Riot threatens to cancel the LCS as professional gamers make history by going on strike

By Mason Berlinka

Published Jun 3, 2023 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

I never thought I’d be saying it, but it finally happened: professional gamers are on strike. Okay, there’s a little more to it than that, but it’s a funny thing to acknowledge. The medium I was so often berated for enjoying as a kid has finally reached the stage of legitimacy where professional players are having to walk out over pay disputes. Take that, dad.

Amid Hollywood writers and NHS staff, we’re now seeing gamers take a stand for their economic future in the budding Esports industry. It’s not all gamers on strike however, we’re currently dealing with pros from Riot Games’ notorious yet immensely successful free-to-play Massive Online Battle Arena (MOBA) League of Legends.

The game’s format pits five players on each team against each other and has them battle it out with the aim of destroying the opposite team’s base. The bird’s eye view of the playing field makes this genre incredibly suited to spectators. It’s just like watching a game of football—just with a little more blood.

Are esports popular?

For those who don’t know, here’s a little explainer on the esports scene. The best players from the world’s most popular online competitive games battle it out in glossy and glamorous tournaments in shows that don’t exactly sell out football stadiums, but pack a mid-range arena to the brim. And it’s no understatement to say that the fans are hardcore.

To give a good example, the League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) tournament took place last month in April 2023 at London’s Copper Box Arena, a multi-sport venue built for the 2012 Summer Olympics. The three-week affair saw the gaming-obsessed flock to the Olympic Park in Stratford, which had been decked out in banners and posters promoting the event.

Esports have clearly come a long way from the infamously sweaty homebrew tournaments that dominated the scene throughout the late 90s and early 00s. Nowadays, you can expect teams to show up with players worth millions of dollars, as well as sponsorships with everyday household names like Red Bull and Coca-Cola, to name a few.

And now, the esports scene is having its first-ever major walkout further proving the need to respect the new frontier of digital sports. Video games are the furthest away they’ve ever been from their childish image—we’re currently looking at a booming industry that was valued at 1.45 billion dollars in 2022.

The NA LCS walkout, explained

So what’s actually going down, why are professional League Of Legends players in North America staging a walkout?

Well, it all has to do with the scene’s second-tier amateur challenger league. Much like college American football, the North American Challengers League (NACL) has always been an opportunity for young and upcoming players to get fielded by big teams and prove their mettle on the competitive stage.

So what is it that Riot Games has done that is so controversial? The developer has dropped a mandate that requires the first-tier teams who are part of the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) to fund a team in the NACL, alongside their slot in the LCS.

This allegedly came at the request of the franchised teams who own slots in the league. Although this was promised as an opportunity for growth, it’s become clear that this won’t be the case, as several of the league’s biggest teams quickly dropped their challenger teams following the announcement.

The controversial move caught the ire of the LCS Player Association (LCSPA), an organisation initially set up by Riot themselves to help protect the interest of players. The group, which has since split from the developer (as it was always intended to do) has opted for a walk out after talks with the LCS failed to reach a conclusion.

The walkout, which was announced on Twitter on 29 May 2023, comes due to a lack of discussion and collaboration on the developer’s part with the leagues players who’ve chosen instead to prioritise the interests of the teams wealthy owners instead.

The historic decision—a first for the esports industry prompted a response from the LCS. The blog post, written by Riot’s global head of LoL esports Naz Aletaha, is filled with corporate fluff such as “we support the players,” and that the decision was about “economic viability.”

Notably, the LCS summer season, which would see teams returning to weekly matches following the break after MSI, has been delayed by two weeks, with threat of an entire cancellation looming if an agreement can’t be reached with the players on strike. So much for player support right?

A heartwarming message from the LCSPA followed on 31 May, stating that “without the players there is no league, and there is no esports” and that they hope to meet with Riot for daily meetings to reach a resolution.

Gaming is far from a perfect industry, and has been subject to numerous debates around equality in games and the harassment people face online when playing. And now, esports is taking its first steps towards protecting the rights and income of the players, as well as towards unionisation. It’ll be fascinating to see how this develops. Whether you’re an avid esports fanatic, or a casual gamer, this is history being written.

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