The Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers and OpTic Gaming are the four new ownership groups entering the newly franchised NA LCS, Riot announced Monday.
The new teams were decided after a months-long application process that saw Immortals, Team Dignitas, Phoenix1 and Team EnVyUs ejected from the league ahead of the 2018 season. Team SoloMid, Team Liquid, Cloud9, Counter-Logic Gaming, Echo Fox and FlyQuest will remain in the NA LCS.
Teams participating in the 2018 season will have a mostly permanent spot in the league that cannot be lost through relegation. While Riot did not specifically state why these four teams' applications were rejected, Riot's co-head of esports, Jarred Kennedy, told theScore esports their choices were made to bring teams with a certain set of skills to the table.
"At the highest level, when we were building this new collection of teams, what we wanted to do was have a mix of organizations that had complementary skill sets and capabilities and experiences, and we were looking for organizations that had business acumen, the ability to build brands, the ability to activate and cultivate fanbases, a history of winning, understanding of our ecosystem and our sport," Kennedy told theScore esports.
"And we think that the group that we've been able to bring together represents all of that in a really interesting combination, We think that combination is going to be great for the future of the NA LCS."
Of the four new organizations, only OpTic Gaming will continue to use their existing branding. The Houston Rockets' NA LCS team will be known as Clutch Gaming, the Cleveland Cavaliers' team will be 100 Thieves, and the Golden State Warriors' team is called the Golden Guardians.
Notably, 100 Thieves will be managed by Matthew "Nadeshot" Haag, a retired Call of Duty player and the former captain of OpTic Gaming's CoD team. Nadeshot left OpTic in 2016 to form the 100 Thieves organization, but the team failed to make a mark in the competitive scene and disbanded within two months.
As Riot works to build this new iteration of the NA LCS, the company says they're also working to build the strength of the NA LCS Players' Association. The PA has received initial funding from the developer, but as the organization becomes more independent, Kennedy said Riot is open to the idea of the players unionizing and developing a collective bargaining agreement.
"If players unionize and they choose to form a players union, they have a right to enter into collective bargaining, and that is something we will absolutely be more than happy to engage in at that time," Riot co-head of esports Whalon Rozelle told theScore esports.
"At the end of the day, we want the NA LCS to be a place where being a pro is a great career opportunity, it's lucrative from a compensation perspective, and it's also a place where they can develop the skills that they need to tackle life and we think that having a players' association is a really important first step in all of those things, and where it goes, we're not sure, but we embrace anything that is really good for pros down the road."
But while unionization would happen without Riot oversight, expansion of the league is something they're looking at carefully. According to Kennedy and Rozelle, expanding the league beyond 10 teams will depend on several factors, including how the NA LCS performs internationally, the demand for more spots, fandom growth and how much talent they find growing in the new academy team system.
In 2018, the Challenger Series will be replaced by 10 academy teams, one for each team in the NA LCS, made up of newer talent that the organizations want to develop.
As for the base 10 teams, Kennedy and Rozelle say that they took each of the hundreds of applications seriously, including those from other regions. While Riot did not confirm which foreign organizations applied for spots in the NA LCS, they did say that they didn't automatically reject any application, regardless of where it came from.
"We did receive applications from outside of North America, and we took those applications quite seriously," Kennedy said. "We had long conversations about various partners, and we considered the application pool on its merits across the board."
Similarly, Kennedy said geolocation is something Riot has considered for the NA LCS. Assigning teams to cities is something we'll been seeing in the Overwatch League, and will see in the LPL next year, but won't be happening in North American League of Legends just yet.
"Our sport did not grow up in a geographic-based way, we don't necessarily want to force something that works in other sports on to what's best for League of Legends esports," Kennedy said. "We will continue to consider geolocation and other ways to evolve the league as it makes sense, and it's great to have partners that can help us make those decisions now. It's not right for us today, but that's not to say it's not something we would consider in the future."
However, Kennedy also noted that Riot will be watching the LPL's implementation of geolocation closely, and will look to it as "empirical data" about how geolocated teams work in League of Legends.
theScore esports initially reported on NA LCS franchising in April, and Riot formally announced the process in June. Teams then had to go through a two-stage process to enter the league, with both a written application and in-person interviews determining who got one of the ten spots.
The 2018 NA LCS Spring Split will begin on January 20.