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An interview with Chopper, the Head of NA Esports at Riot Games

An interview with Chopper, the Head of NA Esports at Riot Games

After joining Riot Games in 2012, there are few people who have had the impact on esports in North America like Chris “Chopper” Hopper. The current Head of Esports for NA at Riot Games, Chopper has been critical in developing League of Legends esports as we know it today, everything from the rulebooks, to the broadcast, to franchising.

Ginx Esports TV was able to sit down with Chopper for a few moments at the 2019 League Championship Series Spring Split Finals in St Louis, where we discussed lessons learned from traditional sports, geolocation, and Riot’s role in fostering the future of esports.

Credit: Riot Games

There’s a unique and exciting opportunity with esports in that you get to see a major sports scene grow from its infancy. While other sports such as basketball and football are very developed, esports is still very new. With this comes an opportunity to learn from traditional sports and what they’ve done before. What are some of the important lessons you’ve drawn from traditional sports as you’ve been working to grow the esports scene?

Oh, so many. I like to say that we “creatively borrowed”, rather than stole. Whether you look at everything from the first rulebook, to thoughts about free agency, to franchising, to revenue sharing, to the player’s association. It’s almost impossible to look at something we’ve decided and not see at least an area where we could have learned things from traditional sports.

We’ve been pretty upfront at the beginning that we are going to take advantage of the fact that there’s a century of organised baseball, decades of basketball and football and soccer and all these sports who have run into problems that we are running into now. And so by learning from the challenges they’ve went through, the decisions that they’ve made and trying to understand the rationale behind it we’ve been able to adapt pieces of it that work for us.

I mean, this is very literally how we put together the first LCS rulebook. Back in 2012, one of the first jobs I had at Riot was to write the LCS rulebook. I said, “well great, what do you have to start with?’ They kind of looked at me, and said “a blank word document.” And so I took the top thirty or so sports organisations around the world, everything from Formula One, to darts, to the World Series of Poker, to the NFL, to the Olympics Committee, and everything in between. I just read through all their rulebooks and any time I’d find a rule I liked I’d just copy it into a new word document. In the end, I had a document that made no sense. I talked about the card, the ball, and then the field, but then the dart, and it was all over the place. I just standardised the language with player and computer, and slowly put it together. That became our first LCS rulebook, and it very literally built from the lessons and the conclusions from all the other sports.

When we think about decisions around things like geolocation, there’s a lot there that we need to think about in the context of just because this is right for football or basketball or other sports that grew up with geographic boundaries, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for esports. We want to make sure, especially as we are getting into more advanced and more mature decisions about what our sport will look like, we still want to make sure we are learning. We just want to make sure we aren’t learning without thinking in terms of the application.

I’m glad you brought up geolocation because that’s something that’s been on the mind of many esports fans and organisations. You look at the Overwatch League and understanding from the beginning they want to tie their teams to certain locations. Is that something you see in the future for League of Legends? I know you’ve also talked in the past about fanbases for certain teams and how that can be helped or hurt by tieing them to a certain region.

You know, there is a lot of pros and a lot of cons. I think if there weren’t it would be a much easier decision one way or the other. When we look at the pros, there’s a lot of undeniable advantages pro sports organisations and all other organisations have around the ability to create a local fandom and the ability to tap into local sponsor revenue.

What we want to make sure, is that we are not taking these lessons and assuming they will work in esports, because esports was fundamentally created without geography. You can be a fan of TSM or Cloud9 or CLG in any state or any country, any city around the US. Whereas, most people who are NBA fans are NBA fans of their hometown. You don't see a lot of Sixers fans coming out of Portland. It’s just not how that kind of fandom goes, but it hasn’t developed that way already in esports.

What we want to be really careful of is finding ways that we can allow teams to explore developing an affinity with a certain region without disenfranchising all their other viewers and fans along the way. And so, there’s a lot of really complicated decisions around fandom and logistics around how teams will play and where they’ll play. But that’s why we are excited to work with the partners we have and having strong ownership across such a variety of industries both in traditional sports and not. It’s really making the difference for us in being able to make this decision with a lot of confidence that we are acting not only in the best interest of Riot and the players but also the teams.

One thing that can truly connect traditional sports and esports is the live experience. Coming to a live event and seeing the passion and the excitement of the fanbases, how do you bring that live experience to a wider audience?

I believe the question can potentially be a bit rephrased. I don’t think it’s necessarily about bringing the “live experience” to more people. I think it's about bringing what is special about the live experience and figuring out ways to bring that to more people.

The only reason I distinguish that is because I think there are ways as we look at VR and AR technologies coming online that the ability to do multiple stream views, the ability to do different user experiences through digital, there are ways we can actually make the at home or non-live locations have in some cases advantages over live attendance. Or if not, are able to replicate a lot of the benefits of being here physically. They’re probably never going to be able to mirror or fully imitate the feeling of being in that venue, hearing ten thousand people screaming, or BrokenBlade getting a quadra kill to end the game. There’s something special about that and that’s something that’s always going to pull people in.

We want to be able to expose as many people to that as possible. That’s why we take our roadshows around the country. But at the end of the day, there are only so many seats that we are going to have in a year. There's only so many live events that we are going to be able to do. So a big part of our focus is making sure the other 99.99 percent of our viewers who aren’t watching live, are able to have just as great of an experience. Some of that requires tapping into the live experience and some of that just says what can we do, what benefits do we have, with the fact that in a lot of cases of our viewers have multiple monitors? Or the fact that when they watch at home they have a PC that we can use as a technological mediary to the game. I think that there is a lot that we can do there. Obviously, people love coming to events and we love having them. That's why we do roadshows, and honestly, it is one of the greatest energy charges for us as a team to bring this out and have people experience it. But we are as motivated, if not more, to make sure all those viewers at home are able to have just as good of a time, to feel like they're just as invested as just as much a part of the process.

Credit: Riot Games

Has there ever been a time where you felt like the development of Legaue of Legends esports was happening too quickly?

There has been a lot of times where it felt like we were building the plane in the air. I don’t know if I would say that we were ever too far ahead of ourselves. “Too quickly” to me implies that we looked around and we felt like we weren’t capable of handling the progress as it was being made. I don't feel like we ever got so far out ahead of ourselves that we were unable to stay abreast of the decisions that needed to be made or unable to make them work.

I think if you had asked me seven years ago when I started at Riot would I see us where we are today, I would have said no. I never would have anticipated we would be franchised and a hundred million viewers at our Worlds last year and everything there. There’s been a lot of times where it’s felt like we are really moving with some pace, and I actually think there’s an element of that which we actually want to circle back to. I think we saw in 2013, in 2014, we saw such an elevation in terms of what the broadcast experience was. We went from our tiny little studio with no audience, to a studio that had some audience, to a studio that had an audience and then an analyst desk.

We had such a sharp period of evolution the first two or three years of LCS and I think that there’s an opportunity to get back to that era of innovation, that era of creativity and opportunity. I think over the next year or two, you’re going to see a similar spurt of growth between the work we are doing across business development with our sponsors and our partnerships, the work that we are able to do across content to tell new and compelling stories, the work that we are doing in digital in terms of the way we present the game and the way you can interact with it. I think you’re going to see a lot in the next year or two that will feel similar to that pace.

To your original question, I’m not sure I think we were ever moving too fast. But we’ve definitely been moving fast for a long time.

When you look at this next generation of esports fans and players, what do you see as Riot’s role in fostering the next generation?

When I think about our role, the first thing I think of is the fans. Riot has always been a company that is player-focused, and for us in esports that means fan-focused. We are always thinking about the person who at the end of the day is consuming our product, the person who is investing their time to interact with something we are making.

For me, when I think about the fans of esports, I think about the opportunities that are in front of us. I think about the ability we have to create something so much bigger. I grew up a soccer fan and a basketball fan, and a guy who played those sports. I think about everything from the youth clubs that I played in, to the fan clubs that I was a part of. All the different ways that I interacted with those sports that don’t exist in esports, I see an opportunity. To continue to build out our collegiate experience, to continue to build out our high school experience, a way that we can even build out below that with our youth and competitive and the amateur scene. Whether we can build out adult rec leagues that are going to be major.

For me, I see all that opportunity and then that to me translates to responsibility. That’s where I see our role. We are the only ones who are going to be able to do this. League of Legends is the biggest esport in the world and has one of the most passionate followings behind it. That gives us a responsibility to execute against that opportunity. That’s the kind of weight that I think the team feels.

We want to make sure that we’re headed in the right direction, we are building the right products for the fans, and at the end of the day we are able to realise the opportunity that is being presented.

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