Photo credit: GG Tech
“The difference between Teamfight Tactics (TFT) and VALORANT,” mused Michael Sherman, Global Head of TFT eSports at Riot Games, “is that VALORANT is a game that lasts a lifetime, while TFT is a game that we have developed in a few months.”
The creation of the TFT Dragonlands Championship in Alicante, Spain therefore required an imaginative approach compared to Riot’s sophisticated, mega-competitive offerings in VALORANT or League of Legends. The developer rewrote all the rules, from broadcast to the competition site: no players came to compete over LAN and no physical audience watched, except for the small on-site broadcast team.
The TFT Dragonlands Championship required different treatment than other games, and in order to fulfill its vision, Riot made the rare decision to delegate responsibility for the competition to a third party.
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Riot Games honored GG Tech, an outside tournament organizer, with hosting the tournament. This agreement alone is somewhat extraordinary for a company that normally likes to exercise as much control over its eSports tournaments as possible.
Cristian González, Head of Esports at GG Tech, explained that his company has built trust in Riot over several years by hosting tournaments for them in Spain. “We work with them on a daily basis to manage all the amateur scenes in Spain across all matches. We are working with Riot’s Barcelona office to organize tournaments for TFT, Legends of Runeterra, League of Legends and others.”
Despite reassurances that the team is used to working with Riot, there was still a somewhat hilarious moment at the GG Tech press conference when he confirmed that the company has plenty of creative freedom, even as he sat alongside Riot executives, with whom he had almost worked certainly reached an agreement.
Photo credit: GG Tech
GG Tech is also nationally known for Gamergy, one of the largest offline tournaments in the country hosting competitions in Rocket League, FIFA, Fortnite and more. Despite all that, the TFT Dragonlands Championship was one of the biggest events the company had ever run, and Riot had given them just two months’ notice to pull it all off.
Faced with the challenge of not having fans or players physically present, GG Tech commissioned local craftsmen to build a gigantic set that focuses on the casters and other personalities, adding a welcoming and comfortable feel to the stream.
The set is littered with physical props from the game, and four different sets connect seamlessly to allow the large jib camera to pan between them. Many viewers watch co-streams or the streams of one of the 32 participating players, which poses another challenge for the broadcast team.
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Are traditional eSports broadcasts dead?
Matt ‘Nibiria’ Clendaniel, interviewed over a stand-up lunch of Spanish jamón, said he prefers to sidestep Riot’s traditional dour style of esports broadcasting. “The ESPN announcer style of eSports broadcasting is dead. It’s been 10 years and I think why not try something new? I said yes [GG Tech’s fashion freelancer] before I get over it, if you put me in a suit and a shirt, I’ll kill you.”
Clendaniel and the rest of the broadcast team came up with sketches, TikToks, and other things to make the show “pop” on both social media and the stream itself, and they’ve been given total creative freedom by Riot to do so do.
This edition of the World Championship tournament did not beat the previous championship, Gadgets and Gizmos, in terms of attendance, but the Alicante team did not consider attendance as a key performance indicator.
Photo credit: GG Tech
“I want people to think of 2023 as the first year of TFT sport,” said Riot’s Michael Sherman, explaining his philosophy for the tournament.
“I don’t think we necessarily had anything that was a perfect fit for TFT this year. First we tried to rethink our mission and we want to make Competitive and TFT eSports accessible to all players. So expect the future of TFT to include more players and increase their ability to compete in our competitions.”
Riot’s primary focus with the esports scene of the world’s only competitive auto-battler is not to push sponsorship (this event only had one thing – gaming chair maker Secretlab) but to motivate players to try it themselves and possibly the to reach the highest levels of competition.
The final qualifiers for the event took place just a week before the three-day finals were broadcast, which would not have been nearly enough time to allow players from outside the EU to arrange travel plans to Spain. That might have something to do with Riot not wanting the championship to clash with League of Legends, which concluded the week before, but it also hints at Riot’s desire to keep the competition as open as possible.
Sherman claimed that 2022 was a beta test of sorts for the game, as tournaments like EMEA’s Rising Legends were allowed to take on their own identity amidst a slew of other TFT tournaments in the Americas and Asia. “I don’t think consolidation is necessarily the way to go, but figuring out how we can work with all of our regions and step up for all of our fans around the world is certainly our number one goal.”
The future of TFT
Accessibility came up frequently in interviews and casual chats with GG Tech and the other third parties responsible for the magic in Alicante. Riot’s participatory vision is unique in a world where the two most-watched games now feature franchised leagues. In comparison, none of the top eight players at TFT Dragonlands belonged to a major esports organization.
But Riot’s open model – a model that’s in some ways mirrored by the mobile title Brawl Stars – had the unfortunate side effect of turning teams off. This means teams fear their players will be eliminated from major tournaments due to some bad luck and their partners will lose valuable time in the main show. The only “big” teams represented at the tournament were French organization Karmine Corp and American team Cloud 9. Neither team’s players made it into the last eight.
Instead of team representation, most players split their time between competing and creating content for their social media channels. Riot wouldn’t reveal much about its plans for the game’s future, but it’s unlikely that larger organizations would want to be involved without assurances that their players would attend the biggest events.
At the same time, the accessibility offers larger teams the opportunity to expand their fan base. A game that works on PC and mobile, with an element of randomness and no high-octane, quick decisions, TFT is more accessible to a casual audience than Riot Games’ other properties. Casters and broadcasters already understand this and want to take this opportunity to include players and personalities of different genders and backgrounds as the title continues to grow in popularity.
Image: Esports Insider
The lack of players or viewers made the broadcast look very different compared to other esports. Riot Games officials confirmed that they do not plan to have players physically present for championships due to time constraints in TFT’s current set-based competition format. However, the team wants to examine players’ physical appearances between championships.
If the Dragonlords Championship taught us anything, it’s that TFT does eSports differently than the traditional eSports formula. The game represents a very small piece of Riot’s pie, so they can afford to experiment. The core of this experiment is to create an eSports experience that caters to the broader player base. Riot seems to think that pushing players into deeper interactions with the game itself is the best strategy for now.
Sherman believes TFT should be a different game, involving players as potential competitors, not spectators. “Why should gamers care about TFT esports? We want it to be like that first because they compete. That will fuel a ton of other motivation and engagement around the sport.”
Patrick is a freelance writer for ESI based in London, covering esports marketing and partnership trends. He currently plays VALORANT and Overwatch, but is always looking for the next big thing in competitive gaming.