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The first full esports season for League of Legends: Wild Rift recently concluded with China's Nova Esports becoming the first-ever Wild Rift Icons champions.
So, what’s next for one of the newest esports leagues in the mobile multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) space?
Yahoo Esports SEA spoke with Leo Faria, Director of Esports for Wild Rift at Riot Games to get his thoughts on the first year of Wild Rift as an esports title and Riot’s plans for the game's future.
For Faria, the first year of Wild Rift esports was successful since Riot completed some of the goals they set for the game and themselves — establish competitive leagues, build an audience, and learn how to produce a mobile esports competition.
For this year, eight competitive leagues were established in different regions around the world where they held their own regional competitions before the season ended with a culminating event in the form of the Wild Rift Icons Global Championship.
With that said, things didn't go without a hitch.
“When I look at these three goals and now that we are close to the end of that first season in Icons, I think we had a good success in all of them,” said Faria.
"Of course, there are things we could have done better but I see wins in all of these three buckets that we are happy about."
Faria mentioned that Riot "put a lot of effort in establishing channels" to make sure Wild Rift players had "awareness of esports" and knew the competition was ongoing.
For one, the in-game integration of the Icons with all the banners, animations, emotes and events were comparable to how it’s normally done for the League of Legends (LoL) World Championship.
But the results for Wild Rift were not as successful as its PC version.
Viewership mainly in China
According to Esports Charts, the peak viewership for the Wild Rift Icons Group Stage dropped from just 50,400 to a mere 35,800 on the last day.
This does not include China’s numbers, where viewership numbers are usually not revealed. There were also viewing parties around the world, as well as streaming parties with content creators that have not been taken into account.
When asked about the viewership, Riot declined to share the numbers from their side.
Considering all the effort put into production for Wild Rift Icons and the fact that it had a US$2 million prize pool, it was a real shame that no one really watched it.
Faria also emphasised that the majority of the audience is from China, "so looking at Icons viewership without China viewership is like looking at Superbowl without the United States viewership", as "that’s where most of the audience is".
However, he agreed that there was room for improvement here.
“We did pretty much nothing in-game for the season and a lot for Icons. For next year I hope it’s more like a steady climb where we’re…. exposing players to esports early on. Because with a new game and a new sport, establishing that audience is a big challenge,” Faria added.
He said that they’ve learned that platforms differ in every region, so looking into Facebook for Southeast Asia might be a good idea since that’s where most of the players are.
For this season, while Wild Rift Esports did broadcast the matches on Facebook, the streaming page was hard to find and barely visible anywhere.
Faria also pointed out that for next year, they want to make sure that it was more like a narrative rather than just one big event for the year.
There should also be awareness of the esports scene among players, and most importantly, they need to give players in the community a reason to care, he added.
According to Faria, Riot usually lists five reasons why players tend to watch esports events.
“First is education — ‘I want to watch this sport so I learn from the pros and I’m a better player myself," said Faria.
"Second, if you watch enough of it, you identify yourself with a certain team or pro, so that’s where you develop fandoms. The third thing is pure entertainment like watching the big plays, the Baron steals, and the opening ceremonies of the Worlds," he continued.
"The fourth thing is social. If that’s something I do with my friends, we get together, it becomes a habit. And the fifth thing which is new for us is stakes. So ‘if this team wins or loses, I win something as well'," he said.
"It could be in the form of rewards, it could be like like Pick’em [in LoL esports]. So, exploring all five to give them something to care about is absolutely, how you build interest and viewership."
China versus the rest of the world
Another thing that Riot wants to improve on for the next season is the disparity between China and the rest of the world.
China dominated Icons this year, with all four teams from the country's Wild Rift League (WRL) stomping all the other regions in the Group Stage and in the Knockout Stage. Vietnam's Team Flash was notably the only non-WRL team in the Final 4.
As many expected, Wild Rift Icons ended in an all-WRL grand finals between Nova Esports and J Team, with Nova Esports taking the title after a dominant 4-0 sweep.
Faria mentioned that this skill disparity is one of the things they will focus on in the next season.
“I think it’s clear to everyone how they [WRL] are extremely dominant in Wild Rift. So, we need to find ways and explore alternatives on how to make the sport competitive and how to make the competition interesting. We definitely want to tackle that problem going forward as we build a global esport.”
He added that while they had an idea that China would be the most dominant team in the Icons (because of how they performed at the Horizon cup last year), they wanted to start with a clean slate and give everyone a chance to compete in their own regions.
This means providing more opportunities for players who want to become a pro to compete and be seen, and perhaps leveraging on established ideas from the more developed League of Legends pro scene.
“We’re still developing the plans but I think they probably include better talent development for any of our esports. Developing a …clear[er] path to pro,” said Faria.
“For some of our Leagues around the world, for example, the [LoL Championship Series] on LoL esports we have 'Scouting Grounds', which is an opportunity for new players to be seen. You [also] have the LCS Academy, a second-tier league, that’s one of the ways we could do that.”
Faria also emphasised the importance of developing a “stronger, third-party grassroots ecosystem,” where there are more opportunities to compete locally.
Finally, what Faria described as the "most challenging" but the most important was to give the already existing teams around the world more opportunities to play against each other. This will allow them to be exposed to the stronger regions more with scrims and practices.
“You can always simplify and just add another global tournament. [But] Finding another way to do that in a way that is interesting to watch, [where] there’s something at stake, is hard, but we definitely want to get all of those learnings from season one and apply them as we design season two."
Could the format play a part?
The format of Wild Rift Icons is quite different as well when compared to LoL esports. First, all eight regions had direct representatives in the Group stage.
This meant that there was representation across all regions in the group stage. But the format for Group Stage was double-elimination, instead of having round-robins or double round-robins like Worlds.
And then there’s the notorious “single-elimination” format of the Knockout stage at Worlds and the Icons.
Some teams in the Group stage of Icons were not even able to play against each other, despite being in the same group.
Most teams only had a few chances to make it through, giving little to no chance for development, comebacks, and even miracle runs that are seen in other tournaments with a different format.
“I think the one we’re considering to change, but I’m not confirming it right now, is that we might have double-elimination throughout play-ins and single-elimination for knockouts,” Faria said.
“Fans are clamouring for ‘can we have double-elimination for knockouts as well?’ I think that’s probably something we will look into because it gives teams a second chance.”
However, Faria mentioned that the biggest challenge was that a double-elimination format adds more hours to the tournament.
“We need to find a way to build that into the calendar, but that’s probably the big thing we’ll look out and explore," he said.
Faria also shared some more of Riot's plans coming into Season 2, on top of looking for answers to improve viewership and skill disparity among regions.
“For Wild Rift this year, we had one long season, a finals event originally and that led into Icons. We’re probably going to do something more like shorter cycles with more burst competitions," said Faria.
"We can probably break into smaller cycles and more trophy-lifting opportunities. If you have shorter cycles, it’s easier to still get involved mid-year, I think that would probably be the big change we are looking to implement into season 2.”
One of Faria's big aspirations for Wild Rift esports is to eventually have a ‘multi-stop’ tournament.
While it’s not going to happen any time in the future, Faria is hopeful Riot can reach that stage after they’ve addressed the main points for improvement for the Wild Rift esports scene.
“I want to say someday we wanna get there. It’s something awesome to aspire to. Instead of having the competition all in one location, it’s again, going to where the players are having more opportunity for more cities to experience Icons would be awesome,” said Faria.
Leo Faria was born and raised in Brazil and joined Riot games in 2016 at the Brazil office. He worked on local competitions in the Campeonato Brasileiro de League of Legends (CBLoL) region and organized the 2017 League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational (MSI). In 2019, he moved to Los Angeles to become the Director of Esports for League of Legends: Wild Rift.
Anna is a freelance writer and photographer. She is a gamer who loves RPGs and platformers and is a League of Legends geek. She's also a food enthusiast who loves a good cup of black coffee.