Esports meets mainstream: The NA LCS's move back to best-of-ones is a sign of the times

by Daniel Rosen Oct 3
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games

As esports gets bigger and more and more money is poured into leagues, we're going to see changes to the games we love. Sometimes the changes will be good, sometimes they'll be bad, and sometimes it'll be hard to say. Whatever happens though, know that for the most part, the changes being made and the changes that are coming are about money, not about the league itself.

After two years of regular season best-of-threes, the NA LCS is moving back to a best-of-one format for the 2018 season, which also happens to be the first franchised season. According to Riot's press release, the driving motivation here was to make the LCS more accessible, and best-of-threes were not picking up viewers.

Some team owners have come out in support of the switch, which makes a lot of sense. If people aren't watching best-of-threes, it's harder to sell sponsorships. The less sponsorships you sell, the less money you make. The math checks out.

According to Riot, more than half of fans will begin watching a best-of-three part way through the series, meaning they miss out on some of the games. They also don't have time to watch full LCS series, which I can definitely back up anecdotally. Two-to-three approximately 40-minute games, plus champion select and breaks is a lot to ask, especially on a nice summer weekend.

On top of that, Riot pointed out that they were looking for ways to remove the second stream and get back to a single stream for all games. In my research for a story I wrote back in April, I found that the second stream generally gets significantly fewer views compared to the main stream, and unless Team SoloMid or Cloud9 are playing on Stream 2, not much could attract eyeballs.

When Riot announced the switch over to the best-of-three format back in 2015, Riot stated that the advantages of Bo3s was the "rigorous competition" the format provided, as well as parity with other regions that NA and EU teams meet in international competition. The drawback was primarily that the low-quality, less popular matchups would be on for a longer time and tank viewership for the day.

Turns out, that really came to bear. So much so that Riot is essentially leaving out all their language on competitive benefits and walking back the language on why fans would like Bo3s.

Riot now believes that, based on viewership metrics and fan feedback, no one really wants a Bo3 league. But perhaps more importantly, team owners, particularly ones that have dropped a sizable chunk of money on a franchise spot in the new NA LCS, don't want a Bo3 league. They want as many eyes as possible on their teams and sponsors, and they want as much time to crank out content around that team as possible.

Does that mean the move is guaranteed to affect competitive integrity? Well, it's not like NA suddenly made it to Worlds Grand Finals after two years of Bo3s. The fact of the matter is, any improvements NA teams have made over the past two years have been through infrastructure, infrastructure that's not going to suddenly disappear when the league goes back to Bo1s.

The move isn't even unprecedented. Several major sports leagues play best-of-one games, and don't schedule hundreds of games every season. Look at the NFL, where teams only get 16 games a year. The onus is on players to get better in practice, not during games. Similarly, the onus in the new NA LCS will be on players to improve themselves, not the league to improve players.

But it's not necessarily so much about the practical implications on competitive integrity as it is about the big-picture stuff. Two years ago, Riot started a series of moves to bring all their international League of Legends competitions in line with each other through a shared ruleset, with some minor variations here and there. Now, Riot is walking all of that back, and staying silent on whatever the hell is happening in Europe, in the name of making sure the now extremely expensive entertainment juggernaut that will be the new NA LCS grows viewership.

Grade B+ — I support the move, honestly. As someone who has watched the LCS for work for a few years now, watching Bo3s feels interminable at times, and I miss the snappiness of Bo1s. However, it also made sense to unite all the major regions with one ruleset. For Riot, the sacrifice wasn't worth it, and I respect that, I just also think it's a sign of what's to come. Expect to see more format moves from leagues looking to pull viewers from outside the space. Shorter and snappier is the name of the game when it comes to the mainstream audience.

Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.