Riot Games' changed the name of its official European competition for League of Legends at the end of 2018 -- a key aspect of a larger rebranding exercise with the aim of revivifying LoL esports in the region.
The change in name -- from the European League of Legends Championship Series ("EU LCS" for short) to the League of Legends European Championship (a slightly pithier "LEC") -- in November 2018 came at the end of a long period in which Riot Games' European esports programme was criticised by some of its most prominent teams. An overhaul was clearly needed, and Riot delivered in October 2017, introducing changes to both the structure of the competition and the way revenue was shared.
However, despite a new format, a new name, and new branding, League of Legends' European competition is still some way from being a commercial behemoth. Speaking at the Esports BAR conference in Cannes yesterday, Riot's head of European business development for esports, Alban Dechelotte, countered a question about whether esports would ultimately rival real-world football for global popularity and cultural influence.
"When the Champions League became the Champions League, it took 25 years to get where they are today"
"It's interesting to compare us to football," he replied. "Because today the LEC -- if I look at my latest numbers -- we generate less revenues than Bochum. Do you know what Bochum is?"
The interviewer didn't recognise the name, so Dechelotte clarified; FC Bochum is a football club, which (at the time of writing) sits at eighth place in 2. Bundesliga, the second division of the German professional football league. To put in another way, FC Bochum is the 26th best football team in Germany, with an average attendance of 17,000 people in a stadium built to hold closer to 28,000 -- and yet it makes more revenue than the League of Legends premier esports competition for the whole of Europe.
It is an idiosyncratic comparison, but one that perfectly captures exactly where even the biggest names in esports are right now in terms of making money from professional competitions.
"Before we take on football, we have to be humble," Dechelotte added. "When the Champions League became the Champions League, it took 25 years to get where they are today. We just did it... so let's just see how far we can go.
"We are who we are. The fans are passionate about it, and we are lucky because they are young and they are with us for the long-term... That is our future; building a foundation that will last for decades, and allow esports to grow. Do we need to compete [with football]? I don't think so."
Dechelotte has only worked at Riot Games for a year, but he has a long track record in marketing for traditional sporting events. Even in his relatively brief time at the company, he has seen a wider variety of sponsors take an interest in -- and sign deals with -- Riot's European competition. Esports as a whole has been well served by loyal (but relatively narrow) pool of brands for sponsorship and advertising revenue until now, he told the audience at Esports BAR Cannes, but the LEC is now working with Foot Locker, Shell and Kia.
"They are even more important, I would say, because they take us to the next level," Dechelotte said. "These [companies] have been investing, for Shell, only in motorsports."
To cite another of Dechelotte's example, Kia is a sponsor of the UEFA Europa League, one of the biggest competitions in the world's most popular sport. The fact that it now regards the LEC as "a mirror" of what it is doing in football is indicative of the way the perception of esports as a mainstream commercial prospect is changing.
"Just by focusing on League of Legends players, we can triple, quadruple our viewership. That's essential for us"
Appealing to a broader range sponsors is inextricably tied to the growth of the audience. In that sense, Dechelotte regards esports as a very different challenge to his previous experiences working with traditional sports.
"It's interesting because, coming from sports, the presumption is that you use the competition to drive more players," he said. "I think it's very different here.
"For anyone who watches sports, you have these people on the field, who are strong and can run a lot, and then there are people like me at home, who get to watch only. Esports is exactly the opposite. We have more players than viewers, and that's a big difference... You have to try to give more reasons for the players to become fans.
"Obviously, in this case [League of Legends], we have around 100 million players... [We're] not trying to convert my brother, who is a rugby fan, and not trying to convert my mum, who's a Candy Crush addict. Just by focusing on League of Legends players, we can triple, quadruple our viewership. That's essential for us."
It is also a difficult balance to strike. While the League of Legends audience is huge -- and converting more players to viewers will be key to making the LEC a bigger commercial force than a second-tier German football team -- it is entirely composed of people who are deeply invested in the game, in a way will not always line up with the methods and partnerships that will bring in more revenue. Riot Games will never lose its focus on making those players happy, Dechelotte explained, but it will also have to experiment to make commercial progress.
"This company was founded with the idea of being the most player-centric company in the world. So we're going to test things -- and we're going to fail, probably -- but we're going to learn and get better," he said.
"From a lifestyle point-of-view we talk about [merchandise], but we will also talk about, potentially, digital goods. We're going to invent new products, and we'll test them."
However, while Dechelotte offered details of his hopes for the next two years of European League of Legends esports, he met a question about the next five to ten years with amusement. It is, he chuckled, "absolutely impossible" to think so far ahead in esports, a sector in which a single year can be as eventful as seven in another industry
"I can say this very confidently," he added. "What I can say is that we are committed to testing new things, and we will try to find what the players want. If they want collectible cards, if they want to see every single game in their living room, if they want to see the final at the cinema -- they will tell us.
"That is all we are committed to doing: learn, fail, and sometimes win."
Esports BAR Cannes is operated by Reed Exhibitions, the parent company of GamesIndustry.biz publisher Gamer Network.