Yesterday, eSports-focused editorial site OnGamers broke the news that in the contracts for the 2014 season of LCS, pro players will have certain restrictions on what they are allowed to stream. Unsurprisingly, Riot don’t want their top pros to be streaming (and effectively advertising) other MOBAs on their public streams... but neither do they want them playing Hearthstone, Diablo, or World of Anything At All.
It’s a contentious point, because until now, LCS pros had been able to stream whatever they pleased and Hearthstone has become kind of the unofficial “off-hours eSport” for the entire competitive gaming world. Furthermore, stream revenue is an important source of income for many players and teams, and fans enjoy tuning in to see the pros casual gaming pursuits as much as their practice.
On the other hand, LCS pros are basically paid by Riot, now. League of Legends eSports is an extension of Riot and subject to both unprecedented investment and opportunity, and also unprecedented oversight.
Riot’s eSports director Whalen Rozelle remarked on Reddit, “...These guys are professionals contracted to a professional sports league. When they’re streaming to 50,000 fans, they’re also representing the sport itself. I can’t stress enough how these guys in the LCS are on the road to being real, legitimate athletes. This is new territory for a lot of teams (especially in esports), because the transition goes from being a group of talented individuals to being real icons of a sport and a league. Similarly, you probably wouldn’t see an NFL player promoting Arena Football or a Nike-sponsored player wearing Reebok on camera. Pro players are free to play whatever games they want – we’re simply asking them to keep in mind that, on-stream, they’re the face of competitive League of Legends.”
This is a bit self-serving, of course. Pro players sign sponsorship deals independent of their leagues and teams as a way of augmenting their salaries. For most Western pro players, streaming fills that role, and part of streaming is being able to build and hold the attention of a large audience. Diversity helps with that.
The other thing that makes this restriction seem a bit heavy-handed is that it goes beyond what most players and fans will see as Riot’s legitimate interests. Nobody would bat an eye at a contract that says, “You can’t stream Dota 2.” It’s preposterous to think that Riot would want to be paying a player a salary, and then have that player basically start promoting a rival. But Diablo, Hearthstone, World of Tanks, and Fat Princess (I mean, really?) do not seem like games that should be of much concern to the makers of the most popular MOBA in the world.
Which makes sense from a certain point of view, but perhaps not from Riot’s. The free-to-play economy is about engagement and time. If you look at this list, the common thread is that Riot don’t want their players streaming big time-sinks. Even if a game isn’t necessarily directly competitive with League of Legends in terms of genre or even business model, they can still be rivals for time and attention. And MOBAs thrive on consuming both, because the money tends to follow.
It’s also worth noting the unusual position that League of Legends pros find themselves in. Grassroots League of Legends doesn’t really exist, and there are no strong independent leagues where they can take their talents. The smaller tournament circuit has been subsumed by the LCS Challenger series.
This couldn’t really happen in StarCraft or Dota because neither Blizzard nor Valve exert such blanket control over the eSports ecosystem. But the deal that Riot offered was to make eSports more stable and lucrative for a larger number of players than any other eSport in the world. There are sixteen pro teams in North America and Europe comprised of five players apiece, with alternates and support staff. That’s a product of Riot’s investment. But the flip side is that the entire pro scene now has a boss named Riot, and the boss’s priorities have to become theirs.