In the wake of an unprecedented month-long suspension and a historic match-fixing investigation, the League of Legends Development League (LDL), China’s secondary League of Legends competition finally concluded its internal investigation and resumed play on April 26. A slew of bans and penalties on players, coaches, and staff across the League of Legends Pro League (LPL) and LDL seemed to put a temporary end to this match-fixing scandal in League of Legends esports.
To further explicate details about the ruling and punishment and elaborate on the profound implications, TJ Sports, the operator of the League of Legends esports in China, hosted a press conference prior to the resumption of regular season action. When asked about the future of the LDL, TJ Sports Head of League Operations and Development Brett Sun told the press:
“We hope to turn the LPL and LDL into the esports equivalent of the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), respectively. The LDL can model after the NCAA which does not have an upward route for its teams/schools, yet still possesses tremendous business and commercial worth.”
Ostensibly, Sun’s remarks to analogize the LDL to the NCAA make sense at first sight. It is intuitive to draw parallels between the two entities since both are operating without a “ladder mechanism.” However, if one takes a closer look at and makes a direct comparison between the nature, structure, and purpose of the two leagues, there are a few potential issues and problems to be noted if Sun truly envisions the NCAA as a paradigm for the LDL. I will explain why it is inappropriate, or perhaps, misleading to promote the LDL as the esports counterpart of the NCAA.
The NCAA is a membership-driven organization in North America of more than 1,000 colleges and universities that work together to organize athletic programs, and regulate college sports. Essentially, performance-based promotion and relegation, a scheme that has been widely employed in professional team sports, do not work for the NCAA since schools vary significantly in terms of investment in sports and athletic performance (e.g., Louisiana State University vs. Centenary College of Louisiana). Instead, the NCAA employs a different type of ladder system that is not performance-oriented.
Member schools have the autonomy to choose whether they would like to compete in Division I, the highest level of intercollegiate athletics, or Division II and Division III, the lower-level college divisions, as long as certain divisional requirements are met. For example, despite all being private schools, with more sponsored sports, higher budget, and stricter rules about eligibility, Stanford University and Harvard University decide to participate in Division I competitions, while Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University opt to invest less resources in college sports and only compete in Division III.
In this sense, the fundamental premise on which the LDL can emulate the NCAA does not hold given the fact that the NCAA does implement a distinct competition system where schools can make decisions to move upward or downward according to their needs.
Another misconception of the NCAA pertains to its broad appeal and ability to generate massive revenue. That’s perhaps the primary reason why Sun considers the NCAA as a viable model for the LDL. Indeed, while being a non-profit organization dedicated to serving student athletes, the NCAA has enjoyed enormous financial success over the years. According to the NCAA financial statement, the 2019 revenue came in at $1.18B USD. Yet, it should be noted that the overwhelming amount of the revenue was derived from the NCAA’s flagship tournament. Division I men’s basketball championship, also known as “March Madness.” The marquee tournament drew over 10 million viewers and allowed the NCAA to rake in $891M from the television and marketing rights fees. In fact, March Madness is the only NCAA event that constantly enjoys nation-wide popularity and financial prosperity (college football playoff and bowl games are not operated by the NCAA, and their TV deals and sponsorship sales are negotiated independently). In contrast, other NCAA events (Division II and Division III) barely make ends meet with the majority seeing negative net generated revenue.
That being said, if the LDL aims to bring in more revenue and boost its commercial value, among all the events the NCAA currently operates, March Madness turns out to be the best option to imitate. Still, there are issues to consider. Unlike March Madness, which represents the highest level of college basketball in the United States, the LDL is the secondary league of competitive League of Legends in China. The quality gap between the LDL and its older cousin LPL has to be addressed in some way; otherwise, the LDL will most likely become the Division II or Division III of the Chinese League of Legends esports and remain to be a financial loser.
Moreover, I would contend that it is almost impossible to replicate the success of March Madness in a different context as the substantial interest in and the money surrounding the tournament are built upon the unique history and culture of American intercollegiate sports. As a matter of fact, college sports were popular before the existence of professional sports. March Madness could date back to 1939, while the NBA was not founded until 1946. From a product perspective, colleges and universities are able to recruit the best amateur players in the country with the promise of education, making Division I college basketball nearly on par with the NBA. Moreover, many areas of the country (e.g., Alabama, Arkansas, Nebraska) are far away from a major city which is home to major professional teams — but they are near a university. A lot of people living in those regions are fans of college sports because that’s what they grow up watching and it’s a family tradition to root for college teams. Likewise, most students who attend a particular university develop a strong attachment to that university for life. March Madness features 68 college basketball teams across the United States, allowing students, families, alumni, and local sports loving citizens from different backgrounds to take great pride in the college team they cheer for. These distinctive historical and cultural factors all contribute to the broad appeal and superior lucrativeness of March Madness, which, unfortunately, are not applicable to the LDL. Like the TEO China correspondent Hongyu Chen wrote in his opinion article, “Some LDL teams, such as YM, SDX, 87, and MAX don’t have a parent team in the LPL, not even mentioning the city they belong to. For LDL fans, the perception of belonging is what they lack.”
Therefore, as I explained, it might not be a good idea for the LDL to embrace the NCAA model (autonomous mobility) or create an esports version of March Madness. Even so, I do believe Sun has his point as it is always important for the sports and esports industry to learn from each other, share experiences, and ultimately help each other grow. He might also with a good intent, making efforts to innovate means to improve the income and benefits of the LDL players so that potential matching-fixing cases could be precluded. I think one inspiration that the NCAA offers is the notion to help players not only succeed on the field but also in the classroom, and for life. Although the NCAA has long been accused of profiting off college students and reaping the financial rewards for their athletic abilities, it is an undeniable fact that the NCAA provides opportunities and resources to support student athletes and the schools they attend such as scholarships, educational stipend, and a variety of personal and professional development programs. Considering only fewer than 2 percent of the student athletes go on to be professional athletes, a thorough college experience along with a college degree are instrumental to student athletes’ long-term success. Similarly, I would argue that the LDL may benefit from adopting a similar approach to providing educational and career support given most LDL players are young adults who have an equally short career length and a low likelihood of making the LPL. If the LDL players struggle to figure out a feasible career path and have difficulties making a living once they become retired, matching-fixing is almost inevitable.
In summary, there are still numerous areas that I can touch on but due to the length of this article I have to save them for future discussions. Overall, I am still optimistic about the prospect of the LDL. However, a lot of work needs to be done to ensure the sustainability of the league and the welfare of the players. I think, as a fledgling industry it is vital to learn from the best while challenging and reforming the existing practices that do not fit. It is my belief that by the end of day, just like a quote from former Chinese leader Xiaoping Deng said in the 1960s, “no matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.”
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