riot does not come to the table and players don’t cave, we could see the collapse of the LCS as sponsors pull out in mass,” Szajnuk told Passionfruit. “We honestly have no clue where this could land.”
The power of the publisher
When it comes to their esports league, Riot Games holds most, if not all, of the power. Unlike traditional sports where anyone can technically start a league, Riot owns League of Legends and only competitive scenes they approve of are allowed to exist. Esports is basically an advertisement for them, an attempt to try and convince viewers that they too could be a pro if they are just willing to devote their lives to their game.
Riot Games has had its fair share of controversies when it comes to worker’s rights in the past. In 2018, a class action lawsuit was filed against the company that alleged gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and misconduct. California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing issued a statement in August 2021 that Riot had failed to inform employees of their right to speak to the organization about instances of harassment. The developer agreed to pay a $100 million settlement in December 2021 to 1,548 women.
Riot Games is at a crucial apex in its esports league. Brands and sponsors may be uncomfortable with how the game developer is treating its players and the damage that this move may bring to the league. With the season starting on Thursday, we only have to wait a few days to find out what’s going to happen on Summoner’s Rift.
Riot Games did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.
Update, 8:45am CT, May 31: Riot Games responded to our request for comment by linking to a new blog post about the walkout from Naz Aletaha, its global head of League of Legends esports. The company announced it is delaying the start of the season for two weeks and is denying each of the LCSPA’s demands.
Specifically, the company noted millions of dollars in subsidies for the NACL weren’t “sustainable” and to “be brutally honest, shouldn’t be necessary.” “We have other Tier 2 leagues around the world which thrive on their own, and we believe the NACL can get to that place too,” the blog post read.
The LCSPA said on Twitter it will request daily meetings with Riot in the coming days to try to come to a resolution.