The top esports league in Korea is experiencing deteriorating conditions in China

Fans watch the League of Legends World Championship 2023 Finals  in Seoul, Nov. 19, 2023. Korea Times file

Fans watch the League of Legends World Championship 2023 Finals in Seoul, Nov. 19, 2023. Korea Times file

Huya stops broadcasting of League of Legends Champions Korea in mainland

By Ann Cao

League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK), Korea’s top-tier esports league, is predicted to face challenges in marketing and financial obstacles despite its triumph in the Asian Games and World Championship last year, as per industry officials, Thursday.

For South Korea, 2023 marked a significant victory for its esports industry, particularly for Riot Games’ League of Legends (LoL), one of the world’s largest esports titles. Korea secured two of the seven gold medals for esports, including one for LoL, at the Asian Games in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.

T1, the LCK team backed by SK Telecom, defeated China’s Weibo Gaming in November to clinch the yearly championship of the LoL world tournament.

While the victory was seen as strong evidence of Korea’s position as a global esports powerhouse, LCK league appears to be starting the year on the wrong foot in 2024.

As LCK commenced its spring season last week, Huya, a video game streaming platform in China supported by Tencent Holdings, which also owns Riot Games, has ceased the official Chinese-language broadcasts of the new season. This marked the very first time that LCK broadcasts have been stopped in mainland China since 2018, when Huya became an exclusive streaming partner with Riot Games for the regional tournament.

Riot Games Korea informed local media that the suspension was due to the absence of a broadcast rights holder in the country. While the company did not provide any further explanation, some industry insiders suggested that the issue is connected to the recent controversy around Generation Gaming (Gen.G), one of the top esports groups in Korea.

In December, Gen.G caused online outrage in China after mentioning Taiwan as a nation in a Facebook post. It further worsened the matter after releasing an apology that “reasserted its unwavering commitment to respecting and upholding China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and then retracted it and said it remained neutral on political views, which resulted in extensive criticism among both Chinese and Korean enthusiasts.

Ke “957” Changyu, a professional gamer-turned-commentator for LPL, the LoL pro league in China, stated previously this month on his personal streaming channel that the broadcasting halt was due to the recent issues with Gen.G.

A source working in China’s esports industry also confirmed with The Korea Times on condition of anonymity that Gen.G was a major reason for the suspension.

 A man plays video games at an internet cafe in Beijing, Jan. 22.   EPA-Yonhap

A man plays video games at an internet cafe in Beijing, Jan. 22. EPA-Yonhap

Neither Riot Games nor Huya responded to requests for comment on the broadcasting issue.

South Korea, with strong government support for esports-related policies and infrastructure, is at a crucial moment for the global esports industry. The country has established an extensive talent pool across the world’s major esports titles, including Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, the legendary player for League of Legends. The professional teams are supported by some of the largest business conglomerates in Korea, including SK Telecom, KT and Samsung.

The suspension came as a surprise for many Chinese esports fans, who had taken to social media to express their disillusionment following the incident.

Wang Ruiwen, a 22-year-old LCK fan in Shanghai, said she was “super sad” when she opened the Huya channel and found it was just replaying previous matches last year instead of streaming the new season. Instead, she has to turn to the English-language streaming channel for LCK on Youtube, which is not accessible under China’s Great Firewall unless through a VPN service.

“It’s a pity that the move by a sole team had screwed the access of the entire Chinese fan group to the tournament,” said Wang.

Lee 'Faker' Sang-hyeok, left, poses with a trophy after his team T1 defeated China's Weibo Gaming during the final of the League of Legends World Championship  in Seoul, Nov. 19, 2023. Korea Times file

Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, left, poses with a trophy after his team T1 defeated China’s Weibo Gaming during the final of the League of Legends World Championship in Seoul, Nov. 19, 2023. Korea Times file

The suspension would undoubtedly deal a blow to LCK’s profitability through the loss of licensing fee revenue, as the regional league has already landed itself in hot water over its inability to secure revenue growth.

On Jan. 17, the opening day of the LCK Spring season, a group of teams affiliated with the league released a joint statement to voice their concerns of financial sustainability under Riot Games Korea.

“…the league’s viewership, performance and fandom have continued to grow. However, despite this continued growth, the LCK League Corporation has not been able to grow the league’s business value over the past three years,” according to the statement, which was originally written in Korean.

The financial conundrum is a headache not just for LCK, but also the whole global esports industry. “The profitability of esports events is often limited to sponsorships by game studios and hardware makers, and has a weak relation to companies with other product categories,” said Zhang Shule, an analyst with CBJ Think Tank. “Possibilities outside the competitions have also been barely explored.”

Amid the difficulties, Dylan Jadeja, CEO of Riot Games, announced Monday that the U.S.-based developer is going to eliminate 11 percent of its workforce, or about 530 jobs, as the company trims less-profitable businesses and focuses on core titles.

“We’re changing some of the bets we’ve made and shifting how we work across the company to create focus and move us toward a more sustainable future,” Jadeja said in a letter published on the company’s website. It was yet unclear how the Korean unit will be affected, but for sure, the new battle is just beginning.

Ann Cao is a tech reporter with the South China Morning Post. She is currently based in Seoul, reporting for both The Korea Times and the South China Morning Post under an exchange program.

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