Every Split, the Challenger circuit inspires bigger investments and attracts larger names. Challenger is a "feeder" circuit under the LCS, giving teams and talent that haven't quite made it to the big leagues a shot at competition. But the promotion tournament at the end of each season offers smaller teams and less established organizations a chance to get into the LCS on the strength of their own talent, instead of having to buy an expensive spot and risk their investment on their first Split among established pros. That was the original plan, but things have mutated over time.
Challenger’s original intent was to give up-and-coming teams a chance to enter the pro ecosystem, build talent and potentially even get into the LCS. In some ways, the system has been successful at cultivating talent like TSM’s Biofrost and Cloud9’s Contractz. In other ways, the system has lost coherency. Some teams boast young talent or sub-LCS players, and other teams field World Champions or Korean legends like MadLife.
Three LCS pros shared their thoughts about their time in Challenger and how it affected their careers. This circuit is meant to build talent — but is it cannibalizing it instead?
Playing for promotions
The promotion tournament — and the shot at the LCS that comes with it — is the goal of every Challenger team. Making the LCS is a dream come true, and we’ve seen Hollywood style stories where a small and determined org manages to pry their spot away from the established LCS squad. What happens when that risk doesn’t pay off? Galen "Moon" Holgate has been in both Challenger and LCS, and the process was a difficult one.
"I [didn't] want to play in Challenger; it was horrible," says Galen "Moon" Holgate, currently playing on FlyQuest. "It sucks because there’s no branding, and no one watches Challenger. There are some post-game interviews, but only Twitch sees that. There’s no publicity or anything."
This is a valid complaint: A League player has a limited shelf life in a highly competitive game. Players who accumulate fans are building a safety net that can be translated into a profitable streaming or content creation career, even after they retire from the LCS. Michael "Imaqtpie" Santana, the long-haired meme-loving ADC, built a six-figure streaming career after his time on Dignitas. Marcus "Dyrus" Hill has managed to transition from being the solid top laner of TSM into being your third favorite streamer, and now works on content creation full time. Players who languish in Challenger, however, aren’t building much of anything.
The sacrifice of neglecting branding for a Split is risky for players, but it can be worth it for both organizations and players. Players get into the LCS, and organizations get to enter the LCS without shelling out the big bucks. Cloud9 Challenger fought their way into the LCS, and then sold their spot to Wesley Edens for 2.5 million dollars and rebranded as FlyQuest. A spot in the Challenger circuit, by contrast, goes for a few hundred thousand dollars for a top seed. If you enter Challenger, you can fight for a LCS spot and save those millions.
Despite these potential savings, it’s only worth it if you can claim the spot; otherwise, organizational costs will drain your budget, and worse, your players will suffer. "If you don't make LCS, you’ve wasted six months of your life. That's how I felt on TLA," Moon says. "We lost to Echo Fox and I improved as a player, but I felt like it did nothing for me branding wise. I got some Challenger offers this split, but I pretty much was just like 'I don't want to do this again' and was waiting and waiting, and got this offer."
Now that Moon is on FlyQuest, he’s in a far more secure place in his career — but even with his current success, things could have turned out very differently. It’s not just players who put themselves at risk, either. Organizations have disbanded upon relegations or failing to promote up to the LCS. NRG, the pink and black team backed by super star investors, weren’t able to keep their spot in the LCS and have moved onto other esports as a result. Ember, a Challenger squad that promised better gameplay would come from their intensive investments in infrastructure, failed to make it into the LCS after losing to Dignitas, and disbanded shortly after.
Grinding it out
When teams like Ember fail to make it into the LCS, or teams like NRG fall out, there’s the question of why they don’t continue to work in the Challenger circuit. Teams can take time to build synergy, especially when Challenger has less games overall. Why not just stick together and tough it out for another few months?
The answer is that there are two major drains on teams in Challenger. The first is the obvious financial aspect. Players, coaches, analysts and social media people have to be paid while the team struggles, and they don’t get the income of their LCS colleagues. The second drain is emotional; it’s hard for players to fight their way through Challenger. There are no bright lights, screaming crowds or the rush of public play. Instead, they're replaced by anxiety and a looming feeling that time is running out.
"It’s just not a fun place to be, because if you’re doing well, it’s just against other Challenger teams and players," says Benjamin "LOD" deMunck. LOD was one of the Ember players that fell short, and he now ironically plays on Dignitas, the brand that snuffed out Ember’s dreams. "If you do poorly, it’s even worse, because you’re doing poorly against Challenger teams and players. Nobody is watching and nobody cares. It’s like you don’t even really exist. To break the barrier and finally place in LCS last split was really nice. It’s a pretty big deal for me. I’m happy to be here."
You might think that games that aren’t being watched would be less of a strain, but the opposite is true. LOD explains: "Challenger was extremely stressful for me. I mean, the tournament at the end of challenger and the promotion matches, were a thousand times more stressful than the weekly LCS games. Maybe it’s comparable to playoff semis, quarters and finals. Those are huge, too, but what’s on the line for winning those games is extremely stressful."
Infrastructure and commitment
Not only are players under a huge amount of stress, but the environment is far less suited to handle that than the LCS stage. "In Challenger, you’re playing at home, you’re not playing on a stage and I think that sucks a lot because your ping is higher. It’s just a different environment, when you show up on a stage, it’s completely different, it feels like you’re doing something big. When you just hop on the tournament realm at home, it just feels like another game and it’s hard to take it as seriously," LOD says.
Not every player has had a negative experience, or agrees with LOD and Moon. Cloud9’s Contractz has a long history in the Challenger scene. "In Challenger, you just stay at your house and you play from there. But in LCS, you come down every Friday or weekend and you actually play on stage, which is a lot more different from Challenger. I think the level of pressure you get going into LCS is a lot greater than challenger. And overall, just the skill difference going from challenger to LCS is super huge. That’s a big thing too."
While he benefitted from playing on Cloud9’s Challenger squad, Contractz started on Ember. He shared his thoughts on how the scene shifted, and how Ember helped contribute to the current landscape. "The first Challenger team to put in a bunch of money was Ember, right, and I was on that team."
At the time, Ember had made headlines by publicly releasing their players’ salaries and talking about the value of investing in native talent. It was, at the time, an unusual tactic. "Summer Split of NACS, I think there weren’t a lot of teams who pumped money in. Most of the salary was pretty normal and the teams were pretty normal," Contractz said. Ember was, in some ways, a vanguard to the new wave of big money teams.
If you ask Contractz, this is a good thing for the Challenger scene overall. "There are three or four orgs that have NBA backing or huge investors [in Challenger]. They’re getting paid a lot of money and it’s very different, but I think it’s also pretty good for the scene because it gives more players a reason to play in Challenger."
This raises the question: If Challenger is a stressful pressure cooker that burns out players and drains organizations, are there any upsides to the circuit? Once again, we return to Contractz, who moved onto Cloud9 Challenger after his time on Ember. Contractz wasn’t of age to join the LCS, but he gained valuable experience playing with the Challenger squad, and now he’s a strong contender for rookie of the split on Cloud9’s LCS team. Cloud9 has a long history of using Challenger teams to work with native NA talent and find future stars, and in the case of Contractz, it paid off big.
Echo Fox is another team who has figured out how to use the Challenger system to strengthen their entire organization. They take things a step farther; instead of pulling talent from their Challenger squad, they use Delta Fox as a scrim partner. Even if Delta Fox never makes the promotion tournament, there’s a real benefit to keeping them in the game; they are a scrim partner who will always show up, get experience and fit the needs of Echo Fox’s scrims and practices.
Delta Fox has a reason to stick around, and their reason to exist isn’t getting into the LCS; Echo Fox gets a good practice environment. Furthermore, as we’ve seen with Fnatic’s recent jungle switch, if the Challenger player shows his stuff, he can take the spot of his LCS colleague. It’s the ultimate win/win situation. Delta Fox isn’t the intended use of Challenger, but the entire ecosystem has changed so that the original Challenger teams are extinct.
It’s hard to tell what the future of Challenger is, especially with the recent conversation about teams franchising and relegations potentially being removed one day. As long as the promotion system exists, organizations are going to invest and import to try to get their chance at scoring an LCS spot. However, the organizations who are having the most success in Challenger are arguably the ones who are supplementing their LCS team with an expansion of an existing structure.
The Challenger scene has grown from its early days, and now it exists in an odd stage, where the LCS slot can seem the only profitable option. Smart organizations have learned that Challenger has opportunities for established organizations, but in order for any scene to work, the players need to be engaged and happy. The days of Challenger being a doorway for young orgs to make it into the LCS may be fading in favor for an arms race where orgs try to gamble for that LCS slot, but there’s hope. Smart teams are building a healthier, more sustainable path by creating teams that have life beyond the promotion tournament.