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When League of Legends pros sign the contract to partake in developer Riot Games’ League Championship Series, they are agreeing to never broadcast games and products from competitors for the duration of the agreement, according to a confirmed report from e-sports news website OnGamers.
The list of games League players are prohibited from streaming include, unsurprisingly, competitors Dota 2, Heroes of Newerth, and Infinite Crisis. It also includes a number of other products, including all of Blizzard’s recent titles, World of Tanks, and gambling websites.
Riot confirmed that the contract does indeed include these stipulations. Riot director of e-sports Whalen Rozelle hopped on a Reddit thread to comment on the story.
“We say this all the time: We want League of Legends to be a legitimate sport,” wrote Rozelle. “There are some cool things that come from that — salaried professional athletes, legitimate revenue streams, visas, Staples Center — but there’s also a lot of structural work that needs to be done to ensure a true professional setting.”
Rozelle (no relation to former National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle) goes on to suggest that these contracts are in the interest of protecting the image of the LCS.
“In the past, pro gamers only had to worry about their personal brands when streaming and, at most, may have had to worry about not using the wrong brand of keyboard to keep their sponsor happy,” he wrote. “Now, however, these guys are contracted to a professional sports league. When they’re streaming to 50,000 fans, they’re also representing the sport itself.”
Of course, the developer does acknowledge that this is about making sure its stars won’t convert League of Legends fans into followers of Valve’s Dota 2 or S2 Games’ Heroes of Newerth.
“Similarly, you probably wouldn’t see an NFL player promoting Arena Football or a Nike-sponsored player wearing Reebok on camera,” wrote Rozelle. “Pro players are free to play whatever games they want — we’re simply asking them to keep in mind that, on stream, they’re the face of competitive League of Legends.”
And you know what? Rozelle is absolutely right. NFL players make big money thanks to the organized league. In 2013, rookie NFL players have a minimum salary of $405,000. For seven- to-nine-year veterans, the minimum is $840,000. That’s a ton of cash, and it’s only fair that, in return for a contract that guarantees such a high minimum, that the league and teams paying out those contracts can make certain decrees on brand loyalty.
So, what kind money are we talking about for these pro League of Legends players? They’re getting a guaranteed salary from Riot. It’s probably not in the $405,000 range. The NFL is a massively successful business, and it isn’t fair to expect a game developer’s contracts to compare favorably to that. Are players guaranteed $100,000?
Well, we reached out to Riot and asked, and we’re still waiting for a response. We also reached out to a few pros, but these figures are typically protected under nondisclosure agreements. That means all we have to go by is rumor and off-the-record comments, which often put the salary for a LCS pro at $25,000 per year during the 2013 Season 3 event.
That’s Subway sandwich-artist money right there, and if it’s accurate, this makes Riot’s stipulations unfair.
Pro gamers often make more from streaming than from playing
To clarify, this isn’t a League pro’s only source of revenue. It is simply the money Riot is willing to guarantee individual pros as long as they are willing to sign away their rights to broadcast other titles.
Only signing away broadcasting rights for certain games is the equivalent of signing away profit potential.
Earlier this week, GamesBeat reported on how a lot of e-sports players make their money. It’s clear that while winning can generate some cash, most of these people are turning their celebrity into media platforms. They stream games on Twitch and make videos for YouTube. Thousands of people then watch that content, and the pros collect on the ad revenue.
That is a huge part in how most pro players earn a living. With Riot blocking other games, it could start biting into a player’s other sources of revenue. If the audience begins demanding more Dota 2 streams, League pros are screwed. It’s even possible that if a player can’t adapt to a different game throughout 2014 that they could lose relevancy and lose their entire broadcasting career, which is potentially worth a lot more than $25,000.
That’s a risk that these players are likely aware of when they sign the League contract. Riot could argue that players don’t have to agree to these terms. In that case, they are free to stream whatever they want — only they can’t participate in the LCS. Again, Riot is technically correct, but it’s slipping into a gray area when it comes to treating players fairly.
The players have the leverage
Riot’s Rozelle brought up the National Football League. Riot desperately wants to have the cache and restrictions that North America’s largest sports league enjoys. The issue with welcoming that comparison, however, is that while the NFL might prohibit its stars from advertising arena football, the NFL provides ample compensation from eliminating the potential revenue stream. Compared to that, Riot looks like it is trying to purchase the stars of its league — the people that actually give the sport value — on the cheap.
By eliminating so many competing games, Riot is readily admitting that League of Legends players have a ton of leverage over the organization. Not only could a top pro player stream Dota 2, they could completely abandon League for Dota 2 and take their massive audience with them. Typically, this would mean that pros could bargain for higher salaries. Of course, LCS players do not have a union and don’t have the power to collectively negotiate things like minimum reimbursement. Collective bargaining is one of the main reasons sports stars have such high salaries.
That lack of a union leaves a door open for companies to take advantage of this disparate group of young players, and Riot is at least at risk of appearing like it is doing exactly that.