Opinion: The Match-Fixing Mess in China’s League of Legends Esports Ecosystem – The Esports Observer

“Please punish those ‘cheaters’ and ‘actors’ severely. please! Otherwise the League of Legends competitive scene can not [be called] professional [esports],” Chinese esports icon Jian “Uzi” Zihao pleaded after his game was match-fixed.

Uzi is considered one of the biggest superstars in the world of esports China, and has the most commercial value in the country as both a player and streamer. Before Nike signed the ¥200M RMB ($30.5M USD) four-year sponsorship deal with League of Legends Pro League (LPL) in 2019, the company was already attracted by Zihao’s influence in China’s market, and collaborated with him to promote LeBron James’ “Dribble &” marketing campaign. The campaign was not only on social media; Zihao’s image was also featured on Shanghai’s Huaihai Road (Similar to London’s Oxford Street), alongside James’ image.

In fact, before Zihao made his call for punishing match-fixing, China’s secondary professional competition, League of Legends Development (LDL) faced match-fixing allegations and investigations. Chinese League of Legends operator TJ Sports suspended the league and called for a “reorganization.” Zihao’s call has absolutely pushed the problem of match-fixing into public space, because If a streamer’s game can be match-fixed, how seriously can professional competitions be affected by it? 

Why Fast-Growing LPL is Hurting LDL

On March 19, TJ Sports’ League of Legends Discipline Committee announced that it would investigate all players, coaches, and management roles within 43 LPL teams and LDL teams, which means match-fixing incidents had officially affected LPL. The results of those investigations will be released later this month, according to the committee.

From a league structure perspective, the incident exposed a drawback in the League of Legends system. Since the Chinese League of Legends esports canceled the relegation process between LPL and LDL, the world esports industry witnessed several large business and commercial achievements of LPL, including the Nike apparel sponsorship, and 16 other partnerships. However, compared to LPL, LDL faces a lack of commercial value, and most important, there is no “official bridge” (relegation) between LPL and LDL. More esports audiences watch LPL rather than LDL because LPL is more competitive and has more commercial value. 

The business and commercial gap between LPL and LDL is comparatively large, and could be proven through both posters and players’ team jerseys. In LPL, the poster featured 16 partners, including Mercedes-Benz, KFC, Mobil Super, among 13 other brands. However, the LDL poster only highlights two partners, Chat service TT Yuyin and gaming chair Auto Full. In addition, there are no sponsor logos on LDL team jerseys. 

If we regard the League of Legends esports ecosystem as a family and TJ Sports as the father, LPL is the beloved eldest son, and LDL is the ignored little son. In 2017, Johnson Yeh, former head of Riot Games China, said at an esports business summit that he and his team would build LPL to become China’s top sports event in three years. Now, TJ Sports and Yeh fulfilled the promise as the company reported viewership of more than 100B on LPL-related content in 2020. Obviously, brands and audiences enjoyed high-level LPL competitions, but on the other hand, fewer esports audiences and enthusiasts care about LDL, except perhaps people who want to bet on esports and make quick money from it. 

The perception of belonging is important in the sports industry, and can not easily be developed by money. As I spent three years studying at the University of Liverpool for my Bachelor’s Degree, I knew no matter how well Manchester City FC played in the Premier League season, it is almost impossible a Liverpool FC fan would support Man City. That’s the charm of the home-away strategy in soccer. In NBA G-League, the teams also bond with both the parent NBA teams and their home cities. However, for LDL fans, the perception of belonging is what they lack. Some teams, such as YM, SDX, and SJG, don’t have a parent team in LPL, not even mentioning the city they belonging to. 

The relegation/promotion strategy in esports could partly improve the situation and give more reasons for audiences to watch LDL. However, the strategy is also a double-edged sword because it will also decrease the business value of the LPL franchise slot. In some ways, TJ Sports sacrificed the business value of LDL to focus on making LPL become China’s top sports league.

Therefore, LDL lacks exposure from a commercial perspective, as well as an attraction for audiences and players. 

In Tencent’s Honor of Kings esports ecosystem, Tencent renewed the relegation system between its King Pro League (KPL) and secondary league KPL-G League (KGL), adding two temporary franchising slots in KPL for the top two KGL teams. In addition, Tencent also built an exclusive relegation system between KGL and Tencent’s Global Esports Arena (TGA) Honor of Kings Women Competition, which means the top Chinese female Honor of Kings team can compete in KGL, and also potentially qualify in KPL.

It’s not saying that having a relegation system will remove the threat of match-fixing from the KPL, but it could attract more diverse audiences to watch tier 2 or even tier 3 Honor of Kings competitions. 

“Every tournament organizer can not 100% promise that its competitions did not match-fix,” Zi Zhang, CEO of China’s biggest CS: GO tournament organizer FunSpark told The Esports Observer. ”FunSpark used to host China CS:GO League (CSL) in China, and I decided to shut it down in 2018. And the reason behind this was we can not control match-fixing in our league.”

“I believe that either we who host esports competitions or players need to have a sense of mission and honor in esports, which is not just for financial benefit. They (players involved in match-fixing) only care about the order book on the betting website and have no respect for the prize money, and even their dreams. I knew this was wrong and I didn’t want our league to become a source of money for match-fixing.” 

How to Fix the Situation?

In a mature industry such as banking, which has an independent “compliance” department, every bank officer has to attend “compliance training” for understanding what practices are ethical and unethical, and what is forbidden in the industry. In China’s esports industry, “compliance training” should be involved in every sector of the industry, even as a part of an ethical approach in universities’ “Esports Education” programs. 

For League of Legends operator TJ Sports, it would be a tough time and hard work to investigate match-fixing within all the players and staff in LPL and LDL. But it would also be a valuable match-fixing case for the global esports industry to study based on open and transparent results.

In addition, in the big picture of League of Legends, game publishers Tencent and Riot Games need to take responsibility to clear the high-ranking players who match-fixed professional players’ games in public matches. Nowadays, not only professional competitions would have order books on betting websites, but also some public matches that involve professional players and top streamers like Uzi. 

Esports has developed at an unbelievably rapid pace, and we’ve been celebrating the investments, the high prize pools, and the recognition from society. But we should never forget match-fixing is a serious problem for every sector in the industry. It is tough to combat,  but stakeholders and players who care about the integrity of competitive gaming must do more to fight it.

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