Press Conference: Riot executives discuss the World Championships, LoL's growth and broadcasting rights

by theScore Staff Oct 30 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of WC / Media Day

The day before the World Championship finals, four executives from Riot Games responded to questions from the press. Marc Merrill, co-founder and president of Riot Games, Brandon Beck, CEO and co-founder of Riot Games, Dustin Beck, vice-president and head of merchandise at Riot Games, and Whalen Rozelle, director of esports at Riot Games, fielded questions covering Riot's ideas for the competitive scene next year, their approach to "player focus," and the issue of broadcasting events. What follows is a transcript of the conference with some adjustments for readability.

There are 125 champions in the game. We've seen over half of them for Worlds. Do you feel like the meta is in a good place at the moment?

Whalen Rozelle: I think the meta is in a pretty great place. This is a very exciting Worlds overall. There's been a more diverse champion pool than we've ever seen at Worlds before. There have been a lot of different champions played and it's led to a lot of fun games.

When do you think Brazil will have a place in the World Championship? Next year? When?

Dustin Beck: I think we're pretty happy with how we've structured Wolds this year. We aren't going to see a lot of changes next year. It will depend on the competitive nature in the next two years. Brazil has done a great job, and no one will forget Kabum. We're going to take a flexible approach, of course, but for 2016, we're pretty happy with the format as-is.

Marc Merrill: paiN did a great job representing Brazil this year. It's really cool to see Brazil and the scene around the world continue to evolve and level up as well.

We keep reading that the game industry is going to beat the film and TV industry. Where do you think games will go in 10 years from now?

Brandon Beck: I think that the industry is going to continue to grow. I think there continues to be very solid momentum. Engagement with games is a solid form of entertainment. Many gamers stay committed into adulthood. I think games are going to continue to grow at a macro level, but it's hard to say relative to other forms of entertainment.

Two years ago, before the world championship in the US, I asked you this question about LoL maintenance and how it's a big problem in Korea. The problem has since been fixed. I think this reflects on the philosophy of being player-focused. I would like to know about your philosophy on player focus on how you define it.

Marc Merrill: Riot's philosophy is to do the right thing for the players. It's the guiding compass that informs our decision-making. We try to do the best for our players, as you highlighted, with Korea having server issues. We take those things very seriously and are constantly trying ot improve. Hopefully our track recod has demonstrated that. We're trying to improve and learn from our mistakes. We know what it's like to sit in the shoes of players and be really excited, and that's what we're doing our best to achieve and we're constantly trying to improve your experiences from that perspective.

You won't tell me where Worlds is next year, of course, but what factors go into determining where Worlds will be located?

Brandon Beck: It's really a multitude of factors. Those factors are changing as the sport evolves and matures. We needed all hands on deck originally. As time has gone on, we've learned from the challenges and some of the seasons. Season 2 was a huge learning experience, as many remember. We had some trying moments. Ultimately, as we could handle these, we got more bold and more ambitious and felt we could bring these tournaments around the world.

For future years to come, the biggest factors are going to be what cities and what regions have tremendous facilities that can make operating a great event really viable. Do those facilities have great technology? Do they provide a great in-house experience and vibe for the broadcast? Do they have great amenities that make the experience decent for players? Where are population centers for fans? We want to bring it to new centers all the time. We're trying to get more ambitious and give cities and countries a chance to endorse esports and make hosting events easy and viable from providing visas on down to the minor technical details.

In deciding to play the game on 5.18 and skipping many patches to the point where the way the game was played was altered, what have you learned, and is that something you want to do next year?

Marc Merrill: We think one of the key success factors for teams is to continue to be adaptable. There have been a lot of changes over time in League of Legends. It can vary from patch to patch over the season. We think the changes to 5.18 had a big timing factor and something we want to reflect on for next year. It was an exciting meta change to give top lane champions a chance to carry, and that's healthy and fun for the game. But we want to think about the large patch from a timing standpoint more as we go into next year.

Whalen Rozelle: We did learn from last year where we had a pretty compressed time between Regional Qualifiers and Worlds. This year, we cleared most of September to give all regions an equal amount of time to prepare. I think that really contributed to giving teams a chance to bring a lot of different strategies the excitement of seeing a bunch of different strategies collide at Worlds. I think that's why people really like watching international tournaments.

This is the fifth World Championship. What do you think is the biggest achievement so far in esports that Riot has made, and how much human resources and financials go into creating an event like this? What do you think is the prospect for esports?

Dustin Beck: I think there have been a lot of accomplishments over the last couple years. The one thing we always go back to is when we're at these events watching fans and players, that's undeniably cool. To watch the fans root for the palyers and global success that they might not have been rooting for at the start of the year. All the storytelling, all the blood, sweat, and tears, then to translate that to being a fan and watching that. We're traditional sports fans. We like seeing all these similar parallels and seeing all these fans tune in and watch these tournaments. Seeing that culminate was a dream a couple years ago — to build a sport that fans are as passionate about as our parents are about following traditional sports. That's probably what we're most proud of.

The second part about investment — these events are not cheap in doing them across the globe, but it's a good investment. Just as we invest in design and mechanics in the game, we invest in esports as well. We're starting to see non-endemic partners invest and participate. While it's an investment on Riot's behalf, it's also an investment for the teams. We're seeing investments that will help players get more paid. I think we're very bullish, but we're seeing that translate to other organizations.

Whalen Rozelle: We're doing this in so many regions around the world. We haven't just done this in North America, Europe, China, and Korea, we have a lot of pro leagues around the world, and our primary concern is sustainable investments.

Marc Merrill: We want to create a sustainable career path for players. Without that, it all goes away. We want to create an ecosystem around the world that really benefits players in the long term.

Recently Morello said he's working on R&D project. Could you tell us more about this new project?

Brandon Beck: Unfortunately, we can't talk about any R&D that's in progress.

LCK has become even stronger after they lost a lot of star players last year. What do you think about this situation? Do you think we need more cross-region tournaments to help solve this problem?

Brandon Beck: I definitely think that the LCK has had an incredible run this Worlds, as is evident by tomorrow's matchup. There's a lot of reasons for why the LCK is strong and continues to be strong. One of the incredible elements to the LCK is fantastic coaching. But we have actually seen a lot of great performances across regions. EU had an unprecedented performance. China won MSI. NA won IEM. paiN showed up big for the international teams. I don't know — to the other part of your question around international tournaments, that helps, but teams need to have strong leagues. It's that really sustained daily play that builds up leagues.

Whalen Rozelle: That really is our focus: building strong regional leagues is the main purpose. If we want global parity, we have to invest in our pro leagues around the world. We need to make sure it isn't just one or two good teams, but a really deep pool of teams that continue to attract star players and coaching staff. We really want to focus on the ecosystem and sustainability. Throwing a couple tournaments won't actually solve the problem.

When you look at how League of Legends esports works, the obvious point of reference is pro sports with analysts and leagues. Are there any other things that you guys have looked at for inspiration and that you hope to borrow from in the future?

Brandon Beck: I think you hit it on the head with what might be the obvious inspirations. Traditional sports we've grown up as fans of. That's been our inspiration with the awesome high highs and low lows, the agonies of defeats. The other aspect is being true to gamer culture. One thing that esports needs to do is to create its own identity: one that reflects the experience of being a gamer. We don't want to necessarily appeal to an audience that extends outside of gamers because we'd have to make too many compromises.

Whalen Rozelle: A couple examples of what gamers enjoy: gamers like streaming, gamers want to participate. We aren't just here to consume a movie and have a one way consumption pattern. We want to create that identity. How can we have fans and an audience interact more? I think that's why streaming has taken off and struck such a core. It's been very interactive.

Brandon Beck: That's also why we haven't, in NA and EU, rushed to TV. That isn't a natural place where a gamer is going to consume. It can be great for specific moments or events, but it isn't totally there yet.

The esports market is growing year after year. A lot of other organizations are buying teams. A Russian organization invested millions in a team. What do we have to expect — how will esports grow in the next two-to-five years?

Brandon Beck: You highlighted the Russian gentleman who invested into a Russian esports team — I think we're going to see more things like that. It's hard to judge whether that's good or bad, but seeing more and more professional ownership invest into esports is definitely a good thing. In the LCS, an owner of an NBA team just purchased a team. We have a lot of sports organizations in soccer, etc., looking to invest in teams. They plan to bring in more resources in the form of higher player salaries, more robust coaching staffs, more robust resources that augment the teams. Sports psychologists and things like that can be impactful in training and so on. We think that will raise the quality of life for players and quality of life for fans, and it will be an exciting trend we'll see a lot of.

These transactions will be significant numbers. They'll be huge validators for what teams have already built: teams that may sell their spots, teams that are going to grow and stay and hold on with the sport. I think its' going to be really exciting.

If the opportunity appears for normal broadcasting of a competition — maybe in Europe. Is this a risk, or could it be an opportunity to send a message to other countries and regions to put the game next to older generations? Does LoL need to be consumed on the internet?

Brandon Beck: Is TV good or bad for esports? I think it depends where and it depends on mainstream and mass market status for esports in a region coupled with the nature of the audience that watches TV. We've seen success in Korea — esports has been on TV for a long time and done well. In China and Taiwan, esports has been on television. In NA, it hasn't really been on television, and some of the stuff that is on TV, we'd like to forget.

Over time, I think esports will have a natural place where audiences are. People are cutting off TV subscriptions in higher numbers than ever. Fewer and fewer college students have cable subscriptions. TV may sunset before esports is really ripe for it. We don't typically make those decisions based on making a statement or proving a point. We do it because it adds value to our existing fans.

That's one of the questions we've been asking ourselves. TV is interested in esports, and we're going to see more of it happening. If there's a network that has an audience that makes sense and doesn't impact broadcast times or availability, so you don't have to type in your email or network password to access x at this time, then we'll start to explore.

Last year, finals were at an Olympic stadium with capacity for 69k, and there were 40k fans. This time, Mercedez Benz is able to have 17k. How many tickets did you sell? Did you see this as a process for shrinking the finals? Brandon was saying that the idea is to have bigger venues for bigger events, but I don't see this happening from last year to this year.

Dustin Beck: Bigger is not always better in terms of the live event experience. We want to make sure the fan experience is always the best. There are a lot of issues with big open air stadiums. Part of it is we're constrained by daylight. Seeing screens and watching during the daytime is tough, so we're a little confined. In an arena packed like this, there's a great energy. It's easy to do tech and production in a basketball stadium like this. That doesn't mean we won't go back to those open air stadiums. We're starting to book events like a year in advance, and we're starting our hunt for 2017 as well. I think we might limit sizes. We sold MSG out in less than a day, so we could have gone bigger, but a closed air arena means we can do a better event. 99% of our fans are watching online as well, so we have to consider that, and doing a broadcast this way is a lot easier for us.

In the NBA or SA premier league, broadcasting revenue is important to teams. Many teams get money to support future development. Free broadcasting might be good for consumers, but not necessarily for teams. Would Riot consider selling broadcasting rights, and what would Riot do to help new teams to develop?

Whalen Rozelle: Broadcasting rights are interesting. You've actively identified a way traditional sports create opportunities for teams and players. Our focus is on growing globally, and selling rights might hurt fan experience and hurt growth. We're looking for sponsorship of streams, which is something unique to esports. Down the road, we might look at broadcasting rights but right now the focus is on creating the best possible experience for fans and ensuring the growth is sustainable.

Brandon Beck: We need to acknowledge that, in China in particular, we need to improve the broadcast experience for viewers and teams. In the major leagues around the world, Riot runs two-of-five. If we include all the other leagues, Riot runs around half and partners for the other half. We want to ensure that there is a healthy ecosystem and the right experience for players and viewers who are watching. We want to create the right ecosystem for teams that are growing. Each region needs to grow their own approach. That's something we're looking into doing and helping our partners on the ground with.

Streaming platforms in China are getting a huge profit and income to players, more than they should get as a common pro player. Is there anything that Riot could do to prevent teams from losing players? Players may prefer to retire early to get money from platforms. Does Riot have any policy to solve this problem?

Walen Rozelle: We think that if we're worried about players retiring to become streamers, we want to build out an ecosystem to make it so the opportunity cost of retirement is higher. Ultimately, we view streaming and playing as separate paths. Some players might not be good streamers, and streamers might not be good pros. We like that being a pro can build a fanbase and help transition into streaming to make more money. We ultimately don't necessarily see it as a problem as long as we continue what we're doing to make players more money while they're pros.

Prior to the conference with Riot executives, players and coaches from KOO Tigers and SK Telecom T1 answered a few questions from the press about the final tomorrow. The players present included Lee "KurO" Seohaeng, Lee "Hojin" Hojin, and Jeong "NoFe" Nochul from KOO Tigers as well as Lee "Faker" Sanghyeok, Lee "Wolf" Jaewan, and Kim "kkOma" Junggyun from SK Telecom T1. Here are a few highlights.

What are the coaches going to be doing — is there a way to relieve pressure or is your job already done?

kkOma: I think it's quite unnecessary to do anything special to relieve the pressure that the teams face just because it's one day before the final. We're just going to do what we've always done. And I'm going to have strategy meetings to make my players feel more comfortable.

NoFe: As you can tell from the head-to-head record we have, I think our players might lose confidence in facing SKT because we have such a losing record. I think my role would be to try to minimize the nervousness that my team has. I'll try to tell my players how they've grown next to the SK Telecom players, and making them aware of these things are things that I will do.

Faker is very strong. We want to ask what makes Faker so unbeatable in the games?

Hojin: I think Faker's always been very good because he's very skilled. He's also very confident. From that confidence he likes to push to his limit and that of his opponents. He has such wonderful teammates that allow him to perform his best.

What is your prediction for tomorrow's games and why was Faker chosen to start for SKT?

kkOma: Because KOO has such a good momentum right now, I think the score might go as far as 3-2. We might actually lose the first games of the tournament, but I don't doubt that SKT will eventually be able to take the final victory. As for why Faker was chosen as the starter, this is my fourth year with him, and I believe he is at his best right now. I'm not just talking about mechanics and decisions in game, but decisions outside the game, so I think he is at his peak right now.

There are two Korean teams in the final despite the exodus. Why do you think Korea is able to come up with new and great players all the time?

kkOma: I actually have received this question a lot before, and I haven't seen how players live and play in other countries, but all I know is that we are the most desperate and we put in more effort.

Whatever happens, we know that the team winners this year are Korean. I want kkOma to state his honest opinion of the level of the other regions this year.

kkOma: My honest opinion is that there's hardly a difference between the regions now. Although the results have been really good for SKT, in practice and scrims, foreign teams have been doing really well. There is no reason to believe that foreign teams are not good, it all comes down to who puts in the most effort. I don't want to rank the teams right now, but I want to say SKT is the best team.

There are two South Korean teams in the final this year. Would you rather face other South Korean teams or international teams in the final?

NoFe: We have a lot of players that have experienced the world championship, and we always think that the world championship is a clash between regions. Because we wanted teams from different regions to face each other, I actually wanted Origen to beat SKT, which didn't happen. SKT is a mountain we have to climb. That's the challenge for the KOO Tigers.

There are lots of fans in Korea and worldwide who are cheering for both teams. I would like to ask the players if you win is there something you would like to do as a gift for the fans?

KurO: Because we are traveling in a foreign country, we haven't really had a chance to meet the fans. As a gift to the fans, I would like to hold a fan meet.

Faker: If we were to win, I think our victory itself would be a great gift for all our fans, but if you want something special, then just like the way my hairstyle looks, I will eat a broccoli.

This press conference was edited and condensed for clarity.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.