Open/Closed Esports Ecosystems: CSGO vs. League of Legends

by Fabio

In esports, developers have different views on how to interact with the competitive scene of their games. Some prefer a loose approach. For instance, Valve let practically any organizer run CSGO or Dota 2 tournaments. Contrast this with RIOT and League of Legends, where there are mostly just developer-controlled events. Few and far between, there may be some third-party tournaments, but the bulk of the competitive ecosystem is held up, controlled and sanctioned by RIOT themselves. Both of these approaches have various implications for esports.

The Open Ecosystem of CSGO

Counter Strike offers an entirely open ecosystem. This means that there are basically no restrictions to who can host a CSGO event. Generally, this is hugely beneficial to the professional scene. It means that there is no entry barrier to new organizers, on any level. This gives so many mid-sized tournaments the chance to flourish, which also provides opportunities and exposure to teams that would otherwise not make it to the big events. 

Recently, BLAST have entered the fight for the top league in CSGO
Recently, BLAST have entered the fight for the top league in CSGO (via EsportsGuide)

Competition Between Organizers

Tournament Organizers in CSGO are not restricted by who’s getting to host events. Instead, they basically have to fight for the teams to attend. They can do this by offering large prize pools, improved players conditions and professional broadcast quality. Basically, the organizers have to compete amongst themselves in order to get the best teams. Just like in a free market, the best product (with the best advertising) wins – so all big league operators try to work towards that. 

For this reason, we have seen enormous jumps in the quality of events in CSGO for the last few years. Organizers are trying to outbid each other and are finding new ways of giving their tournaments a head start. Last year, ESL introduced an offline group stage for their Pro League, which has never happened before in competitive CSGO. 

Tournaments for Every Level of Play

Most importantly, this freedom of hosting tournaments gives unprecedented opportunities to amateur- and semi-professional competitors. We know that the schedule for the big teams is full enough to support a professional career, but the opportunities in the middle and the bottom of the scene are often lacking.

In an open ecosystem, like CSGO’s, if there are teams and viewers interested to see them play, someone will eventually create a league around them. That is why, during the coronavirus crisis, a multitude of online leagues have spawned around the Tier 3 and Tier 4 teams. These “9 to 5” leagues basically offer entertainment around the clock.

So far, it sounds as if open ecosystems in esports are vastly superior to closed ones. But there are a few caveats to this loose approach.

Gaming Paradise 2015: The organizers had forgotten to install graphics cards in the tournament computers
Gaming Paradise 2015: The organizers had forgotten to install graphics cards (via GosuGamers)

Tournament Disasters

Without Valve exercising some form of control over who gets to host events, the quality of those competitions is not always ensured. So when a tournament in Slovenia promises a great event with ‘paradisiacal’ conditions, they are given a license and the teams flock there. 

But what happens when, suddenly, there are no PCs, no viewers, and the hotel rooms have not been paid? At Gaming Paradise, all of this actually happened. As ironic as the name of the event is, the players actually had to suffer massively. 

For a short amount of time, they were actually questioned by the police and had to hand over their passports, as the hotel staff thought they were being scammed by the players. Some teams didn’t make it to the next event in time, others arrived with food poisoning from days before. This could largely have been avoided if Valve had exercised a sort-of quality control and actually held those tournament providers responsible.

Schedule Overloading

Still, these disastrous events are few and far between. But there is a more constant danger to the health of the CSGO scene. Recently, both Lukas “gla1ve” Rossander and Andreas “Xyp9x” Højsleth removed themselves from the active roster of Astralis, citing burnout issues. They had actually wanted to take a break for months now, but the schedule never allowed them to.

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, the calendar has been upheld with countless online events. Almost all of them count towards some sort of ranking system, so the teams can’t just miss them. This creates an unhealthy working environment for all players. If the developer won’t start decreasing the number of high-profile events, the teams will have to start picking and choosing themselves. But they’re companies, after all, looking for the maximum amount of exposure for themselves and their sponsors. How can you expect them to purposefully miss out on events? 

Obviously, the concept of an open ecosystem suffers from quite a few severe issues. So how to closed ecosystems tackle these problems?

The Closed Ecosystem of League of Legends

In League of Legends, most events are directly controlled by the game developers, RIOT. This means that RIOT essentially have to say yes or no to every single event featuring LoL. They have actually become quite picky. Some long-standing leagues, like the German national circuit called ‘ESL Meisterschaft’, have lost their license to use the game. In its place, RIOT have constructed their own German structure. 

Now, whether this is a good or bad thing for the scene entirely depends on how well the developers maintain this new league. Generally, a lot more responsibility falls to the developers as soon as they decide to exercise direct control on their scene. But with that responsibility, a lot of opportunities arise to professionalize and improve the competitive landscape.

Building a Player Development Pipeline

With RIOT creating their own leagues and events, they can implement the player development pipeline themselves and ensure that the players’ needs are met every step of the way. In Europe, for instance, they currently host the LEC. This franchised league is home to the region’s best teams. But where do they get their players from?

Obviously, there needs to be a second division of sorts, some support structure to help young and aspiring players grow to the level of professional players. RIOT host or at least oversee a bunch of national leagues. For instance, the Prime League gives teams from Germany, Austria and Switzerland a competitive structure. Most importantly, players can join this league via qualifiers as well. This gives amateurs and semi-professionals and entry and, most crucially, a pathway to the professional level of LoL. The players of Prime League are frequently drafted into LEC teams, where they finally get the chance to prove themselves internationally. 

Creating this pipeline is of utmost importance to the sustainability of the professional scene. The competitive level of an esports title can only be maintained when fresh talent is allowed to freely advance in the ranks.

With the LEC, RIOT have stepped up their broadcasting game
With the LEC, RIOT have stepped up their broadcasting game (via EarlyGame)

Quality Control

The most important benefit is that RIOT can exercise control of their events. They can ensure that there won’t be a ‘Gaming Paradise’-incident in League of Legends, ever. They oversee the development of every regional league. When they saw a decline in viewership for the European League of Legends Championship Series, they went back to the drawing board and developed an entirely separate European league.

With a new concept, they soon announced a rebranded League of Legends European Championship. The LEC brought along new talk show formats and elevated the production quality massively. This is something that the developers can only do if they have direct control of the leagues that feature their games.

Hosting Monopoly

But the closed ecosystem has some downsides too. Just as much as the developers can control the quality of events, they can also neglect them. If there are no competing leagues and events, there is very little incentive for the developers to push the boundaries with regards to broadcasting quality.

RIOT are no offenders here, they have always strived for professionalism and their World Championship events have broken records and defined tournaments for years to come. But other closed ecosystems, like the Overwatch professional scene, don’t have the same amount of professionalism. Especially when it comes to the structure of the league, the developers are a massive hindrance to the development of new talent. 

Schedule Underloading

CSGO suffers from an overload of events in the top tiers of professional play. But the opposite can also occur. As all big League of Legends events are controlled entirely by RIOT, there are virtually no third-party competitions to fill up the calendar. Maybe having two events per weekend is too many. But having just two league seasons per region and two major international events is too few. If you’re not part of the LEC, LCK, LPL or LCS rotation, there is virtually no chance of establishing a top-tier team. In CSGO, there are arguably more full-time teams, as there are more events to attend overall. 

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An Improved Model: Dota 2

None of the two systems presented above are perfect. Dota 2 actually offers a middle approach, where some events are sanctioned and quality-controlled by Valve, while still allowing third-party competitions into the mix. This gives a healthy balance to the scene and incentivizes Valve to continue improving on their own competitions. Otherwise, they’d soon be overshadowed by the rest of the tournament circuit. 

There is no clear winner between open and closed ecosystems. Both CSGO and League of Legends have a few things to change about their professional landscapes. The health and future of their scenes depends on it. 

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