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Riot is trying to make Monday Night Football work for League of Legends

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Monday Night League is an experiment in changing viewing habits on Twitch and YouTube

Photo: Paul de Leon/Riot Games

The biggest esports events in the world, whether it’s a mid-season Overwatch League match or a major Counter-Strike tournament, almost always take place on a weekend. It’s something of a tradition. But today, when League of Legends team Cloud9, fresh off of their first loss of the season, take on the Golden Guardians, it’ll be at a somewhat new time slot: Monday evening.

For the last few years, the League of Legends Championship Series, like most competitive gaming ventures, has been at home on the weekends. The 10-team league typically broadcasts a large block of games on Saturday and Sunday, filling YouTube and Twitch with five straight hours of League action each day. It was a lot for anyone but the most diehard fans to watch — and League developer Riot wanted to change that.

Ahead of the spring 2020 season, the team at Riot decided to change things up and introduced new Monday night games dubbed, appropriately, Monday Night League. “It was time to move to a third day,” says LCS commissioner Chris Greeley. “Let’s see if we can create some rituals around watching.”

While the league knew it wanted a third night of games, the first problem was figuring out when to add that extra day. Friday was an obvious option, as it would seamlessly lead into the existing weekend games, and there are plenty of sports leagues that play mid-week games in an attempt to capture a different audience. The appeal of Monday, according to Greeley, is that, at least in terms of esports, it was relatively new territory. “There are the natural comparisons to Monday Night Football, just in terms of the ritualized viewing on a Monday night, but for us it was a chance to plant a flag and say ‘This is not a night where a lot of esports have dared to go, and we think we can make a go of it,’” says Greeley.

The first MNL broadcast took place on January 27th, and they’ve been going weekly since then. So far, viewership numbers are lower than on the weekends, on both Twitch and YouTube, though Greeley says that wasn’t unexpected. The numbers are still respectable — Monday games often crack 60,000 viewers on a single platform — but they aren’t at the same level as regular games, which typically average upwards of 100,000 viewers. While it’s primetime for League fans on the West Coast, the new Monday time slot is late enough that it virtually eliminates all European viewers, and it also means East Coast fans have to stay up later than usual. Plus, it’s a new concept.

“You are teaching a new habit to your fanbase,” explains Greeley. “During the first week, despite our marketing on our social channels and on broadcasts, we had people on Reddit who said they had no idea there were Monday night games. It’s a new learned habit for folks. We think that over time it’s going to become a lot more ingrained.”

The team at Riot has done a few things to make MNL broadcasts feel different, including a splashy new graphics package, additional hosts, and an after-hours interview series that has a very laidback vibe. One thing they didn’t want to do, though, was make Monday night a time when only the biggest teams played. Instead, everyone gets a shot on Mondays, no matter their history or place in the standings. Greeley says the reason for this is simple. “If no one is watching on Monday night unless we put on Cloud9 or TSM or Team Liquid, is Monday night viable at all?” he asks.

Photo by Paul de Leon / Riot Games

There have been a few hiccups so far. The new broadcast schedule means that teams have had to adjust their practice and preparation to accommodate it. Before, every week was the same: weekdays were free for practicing and time off, and weekends were for games. Now, the schedule is in flux; teams could play on the weekends or they could have a Saturday and Monday game with a gap in between. Anand “Curry” Agarwal, head coach for second-place LCS team FlyQuest, says that the changes “mostly just impacts the consistency of practice,” though they don’t necessarily make things better or worse. “The constant flux in schedule, going from five-day practice weeks to three-day weeks, has just made things more dynamic than they were before,” he says.

There’s also been another unexpected issue that neither the league nor the teams saw coming: teams that play on Saturdays are at an inherent disadvantage because competitors can watch them play before going up against them in matches on Sunday or Monday. It may not seem like a huge deal, but anything extra a team can learn about its opponent, particularly if the game is on a new patch, can be advantageous. Greeley says there isn’t necessarily a fix to this; the league just needs to make sure the season schedule is balanced so that everyone gets the same experience at different points throughout the spring. “If we’re providing a team with an advantage in one place, we want to make sure every team is getting that same advantage, in the same situation, the same number of times, as much as we can,” he explains.

The LCS is committed to Monday night games at least for the spring (each LCS season is split into two halves: one spring and one summer), which runs through the end of March. After that, it’s not clear what will happen. The league is looking at making adjustments to make the season more balanced and to offer adequate time for practicing and time off, and Greeley expects that — if the MNL format continues — viewership will grow as fans become more adjusted to the concept. So when Cloud9 aims to rebound in its game tonight, it could be one of the last Monday night games or it could be just part of a new trend for the world’s biggest esport.

“We feel really strongly about Monday,” says Greeley, “but we don’t want to be immovable.”