For a brief moment, Riot Games was able to celebrate. Evil Geniuses had just won the 2023 VALORANT Championship, an event that had celebrities such as Ben Affleck and Elon Musk in attendance. Viewership continued to impress and community praise for the event was through the roof. Yet on the side, a different battle awaited. The winners of the VCT 2023: Ascension Americas brought a new set of complications.
In February of this year, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment gutted its esports division – laying off a vast majority of staff in what appeared to be an exit from the space. What added to the surprise was this news came less than a month after The Guard – a team under this umbrella – had just announced their new roster. And while the looming reality settled in that The Guard likely would cease to exist at some point, the team continued to play and continued to perform exceptionally well. So well, that they would only drop two maps in the tournament as they qualified for the 2024 and 2025 Americas League – the major league level when it comes to competitive VALORANT.
But then again no one knew what would happen next for the team. Despite hype and praise for the players and the coaching staff of the team, no one understood how everything would play out. And then, we got our answer.
On August 29th, Riot Games announced that after The Guard failed to meet the deadline to agree to the Team Participation Agreement for VCT Americas, the team would not be participating in the 2024 VCT Americas League. Notably, this decision was outside of the view of the players and the coaching staff. Immediate backlash from the community would follow as effectively this was a year lost for all members involved – not just the players on The Guard but for the other teams that fell in their path.
Three days later, Riot Games adjusted their ruling, announcing on September 1st that the players will have the opportunity to either join a new team or present a suitable candidate organization for the Ascended slot – a ruling celebrated by the community.
At the end of the day, Riot Games was doing the right thing.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean that all is well.
Riot’s original ruling was very much black-and-white. The organization was unable to produce what was needed, therefore Riot moved on and that was it. While the argument stands that this does not look out for the player’s best interest, it very much looks out for the integrity of the competition. They did not reward the second-place team, there wasn’t going to be a “re-do,” and they did not look to sell the spot to someone else. It was finished. It set a precedent that Riot approached things matter-of-fact.
The immediate counterargument was how Riot was not looking in the best interest of the players – a complicated conversation that continues to go on throughout esports at large.
To take a brief tangent, despite inflated salaries, players are at the mercy of at times of their organizations. With continued questions around long-term financial stability for organizations, contracts connected with said organizations become a blessing and a curse. A player will be quick to sign a contract yet may find themselves in “contract hell” if the tides of esports change.
Transparently, this is a conversation that should focus on the player’s decision-making and holding players accountable for said decisions. Barring a massive change in events or disruption of events, organizations do get a bad rep in this department. A business is a business – one really shouldn’t implore a business for making a “bad business decision” by looking out for a player’s best interest when not in a position to do so. An example being an organization boasting about losing money after releasing a player from their contract, allowing them to pursue major league aspirations. It is admirable? Yes. It is idiotic? Also yes.
This general conversation around player empowerment in recent months has become much more important in the scope of this decision. As the VALORANT community continues to mature, Riot is having to balance the fine line of “young esports” with “appropriate measures.” The decision to franchise the esport was a decision to protect esports from the scummy business practices of the past when it comes to organizations taking advantage of players. It should be noted that we have not heard any word of The Guard not being paid their salaries for their performance. The Guard’s strategic decision didn’t align with the players’ aspirations. But does this mean that Riot should have to take action to fix this?
Riot had the opportunity to remind esports that sometimes, there isn’t a happy ending. Reality kind of sucks. Instead, by bending the knee, they are now setting the precedent that there is flexibility and a willingness to do the right thing. But the “right thing” isn’t necessarily going to be straightforward in the future. Or the right thing may mean one thing to one party and another thing to another party.
This is why rules are important when it comes to competition and more importantly, franchised league formats where there are multiple parties involved. Riot had the opportunity to follow their original ruling with merit, set the tone. And that aspect should not be overlooked.
Members of the former The Guard now are in the open market – free to pursue new opportunities or find a new home with an organization that is somewhat winning the lottery. The key stipulation is the “if accepted” as likely homes for the players are that of rejects from the original franchise application pool. Names already being rumored include OpTic Gaming, FlyQuest, G2 Esports and the list continues on.
And the world now waits to see what is next with the players and the spot. Additionally, it will be intriguing to see what is next from Riot regarding this situation. Their first year of organized competitive VALORANT already has one of the bigger decisions we’ve seen from modern esports. Now, they will have to deal with the repercussions of said decision. It will likely mean more conversation around rules. And from their partners, likely more requests for protective measures for organizations.