Are franchised esports leagues the way to go for Southeast Asia?

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Musical entertainer Zed performs during the Overwatch League Grand Finals in 2019. The Overwatch League runs on a franchise model. (Photo: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters).
Musical entertainer Zed performs during the Overwatch League Grand Finals in 2019. The Overwatch League runs on a franchise model. (Photo: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters).

Moonton, the now Bytedance-owned gaming company, needed a killer move for its mobile MOBA game, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang.

Rival Riot Games had launched Wild Rift into the Southeast Asian market in 2020, where MLBB had been enjoying unprecedented success. Specifically, Riot had targeted the Philippines, a market where MLBB had been steadily growing. The release saw the game topping the Philippines Google Play Store chart, and has since been downloaded more than 38 million times globally.

However, as of the date of this article, Wild Rift appears to have fallen off the Philippines Apple App Store and Google Play Store charts for downloads, and is slowly falling down the earnings rank as well.

Meanwhile, esports in Southeast Asia is set to rapidly grow, driven mostly by mobile gaming. A Tencent-Newzoo white paper suggests that revenue for the region will grow from US$39.2m in 2021 to US$72.5m by 2024. By the end of 2021, 42.5m viewers of esports would be from this region, mainly focused around games such as PUBG Mobile or MLBB.

The data reflects MLBB's dominance in the Philippines' app stores. The game is still on the download charts, with earning rankings in second place, behind CoD: Mobile. To seal the deal, Moonton pulled out a trick from Riot's playbook, and something it had already used in Indonesia back in 2019: Franchised leagues.

Due to launch for the eighth season of the MLBB Professional League (MPL), the new franchise offers participating teams hopes of earning a share of the US$8 million revenue that could possibly be made. Interestingly, Moonton did not disclose the buy-in fee for PH, unlike Indonesia, where teams could join in provided they could fork out a cool US$1 million. And the Philippines is just the beginning, with Malaysia and Singapore franchised leagues in the works, according to a Moonton's spokesperson, Kelly Chiew.

"We want to help the esports ecosystem flourish and become more sustainable for players, organisations, and the community itself." said Chiew.

We are extremely passionate about esports and having a franchise league unlocks revenue-sharing and benefits to help the financial stability of the players and teamsMoonton spokesperson Kelly Chiew

Chiew also added that organisations could also partner with others to secure a slot, allowing them to field a team while maximising their use of a slot, all while retaining branding.

Interestingly, despite rumours of exclusivity, Moonton said this was untrue. According to Moonton, esports organisations are free to join as many games as they want. Players can also compete in other games even if they are playing in a franchise. 

However, should their organisation choose to enter into a revenue sharing agreement with Moonton, then players on the team will not be allowed to participate in other games, unless they are replaced during the proper transfer periods.

Eager to join

And it seems that esports organisations are keen on the move to franchised leagues. RSG's CEO and founder Jayf Soh said he was excited for it to happen, especially if it opens up for different games from other developers.

"The increasing focus on localisation has seen local leagues deliver much better results currently as it allows better on-ground engagement." said Soh, whose team recently ventured into the Philippines' MLBB scene.

The challenge here is to centralise with sufficient autonomy to be able to further develop the viewership base without limitationsRSG founder and CEO Jayf Soh

Soh also added that one side effect was that due to the franchise structure, organisations could only field one team, which may "translate into fewer opportunities to develop newer players, and may eventually become restrictive".

However, he's in favour of the franchise model, stating that it would provide a sustainable ecosystem, but a multi-game franchise will be difficult for organisations to balance their resources.

EVOS' Strategy Business Development Lead Matthew Chan said that it's great that developers were putting in the effort, adding that the franchise league his organization is participating in works "pretty well". EVOS currently has teams in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

"Sure, there have been situations where you get to the regional leagues and it's EVOS versus EVOS, but I think it depends on how you look at it," said Chan. "From our perspective, we're able to create jobs in different countries."

Chan also added that because of the limited spots in franchises, there would be fierce competition, which in turn provided a better viewing experience for spectators. Esports organisations, he said, would do well to take into account the best country to build their base in, to "focus their infrastructure much more" and "invest properly in a team".

Fans attend the League of Legends (LOL) World Championship Finals, in Shanghai, China October 31, 2020. (Photo: Reuters)
Fans attend the League of Legends (LOL) World Championship Finals, in Shanghai, China October 31, 2020. (Photo: Reuters)

Will Riot franchise?

Riot, on the other hand, doesn't appear to want to talk about regional franchised leagues just yet. The game developer is already running official Wild Rift tournaments in the region through a partner, for example Mineski in the Philippines or Eliphant in Singapore, but said they had no plans yet despite already having established the model with its League of Legends esports.

"We are very, very, interested in creating a sustainable ecosystem. When I think about why franchises exist, it's one of the paths to creating it," said Justin Hulog, Riot Games' Southeast Asia and Taiwan General Manager.

Hulog added that there were three components for a successful sustainable game ecosystem, with the first being the player experience in engaging with a product. 

That meant there needed to be a compelling reason for them, such as exciting matches, tournaments, or even world class shows, Hulog explained. It's also something Riot is focusing on for Wild Rift right now, to make it become a global product.

The second reason was to make sure Riot has teams in place to support and develop the game. The third reason were the teams participating. Hulog said that the key point for teams is financial stability. That means generating revenue through sponsorships or winning tournaments.

We won't rule out franchises. Franchising is definitely one path, but first we need to make sure that our ecosystem foundation is strong, then we will be in a position to assess whether franchises make senseJustin Hulog, Riot Games GM for SEA and Taiwan

And when franchised leagues do happen for Riot, it will be different from Moonton's franchise system. Players won't be allowed to compete in multiple games in a franchised league, but Riot will not bar teams or organisations from competing in multiple games. For now though, Hulog said that Riot wouldn't put any restrictions on Wild Rift professional players who wanted to compete in multiple games.

"I think that the tactics that kind of create exclusivity are things that are incredibly disappointing, and the only people who get hurt are players."

Aloysius Low is an ex-CNET editor with more than 15 years of experience. He's really into cats and is currently reviewing products at canbuyornot.com

For more esports news updates, visit https://yhoo.it/YahooEsportsSEA and check out Yahoo Esports Southeast Asia’s Facebook page and Twitter.

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