There are two things that are nigh-impossible to do when writing about Riot Games’ esports operations. First, to get anybody to speak ill of its direct player relations and league operations representatives. The employees directly involved in the day-to-day conduct seem to get along well with the players and teams – team owners, whether at the LCS or Challenger Series level, are quick to praise the people assigned to oversee their concerns and work with them.
The second thing, under normal circumstances, is to have them publicly dissent against Riot leadership’s policies. But the current circumstances, with both sponsors and team owners publicly demanding changes to the esports ecosystem, is merely the surface-level symptom of a deep schism within the company itself.
Whether it be current or previous employees or team staff past and present, it’s become very hard to find anybody to defend esports director Whalen Rozelle – even Rozelle himself, as Riot has not responded to requests for statements.
According to sources, “politics at Riot became increasingly insane” since the start of the LCS. Three League Ops leaders have left in three years, despite the position nominally being one of the most prestigious on the scene. A rift exists between Rozelle and esports business development director Jarred Kennedy – one implicated as a critical reason as to why there’s been no leadership or guidance in the development of a sustainable ecosystem for the teams.
Yes, Rioters are aware there’s a huge problem. They just haven’t been able to convince their bosses to sign off on the solutions.
“To be good at politics at Riot, or to get anything done, there are three options,” said a source. “One, be a loud overbearing bully in the room. Two, you could be somebody that constantly went to the top of the food chain and had some sort of rapport with a key leader at the company.” To the credit of Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck, they’d made themselves highly accessible to Rioters in general, but there were human-level drawbacks with this policy – in that they were human as well. “One of the flaws was, if they liked you, they’d listen to your feedback and take your word as gospel. There wasn’t anything like a vetting process.”
The third method is pretty common to group dynamics – especially with company cultures that lean toward the young. “[Riot] was a very young company, very fraternal – many beers Fridays, a lot of alcohol flowing around the company. I’m not saying it was all booze and drugs, but it’s a young environment – if you cozy up to people, your peers, regardless if your ideas were good, you could win popularity contests.”
In Rozelle’s case, he was originally brought on board for mobile and web development, due to his prior career with Curse. But he made a strong appeal for his involvement in esports, thanks to his fandom of the Giants and Golden State Warriors. It was intended for him to focus more on broadcast quality and creating LoLesports – he had no experience running tournaments, or with league management or event management. He ultimately ended up in directorship, not because he made up for that gap in knowledge, but due to his close working relationship with Dustin Beck, brother of founder Brandon Beck.
The source was blunt: “Whalen’s not a partier. He’s a pretty straight-edged guy; I don’t think there was anything illicit or weird about his dealings – but he sucked up hard to Dustin Beck.”
Beck, known to the community as Redbeard, was assigned early on to oversee esports development – no screening was involved, despite the responsibilities of the role, and his original assignation was to finance instead. He had no applicable skill or knowledge sets for competitive development, and it was demonstrated in his leadership over the department. Arguments over the esports program’s direction were based on whether or not “Dustin didn’t grasp it, or showed hesitancy towards it.”
“I think, at times, Dustin felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of new information he was given – he never worked in esports. Technical design decisions – he never worked in gaming, he’s never been a designer, never run a tournament.” When Beck felt threatened by the complexities of the esports program, Rozelle would then build capital with him by agreeing and validating his concerns – even over the protests of other managers and directors.
Through securing Beck’s trust, Rozelle was handpicked for the directorship, alongside Jarred Kennedy. It’s been very hard to find anybody to speak positively of Rozelle’s capabilities in that role.
Said another source: “A lot of the issues, in my estimation, comes from Whalen being unequipped to deal with all the issues, and few people with true ecosystem operations background to solve the issues. They’ve never had consultations from the NBA or NFL to bring in, the League Ops department has been understaffed, and the people in it has been incompetent.” They back up the claim that Rozelle has no prior experience with league ops or sports ecosystems, outside of the viewpoint of a standard sports fan. And he has, specifically, done nothing to set up the sustainable ecosystem everybody has recently been demanding for.
There have been notably very little monetization of the esports broadcast since the inception of the LCS, and this probably has a lot to do that very little has been done to establish a staff that can do so. There used to be three marketing and sales representatives – it’s since been shaved down to a single ex-Activision employee with no formal background in sports advertising or broadcast rights distributions.
And, yes, it’s SNAFU for the team owners. “The owners are basically treading water or losing money on this in a lot of cases, for an incredibly unstable industry. Cloud 9, TSM, Liquid – outside of them, I doubt anyone in NA is profitable. And [if they are] it’s not because of League – it’s because they are now multi-gaming organizations with huge brand presence.” To back that up: earlier statements by Andy ‘Reginald’ Dinh, owner of Team Solomid, claims that League operations are sustained by website revenue and players of other games fulfilling sponsorship obligations on their behalf. The advertising restrictions imposed by Riot Esports has hindered even sponsorship revenue, upon which the teams are almost exclusively reliant upon.
“Riot really doesn’t like people pulling back the curtain,” said the source. “The community judgments about public decisions are problem enough. If they saw what a mess the department was, and how clueless they were about the future, they would be more surprised.” There are, they claim, no five to 10-year plans. The department is barely able to plan one or two years ahead. Riot esports is “just kind of woefully unprepared for the type of ecosystem they were creating with the LCS and the consequences of the restrictions they put on the market.”
Rozelle claimed over Reddit that he was in regular communication with team owners and esports stakeholders about the challenges facing the scene. The extent of those communications may be overstated. Said a source within the LCS: “In my time, I had an owner conference. One conference call. That is the only communication I had with him in six months.”
Said another: “No one from the LCS has reached out to me at all.” When linked to Rozelle’s statement, specifically “we have regular meetings with owners on a broader basis to talk about issues beyond the ones discussed here,” the owner said, “he must mean NA.”
“Riot Esports sees themselves as a ‘premier brand,’” said a source. Riot’s intended advertising partners are Coca Cola and Intel – not, as it were, Razer and AMD. In fact, the overall company direction is negative towards a hard push at monetizing its esports initiatives – the main goal is to monetize the game itself, and it overshadows any attempt at bringing in sponsors in line with the LCS’s values, especially in North America.
This creates a conflict, because the demographic for esports interests is still effectively limited to a small (if growing) enthusiast’s demographic. “Brands who have the big bucks for Riot’s aspirations don’t necessarily see value in buying in, but Riot doesn’t want to work with the ones that do.”
It also creates a conflict in incentives with their leadership. “League of Legends is making so much money – when [esports’] goal isn’t money, it’s really hard to make improvements to the product. What’s your measuring stick? How do you make improvements when you’re the most played game in the world? How do you convince a guy like Dustin or Whalen they could do better?”
The source claims that it’s possible Riot just doesn’t see enough value in doing so – even if the department could make the company an extra $20 million, “Honestly, I don’t know if that sum of money even matters [to Riot].” A commissioner of a sports organization like the NFL has their performance tied directly to the economic welfare of the system – they’re answerable to team owners and their constituency. That incentive doesn’t exist within Riot. “What interest does Riot have in going that extra mile? Who’s going to benefit – yeah, the teams will benefit, but I think Riot’s going to say ‘aren’t they benefiting enough?’”
Their skepticism seems warranted in light of Merrill’s earlier statements, which triggered the brunt of the recent drama. Claimed Marc Merrill, over Reginald’s criticism of the status quo: “we’ve done a lot historically to help support the bottom end of the ecosystem to help minimize the scenarios where bad teams/owners can exploit players, and we look forward to continuing to do more to help at the other ends of the spectrum too, such as for stars.”
There was research done early on to discover what level of support would be needed to help an organization of, say, Team MRN’s caliber. Rozelle was not involved in those discoveries; they have not expanded under his leadership, even as even the Challenger Series scene found itself burdened by investor-inflated player salaries.
There have been two particular incidents under Rozelle’s leadership that have cast him under a petty light. The first, as described by an LCS source: “when new casters were being interviewed, and this was back in early 2015, late 2014, they were asked a question: ‘who is the better analyst, Jatt or MonteCristo?’ If you answered Monte, Whalen stopped the interview to explain to you why you were wrong.”
The oft-contentious relationship between the English LCK caster and Riot seems to stem directly from Rozelle’s office. According to sources close to the deal, the sale of EU team Renegades Banditos was thrust upon its owners in the 11th hour: four different offers were submitted to Rozelle, from private investors to current team managers. There is suspicion that the sale was forced upon Badawi and Mykles in order to benefit parties that Rozelle had prior business relations with, but this has not been adequately substantiated – sources close to the team deny problems in the ownership – through the fact that they were forced to accept a unilateral decision plagues the propriety of Rozelle’s actions.
The latest drama, stemming from team owners and HTC, maybe the ten-ton feather upon the camel’s back. “I know that there is a good chance of there being a large shakeup in regards to who exactly will run the league, and it comes from Tencent,” said a source.
Said another: “To my knowledge, Tencent has not had time to decide yet, since they only had meetings this past week [mid-August]. But very powerful people outside of Riot have been flying to China to meet with the Tencent board on the issue.”
Esports leadership has been reluctant to make changes to the status quo. The future of the LCS may no longer be in their hands.
It’s necessary to note that the author of this piece has worked extensively for Riot before in a freelance capacity as a contributor to LoLesports. I’ve many close friends within its ranks, my writing career thus far has relied extensively upon the scene, I’ve applied multiple times over the last few years for jobs with the company, and that is exactly why I’ve taken such close personal interest with issues affecting the overall ecosystem’s health and integrity.
As you can imagine: I am very nervous to have written this, as I know many bridges will be burned in the process.
The community has traditionally treated esports journalism with extreme skepticism, undue or otherwise. The use of anonymous sources may be traditional and standard in the conventional sports press but is not the norm for enthusiasts press like with gaming. When it does happen, it’s seen as an attack on the identity and welfare of parties that the community has emotional attachments and personal bonds with. And maybe that is so, to some extent – but I would assert that it’s even more so for me than most, given that my connections to it are a lot more than hypothetical. I unabashedly want esports to succeed, for more than the simple fact that it gives me something to write about – like Grantland Rice saw something heroic and mythical in Jack Dempsey smashing faces inward, or the high-level tactical elegance of warfare in a football play, I believe esports to have the same potentiality for culture-defining inspiration.
If it can survive its own errors.
Hopefully, my career can survive this. I’m not done writing League stories yet. Not sated yet with cheering on the Flash Wolves. Not yet.
Ask me again in another decade.