LCS players to vote on walkout in protest of NACL changes
A walkout by 'League of Legends' players would mark a historic first stab at collective action in esports
Hi! I’m Mikhail Klimentov. You may know me for my past video game coverage at The Washington Post, such as my investigation into the “culture of fear” at TSM, or this feature about my three days with Frost Giant, which is building a StarCraft successor.
Previously, I’ve covered my time with “Tears of the Kingdom” and the sad end of Waypoint, VICE’s video game vertical. If you value reporting and criticism, sign up to get it in your inbox, tell a friend, and consider pledging a paid subscription!
Professional “League of Legends” players in the LCS, the game’s premier North American esports league, will be called to vote on a proposal to stage a walkout in protest of recent changes to the region’s amateur circuit.
The regional players association, the LCSPA, intends to host the vote on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. PT. If successful, it will be among the first major instances of collective action at the highest levels of esports.
The proposed walkout targets a recent decision by Riot Games, which publishes “League” and oversees its esports, to change a rule that required tier 1 teams to field an amateur roster in the game’s Challengers League (NACL), which serves as a talent pipeline to the LCS. On May 12, Riot announced it would be removing that requirement in response to requests by team owners. Soon after, a majority of LCS teams announcedthey would be cutting their NACL rosters, with some citing a need to streamline operations in light of economic headwinds.
Phil Aram, the LCSPA’s executive director said the group was not informed in advance of Riot’s decision, which he characterized as a “significant breach of trust.”
“Riot lied to us,” Aram said. “And the outcome of that lie is that half our players’ jobs are gone overnight.”
The executive council of the LCSPA, which is made up of five professional players, voted Monday night Pacific time to authorize a vote among association members who would be asked to participate in the walkout: the 50 players in the LCS. The LCSPA informed players of the executive council’s vote on Tuesday morning via Discord.
Many players in the LCS are graduates of the amateur circuit, including some members of the players association’s executive council.
“Playing in academy was what gave me the opportunity to play in LCS,” tweeted executive council member Mohamed "Revenge" Kaddoura, responding to the LCSPA’s statement condemning Riot’s announcement. “This will easily kill the future of the LCS,” he added.
The decision by the executive council followed a week of behind-the-scenes lobbying by the players association directed at Riot, Aram said. On May 6, the pseudonymous“League” esports Twitter account LCS Eevee tweeted that all 10 LCS teams had voted to remove the requirement to field an NACL team. The account also shared that the teams had pushed for the requirement to end before the beginning of the summer NACL season. After that tweet, Aram said the players association made several entreaties to Riot, offering compromises that might reduce costs for teams without dismantling the NACL. Those culminated in an eleventh-hour call between Aram and Riot, where Riot announced that it had made its decision to remove the requirement.
“Every step of the way, they've shown us that there was no plan, there is no commitment,” Aram said. “The only commitment is to giving these teams an out without any consideration for what the impact is. It's just shameful, especially for a group that three or four weeks ago was saying, ‘we're building the future of sports.’”
Aram said he communicated to Riot that the players association would consider a strikeover the decision.
“We cannot go and be in the room with Riot and have meaningful negotiations of any kind like we've had in the past, unless we're able to establish with them that the actions that they took without our consent, without consideration for us or for the league, in this case, are not acceptable,” Aram said. “It's an important inflection point for our players.”
Steve Arhancet, co-CEO of LCS franchise org Team Liquid, said on May 16 that he voted to change the rule to alleviate economic pressures on other teams in the league.
“We have to sometimes make decisions on [sic] the best interests of the teams as a collective, rather than the self interest of Team Liquid — hence our decision,” Arhancet said in a video in which he addressed the change. Team Liquid is one of three LCS organizations that has announced it will continue to participate in the NACL.
A number of esports organizations have made drastic cuts in recent months, citing waning interest and investment in esports. The trend has been called the “esports winter,” and has inspired New York Times articles about the scene’s myriad woes.
“There has been way too much hype and too little of actual value,” Rod Breslau, a former esports journalist, told the New York Times.
But on Twitter and in interviews, Aram has stressed that the costs of maintaining an NACL squad are marginal in the context of an LCS team’s broader esports expenditures. He also alleged that Riot had disbursed $3 million this year to each LCS team from a league revenue pool, citing contacts among team ownership groups. (Aram is a former executive at Evil Geniuses, an LCS team).
“If you're a team getting that much money and you can't operate … you know, our belief is you're not a partner that's right for the league and you ought to be replaced, not be given a new handout,” Aram said.
The players association has agitated for players in the past. Notably, in 2021, it referred its investigation into alleged bullying by TSM CEO and co-founder Andy Dinh over to Riot. The LCS’s resulting competitive ruling, handed down in 2022, included a historic $75,000 fine and a two-year probation for Dinh.
The LCS season is slated to resume June 1, but if players vote to walk out, Aram says the franchised organizations may find it hard to field their teams.
“If we have 26 out of 50 of the LCS player willing to do something, I can tell you right now, the league's not running,” Aram said.
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I’m hedging a bit here because I’m not a labor historian or an esports historian. I think a successful vote here would constitute a first, but I’m leaving some space here in case I haven’t accounted for some other past action.
Some, in fact, have made this change without announcing it!
Correction: A previous version of the story referred to LCS Eevee as “anonymous.” Their name, Sander Hove, is included in their Twitter bio.
These compromises are more thoroughly outlined in this LCSPA tweet.
Literally! Aram says the call happened at 11:45 a.m. PT on May 12. Riot announced its rule change at 12 p.m. PT.
If you want a primer on strikes/walkouts — and workers’ rights during those actions — this Vox explainer is a good place to start.