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League of Legends pros may go on strike over proposed rule changes

The League Championship Series is the top tier of professional League of Legends esports, and one of the biggest pro esports leagues in the world. But according to esports journalist Mikhail Klimentov, it could soon be facing a work stoppage, as the LCS Players Association is calling for a vote on a walkout.

The trouble began earlier this month when Riot announced that it will no longer require LCS teams to field a team in the North American Challengers League, a “developmental” league announced in 2022 made up of 10 former Academy teams—the previous developmental league—and six “Provisional Teams” made up of amateur players. It’s basically a feeder league for the LCS, and each LCS team was required to field its own NACL team along with its main roster. 

On May 12, however, Riot said it was dropping that requirement at the request of its LCS teams, “to support the continued, long-term success of the teams and the professional esports ecosystem in North America.” 

“We remain committed to evolving the NA talent development pipeline,” Riot said in the rule change announcement. “We’ve been regularly taking steps to open opportunities for the thriving grassroots community through Proving Grounds Circuit in 2021, and the introduction of NACL Provisional Teams and the NACL Promotion Tournament this year. Our work here isn’t done, and we will continue throughout this season and beyond.” Riot also committed to running the NACL “for 2023 and beyond.”

But the League Championship Series Players Association took a very different perspective on the decision.

Riot’s Lack of Commitment to the NACL: The LCSPA’s Response pic.twitter.com/3IqhNKzkGAMay 12, 2023

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“While the statement today was framed as a commitment to the NACL, the reality is that as many as 70 players, coaches, and managers will lose their jobs overnight,” the LCSPA said in a statement. “The unprecedented decision to destroy the NACL less than a month before the start of the 2023 NACL Summer Split with no plan—and no warning—is a stain on their leadership.

“Riot’s decision to eliminate the NACL mandate was in direct contradiction of statements made to the PA by Riot leadership throughout talks earlier this year regarding future NACL changes. Riot esports leadership gave the LCSPA assurances that no changes would be made in 2023 as recently as one week ago. The LCSPA is calling on all members of the LCS and NACL community: Players, coaches, streamers, and fans to stand up in unison and demand for Riot to reverse this decision in order to protect the future of the LCS.”

The LCSPA also rejected claims that maintaining an NACL lineup placed an unmanageable burden on LCS teams, claiming that “the average annual salary cost of an entire NACL roster represents less than 17% of an average LCS organization’s League-based salary costs in a year.”

Predictably, once the requirement to field NACL teams was no longer in place, most LCS teams dropped their NACL rosters. And as a result of that, according to Klimentov, the LCSPA will hold a vote on May 28 to decide whether to stage a walkout to protest the NACL rule change.

Riot gave each team $3 million this year to operate in LCS + NACL, but only 3 could afford to spend 15-20% of that to promote the future of NACL? Shame on Riot for letting teams get away with it and shame on every team that pocketed the future of the league. pic.twitter.com/cop8gne6rIMay 18, 2023

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The LCS Players Association hasn’t formally announced any sort of job action, but it did retweet a link to Klimentov’s report. Executive director Phillip Aram also hinted at the possibility in a tweet posted on May 18, saying that he and the board “will advise and recommend collective actions for the players to take.” 

At the same time, it appears to be leaving the door open to further negotiation: It posts a series of “asks” earlier today, including a commitment to establishing a revenue pool for NACL teams, allowing LCS organizations to share costs with affiliates, and to establish a “Valorant style” system of promotion and relegation between the LCS and NACL.

(Image credit: League Championship Series Players Association)

An LCS walkout, if it happens, would be a very big deal. The LCS has a long history as these things go—it was founded in 2012—and has grown into one of the most popular and visible esports leagues in the world. While pro esports hasn’t found mainstream acceptance quite as quickly as some predicted a few years ago, there’s a lot of money and prestige on the table. But Aram told Klimentov that the players association is prepared to leave it there, if that’s how the players vote: “If we have 26 out of 50 of the LCS players willing to do something, I can tell you right now, the league’s not running.”

The LCS Summer Split is set to begin on June 1. I’ve reached out to Riot and the LCSPA for comment and will update if I receive a reply.

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