Australia’s premier esports competition, the Oceanic Pro League (OPL) for League of Legends, was dissolved today by Riot, the game’s US-based owner. The decision represents a significant setback for the local industry.
Local esports operators were shocked by the news, having been given less than two hours’ notice of the decision, according to a source from one of the teams.
Many of those we contacted declined to comment as they were still processing the news, but the mood was one of hostility.
The anger was running red hot in some quarters. One esports executive with direct knowledge of the conversations between Riot and local operators told Which-50, “We were emailed to advise/request attendance at a meeting.”
Riot’s representatives arrived to the meeting late, and then less than an hour later it was over. In the words of the executive we spoke to, “We have not had any consultation in the process at all.”
He described the media statements from Riot in colourful terms that threw doubt upon their veracity.
“Riot — through the now exiting local employees and poor understanding of the region from North America — have dismissed all competitive play in this part of the world as either sub-par or lacking viability for whatever commercial reasons they decide.
“As a team owner group, we have been calling them out on the lack of support, commercialisation of the product, and generally the lack of progression they have created for the product in this part of the world,” he said.
Official commentary tended to be more circumspect.
According to Head of goto.game, Phid McAwesome, “The dissolving of the OPL is troubling, but is also a reflection of the direction esports is taking, with the ANZ region being rolled into bigger markets.”
He said he believes that esports is struggling locally, but has a massive opportunity to grow. “Riot Games has a different bottom line than say ESL, LPL or AEL, so esports is seen as an advertising avenue for their main product. Whereas esports production companies have a broader view on what esports is and can be.”
Perth-based esports outfit Pentanet, for instance, posted on its Linkedin page, “Today’s OPL — Oceanic Pro League (Riot Games) announcement has come as a shock to us all.
“But PGG is here to develop and grow the esports scene in Western Australia — our entrance into OPL was just one part of what we’re setting out to achieve as an organisation.”
A matter of scale
According to Dominic Remond Former CEO Gfinity Esports Australia and consultant, “The exit of Riot and the closing of the OPL is a further indication of the challenging commercial model for esports in Australia. There is no doubting the passion of the community and the playing base, however, the audience, which is the real commercial value, has yet to mature.”
Like other forms of sport, eyeballs and engagement are the key measure for commercial deals such as media rights, sponsorship, merchandise sales, and content monetisation, he said.
“Australia often has a challenge with scale. The size of the viewing audience, from our experience at Gfinity Esports Australia, is not yet significant enough in Australia to warrant meaningful revenue streams. Outside of China and South Korea, audience size and it’s subsequent value to advertisers continue to be the greatest challenge.”
Meanwhile ESL Australia, the local branch of the what it says is the world’s largest esports organisation, tweeted “We’re saddened to hear of the news that @riotgames Sydney will be shutting down. From the OPL Finals in 2015 at Luna Park to @MelbEsportsOpen, Riot & the @OPL have played a huge part of the growth of Australian esports, and will be missed by thousands of Australian esports fans.”
Riot said its local operation had failed to meet key metrics, despite a five-year investment.
League of Legends is one of the world’s most popular and lucrative esports. The world championship is currently underway in China, and attracted 1.168 million viewers for one of the matches between Team Liquid and MAD Lions. Australian team Legacy Esports competed in the tournament but was eliminated in the early rounds.
In 2018, the finals were watched by 99.6 million people, surpassing the record audience figure set the year before. Prize money at the first League of Legends world championship was less than $US100,000, but by 2018 stood at $US6.4 million — still one of the largest ever in esports.
According to a statement by Malte Wagener, Managing Director, NA & OCE, and Tom Martell, Director of Operations, Global Esports, at Riot, “At Riot Games, we want to build competitive and sustainable leagues that drive commercial growth and fan engagement and that support professional play as a full-time career.
“Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of our teams and players, the OPL has not met our goals for the League, and we do not believe that the market is currently able to support the League in its current form.”
The company will close its Sydney office, which it says is primarily focused on operating the League.
It claims, however, that this is not the end of League esports in OCE. “We remain committed to supporting our pro players in the region with a path to continue their careers moving forward.”
For Australian players, there is at least a small silver lining. Beginning with the 2021 season, Riot is adding OCE to the competitive territory for the LCS — the North American League. This means OCE players will no longer take an import slot on LCS rosters, opening up new opportunities in North America for top local players.
“We will also hold qualifying tournaments in OCE for both MSI and Worlds in 2021, ensuring teams from the region will continue to be represented at our two major global events next season.”