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The Dark Side of the Esports Business: The Immortals Fiasco

By: Dan Dankert

With a loss to European giants Fnatic, North American League of Legends team Immortals were knocked out of the end of the year League of Legends World Championships. A year of hard work and determination brought this Immortals team to the brink of advancing to the knockout stage. The team was a blend of new and old players of both North American and Korean descent. The team had finished 7th behind this rebuilt roster in the Spring, and managed to finish second to only TSM in the Summer split as they were able to qualify as the second seed to the World Championships from North America.

Since coming into the NALCS Immortals has put up some monstrous seasons. In their first ever split in 2016 the team went 17-1 ending the regular season first in the league. They would go on to get third in the playoffs which is important for qualification into the end of the World Championships. The team was led by Korean duo Huni (Current starting top laner for SKT), and Reignover (2016 Spring Split MVP). The team followed up their dominant season by going 16-2 in the Summer Split, finishing third in the playoffs and narrowly missed the World Championships after an upset loss to Cloud 9 in the gauntlet. After an utterly dominant year, somehow Immortals were not able to attend the World Championships.

2017 brought Reignover joining Team Liquid for more money than he could possibly be worth. Huni would sign a contract with Immortals and then receive an offer from SKT to be their starting top laner. Noah Whinston, CEO of Immortals was faced with a choice. Make Huni respect the contract and stay a member of Immortals, or allow the star player to go back to Korea to play for the reigning World Champions. Whinston allowed Huni to leave. Immortals now lost not one, but both of their star Korean players and faced a complete overhaul of their roster. Whinston brought in aging former superstar Flame, who is well-known in the League of Legends community for the phrase “Flame-Horizoned.” If you aren’t familiar with the phrase, when Flame was in the height of his career he used to smash lane and out cs his opponent, when he would reach a 100 cs advantage it would be said that he “Flame-Horizoned” his opponent. He paired Flame with troubled, but talented former Team Liquid jungler Dardoch. His bottom lane would consist of Cody Sun, a young, North American, and talented ADC, and Olleh, a journeyman Korean support player.

This rebuilt roster had some troubles initially and finished 7th overall with a record of 8-10. The team was still gelling together but troubled jungler Dardoch was clearly a problem for the chemistry of the team. In a last ditch effort to try and improve, Dardoch was sent to CLG, for veteran jungler Xmithie. This would be one of the best roster moves I have ever seen.

Xmithie was the glue that turned the team into a contender once again. The team would go 14-4, finishing second in the regular season. The team matched their seed in the playoffs, losing in the finals to top seeded TSM. With Cloud 9’s lackluster playoff performance, Immortals finished with the most Championship points after TSM’s automatic qualification for the World Championships after winning playoffs. Despite being a weaker team than they were in 2016, Immortals was finally going to the World Championships.

The team was placed in a group that was ripe for making it out of. In the World Championships the top 2 teams after a double round robin make it to the knockout stage. The 3 teams that joined Immortals in group B were Longzhu Gaming, Fnatic, and Gigabyte Marines. Longzhu was the overwhelming favorite to win the entire tournament, which left, in the minds of experts, three teams to fight over one spot. Immortals found themselves in a footrace with the other two teams to see who could join Longzhu in advancing. Fnatic was the third seed out of Europe and the team seemed to be living in the shadow of their former glory, with only one player, Rekkles, still performing at an elite level. Gigabyte Marines were the number one team from Vietnam, but their team was known to only be able to compete with teams from major regions by playing non-meta, chaotic compositions. In the eyes of many, including myself, it was less of a three man footrace for the second spot, but a two person footrace between Fnatic and Immortals.

Week 1 brought the epic collapse of Fnatic. Fnatic seemed completely off guard by Gigabyte Marines mega leash for Levi which got him two levels ahead of everyone in the game. The mega leash was due to a lane swap strategy that was used by the Marines despite the strategy being intentionally targeted by Riot and made extremely sub-optimal to use.

This loss was not only embarrassing, but it put Fnatic very far behind in the group because everyone assumed they would lose to Longzhu (Which would indeed happen). They would need to beat Immortals to avoid starting the group 0-3 after the first round of the round robin.

Immortals looked inferior to Fnatic in their clash during week 1. Rekkles and Jesiz abused Cody Sun and Olleh in lane. With a fed Twitch, Fnatic should have run all over and beat Immortals, but one critical mistake by Rekkles, cost Fnatic the game. Immortals had easily dispatched of the marines and ended week 1 at a solid 2-1 record with a two game advantage over the 0-3 Fnatic squad.

If Fnatic collapsed in week 1, Immortals was a star imploding and turning into a black hole. The team would go 0-4 after tiebreakers in week 2 and fail to qualify for the knock out stages. Their last loss was to the Fnatic team that would end up qualifying to go on to the group stages. Reeling from their loss and implosion, the mental state of this team had to be in shambles. Immortals had finally made it World’s only to let the opportunity slip through their fingers.

With Cody Sun still developing, and the rest of the team seemingly only needing to be tweaked here and there, Immortals were primed to be one of the most fearsome teams in the NA LCS for the 2018 season that is until news of their rejection from the LCS was leaked only a few days after their final loss to Fnatic. If the mental state of the players was already bad, it was about to get much, much worse.

For those of you who don’t know the LCS is moving from a relegation style league to a franchise style league. Before this change teams could make their way into the league by finishing as one of the top “Challenger Series” teams and then securing a spot in one of the two promotion tournaments that took place every year (1 before each split). With this switch, Riot was going to be selecting the 10 teams that would be accepted into the league to start (it is still possible to get relegated out of the league).

If you would have asked me to say which teams would have made it through into the new franchised league I would have given you this list:

Definitely in: Cloud 9, TSM

Very Likely in: CLG, Immortals

Likely: Dignitas, Team Liquid

Unlikely: Phoenix 1, Flyquest, Team Envy

Definitely Not in: Echo Fox

I have some unique reasons that not everyone would agree with. For example, most people think Team Liquid would be higher on this list, but I find their management to be some of the worst in the league and I find Steve Arhancet to be out of touch with how to run an organization even though they are popular.

I also thought that Echo Fox was very poorly run and I thought that Rick Fox’s antics this year would hurt them significantly when applying for LCS. If you aren’t familiar, Rick Fox built the dream meme team that competed in the Challenger circuit and included lovable former pro’s including Imaqtpie and Dyrus among others. The team was a total farce and couldn’t compete at a high level. If I were at Riot I would have been furious, but apparently they liked it. Rick Fox also has rubbed many of his colleagues the wrong way over the years.

That being said, I think I would have picked Immortals over even CLG for the league. Noah Whinston is a wunderkind who has a better vision for Esports than anyone else does. Also they have a ridiculously good record over the past two years, finishing in the top 2 spots in the league 3 out of the past 4 splits.

So far all we know is that Cloud 9, TSM, CLG, Echo Fox, Team Liquid, Flyquest, The Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob, and OpTic Gaming have been accepted and that Immortals, Team Envy, Phoenix 1, and Dignitas have been rejected.

What is mind-blowing is that there is no reason these new owners should have been picked (though I could rationalize OpTic). What does the Cleveland Cavaliers have that Dignitas doesn’t? Team Dignitas is sponsored by the Philadelphia 76ers so they have similar backing, similar financial situations, but the Cleveland Cavaliers have absolutely no experience running a League of Legends team. There is also still one team that has not been identified though there is some speculation that TempoStorm, a challenger series team, is the reported 10th team (I think its Misfits but that’s a whole other story).

When I was thinking about this whole franchising situation I did not think that any organizations or teams that had almost no experience in Esports had a chance to make it in over established organizations that had been more or less successful in the space (Immortals have been one of the most successful organizations). That being said, some of the orgs in the league were very poorly run (I’m looking at you Team Envy), and I thought some would be replaced, I never anticipated Immortals being kicked out for some random owner of an NBA team or a gaming organization that has never had a LoL team before.

One question I expect you to have been thinking about is, “Why did Immortals get kicked? What piece of information am I missing? WHAT IS DAN NOT TELLING ME?” The answer to that is a little less straight forward than you would like to think it would be.

Overwatch is another Esport that is young, and has potential to absolutely explode over the next couple years. Blizzard is in the process of building an international, geo-located league and it has all of the makings to revolutionize the Esports industry. Immortals will be building a stadium that will house their Overwatch team in Los Angeles as Immortals were selected to represent the area over other powerhouse organizations like Cloud 9. That’s right, they were selected by Blizzard OVER Cloud 9, arguably the best run, most well-known organization in all of Esports. Why did Blizzard make this decision? Two words—Noah Whinston.

I honestly think that a couple things “aligned” for Riot to deny Immortals their position. Immortals will be building their stadium for the league in Los Angeles, the same location that the NALCS is located. I think Riot was sending all of the teams a message, participating in this league is fine, but don’t you dare step on our turf. With all of the evidence I could find, this is the only reasonable way someone can rationalize what happened to Immortals. They were scapegoated, tar and feathered, and left for the rest of the teams to see. Riot owns you for the time being and don’t step out of line.

Until the Overwatch league really takes off, the LCS is where these teams would likely have made money. It was the stability of the LCS and the popularity of the LCS that would have brought non-endemic sponsorships that would have really paid the money to be represented in the area. Now Immortals has had their main income stream (besides outside capital) completely cut off.

If Could 9 gets Los Angeles this doesn’t happen. The NALCS couldn’t survive a Cloud 9-less league. Cloud 9 are the second most popular team and one of the most iconic of teams in the world. Riot could have however gotten rid of Immortals like they did. Riot spat in the face of one of the best organizations in all of Esports because it didn’t fall in line.

This has now become a trend for Riot. When the LCS was first starting Riot didn’t want teams that had DotA teams to be in the LCS, they only a year or so ago complained about LCS teams spending too much money on other leagues, and now this year making the ridiculous notion that Immortals doesn’t have a good financial situation (which is in many ways a gross simplification and misrepresentation of the facts) to justify their removal from the league.

I will leave this with everyone “Just for clarification” it’s not just that Immortals is in Overwatch League. C9 and OpTic are too. It’s that Immortals are the LA OWL team.”- Jacob Wolf, ESPN Esports writer.

If you want more information check out the ESPN articles from Jacob Wolf from the past couple days, Travis Gafford’s review on the situation, Thorin’s (eventual) video on the topic, and Thorin’s tweets about the topic. I also read articles on other sites about the situation as well.

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