LoL: Why Performance doesn’t equal Viewers in Esports

It’s dusk on Saturday the 26th of February and the League of Legends European Championships (LEC) is in full swing.

Everything is up for grabs. Who makes play-offs? Who secures first seed? Tonight, it’s the eventual 1st place Regular Season team vs. 5th. At the time, a vital one for both.

The stage is set and the cameras roll. However, half-way through the game the Twitch viewer numbers peak at a measly 96,000. The lowest of almost any game this season.

A week later, 4th place takes on 6th. Two middle of the pack teams thrashing around. Yet, this time Twitch viewership is over 150,000!

Why does 1st vs. 5th draw so much less of a crowd than 4th vs. 6th?

The 1st place team is Rogue. They are well known for their rigid efficiency. Sometimes winning games with barely a kill on the table. 5th place was Excel Esports, who’s most famous attribute at the time was coming 7th every season.

In the other game we have G2 Esports, one of the most notorious brands in the scene. 6th place was Team Vitality who were hyped as the “super team”, here to dominate Europe and then the World.

This wasn’t a one-night trend, over the course of the regular season G2 Esports had an average Twitch viewership of almost 170,000. Excel, only one place behind them by the end, averaged just 126,000.

Here is how all the teams paired up, comparing their Spring Split Regular Season finish against their average Twitch viewers on the official LEC channel during those games:

LEC Performance to Twitch Viewership. Graph by Author.

LEC Performance to Twitch Viewership. Graph by Author.

Who Cares about Viewership?

Before we get into the debate of why, let us first contextualise this by discussing why it matters.

To the shock of some, esports teams are companies who’s purpose is to make money. Investors aren’t paying €30M to buy a spot in the LEC because it’s cool.

However, unlike traditional sport the viewership isn’t a direct source of revenue. People aren’t paying €100 for a ticket to watch esports on their laptops. Riot will pay participation fee to contenders, but outside of (fairly inconsiderable) prize money this isn’t impacted by performance.

Instead, they make money through two main means:

  • Sponsorship deals
  • Merchandising

Neither of these are directly impacted by performance, instead they rely on viewership, and more importantly the size and devotion of their fan base.

The short of it is that esports teams are incentivised to maximise their revenue, which means increasing how many people care to watch and engage with the team — this doesn’t necessarily require them to perform well.

So, why does Rogue get so many less viewers than G2 Esports?

Don’t be Regular

Rogue are a consistently high performing team. Their regular season results over the last four splits has been: 1st, 1st, 2nd, 1st. Their playstyle can also be described as, well, fairly regular. They play the meta and they play it well.

However, somehow they have never actually won a playoffs run. They also have had two fairly lacklustre runs in both their World Champion showings.

Compare that to G2 Esports: MSI winners, Worlds finalists, Worlds semi-finalists, multiple LEC titles. These guys perform when it matters. Regular season just doesn’t bring in the same crowd as a best-of-series knock-out style tournament does.

You’ve got to perform when eyes are on you. For instance, the LEC Spring Finals peaked at 340,000 viewers. That’s over double the average viewers during the regular season. Those extra 200,000 eyes will only remember you for that series.

Player Recognition

But, this doesn’t explain the Vitality vs. Misfits misalignment.

Misfits have, both this season and historically, had better performance in the LEC. They even had a historic run at the World Champions in 2017.

So, why are more people tuning in to see Team Vitality?

It’s simple.. Perkz! The ex-G2 superstar returning to Europe to win everything. Carzzy! A charismatic member of the MAD Lions team during their high flying performance last year. Selfmade! (shakes fist) He might be the most overused meme in the LEC but he’s also incredibly fun to watch.

And Misfits? Well, outside season MVP Vetheo I had to Google the team to remind myself…

The point is, even with poor performance — the popularity of your players can drive your viewership numbers.

This is ultimately why many teams are happy to pick-up questionably performing veterans over high potential newcomers. An established fan base means revenue, regardless of how they end up playing.

Side note: if Vetheo continues on his current trajectory he’ll eventually become like Caps and Perkz, bringing in viewers whether he goes. I don’t want to become an advocate of buying veterans over developing talent, I’m just trying to highlight that player recognition can be a major driving force of viewership and so can creates an incentive for orgs.

The Brand

Esports is becoming so much more than putting a team together and winning games.

How the organisation builds narratives, creates content or memes on Twitter can be just as important, if not more, than the teams performance. Look at G2 Esport’s CEO Carlos on Twitter.

How many players, coaches, managers or CEOs in the space pull in the engagement numbers this guy manages?

Does that mean if G2 were 10th place every season, always missing international events and had a bunch of fresh faced academy players they would top the viewership numbers? Probably not. But they’d still get more than Astralis.

There’s a certain undefinable magic that some organisations have at building and engaging with their fan base.

In Conclusion…

Esport teams are here to make money, the best way they can do that is by building a fan base to engage with. Although there’s a general correlation between performing well in the regular season and getting views, it’s not always the case.

How well the team performs when eyes are on them, how many big name players they have and how well the organisation engages the fans will have a considerable impact on their bottom line numbers.

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