League of Legends Borrows NFL Primetime Strategy Amid New Format

    • Two marque matches are featured on Monday nights for the first time this season.
    • LCS format changes meant to boost quality of teams entering the World Championships later this year.

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The League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) is weeks into its spring split of the 2020 season, following a restructuring of the North American league’s format that simplified the qualification process for the World Championships at the end of the year.

The LCS also added a Monday night broadcast to feature marquee matchups in primetime. The strategy takes a page from more traditional sports leagues like the NFL, which aired its first Monday Night Football telecast in 1970. Other LCS matches are held on Saturdays and Sundays, and are broadcast on Twitch. 

Primetime matches on Monday begin at 8:30 p.m. ET. A new “Academy Rush” show, recapping matches from LCS minor league contests, is also broadcast to fans on Fridays. Additional Academy games are played in full before Monday Night League matchups begin.

“We gained a lot of influence from the NFL RedZone channel for Academy Rush,” Chris Greeley, the LCS commissioner, said. “You can tune in for an hour and watch highlights from four games worth of content as told by analysts and sportscasters that will frame a story and highlight big up-and-coming players.”

League of Legends remains arguably the most popular esport in the world, alongside other games like CS:GO and DOTA 2.

Adults aged 18-to-34 view more League of Legends content than any other professional sport, with the exception of the NFL and NBA, according to a study published by the game’s developer Riot Games and Nielsen in December. Findings are based on the average minute audience, the companies said.

Marketers also remain eager to partner with the esports organization. LCS in 2019 welcomed 11 new sponsors, including Rocket Mortgage and Honda. More than 90% of the league’s advertisers last year were returning sponsors.

New league rules have had no impact on how brands choose to spend marketing dollars this season, according to Greeley. 

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Under the new league format, teams participating in the LCS will no longer be able to accumulate points during the spring split of the season to help qualify for the League of Legends World Championships in the fall. Qualification instead will be determined by performance in the summer split to ensure the three best teams represent North America on the esport’s grandest stage. 

“Spring Split still tells a compelling story around raising the LCS trophy on a stage with confetti falling on you, 10,000 fans cheering around you, and 600,000 people watching from home,” Greeley said.

Winning LCS Spring Split will still award teams cash prizes and entry into the Mid-Season Invitational, where the winner faces off against qualifying esports teams from other League of Legends domestic leagues around the world. 

Cloud 9 CEO Jack Etienne has been pushing for these changes for some time, claiming that for several years in a row, North America has not sent the best teams to the tournament. An LCS team has never won a League of Legends World Championship. In fact, teams in Asia have won every year since 2011. 

“Teams not playing well in the summer end up qualifying for the international event, and it becomes an embarrassment on the world stage,” he said. “Having spring [split] stand on its own works best with the Mid-Season Invitational after, which remains an honor to play in.”

The LCS spring split regular season ends on March 22. Viewership on Monday nights, while still substantial, has so far lagged behind weekend audiences, according to Steve Arhancet, Team Liquid’s CEO and co-owner. 

“What will happen is we get to review performance with Riot Games to decide if we will double down or change it,” Arhancet said. “But at the same time, we will not have enough information about how this has worked until after the spring.”

Riot Games has not publicly disclosed viewership numbers for this season. 

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However, Arhancet added that LCS Studios in California remain packed every night. This season’s spring playoffs will begin on April 18, where Team Liquid will look to win its fifth straight LCS season split.

“Our viewing parties are even bigger than they were last year,” he said. “So, we are still seeing considerable fan growth.”