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Volume 21 No. 2
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Riot Games overhauls college esports setup for 2018

Riot Games’ Michael Sherman (second from right) joins a panel discussing esports on campus.
Photo by: MARC BRYAN-BROWN
Riot Games is overhauling its collegiate esports framework for 2018, with hopes of creating a permanent structure that can easily accommodate new schools and conferences as they join without major changes.

With the ranks of participating schools growing rapidly — 298 teams are confirmed this year, up from 246 last year — another key goal of the “League of Legends” publisher is to keep the competition entertaining while involving an extraordinary range of talent.

To that end, 2018’s six-week regular season will adopt a “Swiss format,” in which every week’s matches are reset to pair up schools with similar records. For instance, Week 2 games will feature only Week 1 winners playing each other and losers playing each other, and in Week 2, 2-0 teams will play each other.

For now, the country is divided into four regional conferences of flexible size (north, south, east and west), with each conference crowning a champion through a postseason, single-elimination tournament. Those four conference champions then advance to the national, eight-team championship tournament in June.

The other four national tournament spots are where Riot is building in flexibility for future growth. Those spots will be filled by the winners of a play-in tournament that will include the second-place teams from each regional conference — along with the top two teams of any NCAA conference that wants to join at the conference level. So, for instance, if the Pac-12 did a deal with Riot, its teams would be guaranteed two spots in the play-in tournament. Without that conference deal, its member teams will compete in the generic western conference with no guarantees.

There is some precedent for conference involvement. Last year, Riot and the Big Ten Network ran a Big Ten-only conference, but that has not been renewed.

Ninety percent of power five schools are involved for 2018, including all of the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12, said Michael Sherman, head of college esports for Riot.

In a key behind-the-scenes change, Riot Games dropped its relationship with tournament operator Collegiate Starleague (CSL) in favor of Battlefy. Riot intends to keep CSL for a junior varsity series or other campus-level “League of Legends” engagements, but selected Battlefy because it was better suited to run the more complicated “Swiss format” season, officials said.

The gamemaker also is rebranding the college series, dropping ULOL, or “University League of Legends series,” in exchange for “College League of Legends series.”

The certainty of the 2018 season is itself a big development for Riot, which has made major changes to college-level rules annually (for instance, until last year schools were allowed to enter multiple teams). This is the first time Riot has announced the season’s finals at the same time it announced the start of the season, and officials intend to keep this format in place.

“This is very much designed with the idea of ‘This is how it’s going to be now,’” Sherman said.

Riot has no current plans to monetize the college landscape through sponsorships or media rights deals. Its priority is expanding participation and solidifying “League of Legends” as a long-term presence on campuses, Sherman said.

The season begins Jan. 15.

For more coverage of the business of esports, visit our partners, esportsobserver.com.