The most important games of the LCS are its least watched.
The Promotion Tournament comes around twice a year for League of Legends, a series for the champions of the Challenger Series and the losers of the LCS. Two teams finally getting their chance at the big leagues, against two teams fighting for their jobs at their lowest, most depressing point. It’s one of the most devastating, emotionally charged, and narratively dynamic rounds of the season, though we rarely see it as so.
The Promotion Tournament brings in an audience much smaller than the 100-300 thousand per-game viewership of the Championship Series season. At a glance, you wouldn’t be crazy for thinking these games hardly matter. You’d be among thousands who have met the same impression, and who are regularly missing the most crucial matches of the split.
"It's Going to Suck Ass"
The entire event is framed as the chance for rookie teams and players to prove their worth and win their “promotion” into the big league Championship Series. But on the flip side of that positive spin lies our bottom two LCS teams, defending their berth in a painful process that former Curse coach Mark Zimmerman (better known as MarkZ) solemnly says is “going to suck ass.”
“Relegations is just like this massive weight. Like every day you wake up, you just feel worse," MarkZ told Blitz Esports, reminiscing on his own misadventures in relegation. “During my Curse days when I was coaching, there's a lot of times we were like close to the bottom team, last team in the league.”
“It's just like a pit in your stomach all the time. You go on stage, you lose again. You're just like, ‘Oh god, this is unavoidable.’”
Here in the Promotional Tournament, failure will demote an LCS team to the Challenger Series, where sponsors and investors have far less interest in funding a brand appearing in a much emptier digital arena. Whereas a loss in the regular season might shift your standings -- hit your pride and playoffs chances -- the Promotional Tournament has literally millions on the line.
More Money, More Problems
Over 14.7 million people watched the finals of the 2016 League of Legends World Championships, the climax of the season. A $2,680,000 sum was awarded to first place team SKT T-1, only slightly more than the reported $2.5 million that bought FlyQuest’s LCS spot this year. Only slightly more than the estimated $2.5 million value of SKT T-1 Faker’s contract.
Each year, a single team out of dozens will bring home the Summoner's Cup. One team will take home a couple million in prize money and all the indirect monetary benefits of housing the world's greatest League of Legends players. For the rest of the teams, almost all of them, their seasonal value lies in their LCS spot, the ability to consistently showcase their brand on one of the world's largest esports stages. That entire worth is on the line in relegations, the one moment each split that could devalue an organization by millions. These are the highest stakes games of the LCS season.
For most teams, the greatest LCS win is avoiding a relegations loss.
On top of that, the value of an LCS spot is only increasing over time, the booming esports industry creating a hotbed of investment and sponsorship. Cloud9 began with the $15,000 purchase of Quantic Gaming back in 2013. By 2015, Dignitas EU sold their LCS spot for roughly $1 million, and Gravity Gaming (soon to be Echo Fox) sold their berth for a reported $1 million as well. Just this year, Cloud9 Challenger’s LCS spot reportedly went for $1.8 million, with another $700,000 added to buyout player contracts.
Every team is hungry for the Cup, but for most teams, from a monetary standpoint, the most important LCS win is avoiding a relegations loss.
Goodbye, Origen and Giants Gaming
This week, Origen and Giants Gaming were the latest team to feel the crushing weight of relegation. The former ended the season 0-13, and losing both rounds of the Promotion Tournament 0-3, they'll be sent back to the Challenger Series. More than a demotion, though, these teams lost an LCS slot; their League of Legends play dropped over a million dollars into a gutter. For these players and their managers, it's a profound loss -- one that players and financial backers don't always stick around to fix.
Sorry for this nightmare.— Origen (@Origengg) April 13, 2017
Relegation is often followed by a series of uncomfortable events. Some players depart hoping to find a more successful home, others are kicked in attempts to repair the roster's failures. After Winterfox's relegation in 2015, Altec and Pobelter both jumped ship, joining Championship Series teams Gravity and CLG, respectively.
Behind the curtain, managers are shuffled and brands are reconsidered as investors begin to hesitate. Some relegated teams, like Dignitas in 2016, are rescued by new owners. Less fortunate brands, like EnemyGG, dissolved entirely.
These days, teams receive millions in funding to support the rising cost of running an esports team. Players now make exponentially more than they did just two years ago. Organizations are hiring double the management and support staff, from sports psychologists to dedicated chefs. Immortals and Cloud9 will soon be paying for entire campuses of teams, from which they can conduct easier marketing and branding operations across a number of esports. Cloud9 received an undisclosed number of millions in capital earlier this year, and FNATIC just recently rounded up $7 million from investors. Keeping an esports team online is more expensive than ever, and that backing becomes much less appealing when your once-Championship team gets kicked out of the spotlight.
What do you do?
"You're going to get depressed. It's going to suck ass," MarkZ closes his thoughts in the Blitz studio, offering what advice he can for teams who find themselves in the same position. "Try to stop thinking about it. Focus on just like improving day to day."
"You can't stop trying… play a lot solo queue," he continued. "You can kind of complain about it but you can't let it work its way into the scrim environment, and it will."
"It's kind of like you know this is going to happen, but you still have to tell them that it's wrong, because it is.”