This article is part of our Beyond the Game series.
By now, you've heard the news. Immortals will no longer be a part of the North American League of Legends Championship Series come the 2018 Spring Split. As one of the most successful teams in the league's history, it was a surprising move to say the least. It becomes all the more puzzling when you think about the fact that the CEO of Immortals, Noah Whinston, was one of the main proponents of franchising in the first place.
With that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to bring out the eGamerNews think tank to try and make sense of this move. We've got Noah Waltzer, Chase Geddes, James Bates, and Brendan Hickey here with some answers from all sides of the spectrum to weigh in. Let's jump right in.
1. What does Immortals’ exclusion tell you about Riot’s vision for franchising?
Noah: I’m not sure what Riot’s vision exactly is at this point, since IMT was a beloved and successful organization. Sure, there’s the argument to be made that the organization didn’t bring a lot to the table financially, but a smaller amount of advertisers shouldn’t disqualify IMT from joining the league unless the incoming organizations can bring serious money themselves. Maybe Riot wants to own the LA Esport scene, so preventing IMT from having a foothold in LCS and owning one of the LA OWL spots was in Riot’s best interests somehow? I’m at a loss, to be honest. The vision’s blurry for sure, not a lot of newer organizations were so universally praised than Immortals were.
Chase:: It’s a bit confusing that they’d decline Immortals given the organization's track record. On one hand, it looks like they don’t like competition between OWL and themselves, but by accepting OpTic, that argument sort of topples. It’s like they really want League to succeed and be bigger than OWL. Riot originally wanted the “Best of the best” organizations, but I think they dropped the ball by excluding IMT if that’s their goal.
James: Some reflection on this question has led me to believe that all this decision really makes a statement about Riot’s focus on sustainability. One thing people overlook about Immortals is that despite their competitive success in League of Legends, they’re still not a particularly marketable brand. They lack major sponsors and I would posit that they’re likely the least profitable team in the entire NA LCS at the moment since they’re so willing to commit resources to their team. My theory is that Riot looked at the Immortals’ books and found an organization that’s run entirely on venture capital and doesn’t generate meaningful revenue. While there’s certainly outraged fans on Reddit and Twitter at the moment, the reality is that Immortals doesn’t command tremendously strong brand loyalty. Ultimately, I’m sad to see the Immortals leave, but I don’t think it’s the wrong choice. The brand simply hasn’t proven itself profitable, and it’s had plenty of opportunities to do so.
2. Based on Riot’s alleged reasoning of OWL and NA LCS being direct competitors in Los Angeles, was this the right move?
Brendan: Personally I think fans mainly just want orgs that are invested in seeing the League continue to improve. Immortals certainly seemed to fall under that category, and frankly I’m not sure I buy the idea that the OWL competes directly with LCS. That said, if Riot wants to stick with these companies in the long term, I suppose it’s possible that a significant conflict of interest could exist if the OWL ever holds a larger market share.
Chase:: I have to agree with Brendan on this one; it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Instead of taking a step forward, it’s as if they took a giant leap backwards. Even though the organization is committed to a competitor through OWL, I don’t think the amount of broadcast conflict is enough to justify excluding them. I think IMT specifically has proven their ability to engage multiple different esports at once without neglecting teams or the publisher (see League, Smash, Dota, CSGO).
Noah:: There’s a saying I’m gonna bungle here, but it goes something like this: “a rising tide makes all ships rise.” If Riot thinks it's’ so far ahead of all the other esports to the point where it can demand loyalty from orgs, someone needs to get shown the door at Riot HQ. I agree with Brendan and Chasef, IMT is a poster child for relatively new successful esports organizations. IMT has shown great commitment to all of its teams and games it competes in, so it’s ridiculous to me that Riot would punish the organization for being successful outside of Riot.
James:: I don’t think this reasoning has anything to do with the decision, so I’m going to have to abstain. If, for some reason, that is the reason than I would say it’s an asinine decisions for the reasons my colleagues have highlighted and leave it at that.
3. How do you feel about OpTic Gaming getting in? Are you guys ready for the Green Wall?
James:: The Green Wall? I don’t even...What? I guess I’m missing something. Anyways, all I know about OpTic is that they’re a huge force in the FPS world, which I stay far, far away from. Considering pretty much every organization that’s come from that world into the LCS has failed, I’m not holding out that much hope, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they made it. If they buy out the Immortals infrastructure (which they should 100% do) I’ll root for them as hard as I do any NA team. Take from that whatever you will.
Chase:: I used to be a big OpTic fanboy back when I first started playing video games so it’s cool to see another big name getting involved. I think if Hector “H3cz” Rodriguez is able to run his LCS team like he’s run the organization and brand, it could bring a lot of much needed exposure to the league. The sheer amount of fans the brand brings is definitely a major reason by itself to explain why they were accepted. If anything, I see viewership being massive for OpTic games despite how good their roster ends up being.
Brendan:: All I really know about OpTic is that they’re a big player in other esports scenes, which makes me optimistic about their participation in the LCS. I think having more money around generally leads to growth, unless you happen to be Team Liquid.
Noah:: If ever there was an NA org that could rival TSM in terms of annoying fans, OpTic might be it. It’s always nice to see new blood enter the LCS, and OpTic is certainly deserving of a spot with its community and the weight its name carries in the scene. It’ll be interesting to see how this team builds up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it slots comfortably into the middle of the pack. The only downside is that, with NV gone, we won’t get any classic rivalry games between the legendary NA gaming clans.
4. With the Immortals decision and the reversion back to the best-of-one format, is Riot dooming North America to obscurity?
Noah:: Obscurity is a strong word. NA will always have money and viewers. NA will always have Riot HQ. A better word might be “mediocrity” or “international failure” since I don’t think it’ll be possible for LoL fans to ignore NA. Sure, NA might remain the laughingstock of the international community, but NA will still be fine in the long run. Realistically, NA will be fine, and almost nothing will change internationally. Maybe NA orgs start buying more expensive imports. That’d be cool.
Brendan:: We’ve seen best-of-one and best-of-three in North America and it hasn’t made a difference internationally. I know some players were vocally upset about the reversion, but it seems to me like that isn’t the problem.
Chase:: Honestly, I think it’s we’re pretty far past that point. The West has tended to be more about engaging fans and making more money than it has been for international performance. Although there’s occasionally decent showings by C9 and TSM, the region hasn’t really been internationally competitive since Season 2 Worlds. As long as the players are focused on streaming and making money rather than effective practice, I don’t see the format changing anything. Although Immortals may have made the league slightly more competitive, unless there is massive incentive for team’s and players to perform up to par with established international threats, there will never be a case for NA being competitive outside of itself.
James:: The way you frame this question makes it sound like North America’s competitive viability has anything to do with its success. Engaging fans is far more important for NA’s success than competitive integrity is, so I think that the BO1 decision was the correct one, even if it ensures I’ll never cover North America again unless one of my taskmasters threatens my employment contract. (Editor’s note: He makes us sound like such evil dudes. FeelsBad.) In regards to the Immortals decision, it’s also impossible to tell exactly how little or much sense this decision makes in the grand scheme of things because we have no idea who’s going to replace Immortals. If a random no-name organization takes the spot and fields a bad roster, then it will likely prove to be a slightly negative decision. If, however, G2 Esports, whose application is still in flux, takes the spot, then you’ll instead have a huge powerhouse team that already has a massive fanbase in the spot, which would be a decided net positive. Put me on the side of “it’s too early to tell”.