LCS is Killing Itself by Not Truly investing in Domestic Talent
The day when the off-season began, Jacob Wolf sat in the ESPN studio dropping a trail of breadcrumbs for everyone wanting to follow who is going to end up where. Fionn and Emily end up in another studio where ESPN continues its coverage with a first-of-its-kind live free agency show. The 19th of November saw reveal after reveal, with probably the most shocking part being the numbers attached to the dollar signs that came with contract deals, and buyout negotiations. More and more, the question rising to people’s lips was the same:
Is it Too fast?
Philippe "Vulcan" Laflamme, the rookie support who had spent two years in academy to find himself in LCS as the starting support for Clutch Gaming - later bought by Dignitas, was bought by Cloud9. As a support ranked highly by analysts and talk show-fiends alike, it was no surprise that he was brought into one of the storied franchises of the League.
What raised eyebrows and sparked discussions, was Wolf’s report that the amount paid for his buyout was a whopping 1.5 million dollars, along with the addition of their academy team’s AD carry as a sweetener. Perhaps even more shocking - though hardly by much - would be some of the revelations of salary for particular players. Locodoco - former coach of TSM - revealed on multiple talk shows that Wildturtle, the AD Carry player for Flyquest, was being paid a whopping 700,000 dollar salary this year - despite being one of the four worst-performing carries within the league in the previous split. Huni, a once-upon-a-time top lane god, was being paid 2.3 million dollars by Dignitas across two years.
In contrast, the salary for the two biggest players in European history - Perkz and Rekkles - hovers somewhere in the mid-six-figure mark, likely lower than that of Flyquest’s carry.
It isn’t as if North American teams aren’t trying to get European rookies at this point. Players like Larssen, Nemesis, and Humanoid aren’t just players who pop up once in a generation. Europe’s culture manages to produce them once a year at this point. Unfortunately, more and more players within EU Masters - Europe’s equivalent of academy - are turning down offers of big money because they’d rather have a chance to be the best in a region that has undoubtedly proven itself.
League’s Profitability Problem
Be it H2K Rich’s incredibly cynical outlook over the viability of having a franchised slot, or the speculation from various journalists and figures about monetisation problems in esports, there’s no doubt that esports isn’t currently profitable. Teams and leagues alike are working on the model that, with the amount of fan engagement that they’re getting – as well as the probability of eventual avenues to monetise – are going to be enough to start raking in the profits that esports will - seemingly - inevitably reap.
The problem comes in with leagues like the LCS, where you’re pigeonholing yourself into a place where you’re forced to continue to spend ludicrous amounts of money for talent - domestic or otherwise.
The 2020 season of LCS will see players like Pobelter, and possibly Damonte, not playing within the League itself. The 2020 season also sees an exceptionally low number of domestic players having their rookie LCS season this year, be it from moving up in Academy or just being scouted out from solo queue.
Under situations where your mantra is inevitably going to be import or die, it’s impossible to prevent prices of players from growing disproportionately to the amount of money they can bring back to an organisation. You have to start asking yourself, why is it so hard to field local players? Why is it that the value of a good - but not the best - support is sitting at 1.5 million dollars and an extra player on the side? Similarly, how is a player so far past his prime that he couldn’t even look back and see it, being given a salary higher than the most esteemed Western players modern League of Legends has ever seen? Brandon "Brandini" Chen won the 2019 spring season of Academy underneath the TSM roster as a top laner, and yet hasn’t found himself signed to a team, or even brought up in discussions for a team to acquire.
Aaron "FakeGod" Lee was announced to be the rookie of the split for LCS Summer 2019 as the top lane player for 100 Thieves. As one of the most coveted roles for having a good domestic player - due to the difficulty of finding a domestic top laner like Licorice who can hold his own - FakeGod should have had a slew of offers to develop his talents. Instead, the 2020 spring split sees him back where he was before: in 100T’s academy team.
Jacob "Prismal" Feinstein came out the champion of Academy’s summer split underneath the 100T roster in 2019 - including best-of-five victories over Cloud9’s academy team which featured three players who are now in the LCS. Even so, he has not been brought up in discussions for acquisition.
The major cost of running a team comes in player expenditure. Bottom of the table teams will soon find themselves unable to field a roster that will ever be competitive should they continue to rely on imports and scorn the structures they should be relying on.
Bottom of the Table Teams
If teams like Flyquest and Golden Guardians, who should reasonably have no aspirations for attending Worlds within the 2020 season, refuse to take risks on low-cost, rookie players who they could develop across a full season into talents, they will never be competitive. Teams in the LCS seem more and more unwilling to accept their inadequacy due to the system that they themselves have cultivated.
Instead of going for strategies similar to European teams like Mad Lions (formerly Splyce) who have just picked up four rookies to see who can survive the trials of a proper high-level league, they are still emptying their pockets out, to no avail. Big brands are not getting them engagement, imported players are not getting them top three. The only thing that these teams are accomplishing is drilling an even bigger hole into their pockets as they continue to kick the entire scene to the curb.
It is practically impossible that there are no players who are enough of a hot prospect to have an entire season to prove themselves on a bottom team. The longer people wait, the more talents will turn their eyes onto being a streamer, onto moving on from the game, and onto burning themselves out on academy, knowing that they’re playing in a system that is built to be prejudiced against those who are born and bred in it.
Profitability will come in esports, but the more LCS teams continue to choke their own talent out, the harder they make it for themselves to cut costs without having the entire scene cave in on itself. Eventually, the question needs to be asked: when will it be too late?