When TSM owner Andy "Reginald" Dinh spoke out Monday about the impact of Riot Games' policies on the stability of League of Legends esports, Riot co-founder Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill responded to him on Reddit. The resulting firestorm drew in team owners, Riot officials, casters and fans, many of whom seized the occasion to vent long-simmering resentment towards the publisher over its tight control of the esports ecosystem.
In a followup TwitLonger posted Tuesday, Reginald held the line of his initial criticisms, claiming that Riot does not give teams or players the necessary tools to develop their revenue and attract outside investment.
"The reason why I started to invest in other games was because LCS left me no choice," he wrote. "The relegation system is unstable and risky for everyone, other publishers are more collaborative and provide more opportunities for teams and players to make revenue. Over time, LCS has become more demanding and restrictive and the dynamics of a mutually beneficial relationship have become more one-sided."
In his earlier Reddit post, Tryndamere accused Reginald of being unfair to TSM's players by investing its profits in other esports, rather than offering larger salaries to sustain its LoL talent. "If he's so concerned about the financial health of his players," the Riot executive wrote, "maybe he should spend some of the millions he has made / makes from League of Legends on paying them instead of investing in other esports where he is losing money?" Tryndamere later edited the statement out of his post, but it was still widely shared online.
In his response, Reginald pointed out that Riot has several means of contributing to team earnings and player salaries, but has not increased its player stipend since 2013, and does not share revenue it makes from sponsorships with teams. Meanwhile, he said, the length of the season and the number of scheduled matches that players are expected to participate in has "skyrocketed."
"Combined with the fact that LCS doesn’t share sponsorship revenue, streaming revenue or even give a percentage to the World Champions for their team skins, I think that it’s unfair to imply that I’m greedy," he wrote.
Reginald argued that the LCS does not make it easy for teams to acquire outside sponsors. For example, LCS rules prohibit sponsors' branding from appearing on team merchandise. Meanwhile, the growing time commitment required by the LCS's expanding schedule has left players without time to pursue supplementary sources of income, like streaming.
"The LCS schedule has created a desperate time-crunch for players," Reginald wrote. "By taking almost all of our players’ available time, there simply is no time or energy for the players to do other activities to make money, such as doing event activations for sponsors (e.g., PAX Prime or PAX East), creating content and streaming. In order to fulfill our activation obligations to team sponsors, we were forced to hire non-LoL players who were able to travel to these types of events."
In his original interview, Reginald discussed how the risk of relegation makes League a huge gamble for teams and investors, and puts a lot of pressure on staff and players to succeed. He said that fear is compounded when something like the Juggernaut Patch or the Lane Swap Patch drops suddenly, and all the strategies teams spent months crafting go out the door.
"I think it’s a combination of the lack of revenue and also how unstable the patches are that really makes things volatile in terms of investment perspective, right?" he told William "scarra" Li. "It’s really scary to own an esports team because the patches change a lot. And so when you own a team and the patches change in a really unfavorable way for your players, then there’s a higher chance that you’ll do bad and you could get relegated."
Tryndamere played down the impact of Riot's patches on Reddit, saying that with its latest patch the company "intentionally prioritized game health and viewer experience (cool bot lane fights and early game aggression) over the ability for teams / coaches to field "safer" comps by lane swapping." He said Riot feels the patch has been a success already, by encouraging more five-game series and more early aggression in the LCS Playoffs.
In his TwitLonger, Reginald responded that Tryndamere was "missing the point."
"The system should reward those players who have dedicated the most time and energy to preparing for Worlds, but introducing a new patch near the end of the season knocks everyone back to the starting point," he wrote. "LCS player careers are already too short and mid-season patches ratchet up the stress on them and further increase the odds of being cut. This kind of TIMING of patches can force a team to make a roster change rather than trying to coach players through a difficult patch transition. A few weeks of poor performance can end a player’s career and nobody wants to improve player job security more than me."
In response to Tryndamere's implication that it was up to teams and team owners to ensure stability for players, Reginald argued that LCS teams face greater restrictions that teams in traditional sports, and have fewer means to grow their revenue, which leaves them and their players at the mercy of Riot.
"Marc says that I have the power to change this dynamic, but the truth is I’m not an owner in the same sense that Marc is," he wrote. "Traditional major sports organizations own stadiums and franchise rights in a league. In my case, Marc owns the game and the exclusive league and he just offers me a contract every December to participate in LCS, a slot which I risk losing twice a year. I can’t earn anything related to LCS except what he pays me or allows me to earn."
After the dispute broke out Monday, several team owners voiced their support for Reginald's view. Andy Miller, co-founder of NRG eSports, which was recently relegated from the NA LCS and disbanded its team, tweeted his agreement, while Renegades co-owner Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles, whose team was banned from the LCS earlier this year, lambasted Tryndamere and Riot in a lengthy response video on Tuesday morning.
Other team owners have spoken recently about the lack of revenue options for players and organizations involved in the LCS, and many of them feel they have even fewer ways to attract outside sponsors than a major established brand like TSM. H2K CEO Susan Tully said in a recent AMA that because teams' only income options are prize money and merchandising, both of which are crippled by relegation, Riot should consider revenue sharing as an alternative.
"Older brands, with significant brand notoriety, have been able to monetize with sponsorships and sale of merchandise," she wrote. "The big challenge is to now to persuade the developers to provide meaningful revenue sharing. Without it, the business model does not work."
Following Cloud9 Challenger’s victory in the Summer Promotion tournament, org owner and team manager Jack Etienne criticized the whole system in an interview with Yahoo Esports.
“I think the system should be looked at. I mean, we’re just working within the system we have now. But I would love to see us move to maybe like a franchise system where there’s some security for the teams that are already in the LCS and the players that are a part of those teams,” he told Travis Gafford. “Because right now if you lose your spot, and I nearly had this last year, we were heading towards relegation, y’know that’s a massive investment from Cloud9 that gets lost.”
Several community members criticized the size of Riot's prize pools in their responses to Tryndamere on Reddit, arguing LoL's prize money has fallen behind that of competitive titles like Dota 2 and Counter-Strike. The EU and NA LCS Playoffs prize pools have been $100,000 since the league was established in 2013, while the LoL World Championship prize pool has hovered around $2 million since 2012. This year's Worlds prize pool has not yet been announced.
Tryndamere said that Riot will look into increasing the Worlds prize pool, though they're more concerned with "building sustainability (like 13 leagues around the world for year round play) where we have hundreds of full time esports pros and personnel where their careers are League."
Reginald concluded his TwitLonger by saying he is open to working with Riot to make things better for team owners, investors, and players, but that "the real power to fix this situation is in Riot’s hands. They can stabilize the LCS system and provide security and sufficient compensation for the players.
"They can share streaming and sponsorship revenue, they can expand and promote the sale of in-game items and share that revenue, they can create a robust merchandising program and sell team and player items in their online store," he said. "If they did these things, it would help justify the huge sacrifices made by young players as they strive to become true professional athletes."
Last updated 5:43 PM on 8/23/2016
Sasha Erfanian is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.