After weeks of speculation, the worst-kept secret in esports broke as Immortals Gaming bought out the Infinite Esports group in a move that raises more questions than it answers. "Anti-competition" is a phrase that comes to mind when you consider it gives them control of two Overwatch League franchises, and two CSGO teams (one of which they instantly killed), but that isn’t the only fault in the esports ecosystem exposed by this momentous deal.
It also very much raises questions about Riot’s judgement when it comes to selecting the owners that were given franchise spots in League Of Legends, and NALCS in particular. After Clutch Gaming were bought out by the Dignitas/Philadelphia 76s group earlier in the year, the Immortals/Infinite deal will see a group that was rejected in the initial assessments buy their way in, due to one of the ‘fit and proper’ owners turning out to be neither fit or proper when it comes to running an esports org.
According to an ESPN article from 2017, Riot had three steps to their application process, which were designed to filter out potentially problematic or unstable owners and leave the company with a selection of happy, reliable long-term franchise partners, presumably so they could get to carving up the world together. We’ve listed them below, as the original Riot blog post has been removed from the website.
First, teams that want to franchise in the league will need to apply to do so. Riot will work with "expert third parties" to scope out details about teams and organizations.
Second, Riot will review the teams and their proposals, which will include an "in-person presentation and Q&A, as well as some deeper dives into finances, credit checks, and background checks for the owners." Riot's criteria include having a "stable, professional, well-funded and committed" organisation.
Lastly, teams will be selected and announced in the fourth quarter of 2017 for the 2018 season.
Step two is obviously where all the spice lies, as it’s pretty clear by now that neither the Infinite Group or Clutch actually qualified as ‘stable, professional, well-funded and committed’ just judging by what we know today. Likewise, the Immortals Group obviously met all those criteria then, and the proof of that pudding is the fact they had the ability to buy out a competitor so quickly, if in fact they were denied their spot for any of the reasons listed in the first place.
The reason for the ‘if’ is that former Immortals CEO Noah Whinston, who has since been removed from the board of that group, was often relatively critical of Riot’s business, and many behind the scenes believe the fact Immortals didn’t get a spot was as much personal as it was business. Publicly, Riot made it clear they were concerned about Immortals' finances, despite the group having just secured a good deal of investment and represented NALCS well at recent events.
How true that is we will never know, but it is obvious now that the selection process was as flawed as Infinite’s business model, and needs a tweak before any future sales rounds to ensure more ‘stable, well-funded’ franchises of the future don’t go bust and create a swathe of embarrassing headlines for the company. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but in retrospect it seems like IMT were denied their spot for political, rather than practical reasons, and should not have been.