What was the LCS walkout? LCSPA vs Riot Games controversy explained

Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games

The 2023 LCS Summer split was in jeopardy after the members of the LCS Players Association (LCSPA) voted in favor of a walkout. Here’s everything that you need to know about this historical saga.

The LCS Summer Split was thrown into uncertainty for approximately two weeks after the league’s players “overwhelmingly” voted on May 28 to stage a historical walkout. The announcement highlighted just how far apart Riot Games and the LCSPA were in terms of certain issues regarding the future of North American League of Legends.

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The walkout vote was triggered by Riot’s removal of the obligation that LCS team had to compete in the North American Challengers League. The LCSPA felt betrayed by the decision because it wasn’t consulted in the matter and because Riot had promised that no changes would be made before 2024.

As seven organizations immediately pulled out of the Challengers League, “as many as 70 players, coaches and managers” lost their jobs overnight, according to the association.

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Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games)
The LCS season will resume on June 14 after a two-week delay

Collective action of this kind was unprecedented in the LCS, though there had been long-standing friction between Riot Games and the LCSPA. In March 2020, the players association had voted to cancel the remainder of the Spring Split due to the global health emergency. In the end, however, Riot decided to keep both the LCS and the academy league going in a remote setup. The LCSPA was “disappointed that they felt as though they weren’t taken into consideration.

Unlike then, however, the association decided to take action. After several days in which the possibility of a walkout seemed very much real, Riot Games decided to postpone the start of the tournament by two weeks with hopes of finding common ground with the LCSPA. Moreover, Riot Games threatened that, if no agreement was reached, it would consider canceling the Summer Split and eliminating the region’s spots at Worlds 2023.

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On June 9, Riot Games and the LCSPA announced that they had reached an understanding that will see the LCS Summer Split beginning on June 14. The two parties held discussions over a number of important matters concerning player protection and the NACL model.

Here’s a comprehensive explainer to help readers understand the significance of the moment.

What was the LCS walkout?

On May 28, the players in the LCS, North America’s top League of Legends competition, voted in favor of a walkout following Riot Games’ controversial removal of the mandate that determined LCS teams had to field a roster in the North American Challengers League (NACL). LCS teams had long sought the possibility to opt out of the developmental league, and they voted to drop the requirement due to financial concerns amid what has been referred to as the “esports winter”.

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Within days, all but three of the ten LCS teams had announced that they were dropping out of the NACL before the Summer Split. Only FlyQuest, Team Liquid and Evil Geniuses opted to remain in the league, though questions remain about their plans beyond this year.

Riot’s decision prompted an immediate response from the LCS Players Association (LCSPA), which accused the developer of pandering to the teams’ needs and putting the NACL’s future at risk. “Riot failed today to provide any plan to ensure the NACL remains a viable talent pipeline for NA,” the association said in a statement.

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LCSPA Executive Director Phillip Aram said that Riot made the call without consulting the association, which found out about the ongoing discussions between the developer and LCS teams through information leaked online. “We have been lied to,” Aram said in an interview with Travis Gafford. “We were told, throughout the process this year, from many people at Riot, that changes were being considered for 2024. And that is not what has happened.”

The LCSPA outlined a series of demands for the NACL for 2024 and beyond, including a promotion system and a robust revenue-sharing program. Those proposals were unaddressed by Riot, forcing the LCSPA to call a vote on a walkout.

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What is the LCSPA?

The LCSPA was established by Riot Games in 2017 as the LCS was about to enter a franchising era. During those early years, some of the association’s biggest wins were the creation of a central contract database that allowed players to share salary and contract information with each other to improve bargaining power among players, the easing of streaming requirements in contracts, and the creation of the first-ever player summit.

In late 2020, Riot Games announced that it was ending its funding agreement with the LCSPA. Darshan Upadhyaya, the association’s president, said that the LCSPA would take this opportunity to “completely rebuild from the ground up”. Phillip Aram, a former Chief Gaming Officer at Evil Geniuses, joined the LCSPA as Executive Director in April 2021.

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In March 2022, the LCSPA announced a multi-year partnership with OneTeam to manage and commercialize the group rights for all 100 players competing at both LCS and Academy levels.

Members of the LCSPA also provide “external support” to the Americas Valorant Players Association (AVPA), according to a report from Dot Esports.

Each LCS team is represented by a player in the LCSPA, with the executive council being made up of five people. The advisory board has six members, including Aram.

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LCSPA Executive Council:

  • Darshan ‘Darshan’ Upadhyaya – Executive President
  • Jo ‘CoreJJ’ Yong-in – Treasurer
  • Ibrahim ‘Fudge’ Allami – Vice-President
  • Philippe ‘Vulcan’ Laflamme – Vice-President
  • Mohamed ‘Revenge’ Kaddoura – Vice-President

LCSPA Advisory Board:

  • Phil Aram – Executive Director
  • Ryan Fairchild
  • Lauren Gaba Flanagan
  • Stephen Ellis
  • Cansu Akalin
  • Bowen Chung

What were the LCSPA’s requests?

The LCSPA’s asks are the following:

  • Institute ‘Valorant style’ promotion and relegation between the LCS and NACL.
  • Allow LCS orgs to partner with affiliates for cost-sharing.
  • Riot commits to a revenue pool for player salaries of $300,000 per NACL team per year.
  • Institute a 3/5 roster continuity rule to provide players on released NACL rosters first priority in maintaining their slots in the upcoming NACL season if a majority continue to compete together.
  • Riot guarantees LCS minimum contracts for the following year for the five players who win the LCS summer finals each year.

One of the biggest changes proposed is the introduction of a promotion system that would tie the LCS and the NACL, similar to what has been done in Valorant.

When announcing the revamped Valorant Champions Tour circuit, Riot Games established a promotion and relegation system in the three international leagues (EMEA, Americas and Pacific). In each region, the winner of a promotion tournament, called Ascension, earns a two-year slot in the international league.

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Riot Games
The LCSPA wanted a VCT Ascension-like promotion system in League of Legends

In addition to having the opportunity to compete against the region’s best teams, the promoted teams will also receive revenue share and can qualify for international events, like VCT Masters and Valorant Champions. After those two years, the teams drop down to the Challenger league and must qualify again.

The possibility to have third-party entities help LCS teams run an NACL roster would be an incentive to keep supporting the league. “Based on our calculations, that could cut the cost of running an NACL team in half for an org,” Aram said on ‘The Four Horsemen’ show.

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Riot Games responds to LCS walkout vote

In a May 31 statement from Naz Aletaha, the Global Head of LoL Esports, Riot Games finally addressed the walkout vote and the list of requests presented by the LCSPA.

Aletaha admitted that the academy system that has been in place until now has been “ineffective” and said that the new NACL model is a vital step toward building a prosperous and sustainable ecosystem that can replicate what has been done successfully in other major regions.

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In order to further help the NACL through this transition, Riot Games decided to give Rally Cry, the league’s partner, a $300,000 fee. This funding, the developer noted, is in addition to the revenue share model announced last week.

Riot Games has also decided to postpone the start of the LCS Summer Split by two weeks, setting a new start date of June 15.

“Hopefully, this two-week window will give us time for productive dialogue between the LCSPA, teams, and the league and then resume LCS competition this summer,” the statement read.

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Riot noted that further delays to the LCS Summer split will make it “nearly impossible to run a legitimate competition”. If that is the case, Riot is prepared to cancel the entire LCS Summer season, which would also eliminate the region’s slots at Worlds 2023.

“I want to be clear: That is not an outcome we’d want, but it’s, unfortunately, the reality of ensuring we run a fair, competitive global system,” Aletaha said.

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Riot’s Global Head of LoL Esports also addressed the LCSPA’s requests and presented arguments as to why four of them are not viable.

As for the request to allow LCS teams to partner with affiliates to run NACL rosters, she said that Riot Games has encouraged affiliate relationships between the LCS and the NACL.

Aletaha’s statement makes no mention of Riot’s attempts to push LCS teams to field “scab” players or the reported temporary lifting of solo queue rank requirements to ensure the franchise squads had a roster ready to play on June 1 in the event of a walkout.

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The walkout is called off

After a week of regular meetings, the LCSPA and Riot Games announced on June 8 that they had reached an agreement on terms to resume the LCS season. The summer split will kick off on June 14.

The terms agreed between Riot, the LCSPA and a team representative concern protection for players, the business model of the NACL, and the future of the North American ecosystem.

Below are the terms agreed between the two parties:

  • $300,000 for the remainder of the 2023 Season to be split amongst the 10 NACL teams in order to boost player opportunity and pay.
  • 50% of all future NACL sponsorship revenue will now be shared by NACL Teams.
  • The NACL will have a Team Participation Agreement (TPA) in 2024. This means NACL teams will have to abide by minimum standards to receive payments or revenue share from Riot.
  • A minimum of 30 days severance pay for termination without cause for any player earning up to 1.5 times the league minimum salary and 15 days’ notice for any player competing on a visa.
  • Players and teams will share equal representation on a committee to determine any future changes to the practice schedule in a collaborative manner.
  • Teams will take action to ensure all foreign players have mandated healthcare available to them by the first day they are in the US.
  • Riot and the LCSPA will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that establishes meetings and notice parameters to ensure all parties are aligned before any future decisions are locked and communications are made.

The LCSPA acknowledged that this agreement, despite giving players “a meaningful seat” at the negotiating table, “falls short” of its initial list of requests. With the threat of the LCS Summer split being canceled weighing heavily on players like Peter ‘Doublelift’ Peng, it became clear that LCSPA had little leverage in the negotiations and that it would have to make concessions.

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Timeline of events

June 9:

  • Riot Games and the LCSPA announce that they have reached an agreement on terms to resume the LCS season on June 14. According to the association, talks will continue on some unresolved matters.

June 4:

June 1:

May 31:

May 30:

  • The LCSPA has a meeting with Riot later on Tuesday, Executive Director Phillip Aram told the Sports Business Journal.
  • All player interviews and photo shoots ahead of the LCS have been canceled, with the normal media day ahead of the season being called off last minute.
  • Riot Games is dropping the LCS solo queue ranking requirements for this weekend, according to Travis Gafford. Moreover, players will not be required to be present at the Riot Games Arena, in Los Angeles, and can play from anywhere.

May 29:

  • The LCSPA says that it has been aware “for over a week of attempts to require teams to field scab players at the start of the season.” It adds that it believes players “will stand in solidarity” and that attempts to create scab rosters for the start of the Summer split “will fail”.

May 28:

May 24:

  • Riot Games announces the new format for the NACL for the Summer Split, with only ten teams, down from 16, and a $100,000 prize pool. A pathway to the NACL through open qualifiers is announced, along with a revenue-sharing program based on Twitch channel subscriptions.

May 23:

  • The LCSPA outlines a request list for Riot Games in the face of a threat of a player walkout.
  • Independent reporter Mikhail Klimentov reveals that the LCSPA will ask LCS players to vote on a walkout on Sunday, May 28.

May 18:

  • By this point, it is clear where the ten LCS teams stand regarding their involvement in the NACL. Cloud9, Immortals, TSM, Dignitas, Golden Guardians, NRG and 100 Thieves all left the league, while Team Liquid, FlyQuest and Evil Geniuses opted to remain.

May 12:

  • Riot Games confirms that it has dropped the requirement that LCS teams need to field a roster in the Challengers League (NACL). In response, the LCSPA calls out Riot’s “lack of commitment to the NACL” and urged “players, coaches, streamers and fans to stand up in unison and demand for Riot to reverse this decision in order to protect the future of the LCS.

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