Esports founder, team owner spar over mid-season rule changes ahead of Toronto finals

Days before one of the biggest esports competitions takes place in Toronto's Air Canada Centre, a war of words between an owner and team manager brought to light lingering questions about how its ever-evolving rules put unique pressure on players forced to adapt or perish.

Controversial patch sparks arguments before LCS North American Finals in Toronto

Thousands of fans filled the Air Canada Centre on Saturday to see Team Immortals take on Team CLG for 3rd place at the League of Legends Championship Series on Saturday. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

This weekend, thousands are descending upon the Air Canada Centre in Toronto not to watch hockey or basketball, but a video game.

The League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) Summer Finals is the biggest North American event for League of Legends, the most popular competitive video game in the world.

One of two teams to have qualified to the North American finals match – SoloMid and Cloud9 – will walk away with $50,000 US and a guaranteed spot to play for the $1 million prize at the upcoming World Championships.

For gamers who grew up playing Super Mario Bros., on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the idea of making a career out of gaming seems like a dream come true.

But a war of words between an owner and team manager brought to light lingering questions about players' sources of income, and how its ever-evolving rules put unique pressure on players forced to adapt or perish.

Critical mid-season rules changes anger players

Riot, makers of League, released a patch, or update, early in August. Patches often fix bugs and glitches, but also include changes to the rules. This patch introduced significant rules changes – just as the LCS tournament was about to begin.

Andy "Reginald" Dinh, owner of top-ranked Team SoloMid (TSM), told theScore the patch forced his players — who already practice 10 to 12 hours a day — to spend more time adapting their strategies or learning new ones in order to maintain their rankings heading into the LCS finals.

"It would be essentially [like the NBA] changing the basketball's weight, to make it like shooting a bowling ball instead" right before the playoffs, he said of the change.

Warning: video contains strong language

TSM member Yiliang (Doublelift) Peng echoed the Dinh's concerns about mid-season changes adversely affecting players' ability to perform.

Dinh argued that these changes hurt players' chances to make a sustainable living because of the game's competitive structure. The top 20 teams that make it to the North American and European LCS series get the most visibility, and therefore attract big name sponsors like Logitech and Red Bull.

If a team ranks lower, its visibility plummets — along with its chances of securing lucrative sponsorships. Team NRG (which includes Shaquille O'Neal and Alex Rodriguez among its investors) disbanded its League of Legends team entirely after failing to qualify for this year's LCS.

Attracting League of Legends sponsorships is especially difficult since 2012 when Riot, which made $1.6 billion US in revenue last year, brought all LCS competitions in-house. The move means the company now has complete oversight of how people play the game -– its intellectual property — for fame and prize money.

Social media sparring

Riot co-founder Marc Merril fired back at Dinh's claims on Reddit, saying: "if he's so concerned about the financial health of his players, maybe he should spend more 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?"

Dinh later responded in a blog post, saying Riot's decision to bring the LCS in-house "eliminated much of our profit overnight," forcing him to invest into other competitive games like Counter-Strike: Go.

"Most LCS teams lose money because stipends are stagnant, sponsorships for LCS team operations are shrinking and the cost of player salaries, content production, support staff and housing costs are spiraling up," he continued.

A Canadian flag is draped over the chair belonging to Jason (WildTurtle) Tran from Toronto. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

Dinh also alleged that Riot threatened to fine members of TSM for appearing in a video promoting HTC's Vive reality headset, arguing it violates its rules against accepting sponsorships from "products of services from direct competitors."

HTC responded by saying it partnered with TSM only to promote its headset and not a competing product for League of Legends.

"Going forward, we would love to see clear and reasonable guidelines on how sponsors can market in the space and more marketing opportunities open up with our LCS teams," HTC said on its esports Facebook page. "This will lead to more companies willing to invest in the LCS and create a healthier and more sustainable ecosystem."

Team Immortals and Team CLG playing for the third-place prize at the League of Legends Championship Series Summer Finals in Toronto. The tournament is the biggest North American event for the most popular competitive video game in the world. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

Making amends

Merill and Dinh appeared to have made amends on Wednesday. In a blog post Merill apologized for his comments on Reddit (the more combative parts of that post have since been removed).

He wrote that their 2017 plans include introducing new team-branded items "with revenue sharing for teams and pros" and increased efforts to sell team-branded merchandise like jerseys. He also admitted that the changes in the last major patch "didn't give teams much time to prepare" for the LCS competition.

"I agree that these urgent issues need to be addressed immediately," Dinh replied. "We'll solve these problems together."