Esports meets mainstream: Echo Fox’s ‘dream team’ is an experiment, but it isn’t a gamble

Echo Fox’s new Challenger team gets more confusing the more you think about it. It’s all at once a brilliant financial move, a double-edged competitive decision and a plain old weird decision to make just before the NA LCS moves to a franchising model. And yet, I’m left wondering about one important question: Does it really matter?

Last week, Echo Fox signed five retired League of Legends pros to their Challenger roster. This would be odd news on its own, if it weren’t for the fact that most of these players are now popular streamers. Ex-TSM top laner Marcus “Dyrus” Hill, former Team Dignitas mid laner William “scarra” Li, former Dignitas AD carry Michael “Imaqtpie” Santana ex-Team Curse mid laner Joedat “Voyboy” Esfahani and former Dignitas mid laner Danny “Shiphtur” Le all pull in solid stream views, and are some of the most popular LoL streamers on Twitch.

There are a few things very strange about the team on the surface. For one, three members of the roster last played mid lane in the NA LCS. Voyboy played top before that, but Dyrus last played top as well, which brings their team composition into question. Another weird part is, of course, the fact that all these players are pretty rusty from a competitive standpoint. Sure, they all play a lot of League of Legends, but it’s pretty fair to say that Imaqtpie isn’t exactly playing as seriously in a competitive context as any of the other players currently in Challenger Series.

That isn’t to say that the team is objectively terrible though. The fact is, the Challenger Series is relatively unpredictable, and not quite at the caliber of play you see in the LCS proper. No one is saying that the Dream Meme Team is going to make it into LCS no problem, but it’s also hard to say that they’ll definitely finish in dead last.

What I can say with some degree of certainty is that this will be great for viewership. The Challenger Series has never picked up more views than the LCS, and while I don’t think qtpie and Dyrus can suddenly bring in more views than Cloud9 vs. Team SoloMid, they can definitely bolster the low viewership with pure star power alone. There are a lot of LoL fans who don’t necessary watch the LCS every week, but might tune in to watch their favorite streamers play LCS And that’s good for a lot of people.

Riot would like Challenger Series views to go up because Riot likes League of Legends views going up in general. Professional LoL serves a lot of purposes, but one of the biggest is that it works as an advertisement for the game. More eyes on LoL means more people spending money on the game, in theory at least. If views do go up, then it’s also good for Echo Fox, who could probably shop themselves around saying their team draws in more views than any other Challenger teams and pick up a few sponsors that way. These are some of the most popular non-pro players in League of Legends, and now you have a chance to get them associated with your brand. Challenger might not be played in a studio, but you can bet Echo Fox will put out videos with these guys and brand their streams if they can. I think that by itself is incentive enough for Echo Fox to try this experiment.

But that’s what it is. An experiment. As I mentioned before, this move comes right before the last ever season of the NA CS as we know it. With franchising on the horizon, the Challenger Series will become a place for LCS teams’ academy squads to play against each other in a development league. In an interview with theScore esports, Echo Fox CEO Jace Hall said that whether or not the team will stick together to be part of Echo Fox’s academy roster if the team gets a franchise spot is up to the players, but that’s all hypothetical.

With all that in mind, the stakes are relatively low. It doesn’t really matter if Echo Fox loses their Challenger spot, because if Echo Fox gets a franchise slot, then they have a Challenger team anyway. Meanwhile, if Echo Fox does win, they’ll have a second LCS slot. We don’t know what that means in the context of franchising, but I can’t imagine it’ll be completely worthless. Basically, if this team turns out to be a joke on the Rift, it doesn’t matter, and if they’re incredible, then Echo Fox only profits.

What’s also very important is that Hall said that the team was partially put together by Everyday Influencers, a talent management company that Hall says helped “assemble this dream team” and brought the idea to Echo Fox as a possibility. That means this team wasn’t necessarily designed to win (though again, they could be good in theory, we’ve yet to see them play together), they were designed as marketing effort. Just based on the reaction to the announcement, the marketing has worked so far. People are excited about this team, either because they love these players and want to watch them win, or they think the dream team is a meme that will crash and burn.

So, should we care about the wider implications of the new Delta Fox roster? If viewership goes up and they don’t completely bomb out of the league then it’s a proof of concept at best, showing that you can put popular streamers on a roster and build your organization’s brand without sacrificing too much quality. If viewership stays as is and the team loses every game, it was an interesting experiment designed by agents that shouldn’t have too many major, long-term consequences.

We can’t really say exactly what will happen here beyond the fact that, no matter what, it doesn’t actually matter. Professional LoL in North America will change so significantly next year that it’s impossible to figure out what the far-reaching implications of anything will be until we see what will happen. Echo Fox’s streamer-centric roster could make Challenger Series more popular than the LCS for one split, or it could tank the competitive integrity of the league. It probably won’t do either, and even if it did I couldn’t tell you how it would change the LCS without a crystal ball and a lot of belief in the arcane arts.

Like Jace Hall said, Echo Fox’s new challenger roster isn’t a joke. But it is a meme, and like all great memes, it’s impossible to know how big it’ll get.

Grade: B — Echo Fox insists the roster is no joke, which is good, because it really does seem like smart marketing all around. The Meme Team brings in views to the Challenger Series, retired pros get a chance to relive their glory days, and everyone gets to meme on Twitter if it doesn't work out. This is win-win-win situation if it works. And if it doesn't, then the worst that happens is Echo Fox takes some flack for fielding another shaky roster. Not a bad bet.

Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.

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