Reluctance to Develop Native NA Talent for LCS
If there is one thing synonymous with the North American LCS (other than underperforming on the international stage), it is the crippling, ever-present reluctance of developing unaffirmed native talent.
The region is in love with the concept of an all-American roster, that’s for sure. But when it comes to the practical side of things, NA always falters. In fact, you could argue that teams intentionally sabotage themselves. While that might be a bold, theatrical statement, the results speak for themselves.
We’ve seen rookies introduced with a ton of hype, only to get removed from the roster at the first sign of “trouble.” They fail once, and they’re out immediately. These things take time, and in most cases, North American organizations expect results in an extremely short time frame.
The pressure to perform is far too great for any rookie to handle, especially if they’re playing for a big organization with an established fan base.
Fear of failure is reasonable, and it is perfectly justified. All ten NA LCS teams are competing in a hyper-competitive environment, and a win or loss can become the deciding factor between making playoffs and waiting on the sidelines. Making a bad roster change can completely shift the dynamic within a team, and the risk of failure hangs over everyone’s head.
While there were times when NA invested in native diamonds in the rough, those instances were few and far between. Furthermore, whenever NA had a chance to import a player, they opted to do so. It didn’t matter if the move made sense — if the player achieved anything resembling success abroad, he was a viable option.
In doing so, organizations are paying more for a player that probably won’t perform as well as they hope, they’re creating a language barrier within a team that may or may not resolve with time, and they’re creating a clash of cultures. Some players adjust with time — others aren’t that lucky (or tenacious).
Furthermore, if you take a look at current NA LCS rosters, you’d only see a handful of names that could classify as new NA talent. AnDa, Grig, Damonte, Dhokla, JayJ. Some of these players already have more than a single LCS split behind their belts, but regardless. That’s about five “rookies” out of over fifty players, spread across ten teams.
Team Liquid basically has three imports. Just because Jeong “Impact” Eon-yeong became a resident in 2018 doesn’t mean he’s an NA player. Every other team, except Counter Logic Gaming, reached the maximum number of import slots even though they didn’t have to.
The LEC, on the other hand, has four teams with just a single import, and one team with two (Rogue). The Top 3 European teams from 2018 only had a single import across their fifteen players — Kim “Wadid” Bae-in.
When it comes to the LEC, teams are far more willing to give solo queue stars a tryout, and it pays off more often than not.
For NA, this kind of climate is suffocating. We’re not seeing the next generation of players, barring a couple of rare exceptions.
One of the biggest surprises coming into 2019 is the fact that, even with such a big influx of money, LEC teams aren’t willing to import proven talent. As a result, we’ll see a ton of new players. Some of them will fade into obscurity — that’s just the way things are, but others could become the champions of tomorrow.
Look no farther than Tim “Nemesis” Lipovšek (Fnatic mid laner), Marek “Humanoid” Brázda (Splyce mid laner), Felix “Abbedagge” Braun (Schalke 04 mid laner), Jesper Klarin “Jeskla” Strömberg (exceL Esports AD carry), and so on. A few teams didn’t even announce their full rosters, meaning we can expect even more rookies in Spring Split.
Even when NA talent breaks through, their careers have strange trajectories. Junglers like Matthew “Akaadian” Higginbotham, Galen “Moon” Holgate, and Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett immediately come to mind. All three of them had amazing debuts, and they all failed to become starters coming into 2019.
Akaadian is supposedly Team SoloMid’s Academy jungler, and the same goes for Moon (CLG Academy), as well as Dardoch (OpTic Gaming). Three highly promising rookies and three careers that simply didn’t develop in the way they could (or should) have.
And it wasn’t for their lack of trying. Dardoch, in particular, has been playing out of his mind over the last two years.
Taking Risks Can Pay Off
When an organization goes all-in to developing young talent, the results can be fantastic. But it takes time, effort, and an experienced coaching staff to lead the way. Nothing good happens overnight, and it takes time for a squad to develop synergy and cohesion.
Back in late 2017, Jakob “YamatoCannon” Mebdi, Team Vitality’s Head Coach, signed four rookies that managed to enter the LCS under the Giants Gaming umbrella. In a region where relegation was still a thing, that seemed like a pretty risky business decision.
Sure, all four of them displayed a lot of potential in the Challenger Series, but the LCS is a different kind of beast.
YamatoCannon believed in his rookies, and it paid off. Daniele “Jiizuke” di Mauro won “Rookie of the Split” honors in his first EU LCS split, the team finished fourth in spring and third in summer, and they received worldwide recognition for their play at this year’s World Championship.
All of that with five players who are barely in their twenties.
Now, in all fairness, YamatoCannon’s “experiment” could have backfired — but it didn’t, and that’s the only thing that matters. He saw immense potential in this ragtag group of friends, and he wanted to give them room to grow.
Other EU LCS teams often do the same thing, although not to that extent.
When was the last time you heard of a completely new (non-Cloud9) NA LCS player that made waves? It’s been a while. Too long, in fact. It’s not because NA doesn’t have the talent within their ranks — teams are just too risk-averse because trying things out requires a step into the unknown.
Teams would rather sign players that are “known quantities” even though they might be painfully mediocre, rather than take a “risk” with new NA talent. That’s a shame.
There’s a serious lack of new and exciting narratives regarding the NA LCS. You can’t build hype by just rotating the same fifty players between teams.
Another problem is the fact that your average NA LCS organization has more money than they know what to do with. Steve Arhancet’s Team Liquid basically bought the best players in every position. What should a lower-tier team do? There’s no way that they can compete unless they shell out a couple million dollars themselves, and that isn’t always an option.
Sometimes getting the very best players won’t yield the best results either. We’ve seen numerous “super teams” fall apart at the seams, regardless of the region they’re playing in.
So what’s the solution?
Fortunately, there is at least one North American organization that’s willing to take risks and develop young NA talent, and that’s Cloud9.
After their sensational 2018 run, that’s evident now more than ever. From tenth place in Summer Split to Top 4 at Worlds. Read that sentence again. Let it sink in. We’ve become accustomed to insane storylines and narratives from Cloud9, and this one is perhaps the craziest (although the 2015 miracle gauntlet run with Hai Du “Hai” Lam comes close).
Cloud9 reached Top 4 with a rookie in the top lane (2018 Spring Rookie of the Split Eric “Licorice” Ritchie), a rookie in the bottom lane (Tristan “Zeyzal” Stidam), and a rookie jungler (2018 Summer Rookie of the Split Robert “Blabber” Huang). Head coach Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu made the right call — merge two or three consistent, experienced veterans with a couple of rookies that have a ton of potential. When push comes to shove, the veterans will take the reins, and the rookies will tag along.
In the end, you really couldn’t differentiate who was the rookie and who wasn’t, seeing how all of them performed at an astonishingly high level. Zeyzal and Licorice became a vital part of the roster as well as some of Cloud9’s strongest “assets.”
So not only did they leave a mark on the international stage in 2018, but they’re entering 2019 with even more synergy and experience.
In other words, this was just the beginning.
More North American organizations should make the same bold moves, especially now that relegation is a relic of the past. Going for “proven solutions” will only yield “proven results,” and for a region that’s been struggling to attain international success, that’s a problem. We can only hope that Cloud9’s example will function as a wake-up call for the region as a whole.
Their incredible run can become the norm, rather than just a flash in the pan.