New EMEA Masters format: A bad idea?

EMEA

01/04/2024 - 15'

Riot didn't want this format for worlds, why would EMEA Masters be different?

The EMEA Masters, a tournament that was introduced in 2018, is the highest level of competition for the European Regional Leagues. Initially known as the EU Masters, this tournament has attracted many fans from various European regions for years. It's the perfect moment to see your favorite local teams battle it out against rival regions. A moment that unites the fandom in a similar way to traditional sports in Europe.

A new format that isn't representative of regional strength

The new EMEA Masters format that was revealed to the public last month resulted in some controversy. While this spring format won't be affected, big changes are coming this summer. The main one is probably the fact that 13 out of the 16 Group Stage spots will be automatically given to the winners of each European Regional League.

Previously, stronger regions would be granted several spots. With the new format, only the three remaining group stage spots will be granted to all those regions combined through play-ins.

Origen won the first-ever EU Masters tournament in 2018
Origen won the first-ever EU Masters tournament in 2018

In my first-ever opinion piece for Sheep Esports, I am going to talk about why those changes worry me a lot as a fan and as someone who cares about the future of League Of Legends Esports. While I do not know all the reasons that led to Riot Games making those decisions, I believe that I have deep insight into how important EMEA Masters is for fans and players. During my usual work as a reporter in the offseason, I talk to many players in ERLs and know how being able to play in specific leagues is very important to them.

Indeed, it's no secret that in Europe, just like it is on an international scale, some regions are much stronger than the others. In recent years, the French LFL and the Spanish Superliga have asserted themselves as some of the strongest regions. In ERLs, many pro players want to play in the leagues as it offers them the highest level of competition. "Joining the LFL was a huge step in my career" mentioned Tim "Keduii" Willers in a recent Sheep Esports interview. The BDS Academy AD Carry has been a top ERL prospect for many years in various ERLs before joining the LFL this year.

In accordance, the LFL and other accredited ERLs have always been granted several spots in the EMEA Masters group stage, offering a high level of competition for fans and players.

In 2022, five regions were considered as Accredited ERLs. The NLC and Ultraliga have lost this status since then.
In 2022, five regions were considered as Accredited ERLs. The NLC and Ultraliga have lost this status since then.

It's a matter of viewership

The level of play isn't the only difference between ERLs, the viewership is seeing a strong imbalance as well. While some ERLs are extremely popular among fans, some have failed to build a dedicated fanbase.

Without fans, Esports simply can't exist, it's thanks to fans that Esports and teams can monetize, providing income for their players and staff. The reason that the LFL and other accredited ERL can keep so many strong players in their region is that they can offer some of the most competitive salaries to promising ERL prospects and former LEC veterans.

Some ERLs are seeing a lot of success, especially Spain and France who have created a strong rivalry that even grew to the LEC level this year. Following Karmine Corp's success in popularity, many new influencer teams are on the rise in the French league. Team Du Sud and Gentle Mates, who both joined the league this year, have managed to gather strong fanbases that are easily surpassing a few LEC teams.

Froyer, a fan from the Sheep Esports Discord, told us why he is an LFL Enjoyer: "It would be about the sense of belonging as a French? The same way Europeans support LEC teams at Worlds, I support LFL teams at EMEA Masters."

A perfect world where all regions are equal

EMEA Masters is also a very important tournament for teams. It's the time of the year when they can get the most visibility and what all teams from the 13 different European Regional Leagues are fighting for. Giving teams from smaller ERLs a shot to be directly in the group stage can make winning their league more rewarding, attracting better players, sponsors, and investors.

This might make the new format look like a good idea. Honestly, it's even another reason that I wanted to write about this topic. I myself would have wished for this format to exist when I was a fan of the tournament back in 2018-2019. It would be so fun if all regions could have strong teams with strong players, making each game really competitive and the winners unpredictable.

Fnatic Rising won the UKLC in 2019 before qualifying to EU Masters. Photo credit: Joe Brady/LVP
Fnatic Rising won the UKLC in 2019 before qualifying to EU Masters. Photo credit: Joe Brady/LVP

The reality is that the European Regional Leagues, have been regressing on that side. The Northern League of Legends Championship (NLC) dropped from 3822 average viewers in Summer 2022 to 651 average viewers in Spring 2024 according to Esports Charts.

While the loss of accredited status hurt the NLC as well, LEC teams have been removing their academy teams from the league. Fnatic and Excel both left the league despite fielding academy teams later on in the Spanish league. What used to be a league with a dedicated viewership has been on the decline.

It's not about the EMEA Masters spots

Despite starting on a stronger foot, many regions have not been able to match with the LFL and LVP's Superliga. It didn't matter if they had teams directly in the group stage, because the viewership and competitiveness weren't sustainable enough for the region.

The reason that the EMEA Masters can hold a strong viewership is mainly thanks to the popular regions. Last Summer, the EMEA Masters averaged 65.529 viewers with a peak of 296.719 and a full arena for the finals in Montpellier, France.

Right now, reducing the amount of teams from the Accredited ERLs competing in the group stage, will not only massively reduce the level of competition but will also decrease the viewership of that stage. It will probably result in a weird situation where the play-in stage will be much more competitive than the group stage.

While Riot might be giving the reward of a group stage spot to minor ERLs, that reward has no value if the tournament itself isn't gathering any viewers, making it lose all of its purpose. This is why it's important for awarded spots to correlate with regional performance, forcing regional success artificially won't work.

By offering group stage spots to minor regions, you are decreasing the value of said spot, making the reward in itself less meaningful

While this format won't serve fans, it also punishes a lot of the strongest teams & players from accredited ERLs who won't be able to make it due to limited spots. This is all considering the fact that said players & teams started the competitive years not knowing about those changes.

It won't work in the long term

By making the group stage less interesting and competitive this summer, it's pretty obvious that this format is a massive downgrade in the short term. However, it would make sense if the goal is to make all regions equal in the long term. While I doubt that's the case just because of the previously mentioned point, there's other things preventing Non-Accredited ERLs from becoming competitive regions.

List of the 6 Non-Accredited ERLs in 2022, that number has grown to 9 in 2024.
List of the 6 Non-Accredited ERLs in 2022, that number has grown to 9 in 2024.

Many minor regions simply aren't as developed as the big ones. An EMEA Masters spot won't be enough to help them as the viewership isn't following. Many of them have been on the decline or held weak viewerships for too long.

Even in a scenario where those changes facilitate the rise of popular or competitive teams, the state of some regions won't benefit to their success. Some Non-Accredited ERLs are facing a lot of issues; matchfixing, money laundering or false payment promises are not practices that are unheard of in some of those regions where income is extremely low and where players sometimes compete for free or for salaries around a 300€ range.

The imbalance of regions isn't caused by the current format, changing it won't fix it. It will only reduce the competitiveness and viewership of the tournament.

Don't forget the Best-Of-Fives

In early years, the EMEA Masters playoffs series were held in a Best-Of-Three format with the final being played as Best-Of-Five. Following a lot of fans' demands, Riot Games changed this and introduced Best-Of-Fives for the entirety of playoffs in 2022.

Despite this, the new EMEA Masters format introduced this summer will return to the old Best-Of-Three format in playoffs. A decision that is very hard to comprehend and provides no competitive or fan advantage at all. If this decision was cost-related it's a worrying sign for the future of League Of Legends competition in Europe.

EMEA Masters Spring playoffs in 2023 (Gamepedia)
EMEA Masters Spring playoffs in 2023 (Gamepedia)

While the new format has some great changes such as the increase of the amount of teams in play-ins, the return to Best-Of-Three and a group stage seeding that doesn't represent regional strength at all raises a lot of concern.

The EMEA Masters has the potential to gather fans from many regions accross EMEA, the recent additions of the TCL and Arabian League can make it one of the most diverse tournament in Esports. However, it's better to make it grow naturally and have the tournament benefit of the leagues and teams that are already on the right path.

If we assume that Riot objective is to help those regions grow in the long term, it would be better for them to provide financial support to the regions in need that are currently being handled by external tournament organizers. ERLs certaintly hold the potential to make that investment worth it. The format wasn't an issue.

MAD Lions lifting the Summer EU Masters trophy, before becoming a LEC org
MAD Lions lifting the Summer EU Masters trophy, before becoming a LEC org

Disclaimer: Note that Riot Games made a mathematical error in the announcement of their format. While it is claimed that 38 teams will participate in the tournament, it is mentioned that 24 teams will be slotted in play-ins and 13 in the group stage directly, making it a total of 37 teams. This raises some questions about the exact details of the format but doesn't change the general point of the article.

- Brieuc "LEC Wooloo" Seeger -