The North American LCS is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating regions in the entirety of competitive league. No, it’s not the most layered or competitive region in the world (not even close), but what it lacks in depth is more than makes up for in narratives and unique storylines that make it so darn entertaining. However, one of its many problems has been flying under the radar, and it’s about time we discuss it: League of Legends LCS players.
A region is only as strong as its players, and North America has long been known as the home of the aged and unmotivated. Sometimes that’s a bit more evident, like in the case of Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng. Other times, it’s like a tacit agreement. As if we all know the truth and, therefore, there’s no need to say it aloud. It’s the elephant in the room everyone’s trying so hard to ignore, but as the years went on, the issue snowballed beyond measure, and now we’re all in damage control.
We’re all well aware of the reluctance that North American teams have when it comes to developing native talent — but that’s just one half of the equation. It’s not just that new League of Legends LCS players aren’t being brought up and given a chance to prove their worth, but rather that old veterans who are obviously past their prime are still being “recycled” from team to team regularly.
It’s hard to explain this point without naming anyone fully. Fortunately, this is such a widespread occurrence that giving out a list of “offenders” would not only be done in bad taste but also be superfluous. We all know who these individuals are and, by all means, they’re not the ones who should be getting the grunt of the blame. Everyone’s fighting for their jobs — esports competitors included. If you’ve invested years of your life into just a single thing, would you decide one day that it’s time to hang your mouse and keyboard and call it quits, given that you lack the talent and potential to accomplish anything in your field? Or would you, instead, try to find a team to call home, earn a couple of paychecks and then potentially transition into coaching, like so many players have done in the past?
This is competitive league we’re talking about. Even though it’s the most popular game and esport in the world, it’s not like you’re qualified for much else in life after focusing on last hitting and team fight positioning for five years. The best players in the world get their cake and eat it too, but that’s a very elite club. Others, however, have pushed themselves into a corner, and there’s no alternative. They tried and failed, and there’s not much else they can do about it. It’s not like they can magically wake up one morning with more talent or a better understanding of the game.
As far as professions go, competing in competitive league is certainly not among the hardest or most complex ones. Sure, esports pros go through a plethora of unique challenges daily (both physical and psychological). Still, it sure does beat working a nine-to-five job somewhere in a cubicle, or living from scarce freelancing gigs for which you may or may not get paid.
Older players trying to remain relevant and populate the vast majority of the teams is by no means a strange thing — it’s human nature, after all.
However, it does mean that the majority of the region comprises seasoned veterans who never really accomplished anything, and it’s not for lack of trying. Subpar imports are also a frequent sight, along with veteran Academy players who go in and out of the LCS weekly.
When LCS organizations assemble rosters (most of them, at least), they always sign one exceptional player who’ll bring in a solid number of fans, and then populate the rest of the roster with has-beens and — at worst — mediocre LCK imports. Even worse, it’s as though coaches and management are completely oblivious to the existence of a thing called “language barrier,” so no one’s overly surprised when these line-ups fail to sync even after multiple splits.
When things go awry, these teams often sub-in a player from their Academy roster who, odds are, already has experience in playing on the LCS stage. Subbing in someone less experienced would hinder their chances of finding success even further, and most LCS teams can’t have that — they want short-term gain without becoming irrelevant in the meantime. Long-term growth is a concept most organizations in North America fail to understand.
Finally, the question of motivation is key here. Competing at just one thing can quickly become arduous and, at times, even boring. The pressure to perform only further complicates things. If you’re not accomplishing anything and have already been in “the game” for years, where do you find the motivation to compete? This is a universal question, and it can be applied to any profession out there. With North America being a very top-heavy region, the vast majority of the League of Legends LCS players currently competing know there’s no chance they’ll hoist the LCS trophy — not in 2020 or any time soon. That sort of triumph is “reserved” only for the best teams and players out there, i.e., the likes of Cloud9, Team Liquid and, if they step up, Team SoloMid.
When we hear stories that LCS pros slack off in practice and refuse to play out scrims, we shouldn’t be surprised. That was the only possible outcome, given the way things have been set up.
It’s All About the Orgs
In every conceivable way, both symbolic and otherwise, North American organizations have opted to follow the beaten path regardless of the consequences. They know where they’re headed — everyone does — but they couldn’t care less. And why would they? They’re in this for the long run, and they’re certainly not getting too ahead of themselves. Winning the LCS is out of the question. It’s not exactly impossible, but pulling off such a thing would require immense amounts of effort, knowledge, and talent, all things they either lack or refuse to develop.
That’s what being an LCS permanent partner means these days, at least more often than not. Sure, you have the Cloud9s, Team SoloMids, and Team Liquids of the world, but they’re too few compared to the rest of the league, so they’re more of a one-off thing, rather than the norm.de
Most organizations refuse to make their astronomical investments “go to waste.” They’d rather sign proven veterans (regardless of their actual talent and potential) than build a team from the ground up.
That’s rather unfortunate as opting for the latter can produce more success (when combined with a competent coaching staff that knows its business). Still, it can also create some of the most exciting and unexpected storylines ever.
Nothing captures the attention and imagination of the public faster than sheer competitiveness.
The “Veteran Leader” Excuse
For example, MAD Lions have proven a theory that has existed for quite a while now: you don’t need veterans in a team for it to play at a high enough level. Having a seasoned individual lead the charge can undoubtedly be a positive thing, but it is by no means necessary.
Having five talented rookies with the same style of play in mind can also do wonders. We’re starting to see a stark difference in how these individuals want to play the game out. A seasoned veteran might want to maintain his old tendencies and ways of thinking; up-and-coming League of Legends LCS players don’t have the burden of past metas and experiences but rather enter the game with a fresh state of mind. They’re all playing the same game, but they’re doing things differently, at a different pace and with a different mentality.
As time goes on, this difference is becoming more and more obvious, and it could, potentially, become the main reason why most older pros will have to retire a lot sooner. The old adage might be correct — “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
Of course, age by itself isn’t nearly as big of a factor as some are trying to make of it, but it is indicative of many important things and brings forth a much larger set of questions. If a player is above a certain age, then the questions of motivation, growth, and development need to be posed. These questions mustn’t be an afterthought but rather at the very center of the conversation. If a player is 23, has five years of experience, never went to Worlds, and has no chance of winning anything even on home soil, then what use is such a competitor, other than to round out a roster and collect a paycheck simply?
Most LCS pros have been playing the game professionally for many years, and the vast majority of them don’t stand a chance of leaving a mark. If they couldn’t do it back when they had the drive and motivation to reach the very pinnacle of competition (back when they were more naive about their chances), they certainly won’t be doing it now after grinding for five years.
Experience is invaluable, of course, but only when utilized in the right way and when given the right context.
Otherwise it’s just a buzzword.
Cloud9 — A Shining Example
By the sheer fact of existing, Cloud9 automatically puts every other LCS team and organization to shame. This is by no means an overstatement — the gap between them and the rest of the region is that big, not just in terms of gameplay but also in philosophy. They’re the only team that has successfully fostered the superstars of tomorrow, and they’ve been doing it ever since they joined the LCS way back when.
They find the right players (individuals who still haven’t realized their full potential) and then slot them into a constructed and geared towards their growth and well-being. They give them time, room to grow, and closely follow their development, just in case a small adjustment needs to be made. This approach benefits seasoned veterans as well. It’s no coincidence that many League of Legends LCS players blossomed beyond belief once they donned Cloud9’s jersey.
Fortunately, we can notice a positive trend that’s currently happening: teams slowly realize that they won’t be able to accomplish much without thinking outside of the box. As a result, they’re scouting for up-and-coming talent as well. Liquid now has Edward “Tactical” Ra, Philippe “Poome” Lavoie-Giguere is about to start for 100 Thieves. Johnson “Johnsun” Nguyen has been carrying Dignitas more often than not and Victor “FBI” Huang, Golden Guardians’ AD carry, has also been a great performer, despite his initial rocky start. These League of Legends LCS players (except for Poome as he’s yet to play on the LCS stage) played much better than expected. They’re just the beginning of a very positive (and long overdue) trend that’ll hopefully become the norm.
We’ve all seen how far these rookies can go when given time and guidance: Cloud9’s Eric “Licorice” Ritchie, Robert “Blaber” Huang, Colin “Kumo” Zhao and Tristan “Zeyzal” Stidam are now some of the most impactful and promising players in the entire region. Their development and overall improvement on a split-by-split basis have been nothing short of astounding.
When it comes to North American teams, it’s not a matter of talent, but rather of priorities.
Their biggest goal, more often than not, is profit. Revenue. International success comes afterward. And even though they’re competing in a region that’s all about narratives and storylines, they still need to deliver gameplay-wise as fans and spectators are already starting to abandon the LCS stream en masse. They want better League of Legends. They’re just not getting it at this point.
The LEC, for instance, took the opposite approach. Some of the best European teams built their identities through international success (and competitiveness in general), so the hype surrounding each match-up is organic and built through long-standing rivalries and storylines. When was a bunch of hungry up-and-comers taking the LCS stage by storm and leaving a mark, much like the MAD Lions are doing right now? The answer is simple: Cloud9, the only organization that’s still doing its own thing. The incredible amounts of success they’ve found over the years (both regionally and internationally) is just a by-product of their philosophy and approach.
According to an analysis from one Reddit user, the average team age in the LCS is 23.04, with every other major region being younger by almost two whole years. To make matters worse, the average team age of an LCS Academy team is higher than any other major region at 21.9.
Let that one sink in.
The LCS has a big problem, and before an influx of new talent can occur, the old, seasoned geezers need to be phased out.