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Welcome to Challenger, Land of the Hustlers

Every year, eSports gains more and more legitimacy. When doubters scoff “what, you can play video games for a living?”, it’s easy to rebut them: just show them the screaming crowds, the enormous prize pool, the packed stadiums, and the professional teams who bring in enormous profits and sponsorship deals doing what they love.

There’s a second rung of competition that doesn’t garner the same amount of attention. This circuit has enormous amounts of passion, time, energy, and effort being poured in — often unpaid or at below market rates. Say hello to the Challenger circuit, the level of competition beneath the LCS, and a group of dedicated players who are passionate and ravenous for their shot at the big time — even though they lack the same resources, infrastructure, and support of their idols on the professional stage.

A Spark of Inspiration

It’s easy to see how teenagers and young adults can be interested in the goal of playing professionally. The pro leagues release incredible promos, interviews, documentaries, and other pieces focusing on the talent that make up the pro teams. When you look at mainstream celebrities, they seem distant, even when they peddle relatable stories.

Pros in the LCS, however, are... relatable. They look like us, they act like us, they make the same jokes and have been brewed in the same culture. It’s hard to see ourselves in the place of a star quarterback or pop star, but there’s always the slight temptation to imagine being up on stage, accepting an interview, appreciating the lights and attention.

Riot Games is aware of this, and has worked hard to make the talent a big part of the LCS and its marketing. The Drive documentaries and the 2014 promotional video Warriors are both excellent examples of how Riot commercializes and commodifies their talent and uses the dream of being one of the pros to expand their reach in the eSports arena.

Reid “RAPiD” Milton is a caster for SPOTV who spent years casting the Challenger scene and covering smaller, tournaments such as the Challenger Circuit Qualifiers - scenes too small for official Riot attention, but games that meant everything for players who aspired to turn their passion for League into a job. “In the early days, the Challenger scene was all there was,” he said about his interest in the scene. “Teams were just five guys who got together and started playing in the tournament. Most big teams were that way early on - TSM were one of the first ones to move into a gaming house, there wasn’t much infrastructure, it was very early days.”

Obviously, the Challenger scene has grown since those days, but the allure and glamour of being able to transition from a dedicated player into a pro remains.

Nose to the Grindstone

Let’s be real, though: while many of us have fleeting thoughts of humbly accepting our Rookie of the Split trophy before sitting down with Sjokz for an exclusive interview, most of us quickly relegate them to the realm of pure fantasy before getting back to our 9 to 5 existence. It is the few of us who relentlessly pursue that dream and see it as a very real possibility that make the Challenger scene not only possible, but a vibrant community that serves as one of the premiere scouting grounds for the LCS.

Challenger players generally have a few means of becoming noticed, and all of them require hard work, consistency, and dedication. There are no instant solutions. Climbing the Challenger ladder and playing (and beating) the pros is one way to get attention and be courted by teams, as well as streaming consistently and building up a reputation within the community. It can take months or years of playing to get noticed. There are no guarantees, and you are one of thousands of hopefuls all fighting to make it. That being said, players aren’t daunted. Biofrost, Dardoch, Moon, and Ray are all examples of some Challenger players who have made it to the LCS. Every Challenger player who puts in the time and effort dreams that they can be the next big name that comes from humble origins.

Limited Tools

Those playing on a professional team in the LCS are putting in long hours and are under a lot of stress, but they also have some supporting infrastructure. Players live in gaming houses with analysts and coaches to guide them, and have income from streaming and a tight knit environment. That comes with a responsibility to live up to the investment put in them, but it also offers a measure of security and a strong foundation.

Challenger players have that same pressure, but lack a lot of the infrastructure of their colleagues in the LCS. The scene is growing every year. There are major sources of income entering the Challenger circuit, including investments from LCS teams to foster native talent and create their own Challenger sister teams and independent organizations like Eanix and Dream Team hoping to take a shot at the LCS.

“I think it’s interesting to see how it has developed.” RAPiD says about the Challenger scene. “It’s good for the scene to have more money into it. I’ve seen a lot of new organizations come in and do a lot of good things with a lot of money for a lot of players.”

He admits that it can be a double-edged sword. “Organizations have money, and players have talent. It can be difficult for players to advocate for themselves when there’s money on the line.”

The scene is going to continue to grow, and Riot has a vested interest in making Challenger a well-supported scene. Broadcasting more Challenger games, publishing more schedule information and helping fans access the scene, and continuing to build up infrastructure are all steps that Riot can take to help the scene continue to grow.

The Dangers of Challenger

When there are hungry young youths looking for an opportunity to make it big, there are also teams who are willing to take advantage of these kids. While there have been teams that work on fostering young talent, other owners are looking to exploit their players. Sprattel, a player on the EU LCS organization FC Schalke 04 (noted for being a sports organization who have transferred to the LCS by purchasing Elements’ spots), spoke frankly about the issue: “Everyone in LCS have been scammed, or knows someone that has.”

Indeed, there are often headlines about players who have been refused pay, pushed to work long hours, and used as workhorses in an attempt to fill the team owners’ pockets. Team Huma is just one of the most recent stories of a Challenger team being accused of exploiting their talent. Not only were the players refused pay or given reduced checks, but the coaches and analysts also ended up working long hours to support their players while fighting against the owners.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that players are often young and hungry to succeed. It’s easy to see how these players can get lured into signing inopportune contracts or working their hearts out while missing paycheques or opportunities.

eSports lawyers and other professionals have stepped up to try to help young players advocate for themselves and avoid tying themselves to a team that won’t respect their time and talent. However, right now, many young Challenger players aren’t aware of how serious the risk is. Flamboozle, a player in the Challenger scene’s Serpentis Pro League, found himself locked to a team against his will and was forced to turn to social media for help. While Flamboozle earned a response from the CEO of the Serpentis Pro League, he still lost valuable time and effort - and many other players may find themselves falling through the cracks in their attempted climb to the top.

Making it Through

Being an aspiring player is more than a binary between a struggling solo player and making it to the LCS on one of the top rosters. There are dozens of teams, some of whom are at the top of Challenger and have the very real potential to make it to the LCS. Dream Team and Eanix, both mentioned above as organizations working to try to make it out of Challenger and into the NA LCS, are two examples of professional Challenger teams backed by strong infrastructures who work hard to do good by their talent. There are also amateur teams made up of loose gatherings of players who are trying to achieve the League dream of bringing five friends together to make it to the top.

Teams have room for a lot of talent - there’s more than just players who are dedicating their time and effort to making it pro, but a whole ecosystem of people enabling them. Coaches, sports psychologists, analysts, producers, and other roles are springing up in the Challenger scene, honing their skills and building up their abilities.

While Riot still has steps to take to help make Challenger more accessible, they are already putting more time and effort into it. As an example, the EU Challenger Series Qualifiers were broadcast by Riot (the NA studios were going through renovations at the time). While there’s a lot of League at the moment (multiple games on a weekend, multiple Leagues across the world to follow, and international tournaments a few times a year), fans are choosing to follow players and teams they like. Challenger teams often have big personalities and compelling stories, and they’re building up not just infrastructure and support, but their own fanbases of people who want to see them succeed.

Ready for Anything

As League continues to grow and evolve, we’re likely going to see both a wider amateur scene and pro teams investing more into the Challenger scene (such as Cloud9’s current initiative to scout and foster North American talent).

RAPiD speaks frankly about what players can experience as they climb through Challenger - and how success can arrive when they least expect it. “There’s a lot of advice that I wish people had told me when I was first getting into Challenger. It comes from transitioning from being a random kid playing a video game to a professional athlete - that’s a BIG transition.”

There’s a lot of pressure in switching from a nobody to a gaming celebrity, and RAPiD notes that the community can be hard on the players who are first entering the public eye. “I wish people - employers, teammates, fans - were easier on players making that transition. When you’re a 16 or 17 year old kid you say stupid things, you have warped priorities, you don’t have the sense of professionalism or diligence that you need to have.”

Players in both Challenger and LCS have been knocked by fans or critiqued by the media (or in some cases, even fined by Riot) for their public personas - which can be a shock after being unexamined and unknown. It’s important for players who are working their way up to remember that they’re trying out for a job - and be ready for the external pressure that can come with their new careers.

RAPiD offers more advice to players who have their eyes on the LCS: “You don’t start out born ready for anything, so realize where you are and where you need to go and make that transition accordingly. Be professional, learn how to market your brand, and learn how to sell yourself. The more impressive you are, the better you do, and the more opportunities open up to you.”

As League grows and expands, the Challenger scene may receive some of the biggest benefits. Not just players will receive the fruits of increased attention - coaches, analysts, leaders, managers, and other important folk to eSports infrastructure will be receiving new opportunities. While it's crucial for people to avoid the traps and dangerous organizations that litter the Challenger scene, the future is bright.

A few years ago, the Challenger scene was competitive League. Who knows what it may be in the next few years? The possibilities are exciting, and there are dozens of exciting stories of players who are ravenous for their chance at the big time who are currently playing in the league. We, as fans, should celebrate this talent and urge them onwards - they could be the next household names.

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