The LEC: Past, Present, and Future

The first week of the 2021 LEC Spring Split saw a peak viewership of about 574,000.
The first week of the 2021 LEC Spring Split saw a peak viewership of about 574,000. / Courtesy of Riot Games

EU! EU! EU! It's the chant that the European League of Legends fans are known for when cheering for their region. #WeAreEU is the universal hashtag that the community uses to display their allegiance and pride towards the league. Three weeks into the start of 2021 League of Legends European Championship (LEC) Spring Season, the community is teased with multiple LEC content. Meet the 2021 LEC on-air talent showcases most of last year's squad with the addition of audience-friendly Marc Robert "Caedrel" Lamont, who previously was the jungler for Excel Esports. Andrew "Vedius" Day's quirkiness is manifested in Trees, Pirates and Rockslingers – Vedius' Picks to Watch, highlighting potential strong champion picks in the game. 2021 LEC sees the return of KIA as the league's sponsor via KIA x LEC: The best idea! video. LEC 2021 – Press Start! is a beautifully-crafted Nintendo-arcade-style animation featuring several LEC pro players, Daniel "Drakos" Drakos as the quest-giver, and the familiar LEC studio in Berlin. As the pro players' characters explore further inside the LEC studio to defeat the dragon and bring back the LEC trophy, the animation reveals the content segments for 2021, such as LEC Update and Post Game Lobby (PGL). The latest music video for the G2 versus Fnatic game, LEC: Reckless with my heart, shows casters singing an emo, alternative rock tune to express Fnatic fans heartbreak seeing their superstar move to its biggest rival. This kind of high-quality content is one of the reasons the LEC stood out and made a name for itself. While LEC is only one of 12 Tier 1 professional leagues for League of Legends, it has grown into a league that everyone looks up to.

From its fun broadcasting style, unique and engaging content, competitive narrative, all the way to the teams and talent that shine on the international stages.

Birth and Infancy of the LEC

The history of the LEC dates back to the inception of the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) for the competitive year of 2013. It was the first professional league run by Riot Games with a regular schedule and guaranteed salaries for players, mimicking traditional sport. The LCS had two regional championships, North America (NA) and Europe (EU). The Season 3 EU LCS ran from Feb. 7 to Aug. 25, 2013. While its NA counterpart received its own studio, the EU LCS was held at ESL Arena in Cologne, Germany. It featured eight teams competing over the course of two splits, Spring and Summer, to qualify for playoffs and eventually the 2013 Season World Championship held in Los Angeles. The first EU LCS sent three of their teams to represent the region in Worlds: Fnatic, Gambit Gaming, and Lemondogs. Fnatic in particular reached the semifinals before being eliminated by Royal Club 1-3.

In 2014, Riot Games switched the naming convention to "2014 Season EU LCS" and moved the production from ESL Arena to MMC Studios. In the same year, Riot created the League of Legends Challenger Series to act as a Tier 2 competition for promotion and relegation. Aside from the growing popularity of the EU LCS, its production issues were heavily criticized by the fans. The production pothole became the talk of the town, dimming the rise of new talents, broadcast contents, and smart gameplay.

By 2015, Riot took over production from ESL and moved the setting for the EU LCS to Berlin. For the 2015 Season, to factor in teams' performance during the spring split, Riot introduced "Championship points." Teams that accumulated the most Championship points across both splits and playoffs would qualify for worlds. The 2015 summer split finals were held at Stockholm, Sweden, peaked at almost 1 million concurrent viewers on Twitch, YouTube, and Azubu. At that time, it was the highest number of viewers for any LCS match.  This time, EU sent Fnatic, H2k-Gaming, and Origen to represent the region, bringing back home two bronze medals for Origen and Fnatic.

The 2016 EU LCS saw some changes in both tournament format and broadcasting style. The league tried out best-of-two and best-of-three formats. The broadcasting team started to develop on-screen personalities in each cast, making gutsy narratives and stories between them. This move is still continued to this day. However, the viewership in 2016 dropped compared to the previous years. Several theories have been put forward to explain the demise, including that the Bo2 and Bo3 formats were not a good fit for the western audience. Despite that, H2k-Gaming placed third in worlds behind Korean teams: the defending champion SK Telecom T1 and Samsung Galaxy, signifying that European teams were still strong contenders for the world title.

Despite the impressive 2017 Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) run by G2 Esports, 2017 was the first year since 2013 that none of the European teams made it to the top four at worlds.

Resurgence – Franchising Model

In 2018, the decline in viewership became a turning point for the EU LCS. The league was much bolder in infusing comedy, memes, and casters' personalities in the production. Some ideas that may have been a hit-or-miss were executed. Many attributed Vedius' unique sense of humor and unusual ideas to be the enabler that shaped the style of today's LEC. Despite many talents that flocked to the NA LCS, the European teams performed extremely well in worlds with Fnatic finishing as runner-up behind Invictus Gaming, G2 Esports brought home a bronze medal, and Team Vitality placed 9th-12th.

European fans started to get their hopes up because Fnatic's appearance at the 2018 worlds final was a European team's first time since 2011.

The year 2019 was a historic year for the EU LCS as they were rebranded to the League of Legends European Championship (LEC), marking the beginning of the franchise business model. Its North American and Chinese counterparts franchised a year before. In this partnership program, the LEC selected 10 teams with a buy-in fee of €8 million for the participating teams and €10.5 million for the newcomers to participate in its league, securing their spots to be long-term partners of the league. This automatically eliminated the previous promotion and relegation format. The EU Challenger Series was disbanded and was replaced with an independent tournament European Masters featuring top teams from many European leagues. The franchise also resulted in the increase in minimum annual salary for the pro players from €24,000 to €60,000 in addition to compensation if the league performs well. Riot also announced changes to the double-round-robin format to a single-round-robin with a best-of-one format.

With the new look, new studio, and a new brand, changes in the production and broadcasting side were noticed by the growing fans. Plenty of creative content received positive feedback from the community: highly popular Mediocre Rap Battle which debuted in February 2019, the continuation of EUphoria series, educational show Level Up, as well as silly hype videos featuring pro players.

LEC’s Senior Broadcast Producer Kevin Bell spoke to me on the unique style of the LEC production, “Most of our content is forward-facing, pregame Analyst Desk, what's to come, what's to expect. This affords us many opportunities over reactionary content (like a post-match Analyst Desk). We sit down at the beginning of the work week as producers to build out the skeleton of a show, very big macro examples like "education segment here," "let's talk about a star player here," etc. We take this skeleton build and run a Stats and Story Meeting with the on-air talent to add 'meat to the bones.' All of our segments are a collaboration of different departments within our team. Any member of the team can suggest a segment for us to pursue, giving us many different perspectives and dynamic content throughout the year.” He further explained, “Most of our team remained the same when we switched from EU LCS to LEC. Internally, we allow ourselves to try new things, experiment, go for the meme potential or otherwise, and we are not afraid to fail. If it flops, we learn to not do it again, if it succeeds then we study why it was successful and try to expand and improve on the idea.”

In the competitive side of 2019, new king G2 Esports continued its dominance by topping the chart ahead of old kings Fnatic and Origen. The 2019 Mid-Season Invitational hosted in May was one of the peaks in European League of Legends history. G2 Esports came on top defeating three-time worlds champion and Korean representative SK Telecom T1 3-2 in the semifinal and North American top team Team Liquid 3-0 in the final. The international success naturally attracted more viewers. The Esports Charts released its viewership report ahead of Worlds showing the peak viewers in 2019 Summer Season among the major League of Legends regional competitions. The 2019 LEC Summer Split final between rivals Fnatic and G2 gained 841,147 viewers. League of Legends Champions Korea was a close second with 766,770 and the LCS gathered 494,765 people. The fierce rivalry, often dubbed as "el clásico," between successful teams Fnatic and G2 had become such a strong narrative, other regions failed to produce the same hype. With the international success in the summer, European fans began to have high hopes on yet another worlds trophy. The excitement was even more elevated because 2019 worlds was held in Berlin, Madrid, and Paris. It would have been a monumental moment to win the Summoners Cup in front of the home audience. Despite a praiseworthy run, G2 Esports was forced to go home with a silver medal after being defeated 0-3 by the Chinese representative FunPlus Phoenix. Once again, European fans were left feeling disappointed. The Summoners Cup seemed so close, yet so out of reach.

The LEC Today

The year 2020 had been a year like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic had put a pause on global societies, and League of Legends tournaments were no exception. After running the league from the LEC Studio for seven weeks, LEC teams had to adjust to a new way of competing: online. Concerns regarding production logistics, internet connections, and for certain teams, mentality plaguing LEC stakeholders were a problem. Maximilian Schmidt, Commissioner for the LEC, said that “On the competition side, transitioning to an online format our biggest priority was to ensure that our high bar for competitive integrity is upheld which is why we created a comprehensive addendum to our regulations which cover the processes of online play.” After a few hiccups on technical issues, the league commendably adapted to the situation to deliver high-quality competition. Schmidt further explained, “From changing our pick and ban system after a lot of new champions had been introduced to introducing new tools to preserve the integrity of the competition like Chronobreak, I do not think the rising popularity [of the game] was necessarily a huge factor in our decision making. However, League of Legends as a game is ever-changing and ever-evolving which of course always has an impact on the sports and competitive side as well. This is also what makes our operations unique - having to adapt to a game that changes on a bi-weekly basis.”

As for the LEC production, it was pushed even further. Funny animations for the Mic Check series, impressive edits to Split MVP clips, relatable LECtronic's We are EU, entertaining LEC Pop Quiz, and LEC's comical commercials were among the content that showed the audience the commitment and resilience of the league. It would be wrong not to mention the 2020's Mediocre Rap Battle that garnered more than 1.4 million views on YouTube ahead of the LEC Summer 2020 Playoffs. The rap battle featured four LEC casters and analysts representing top teams that qualified for the playoffs. The banters and inside jokes were elevated to a new level. The tune was beautifully crafted and it was not only relevant and entertaining but also catchy.

The rap battle helped to build stories and personalities around LEC's teams. It also successfully gave birth to popular lines that are now often used by the LEC community. After all, who can forget Drakos' "back to back to back, you know these titles start to stack." Fans were still in awe by LEC's stunning performance in the rap battle when KIA Motors x LECtronic: Dance with me was launched about a month after. The music video was meant to close the LEC 2020 season, as well as hype up the summer finals. This time, the LEC on-air talent showcased their songwriting, singing, and dancing skills. Their dedication to take two to three two-hour choreographed dancing classes per week for a month and a half paid off. The video gained more than a whopping 1 million views.

From the competition side, 2020 had been the most competitive season so far. Dominant top teams such as G2 Esports and Fnatic were not looking as strong as their 2019's performance. Origen was even further down the standings. Previously-underestimated teams such as Rogue and MAD Lions rose to the top. MAD Lions gave G2 their first-ever loss in a domestic Bo5 during the 2020 Spring Split LEC Playoffs. Another hyped-up narrative, Schalke 04's miracle run had taken over the internet, resulting in a popular hashtag #S04MiracleRun. With an eventful season, the LEC had a lot to celebrate in 2020. Its 2020 Summer Split Finals between Fnatic and G2 gained an average audience of 819,415 viewers per minute, an increase of 70% compared to 2019. The peak concurrent viewers was 952,339, which was a 16.7% increase from last year. “We have been blown away by the fan perception and passion throughout the challenging year that has been 2020, and saw record-breaking numbers when it comes to viewership,” Schmidt noted.

The LEC Tomorrow

For a sports league that has operated for more than eight years, longevity might be the main question on fans' minds. As much as it depends heavily on Riot as the game developer, there are numerous things the LEC can do to retain high viewership. Franchising, for one, results in brand consistency. Although the elimination of the relegation system may leave out some interesting stories, to have a long-running league, teams need to feel confident that their investment is worth the risk. Schmidt agreed that the franchising model has been successful for LEC, "The LEC is thriving and we are working in an unprecedented partnership with our teams where we are all pursuing the same goals and are working together to achieve or exceed them." Another factor that makes the LEC different is the "EU pride" echoed by the pluralistic community. For a region with its national soccer culture, the pride sentiment comes naturally. What it's interesting is that LEC fans come from different corners of the world. "The LEC first and foremost is a European League but of course we also have significant global viewership. Taking pride in our competitive region is not necessarily a limitation, but part of what makes our League unique." Schmidt explained. “I really do not like comparing our League to others. From my perspective ever since we launched the LEC, we have been very clear that we are aiming to be a stand-alone League which is unique and embraces the specifics of the European region and the passion of all LEC fans.”

Tobias Scholz, author of eSports is Business – Management in the World of Competitive Gaming believes that authenticity is what makes LEC prominent and distinct, "[Because of the authenticity], so you will believe their hype. You believe that they are thrilled about it, and then they make skits commercials with the broadcasting people, making it even more authentic. Especially if you look at the Neom deal, which fell through, the broadcasting team stood up for the values. From the outside, it looks like there is some authentic culture that they stand for. It is something that sells perfectly in the business context because they can sell the products. When they sit in those cars and make a commercial with it, you believe that they are having fun in that."

As a region that constantly goes toe-to-toe with the best teams in international events, the LEC is well-known for its constant supply of talented players. Lucrative offers from other regions may pose the risk of domestic talent drain. Schmidt noted, “I consider it fairly standard in sports that if rookie talent got a chance to prove themselves and the results did not manage the expectations the respective players may need to prove themselves again before getting another shot at the highest competitive level. In Europe, we pride ourselves on having an incredibly deep ecosystem with more than 100 teams in the European Regional Leagues where players tend to find a home and have the opportunity to prove themselves again.”

In a rather young industry that is still trying to figure things out, government support is pivotal towards the endurance of a league. While it is easier for the governments to support traditional sports activities, they still need to understand esports from the ground up. Graham Ashton, the Esports International Relations Manager for Riot Games Europe, explained, "In the same way brands see esports as a way to engage with a younger target group, government entities now realize that gaming, streaming, and esports together are a strong way to communicate with newer generations. Certain esports players also have pride in the countries they hail from, and this will be of huge importance as more teams or players become known in the mainstream."

When asked about the biggest challenges in gaining government support for LEC operations, he mentioned the importance of educating the authority, "There are aspects to esports that wholly separate it from traditional sports, most notably the use of intellectual property. There is no single framework that applies to any single game or esports as a whole, which is very different to the way sports’ governing bodies have operated for centuries, something that more governments are starting to understand. A large part of my role is ensuring governments are properly educated on what esports exactly is, and in our case, how the LEC and League of Legends as a whole are organized. This includes the measures we’ve introduced over the last decade to ensure competitive integrity and the longevity of our competitions." Ashton further gave examples of works Riot has done, "We now offer European cities the chance to enter a bidding process as hosts for our finals roadshows. Partnering directly with host cities and their governments offers a lot of advantages for both sides; we are able to plan our events much further in advance and market the finals more extensively throughout the city. The local governments, meanwhile, can show the esports audience what their city has to offer, and by measuring the impact the event can have on local tourism, etc., they might decide to invest more into growing the esports market within their region. From a regulatory standpoint, good government relations also ensures the continued operation of our competitions. For example, players in the LEC and DACH Prime League need to reside in Germany for extended periods of time during the competitive season. We are able to help acquire special visas for our non-EU players, which has been of particular importance both through the COVID-19 pandemic and now with Brexit."

Ashton's wish is to nurture the relationship with the government to ensure the LEC's growth, "We hope we can continue to expand our relationships with governments and pursue more avenues of mutually beneficial collaboration. We’d like to further raise awareness regarding the level of sophistication and professionalism esports leagues like the LEC have reached and want policymakers and regulators to see the LEC as the benchmark for what an esports league can be."

The future of LEC undoubtedly relies on its core theme and messaging, which Bell described as "Our Stars and Heroes are playing in the best competition in the world... also memes."