VP and head of esports at 100 Thieves Jacob "Maelk" Toft-Anderson delivered a keynote presentation at IGEC 2021 on Friday, comparing the benefits of franchising versus open ecosystems in esports. During his presentation, Maelk broke down a number of pros and cons to both systems, discussed which direction VALORANT might head, and doubled down on his confidence that NA is the best VALORANT region in the world.
Here are the highlights of the 100 Thieves Keynote.
Why franchising is dominant in NA, while Open circuit is dominant in EU
One of the biggest takeaways from Maelk's presentation was that different regions prefer different styles of esports circuits due to the different sporting experiences that are popular across the various regions.
Europe prefers an open-circuit, where the best teams in lower leagues move up, while the worst teams in the top leagues are demoted to lower teams. Open circuits often operate through a system of grass-roots qualification tournaments, though Maelk also pointed to professional Tennis as an example of an open circuit that is run on the basis of rankings, which rewards consistency rather than success on a particular day.
The open-circuit model offers fewer guarantees for individual teams to be able to participate in the upper-level competition. Instead, it is a more fluid system where you can be reasonably assured that the best will rise to the top through the competitive structure. NA, on the other hand, places emphasis on the stability and long-term opportunities of a franchise model due to the influence of professional franchise esports like NFL, MLB, and NBA.
"Franchising is a very U.S.-centric model of thinking about how to carry out sports," Maelk explained. "There is something compelling about [franchising]. It brings a sense of security obviously, there is also a general approach of knowing your team every season. It makes for great storylines. Not only are in-season happenings and results the only thing that matters, but transfer bargains are a lot more appealing. “
Maelk offered the counterpoint as well, explaining the benefits of an open-circuit model.
"[With an open circuit] there is an easy way to ensure participation from your player base, and interest, since players have that aspiration to succeed," Maelk said. "People want to compete in qualifiers and try their hands at becoming the best, regardless of if they have financial support or not. It's much more like EU football or global football. They use the promotion/relegation system across every soccer league in the world, with typically the bottom three teams moving down, and the top three teams from the league below it moving up season after season."
He continued, "this creates an entirely different approach to how competitive you have to be. It's not just about winning, it's about surviving. . . surviving in the league is a victory in itself. Just being a part of it for a lot of teams is a success."
"[With an open circuit model] esports teams can elevate themselves to be on the level of the Manchester United, Real Madrid CF, the Dallas Cowboys, the LA Lakers, Chicago Bulls," he went on to explain. "Esports teams can have that stature in the without having any sense of home base. And so, there are pros and cons to everything. But I think that is one appealing thing about esports, it doesn’t matter where you are from, you will still be able to create your own story and nurture a fan base from anywhere around the world."
For Maelk, which model people prefer could be driven in part by where they grew up, with NA fans gravitating toward city-based franchises, while non-NA folks might prefer the open-circuits that they are more familiar with via sports like Soccer and Tennis.
"One of the reasons NA is successful in this industry is that they have a great bandwidth of financial support is by proxy of franchising," Maelk explained. "It gives [investors] the reassurance that the product they have won’t just disappear overnight. In that sense, for us to create a competitive structure and justify salaries and everything, it's definitely the motivation driven from the money and the investors in a lot of ways. But from a grassroots perspective, open circuit obviously has its benefits, and I think traditionally because of their upbringing, EU people will look to those circuits to be more appealing because of the sports you grew up watching."
Which way will VALORANT go?
Franchised esports leagues include the OWL, LCS, and CDL. Teams in these leagues, according to Maelk, "come in with certain resources, and a certain oomph or brand value." Open circuits in esports include CS:GO, Fortnite, Dota 2, Rocket League, and many more. One esport that still hasn't chosen a direction is VALORANT.
Maelk discussed which direction VALORANT might head in the second half of his keynote address.
“Currently in the year 2021, we are looking at VALORANT as something similar to the CS:GO circuit, where regions play out internally then qualify for the majors, such as the one taking place in Iceland currently and the Berlin later in the year," Maelk stated. "The question remains, is Riot going to go down this open circuit path, or will they franchise, where each region has 10 teams who duke it out for the 3 coveted slots at worlds? Will they go the direction of OWL or CDL? I doubt it, but doing city-based could be an interesting approach. Or will they create a hybrid, where they take their learnings from LOL and look at CS:GO, and make something new."
“We don’t need franchising in VALORANT," Maelk concluded. "We should be able to trust ourselves to have the best orgs and continue to perform consistently with our roster that we don’t have to worry about being eliminated from the league and someone coming and taking our spot at the top so long as we continue to do good work. . . I would be surprised if they take VALORANT into Franchise.”
Aaron is an esports reporter with a background in media, technology, and communication education.