My Thoughts On the LCS
First, I want to say I went overboard with my comments towards Vulcan. Since then, I’ve reached out to him personally to apologize. We had a good conversation and he made it clear that it wasn’t taken personally. The thoughts I truly wanted to express were that there are problems with the LCS and there will be a natural progression to league minimum salaries for players. Three teams are already significantly making cuts to their LoL budget. I do recognize, however, that my communication was distasteful and offensive. I grew up in a low-income, immigrant household and worked many different jobs, including, as many of you know, Trader Joe’s, where right after I quit to be an LoL pro. I have, first-hand, experienced the grind and sacrifices of many and it’s amazing to see what this game and the LCS has done for players, staff, and others today. As everyone knows, I sometimes let my emotions get the best of me. This is a learning lesson for me. Moving forward, I will work to explain myself in a more clear and professional way when talking about serious topics, especially in a public forum.
This is a long post, but I am hoping you will read it to the end because it contains a lot of context. There are a lot of nuances to operating an esports team and I truly want to start thoughtful and meaningful conversations around the LCS.
As a former player and a current owner in the LCS, I desperately want to be competitive internationally. My dream is for a team from LCS to win worlds, and I run TSM with that goal every year. I am frustrated to see our organizations, players, and fans putting in so much energy and passion every year and we keep coming up short. If you take a look at the past 5 years, LCS has not been competitive on the world stage despite the fact that LCS invests as much, if not more, in terms of player salaries and infrastructure compared to most other regions.
Right now, it is important to acknowledge that LCS as a region has issues. We are not competitive with other major regions. This is not a problem that we can solve alone and we will need Riot, the teams, and the community to understand the core problems and work together.
The most important problem we see is the player base size and talent we can draw from:
Playerbases (ranked accounts bronze and above) from op.gg:
LPL: 70,000,000 Active players (20+ servers, not from op.gg)
LCK: 2,820,500 ( KR: https://op.gg/ranking/ladder/ )
LEC(EUW+EUNE) : 2,974,200
LCS : 1,004,000 ( https://na.op.gg/ranking/ladder/ )
This data means that other regions have significantly more players with the potential and aspirations to go pro. In other words, a larger player base results in a greater number of potential professional level talent from an absolute perspective. This effect is further compounded by the fact that a larger player base requires a talented player to be better than so many more players to reach the rank of Challenger. As a result, other regions have a more rigorous training environment and a higher level of competition which translates to more highly skilled top players on average. If you look at the top 100–200 players in each region, the average level of top players in North America is lower.
With regards to the point that NA hasn’t invested in talent — that notion is false. LCS teams invest just as much in talent development as the teams from other major regions. After an embarrassing performance at Worlds last year, TSM decided to double our investment for 2021. Other teams in the LCS have similarly increased their level of investment — we are not giving up hope. This year alone, TSM will be investing $8 million USD ($1 million of which is solely dedicated to academy, amateur, and other developmental efforts) on not only player salaries, coaches, facilities, etc — and that puts us in the top 10% of spend for all regions.
Other regions have an ocean of talent and natural local interest where businesses beneath pro teams are built as training grounds to develop players with solid viewership and following to support such an ecosystem. For example, even just the LFL (French regional league) recently hit peak viewership of 190,000 viewers for their matches and eclipses viewership numbers for NA Academy (63,000 peak viewers) — and that’s only one regional league among many in Europe. Whereas in NA, you have the same players qualify for scouting grounds multiple years in a row, and the academy and amateur infrastructure does not have the same level of grassroots support.
There has been some NA talent over the last few years to rise to the top, but exceptional talent that can compete at an international level is few and far between. There also isn’t the same passion about going pro in League in NA as there is in other regions. In North America, more players opt into higher education, collegiate programs or streaming as alternative career paths. Alternatively, League of Legends is a dominant force in Korea, China and Europe. Meanwhile, NA players index higher towards console games and FPS games. Looking more specifically at the solo queue, you also notice that NA has another major disadvantage. Player’s in NA train on a daily basis with higher ping:
Approx. Ping (for pro players):
When strong players from other regions come to NA, they have to train in a higher ping environment and have longer queue times. The ping worsens practice quality as it is actually different from the ping that pros play and compete in during matches. As a former player, I know this is a large disadvantage as it creates different muscle memory that does not translate as well to real matches on LAN. Overall, this means that players have a worse quality of practice against lower quality opponents and are able to practice less frequently.
These are some of the difficult challenges that LCS faces and I believe that changing the import rule as it currently stands would be one of many solutions that can be implemented to help make the LCS more competitive. I do recognize that even if the import rules were changed, LCS would still be at a disadvantage. These problems are not easy to solve and are not as simple as opening a East/West server. There are simply not enough players, which means queue times would become even longer if this approach was taken. Not all regions are created equal, and if the expectation is for the LCS to compete against the other major regions, the LCS needs to find a way to even the playing field.
Teams are currently investing at a major loss because we believe in Riot and we want to make our mark on the global stage and prove that the LCS is still a premier league for our fans. When the LCS was at its greatest, CLG vs TSM used to peak at 600k concurrents. Where is it now? If the LCS teams can’t perform internationally, I believe that fans will lose interest over time. Teams will give up on Worlds aspirations and focus on regional competition leading to drastically lower salaries across the board. This off-season alone you can see that there are only 4–5 orgs that are investing heavily into creating competitive rosters. The other half have already scaled back their investments or have already begun to make this transition towards LCS minimum salaries ($75k) since there isn’t a reasonable way for them to build world caliber rosters under the current set of restrictions.
In addition, there has been some concern that with any change to the rule, there will be less representation of NA talent in the LCS and it will have an adverse effect on viewership. I don’t believe this to be the case. First, elite local talent such as Spica, Tactical, Blaber, and Vulcan and new up and coming talent will still find their way onto teams as long as their skill is comparable to their global counterparts. Second, our fans have been incredibly accepting of players such as Bjergsen, Santorin, Jensen, Impact, CoreJJ, Perkz, Svenskeren, Lustboy etc. These players have not only elevated the level of the region, but provide compelling narratives that make it easy for fans to cheer for them. The goal shouldn’t be to allow LCS teams to pick up the full world championship roster and field them in the LCS, there should be restrictions on this. However, all teams should be given access to the entire worldwide playerbase so that all teams have an even playing field to develop talent from. We believe that increasing global competitive strength is more important than indexing solely on local representation for the growth and longevity of the LCS.
So far, this issue has been discussed without nuance in the public. I believe that the import rule discussion has been overblown and the teams, including myself, have communicated poorly. There are solutions and approaches that we can work together to take to resolve these issues. I do think there is a middle ground where we can loosen up the number of players that can be imported to the amount of time that it takes for them to become residents. Over the last few years, TSM has invested in talent development through our academy and amateur programs, of which,a lot are now playing in the LCS and LEC. We have tried to enhance every other aspect of performance within our control by providing a world-class facility, running scouting combines, bootcamps in Korea, investing in coaching staff for our LCS and academy programs, and more.
Even when implementing best practices from other regions and investing into talent development, the current problems that LCS teams face with our player base and ping issues are too much to be viable internationally. It is now a pivotal moment to discuss changing the import rules and also looking for other solutions to even the playing field or see ourselves relegated to the status of a wildcard region. For those who are in favor of maintaining the current rules or even changing them, I’m open to thoughts on how to tackle these problems in order to create a more competitive league in the global ecosystem.