League of Legends' esports doesn't break even

For esports-focused games like League of Legends, the bubble may soon burst.

According to Riot Games' American esports director Raul Fernandez, the esports division for League of Legends has been struggling to break even. Talking to Axios, he explained that the developer is looking for ways to revitalize the sports business around its popular MOBA. 

Specific numbers weren't given, but Fernandez was candid in highlighting the game's issues in regards to esports. Viewership has declined for the games, and he admitted that Riot was "trying to find our footing, trying to find a way to refresh our league." 

Riot has previously stated in both 2016 and 2021 that it overlooked esports profits in favor to focus on player experience and ensure esports league teams are profitable. But his interview indicates the studio would like sooner than later to get its esports division into the black.

Fernandez attributed League of Legends' problems to many factors, like a lack of sellable broadcast rights that more established sports have. The larger esports business is still fairly young, but sports like football and baseball became popular because they're broadcasted and talked about all the time. And unlike esports, these aren't owned by any one company.

It can also be easy to not know what's going on in esports unless specific news pierces your personal bubble. And even that may depend on the game, teams involved, and so on. 

With a roster of 100-plus characters, newcomers or lapsed viewers can be even more confused by what's happening. The inflated character size has also made selling in-game items to players built around specific top teams (and their members) difficult. 

That problem, said Fernandez, is not an issue with Valorant. Riot's 2020 hero shooter benefits from having less characters (22, at time of writing), which makes it easier to sell in-game items. And unlike League, the developers created Valorant with esports specifically in mind as part of its future.

In terms of solutions, he said Riot would better monetize its in-game items during esports season, and use digital passes as a way to give better access to competitions. The plan is also to bring back League players and viewers that had fallen off, but specific ideas weren't given. 

How esports can clash with player desires

Both League of Legends and Blizzard's Overwatch have had long-running esports leagues built around them, and at this point, have now publicly admitted the struggles that have come with that. In late July, Activision Blizzard announced layoffs to its esports division as the future of the Overwatch League has been called into question. 

There's a tension that comes with online games building themselves around esports. Some players just want to play the game and don't want to be beholden to what more competitive players (who often talk to the developers) have in mind. 

Being too esports-focused has been a notable point of criticism for Overwatch and its sequel for some time. But director Aaron Keller recently said this move was unintentional, and affirmed the studio will make the shooter more in line with what all its players would like it to be.

As for Riot, League of Legends found big success outside of esports. The game has grown into its own sub-franchise with spinoffs built around different characters (and spanning other genres). Netflix's Arcane series further provided a way to be introduced to League without touching the game itself. 

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