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Maximilian Schmidt Talks Rising Competition, Team Development, Best-of-Threes

Tom Matthiesen

The LEC is crowning its Summer Split champion this weekend, with either MAD Lions, Rogue, or Fnatic grabbing the gold medal. It marks the end of the league’s third year since it became a franchise, with ten organizations competing on a week-to-week basis. Between another year of the COVID-19 pandemic, MAD Lions dethroning G2 Esports, and Schalke 04 selling its slot to BDS, it has been a hectic year. Maximilian Schmidt, Head of Esports for League of Legends in Europe & MENA at Riot Games, joined for an interview to talk about 2021 for the LEC.

Maximilian Schmidt

Despite the LEC's two big teams falling off in 2021, the league continued to break viewership numbers. (Image courtesy of Riot Games)

Schmidt evaluated the growth of the league, and the impact it has on the league when neither G2 nor Fnatic wins the title. Schmidt also spoke at length about a much-discussed topic in the LEC community: why the league won’t switch to best-of-threes.

Hotspawn: Welcome, Maximilian! Before we talk about the current state of the LEC and the future of the league, let’s recap 2021 so far. It was the second year of dealing with COVID-19; how has that been?

Schmidt: It’s obviously still a major challenge, right? On a weekly basis, there is this relative level of uncertainty where we always have to play by ear to an extent. We’re dependent on local regulations, we’re dependent on the numbers going one way or the other. I am thankful that through the vast majority of this year the numbers have been trending downwards, so that’s the good news.

I’m also very proud of the team for being able to make our new regular season setup happen, with the partial return to the studio. I think it was a vast success from start to finish. It has been in development for a long time and there were a lot of things that we had to take care of to ensure that we can do it in a safe and controlled way. I’m very happy and proud of the team that managed to do that.

Hotspawn: With the lessons you learned from the pandemic last year, did you make any adaptations or changes for the 2021 season?

Schmidt: I think there is obviously a level of comfort that now exists, which didn’t exist in the past. Online play has always been this big beast in the past. It was scary. Now it’s not really as scary anymore because we’ve gotten used to it. But obviously, we still want to continue to push ourselves in regards to what is possible. We want to do better every single time, and that obviously starts with bringing players back to the studio as we did in Spring Split for the Playoffs. We then did the regular season partial return, where we had the teams rotating back and forth between online and offline. Lastly, as you know, we also have part of the press returning to the studio, finally.

We’ve seen the gap between the most-watched team to the least-watched team decrease over time.

Hotspawn: So while you try to plan ahead as much as possible, you still have to check back at every step.

Schmidt: Exactly. Obviously, we’re prioritizing health and safety at every single step, but we try to push ourselves in regards to “Ok, how can we make this better while still making sure that everyone at the studio still feels safe?”

Hotspawn: The LEC has developed a lot as a brand in the past years, growing into an incredibly popular product. How did that development go this year?

Schmidt: When it comes to the brand, I’m obviously not the expert to talk to. I think one of our brand managers will be better equipped to answer that. But I would say that the overall strategy of the LEC has not changed. We’re still very much focused on what is unique for us as a product, which is not only being a traditional sports competition, but actually focussing a lot on the talent, the players, the teams that we have on the show. We’re highlighting them, doing a lot of auxiliary content that you wouldn’t see in traditional sports. We do a lot of skits and humorous content, entertainment bundled together with the competition, creating this unique package that thankfully resonates very well with our audience.

Hotspawn: The teams are, obviously, a core part of the LEC. For years on end, we’ve seen G2 and Fnatic as the only teams for fans to really care about. Now, we see teams such as Rogue and MAD Lions on the rise. How is it for you to see other teams take a stab at the title?

Schmidt: It’s awesome, honestly. I think Spring Playoffs was the most exciting that we’ve had in a long time because it really felt like an open field. Almost everyone, definitely myself included, was kind of shocked when G2 got eliminated in the semi-finals for the first time in what feels like ages, and that it was clear that they wouldn’t be the champions again. That it would be a completely new name on the trophy. I think that is something that was very powerful as an emotion. I’m very much looking forward to the ones that we have now.

Hotspawn: G2 and Fnatic have also been a viewership magnet for the LEC. Given that Riot Games ultimately wants the most viewers for the product, do you make adaptations when other teams succeed? Because when people see G2 and Fnatic now losing, perhaps they will no longer watch the games.

Schmidt: Potentially. But the Spring Split has shown that, despite G2 and Fnatic not being in the final, we were still able to topple our viewership records from last year and we exceeded our peak viewership in the Spring finals as well. So I don’t think that theory necessarily holds true, although it’s a very valid question to ask.

What I think we’ve seen is fans transitioning between teams—as they’re always doing to a degree—that is partially based on the competitive fandom. Some fans are always a fan of the best team, and right now that just happens to be MAD Lions, right? On the other hand, the teams have had the time to build brand equity. We only launched the league a little over two years ago, so that is not a long time to actually create a brand in itself. That is something that obviously some of the teams are using that time using very wisely to actually build up their brand and create fandom around their teams. That is great to see.

Over the last two years, we’ve seen the gap between the most-watched team to the least-watched team decrease over time. That is also a good indicator that it’s a very healthy competition. It’s also a very healthy brand ecosystem that we have in the league.

Hotspawn: The gap could close if nobody watches the top teams anymore, so I assume that that decrease in viewership gap is still paired with an overall upward trend?

Schmidt: Oh yes, absolutely.

Hotspawn: It’s easy to develop a brand as a team when you’re winning, but obviously not every team can be successful competitively. Are you satisfied with how the other teams are developing their brands?

Schmidt: Absolutely. There are different pathways to success and I really like that, across our teams, we see various angles to pursue brand development. Obviously, the teams are also experimenting to a degree. I think it is good that they have this league environment and this long-term partnership so they have that freedom to explore. They are not in a position where they are faced with a constant fear of relegation and just having to do everything now. They have the safety and freedom to explore and try certain things that are maybe out there. And at some point, they might fail with their respective strategies, but then they can adjust and try a different angle.

As I said, overall the league is in a very good spot when it comes to its trajectory, given that the overall gap between the highest team and the lowest team is slowly decreasing. It speaks to both the teams doing a good job in creating their own brand, as well as the league as a brand helping out and making sure that there is a common denominator across all teams, tying the storylines together. People are also tuning in to watch the LEC, and not necessarily for a single team that they’re a fan of.

Best-of-threes are inherently not a great viewership product for multiple reasons

Hotspawn: The LEC now packs everything into two days of five best-of-ones. There’s been the discussion that this is bad for the competitive progress of Europe, with best-of-threes being better for the teams. But obviously, this would spread out teams across the week and it would mean potential lower viewership when two smaller teams are playing. Is that the main reason why the LEC hasn’t adopted best-of-threes?

Schmidt: Hm, no, I wouldn’t say so. Best-of-threes are inherently not a great viewership product for multiple reasons, I would argue. It’s difficult to schedule—you don’t know when the first best-of-three is actually going to end and when the next one is supposed to start. That basically leaves you with a break in your schedule, or you need to have the other teams ready. But it also means that you’re asking for a pretty steep commitment from a viewer of up to three hours of content. Having that commitment on any given day, if you just want to tune into your team, it’s hard when you don’t actually know when it’s supposed to start. That’s one part of the issue.

The second part is, as I mentioned previously in the branding and strategy question, that the league itself has a very unique product strategy. It’s not only about the competition. We really also want to deliver entertainment products around this. That also comes at a trade-off of time, right? If I’m having Vedius and Drakos do a rap battle, then on the same day they’re not gonna sit in their room and prep their cast for the next day, right?

Looking at the best-of-three schedules of, for example, the LPL and LCK, that obviously is a lot more demanding as well on the manpower that you need for the shows itself. Suddenly, you might be playing best-of-threes every single day, or at least throughout four or five days per week.

Hotspawn: An important part of the broadcast is also something like Match of the Week. Isn’t it, in some way, hindering the development of the LEC and the interest of the audience in other teams if you keep giving Match of the Week to the already-known teams?

Schmidt: To a degree. I get where that’s coming from, right? The general perspective on this is that we want to ensure that we give an equal playing field to an extent. We guarantee a so-called minimum for the teams. For example, as you may have noticed, we have each team at least one time in the Post-Game Lobby throughout the Split. When it comes to Match of the Week and general scheduling itself, it’s mainly driven by viewership. We want to ensure that we put the matches in the prime spots that mean the most for the viewers and which the most people want to tune in for. We aim for the Match of the Week to always be the last game on Saturday, and that’s why you’ll see the brands that bring in the most viewership in that slot.

In the second half of the Split, there were obviously other considerations on top of this, primarily due to our partial return to the studio. There was less flexibility for us to move things around. So even in slots where we might have taken a different route, we sometimes maybe were not in the position because we wanted to ensure that there was an equal playing field for all teams to play in the studio. We wanted to ensure that each team got the same exposure before the Playoffs. If we move a team from the fifth to the fourth slot, then suddenly we’re taking away stage time from them.

Hotspawn: For example, a game like Excel versus Astralis, who were both playing for a Playoffs spot at that time, would’ve been a great candidate for a Match of the Week. But those just don’t drive the viewers?

Schmidt: That’s true. I think there are two points to this. One: usually, competitive results are really hard for us to factor in. We have to lock in the schedule relatively early to ensure that teams can plan accordingly. They can prep their scrims, they can prep their days. It really comes to a point where they’re planning when to have meals, when they’re gonna take a shuttle, how to train themselves to be at the peak of their performance at the time of the match. Teams are working together with their staff, with their mental and physical health trainers, to optimize around these things. I can’t just tell them “Oh by the way, based on last week’s results, I’m gonna swap these games around.” I would not be favoring them in that regard, and it’s something that we also discuss with the teams and it’s something that they agree to. That’s a trade-off we’re making.

Secondly, what we’ve seen in the past, is that viewer habits do not change so drastically. Even if a game has high competitive stakes, or it’s a game that is great to watch competitively, the vast majority of people still prefer their known brand. Even if it’s a twenty-minute stomp.

So those are the two factors that go into this. We’re going to continue to experiment with that. We’re gonna continue to try different routes. We’re also going to continue that conversation with the teams, so we’re sure that we hit the right balance. But so far, honestly, viewership-wise there really is not an indicator that we’re making a wrong decision there, or that we are giving a cause for concern for the teams.

We are always basing these on the recent viewership results and we’ve definitely seen teams surpass these expectations. For example, Rogue used to be a bottom team in the league. Both competitively and viewership-wise. Now they’re easily clocking a top four almost every single week. That has been a development that was something they managed to do on their own in that system.

Hotspawn: Talking about talent, the LEC has been rotating with new talent a lot this year. Is that to look for people to fill the gap that valuable assets such as Ender and Froskurinn left, or do you want to rotate so much to keep things fresh?

Schmidt: I would say it’s kind of both. On the one hand, obviously, we want to give an opportunity to ERL talent that has been developing across EU. That is one of the biggest strengths of the European ecosystem overall, that it is so deep in all facets. When it comes to player development, when it comes to competition, when it comes to casting talent as well. Having the opportunity to learn from the regional broadcasts and have these people bring that expertise is valuable for the LEC. It increased our bar, we learn every single year.

On the other hand, it’s obviously also a great opportunity for them to understand our workflows better, to take some knowledge from our end and bring it back to the local broadcasts. Hopefully, in the end, it will level up the entirety of the ecosystem. Last but not least, it’s also us wanting to explore and see how talent fits together and works together, and how we can make the LEC broadcast itself better.

Hotspawn: Looking forward, a lot of things are happening. Playoffs are rounding up, we have Worlds ahead, but this is also the year that BDS will be brought into the LEC in preparation for next year. What are you looking forward to?

Schmidt: I think we have a great rest of the year in front of us. We have the Playoffs, and Worlds itself is just the biggest event of the year full stop. That is always exciting. I will try to take a week or two off myself so I can actually diligently watch the games and just be a fan in that time period. As you mentioned, then the offseason will start and it’s gonna be exciting to bring BDS on board to make sure that they’re set up for success. And then free agency basically already starts, and that fun will begin. The roster shuffle is always a lot of fun. And then it’s almost 2022 already. So yeah, I think we have an exciting end of the year to look forward to.

The LEC Summer Playoffs continue on Saturday, August 28, at 5 PM CEST. You can watch the games live on the official LoL Esports site.