Riot Games announced on Wednesday that the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) signed a partnership with esports and gaming-focused digital media licensing platform ESPAT AI. ESPAT AI is similar to Getty Images or AP Photo; it sells commercial and editorial use licenses for images from its partners and also offers a la carte purchases on individual collections of images. It was founded by former NFL, Getty Images, and AP Photo execs in 2018.
ESPAT AI has signed 30+ teams under the auspices of several esports organizations that including Misfits Gaming Group, Spain-based MAD Lions and Team Queso, Hong Kong-based Talon Esports, and Minnesota-based Version1, owners of the CDL team Minnesota Røkkr.
In an interview with The Esports Observer, ESPAT AI CEO Matt Hill described the deal as a major milestone for the company. “There’s no question that this deal with the LCS is by far our biggest to date and is continued validation of what it is we are building here at ESPAT AI,” he said.
Hill and Riot Games’ Matthew Archambault, head of partnerships & business development for esports in North America & Oceania, said that the partnerships took more than a year to negotiate, and though Riot already has a deal with Getty Images for LoL international events such as Worlds and the Mid-Season Invitational, this is first of its kind partnership for a specific region. The LCS Flickr account, which Riot launched at the inception of the league in 2013 will remain as it is for the immediate future.
Archambault said that Riot made its initial contact with ESPAT AI while it was doing work with MasterCard, who also serves as a North American and a global partner of the company. Over time those discussions got Riot to a place where it “felt really confident and happy with what they were doing with their methodology and approach to the community. That led us to getting this deal across the line.”
“It took a long time to come together, and I think the reality is that this is a new marketplace we’re building, and everybody recognizes that, so that type of thing doesn’t happen overnight,” Hill said. “For LCS to get comfortable with ESPAT.AI and really understand what the value of digital media licensing could provide to them, it was a lengthy process, but it was great to see it all finally come to fruition.”
As for why Riot decided to go with ESPAT AI over expanding its existing partnership with Getty Images, Archambault says that the company’s flexibility when it comes to supporting the community, monetizing assets, and its plan to implement image-related technology enhancements were important factors.
“We’ve had discussions with several different parties, but I think where ESPAT.AI was a little bit of a differentiator was with some of the avenues that we were able to customize in the relationship, given the community approach that we have here in North America with the press, and also its commercial, monetization, and editorial plays.”
From Hill’s perspective, Riot chose ESPAT AI because it is an endemic platform that has built a reputation, goodwill, and relationships in the esports industry – something Getty Images doesn’t have.
“There are obviously some very successful legacy players in this space, big corporations like Getty that have had a ton of success over the past two or three decades, but this was an industry that was being underserved and that’s what Ed [Brooks], Mario [Prosperino], and Dante [Simpson] identified in 2018 and set out to address. ESPAT Media Group was born of the gaming and esports industries. We have grown within this community and built relationships, trust, respect, and credibility that I think is lacking with some of those legacy players.”
When asked if this relationship might expand beyond the borders of North America or into other Riot Games esports titles in the future, both Hill and Archambault expect to see an expansion of some sort if things go well.
“As we continue to see something be successful, other regions will raise their hands or will be able to find ways to continue to expand the presence of that partner,” Archambault said. “So, could this move into other titles? Absolutely.”
“Our goal first and foremost is to get LCS up on the platform and make that a successful launch, but we certainly see an opportunity to expand the relationship beyond just LCS to other Riot titles here in North America,” Hill said, adding that this deal will hopefully lead to “additional opportunities across the Riot portfolio.”
Finally, both Hill and Archambault declined to discuss in detail any plans on using images from LCS events to create non-fungible tokens. Both noted that they are looking closely at the space and seeing how to best serve both fans and players before making a major move.
“Riot as an organization is currently exploring the NFT space and we’re doing our due diligence until we have a position publicly,” Archambault said. “I can’t really comment on that, but of course, we are exploring everything that has to do with the space, including the positives and negatives that may impact the players and fans in our community.”
“There certainly have been conversations around what ESPAT.AI’s vision is for technology and how we plan to disrupt the licensing industry through the application of AI and image recognition technology,” Hill said. “The LCS team is excited about that and we’ll certainly have every opportunity to test out that technology and become an early adopter going forward.”
Bonus Round: The Fate of Riot Flickr
Following Riot and ESPAT AI’s announcement this morning, there was some concern from the community and members of the media that Riot’s longtime archive of League of Legends esports photos would disappear. This afternoon Riot Games’ Matt Archambault offered additional information on the company’s plans for community and press media access to allay concerns. You can find the statement below:
We appreciate the community discussion about our recently announced photo licensing partnership. We understand this partnership may have come as a surprise to the LCS community and we want to address the biggest questions we’ve seen so far.
Firstly, LCS photos will not be removed or stripped from access by the community at large. We do not want to prohibit discovery or engagement with the LCS.
The public LCS photo library will not disappear. Photos will gradually be migrated to the ESPAT AI platform, starting with the most recent events, and in its place, the LCS and ESPAT will introduce several free and flexible options for photos. These include:
- Introducing a grantlist system, which allows LCS press regulars with free access to LCS photos on ESPAT from the start of 2021 Summer Split until the end of LCS Lock In 2022.
- Ensuring press access to stage photos at LCS Studios. Once press are able to safely return to LCS Studios, credentialed press may take photos on site and around the stage, as they did pre-COVID.
- Providing a small number of selected photos each match weekend, which will be available for free on ESPAT’s platform.
- Creating a customized pricing pack, with different tiers, the goal of which is achieving a sustainable and accessible model for established, budding and community media and content creators
The goal for the LCS and ESPAT AI partnership is to create opportunities for LCS photos to be licensed with the major media companies within ESPAT’s network, and use ESPAT’s technology to monetize assets in new ways.
The LCS wanted to partner with ESPAT AI specifically because of its media network, its technology capabilities, and its flexibility to support both independent content creators and large-scale media companies in a sustainable way.
We value the community’s feedback and want this platform to service every part of the LCS media ecosystem, for the long term. We’ll continue listening and factoring in community comments as we put in place free and flexible photo options on the new platform.
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