I remember being 16 and watching Dreamhack Sweden with my brother. Thousands of people cheering for players having professional contracts, wearing super cool jerseys and playing on amazing stages. We repeatedly asked ourselves: why don't we have anything that even remotely resembles this in Eastern Europe? 12 years later from Riot Games we started the Hungarian National Elite League in League of Legends. This was the very first step on a very long journey: a business development excercise disguised as a National Esports League.
Answering my question 12 years later, there are a handful of important things to understand if we want to look at the situation of esports in the Eastern European region. On the surface it seems that the US, Western Europe and Korea just have everything, while for some reason, there is nothing much going on in the Eastern Part of Europe. In order to try and help this, we had to investigate and see where the problems lie first.
First of all, there are no teams in the region that could compete internationally. There are pretty good individual players, but nobody really has an idea on how they could make it to the next level and build a powerful, sustainable team. Teams don't have strong identities and brands, you can't see polished websites and social media presence, there are no professional logos or jerseys. Player fluctuation is high, teams rarely have the same lineup for three months straight. All this happens for one simple reason: currently it's extremely difficult to earn a stable income while playing professionally. If players and coaches need to study / work 40 hours a week to sustain themselves, the quality of what they are building will definitely not be up to the standard we see from professionals elsewhere around the world. Here come the million dollar question though: how do we expect an audience, money and sponsors to flow if there is no coherent identity, brand and business plan to work with?
Let's turn this around and look at potential sponsors. Sponsors want their brand reach their audience, and for a lot of them, the best possible segment to go after is young adults and adults. There is a catch though: these people are pretty hard to reach with conventional methods. They usually don't watch tv and don't listen to radio, don't read newspapers and totally disregard billboards. Being a seasoned marketing director, this can be very difficult: nothing seems to work from your decade-long experience. The thing is though: your target plays videogames and they watch videogames too. You just need to find a way to somehow get out there.
Based on the above it seems that there is a huge opportunity in the market. Sponsors want to invest their money in order to reach their audience effectively, but can't find proper surfaces to do so. Esports teams could reach those audiences, but they would need a bit more money to get to the next level and be more effective. All we need is a bit of a kickstart, an ignition to light up this system and kick off the chain reaction. Our attempt at that ignition is the National Elite League.
Our answer to help
We advertised the biggest prize pool that the country has ever seen in an open qualifier. The primary point here was not to pour money randomly into the system: we wanted to attract the current top teams from the region. The most exciting part of the league started when the six participating teams qualified from the open qualifier. At that point, instead of kicking off the league straight, we sat down focused on giving a pretty hardcore media-, interview- and business training to all the teams. We helped them design their logos and jerseys. We took professional pictures and videos of them. Our aim was teaching the teams to fish instead of giving them fish with another tournament.
Being a seasonal tournament where four of the six teams remain part of the league in the following season, the top teams will continuously stick around. Our idea was to bring stability and experience into the ecosystem. We also decided to disallow lineup changes mid-season, to further strengthen the affection towards the same lineup and brand of the individual teams. After executing on the above for two years, a couple of stable and good looking esport brands popped up in the region.
In the meantime, we spent a quite some time educating potential sponsors. A lot of interested parties were reaching out to us constantly about working together within the core game, League of Legends. Since the revenue model of the game doesn't include any advertisement, there was no room in working together in that capacity – however, we were happy to route these companies towards our esports teams. We invited them to hold workshops for the guys to meet them in person, get to know them and being to understand the scene better. Bridges were slowly being built.
We also worked hard to elevate the viewing experience for our audience, so more and more players could start getting to know the local teams. We ran quizzes during each stream where players had the opportunity to win skins, chests and keys and also, had an extra bit of interaction and fun. We also had a couple of short cameos from the EU LCS crew, like Sjokz, Quickshot and Deficio. Huge thanks to the Berlin crew for chipping in!
A huge shoutout to all the 50+ people working on the project all the way from shoutcasters to technicians, admins, observers, cameramen, designers... you know who you are. Also a big virtual high five to all the participating teams and players for realising that although you guys play against each other, we are all in this together. And finally, if you gave feedback as a viewer, came to one of our events or just tuned into the stream every once in a while: thank you. You are all awesome and it's great to be in this together with all of you.
We ran two seasons of the National Elite League from within Riot Games. Seeing the effects of our efforts in the region both with the teams, the sponsors and the ecosystem as a whole, I truly hope that more seasons are going to happen – even if I won't be wearing the colors of Riot from now on.
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