Why LCS Game Changers Matters

Why LCS Game Changers Matters

In this era of esports, which can sometimes feel overly polished and commercialized, it’s easy to be nostalgic for “the good old days.” On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with fondly remembering the past; there was something special and electrifying about what we term “early esports,” after all — it was a time filled with the giddiness and excitement that only arises when everything seems possible and everybody knows very little. It’s a feeling that has only grown dimmer over time, which makes its original luster seem even more appealing.

With how far the industry has come, it’s safe to say that “early esports” won’t ever come back. But for a weekend in September 2023, a group of people gathered in the LCS Studio and felt that feeling stirring again — the feeling of something beginning to take shape.

The first League of Legends World Championship was held in 2011. Ten years later, Riot created LCS Game Changers. LCS Game Changers was the first of its kind in North America: an official League esports program specifically for women and, more broadly, those of marginalized genders. The program began in 2021 as a two-week event, but it’s since become a robust program involving three teams who compete over the course of two months, culminating in a LAN event in the LCS Studio.

Serenity, one of the 3 teams in Game Changers 2023, at the LCS Studio. Courtesy of Riot Games.

In partnership with SIDO, an esports research and consultancy group, Game Changers brought all of its players to Los Angeles for a live competition. Over the course of a weekend, the players and staff of the three teams — Astrocats, Arcana, and Serenity — met up and competed with and against each other. For many of them, it was their first time meeting in person, despite having known each other for years.

“The majority of us have known each other, or known about each other, for at least a couple of years before Game Changers was a thing,” said Astrocats jungler Aria "Solaria" Leslie. Aria began playing League competitively on her collegiate team in 2017. “We just didn't have that structure at the time.”

Myra Davis — who you might know from her managerial role at NRG, where she helped lead the team to a surprise LCS victory — helped in the ideation and planning for Game Changers 2023. She also later acted as a mentor in the program and has been working to advance gender diversity in esports for years before Game Changers existed. For her, getting to be part of something on this scale, that was also backed by Riot, was a first.

“All the players, all the coaches — I've known some of them for almost a decade at this point,” Myra said. “The very few that I didn't know, I got to meet and become connected with. For me, getting to support people that I've known for a long time, that I know have tons of potential and promise, was very, very rewarding.”

It was an unprecedented opportunity for a group of players who’d harbored dreams of playing League competitively for years, but had never gotten to participate in any event even close to this level. Early on in the process, Myra also proposed partnering with LCS teams, since there was ample facility and practice space going unused in the off-season. Astrocats partnered with Team Liquid, Arcana partnered with NRG, and Serenity partnered with Golden Guardians.

Then, on September 23, all three teams walked into the LCS Studio and prepared to make their “pro debuts.” Though the players were all there to compete and get a taste of serious competition, the event was mostly about supporting and uplifting one another, regardless of team affiliations. And, of course, there was the excitement of playing in front of a crowd on the LCS stage — which would be an unforgettable experience for anyone.

“I thought I would be way more uncomfortable on stage, but the moment the game started, I genuinely forgot about the crowd,” Aria said. “It felt so incredibly comfortable playing onstage. It’s also very overwhelming, but it’s very easy to forget about the crowd until they get really loud. I think the thing that really made me understand ‘I’m playing on stage right now’ is hearing the crowd cheer during team fights — you can hear it, but also the floor shakes. Like, you feel the crowd.”

Ultimately, Astrocats came away victorious, but for all three teams, that sense of joy and camaraderie was the thing that prevailed.

“Even if they didn't win, they were very excited that they had that opportunity,” said Kaitlyn Whitman, LCS Game Changers Co-Lead. “And I believe most of the players felt like, even if they didn't get invited to the program again, it was such a cool experience, they’d want other people to have it too.”

“During the live games themselves, the third team not playing was almost always just backstage,” Aria said. “You would walk off stage and then go, ‘holy shit, that was incredible!’ to both teams. It was quite literally like playing exhibition matches with a bunch of friends, with a little bit more stakes. It very much felt like how I thought esports was in 2014-2015. It felt very much like we were all just friends.”

All of this, of course, leads into the big question surrounding Game Changers as a whole: why do we need this?

League of Legends has never been a gender-locked game. And as proven by the interest in Game Changers, people of all genders have been playing League of Legends since the game’s inception. And yet, you only ever see men playing in the LCS or LCS Challengers. Why is this the case?

Let’s go back to “early esports.” The thing about nostalgia is that while it can be a comfort, it can also easily be spun into something uglier. Some people who bemoan the loss of “the good old days” are really just reminiscing about a time when video games were a man’s activity and women weren’t even in the picture, much less demanding to be taken seriously. (Trans and nonbinary people simply didn’t exist in their minds.) The idea is that back then, everything was already fair and uncomplicated, when in reality, the inequality simply went unchallenged.

Nothing exists in a vacuum, not even League of Legends. It’s not as simple as saying that men just happen to like video games more and are better at them, and that if non-men were good enough to be pro, they would be. The truth is that the scene itself can be hostile to women and people of marginalized genders because of these age-old prejudices, with many believing that they’re just not as good or shouldn’t be playing competitive games. Often it’s simply not worth it for these players to try and make it in gaming. It takes an immense amount of work and dedication to even have a chance at going pro in esports, and to do that while being harassed for your gender and not having a clear path to success often feels like a losing game.

Arcana, one of the 3 teams in Game Changers 2023, at the LCS Studio. Courtesy of Riot Games.

“League amateur is a boys’ club,” Aria said. “A lot of the competitive players currently established in amateur just want to play with their friends and other top players, who are often guys. There’s only so many of us, and a lot of us don’t interact with that community. [Game Changers] feels necessary because a lot of us feel overlooked, purely because we’re not men.”

And if the teams’ approaches to Game Changers are anything to go by, the talent and drive is there, and has always been there. Astrocats earned their win through serious preparation and teamwork, which is the kind of thing you can only do when you have an established team to work with.

“Our team worked really hard to prepare for Game Changers,” said Astrocats support Billy “billy worth” Trojnor-Barron. “We've scrimmed so many times, worked on building communication skills, and have also created strong bonds that hold us together. By being honest with each other and expressing our emotions openly we’ve been able to get on the same page and support one another. We all had different skill sets going into this and I am so proud of how we all improved in different ways along our journey.”

Ultimately, the LCS Game Changers competitors are just that: competitors. They want to compete, though the opportunities for them to do so are few and far between. It’s that drive to prove oneself that all of esports is built on. And yet, even in the community’s response to the event, the hostility has shown itself. Nearly every Game Changers post has been bombarded with hateful comments (don't check the hidden replies on any Tweet, for example.) Many players and staff also criticized Riot’s handling of the Game Changers stream chat as insufficient moderation led to a barrage of gender-based toxicity. It got bad enough that LCS casters had to step in and moderate the chat — something that Whitman concedes Riot “missed the mark” on and would like to improve on in the future.

Given the context of historical discrimination in the esports space, it’s easy to see why marginalized League of Legends players might want a dedicated space to hone their skills and gain competitive experience. But it still doesn’t fully answer why Game Changers in its current form is needed.

Astrocats, one of the 3 teams in Game Changers 2023, at the LCS Studio. Courtesy of Riot Games.

When you think about Game Changers, you might think of the VALORANT program with the same name: an international, year-long competition, with a plethora of teams supported by big orgs, that ends in a World Championship. It’s a crucial part of the VALORANT esports ecosystem, one that has earned plenty of prestige from fans. 

Of course, VALORANT Game Changers was introduced at the inception of VALORANT Esports. LCS Game Changers, introduced 10 years into LoL Esports’ lifespan, isn’t like that, and it might never be like that.

“When you start something like this, when you try to expand it, there will be initially fewer people than there were going into VALORANT, because VALORANT set this up from the get-go as part of its competitive ecosystem,” said Emily Rand, an LCS desk analyst who also worked as talent for the Game Changers broadcast. “Whereas League of Legends did not have anything like that. But the idea and the hope is that if you were to continue iterating on, for example, this year’s event, to establish it more as something that happens more frequently, initially, you will get fewer people. But the more you iterate on it, the more people will come and participate, and then hopefully that grows the scene itself.”

Everyone has different ideas of what LCS Game Changers would ideally look like, but most agree that its goal should be to help marginalized players develop in a space that won’t push them out before they’ve even gotten a chance to establish a foothold.

“I think the main point of something like this is to help be an entry point, rather than a place where people will stay long-term,” said Myra. “In my ideal world, this is used as an entry point in Tier 3 towards Tier 2 ... a place for people who historically did not have the support or just overall acceptance from the majority of low level teams. Then the talented players move up towards Tier 2, like NACL and so on. In an ideal world, the best players are there for a very short amount of time.”

It may have only been three teams strong, but 2023’s LCS Game Changers event was a huge signifier of progress for a scene that has historically not offered many opportunities like this. Sure, Game Changers isn’t some grassroots tournament being run in the organizer’s garage — it’s backed and organized by Riot, after all — but that sense of possibility that only arises in the early stages of something was palpable when everyone met up in Los Angeles last September.

Esports is all-encompassing. When your whole life becomes competing in a game, it’s easy to lose sight of what made you pursue it in the first place. But Game Changers, as it stands now, is a place where people can compete in a game they love, with and against longtime friends, in a space where they feel comfortable. Passion, competition, and community are the things that still make esports possible despite everything. If you want to find “early esports” again, look no further than this.

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