The All-Star treatment: League of Legends can do better for its players

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In a weekend of friendly competition, professional League of Legends players and personalities are facing off in a variety of show matches Dec. 5-7.

This is the League of Legends 2019 All-Star Event, which has been hosted annually by Riot since 2013. The participating “all-Stars” from each competitive region — including North America, Europe, China and Korea — are voted in by fans. It’s meant to be a fun, silly contest where viewers can get some extra time watching their favorites onstage, but it hasn’t always panned out that way.

League of Legends All-Stars was once billed as a serious competition. In 2017, the official League of Legends Esports website described it as “the only tournament where regional dream teams square off in a battle for pride, glory, and epic outplays.” Of course, attempts to characterize these three-day rosters as legitimate fell flat.

Traditional sports are also full of all-stars events.There’s the NBA All-Star Weekend, the NFL Pro Bowl, MLB All-Star week and more —  as well as the issues that come with them. The 2002 MLB All-Star Game ended in a tie when both teams ran out of available pitchers. For years, players in the NBA All-Star game were criticized for its lack of competitive spirit.

The problem with all-star games is obvious. It’s impossible (and inadvisable) to artificially raise the competitive stakes and get players invested, but completely giving up on them makes for a lackluster event. Like traditional sports leagues, League of Legends is still figuring out its solution.

Despite formatting changes, All-Stars continues to have its issues. This year, the top two North American players, Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, who had 17.2% of the fan vote, and Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg, who had 10.1%, both announced they would not be competing. Felipe “brTT” Gonçalves, a popular Brazilian player, took to Twitter asking his fans not to vote for him so he could spend his time off with his wife instead. He won 20% of the vote anyway, and declined his spot.

So, why are these pros turning down their invitations?

The biggest reason is that the tournament takes place in the middle of the offseason. If a player swaps teams, or even gains a new teammate, the offseason is a critical time to find synergy and get a feel for a new environment. Bjergsen declined his invitation to spend time at home before leaving for boot camp with his professional team, Team SoloMid (TSM), in Shanghai, China. TSM signed three new players in November, and the two weeks of intense practice will be the first test of their teamwork.

The timing is made even worse because the break is the only extended time off for professional players. The off-season lasts from the end of the World Championships in early November to the start of the Spring Split in early January. In every other month of the year, players are either competing in the regular season, training for important tournaments or playing in those tournaments if they qualify.

Of the top 3 fan-voted players from North America, Europe, China and Korea, nine out of 12 qualified for the 2019 World Championship, meaning that they’ve been playing for the entire year. Taking time to rest is important for anyone in a sports career. Doublelift revealed in a vlog that instead of actually competing at the event, he’ll spend his time creating behind-the-scenes video content of the All-Star tournament.

“I’m definitely going to be making the most out of All-Stars, just not as your official representative,” he said in the video. “All-Stars is a for-fun event, and I thought, ‘Am I going to have more fun competing in the official event, or am I gonna have more fun choosing what I’m gonna do, and being there but having my own twist on it?’”

Interestingly, there is no reward for players who win All-Stars. In 2014, teams played for a $50,000 prize. Since then, however, there has been no money in the tournament. Instead, winners of specific game modes earn a donation to charities of their choice. While that’s certainly nice, it’s no substitute for prize money.

The addition of a prize would make the tournament more stressful, which may not be ideal given intended nature. The NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL’s solution is to pay a bonus to every player who is voted in to their all-stars events.

Granted, plenty of players enjoy attending All-Stars in its current state, and it gives pros the chance to build their brand. Entertaining social media campaigns for votes are frequent; Kim “Doinb” Tae-sang, mid laner for FunPlus Phoenix, the 2019 World Champions, posted a series of dance videos on Twitter asking for fan support. Still, fan expectations pose a heavy weight.

“I’m so privileged that I can even say yes or no to this thing, when 48 other pro players are probably just like, ‘Man I wish I was that popular,’” Doublelift said in his vlog. “I don’t take it for granted a single day that people voted for me.”

Doublelift happens to be a superstar: as one of the most popular players in North America, declining has no effect on his massive fanbase — but even he feels the pressure. There’s the “honor” of being chosen by all the voters, and the need to keep your fan base happy if you’re relatively lesser known. If they want to fulfill these expectations, pros must perform for free.

It remains to be seen how this year’s All-Stars will play out. Fans might enjoy the show, or they might not, but it is increasingly clear that players have their own concerns as well.

Julia Shen covers esports. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @yinglol.