Sydney – Despite a global boom, the closure of one of the southern hemisphere’s biggest esports leagues has left its players in Australia and across Oceania facing an uncertain future.
The Oceanic Pro League — the region’s top professional competition for team-based strategy game League of Legends — was shuttered in October by publisher Riot Games, five years after its launch.
Twenty-year-old pro Dragon Guo, who played under the moniker “Dragku” for the Chiefs Esports Club, is one of the players affected.
He had weighed offers to play in North America but chose to stay in Sydney to study and play.
“Most of the people that dropped out of school and went straight to play are in a very bad spot,” Guo told AFP.
“It’s very rough on an aspiring player,” he added. “Now there’s no league, you can’t really prove yourself.”
At the league’s peak in 2017, Riot Games was providing each OPL team with a minimum of 100,000 Australian dollars ($74,000) for player salaries, overheads and development.
Frank Li, founder of the Chiefs Esports Club, which had a team in the OPL since its inception, said the closure came at short notice, but was not unexpected.
While leagues in North America and Europe have strengthened their financial viability, growing sponsorships and strategic partnerships, Oceania had lagged.
In a statement on the OPL’s closure, Riot Games said it did not believe “that the market is currently able to support the league in its current form.”
Li said Australia faced a number of unique challenges — most notably its geographic isolation and its small, English-speaking audience, who often gravitate to esports products from overseas.
That has left serious questions about whether esports has enough of an ecosystem to thrive in the region.
“It’s going to have more implications for the longer term with the new generation of Esports players that are coming up,” said David Cumming, an esports researcher at the University of Melbourne.
“They’re gonna find it… much harder than in the past,” he added.
Riot Games said it would host qualifiers in Oceania for its two biggest international tournaments, and that it would make it easier for Oceania players to gain entry into its North American league.
Players could once have hoped to rise up the ranks and attract attention via the game’s “solo queue” when they played alone online.
However, the gap between amateurs and pros is widening, as esports increasingly becomes more professional and competitive, making the solo queue a much tougher path.
“The days where you could just be a solo queuer or someone who just plays by themselves, and gets really good at the game and then gets noticed, that really doesn’t happen too much these days,” Cumming said.
“You need to have connections, get signed to a team, on top of being a really good individual player. And then from there, you’d go into the OPL and then internationally if you were good enough. Of course, that link in the chain is now missing.”
Cumming believes large international tournaments being held in Australia, like the Intel Extreme Masters and the Melbourne Esports Open, are the brightest spots in the local esports market.
While Li described what happened to the OPL as a “market correction,” he has faith in organizers rebuilding a more sustainable competition in future.
“As long as the player base is there, there’s obviously going to be the upside for people to play competitively,” Li said.
“But in terms of the path to pro, it’s basically being completely smashed, and how that’s going to be rebuilt is really going to be dependent on the decisions that are going to be made in the next couple of months.”
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