Avid gamer and eSports enthusiast. Founder of Mobalytics, a personal gaming companion and analytics platform.
In the fast-paced world we live in, it can be easy to forget how long it takes for a sport to grow and develop.
To put things in perspective, basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith. The NBA, the premier professional league in basketball history didn’t officially form until 1949.
Since then, basketball has grown to become a billion-dollar industry, and its global influence continues to grow.
Its ecosystem has grown to be a diverse web of youth leagues, collegiate leagues, international leagues, developmental leagues, and much more.
Through all its ups and downs since its launch in 2009, Riot has attempted to grow the League of Legends esports scene to follow in the footsteps of traditional sports.
From its first world championship in 2011 to now having leagues in dozens of countries, the game has grown rapidly in just a little over a decade.
Recent years have shown that the next priority is to close the gap between the amateur scene and professional leagues.
North America took its next big step forward in early 2021 by revamping its regional amateur scene. The goal: to build a clearer progression to the League Championship Series (or LCS, North America’s professional league), for aspiring pro players.
In this article, I’ll take a look at the history of the LCS’ path to pro and its continued development today.
The Wild West: The Formation of the NA LCS, Relegations, and Experimentation
The development of each major region has its own story that deserves its own exploration. However, since we’re looking at the NA amateur ecosystem, we’ll be focusing on the story of NA.
Long before the start of franchising, prestigious investors, and big salaries, the scene had a much different look. Major tournaments were primarily hosted by third-party organizations like MLG, Dreamhack, and IPL. To participate in a major tournament, you had to earn points in smaller qualifiers and circuits.
Most lineups were groups of friends that had met on the solo queue ladder and teams like CLG and TSM were founded and owned by active players like HotshotGG and Reginald.
If players were popular enough, they might have been able to get enough sponsorship funding to have a team house but most opportunities were quite humble.
Eventually in Season 3, the NA LCS, a league officially run by Riot, was formed around the top 8 North American teams. During these years, they phased out third party tournaments and added a relegation system.
The format changed slightly each year, but at its core was a promotion system that pitted the top amateur teams against the lowest-performing teams in the league. If a challenging team won, they would earn the spot of the relegated team. Although this system seemed sensible in theory, it presented some problems.
To have a chance at the best sponsorships, you had to maintain a spot in the NA LCS. This naturally made teams do all they could to prevent themselves from being relegated.
The system also meant that one bad split could mean that a team that had been in the league for years, could be replaced by a newcomer.
For example, two of the most popular teams at the time (CLG and DIG) both had to fight out of the first relegation tournament.
As a result, teams hardly took chances on young talent or focused on developing promising players. Instead, they looked to choose proven veterans or imports from other regions.
In a nutshell, the relegation system had a broader ecosystem impact: the top end of the league stayed relatively the same, lower half teams came and went, and the path to pro was unstable and unpredictable, with few opportunities for upcoming talent to develop or grow.
The Franchising Era
As the esports scene continued to boom and League of Legends became more of a mainstream name, more investors sought to enter the scene.
Among these were celebrities like Rick Fox, who was inspired to enter the scene after seeing what’s now regarded as a classic match: TSM vs CLG in the finals at Madison Square Garden, in 2015
However, despite the growing interest in the esport, there was a lot of risk in entering the league due to the possibility of being relegated.
This sentiment came to climax in 2016, when team owners wrote a letter to Riot listing their concerns for the long term sustainability and growth potential of the league with the relegation system in place.
Included in the letter, among other things, was the request to remove the relegation system.
In the next year, Riot announced that it would open up applications for organizations to join the LCS as part of an effort to evolve the league’s system.
This move towards franchising meant a few things for teams: teams wouldn’t have to worry about being relegated, they would share revenue, and overall, they would have much more stability for future planning.
With more stability, we’ve seen more investment come into the scene in the form of dedicated training compounds and million dollar salaries.
Another significant requirement was that every team had to have an academy team. Academy players were also seen as extensions of the main roster and could be subbed in at any time.
These changes allowed teams to take more chances on younger players, and to give them more chances, especially at the end of the season.
In past years, when teams may have been worried about being removed from the league, hey could now give more playing time to younger players who might improve enough to become a starter during the next split.
This marked a big shift in a new era of player development for NA and the overall path to pro.
Outside of mandatory academy teams, another contributing factor for the path to pro becoming more defined was the creation of the Scouting Grounds event.
This yearly event, which started in 2016, invited the top players from the NA solo queue to be drafted to a mini tournament where they could showcase their skills.
At the end of the event, the LCS teams would have a draft order for the rights to the players from the event.
Scouting Grounds discovered current stars like Blaber, Tactical, Vulcan, and Spica, new starters, like Palafox, Soligo and Fakegod, along with many other players who are currently on Academy rosters.
In 2020, two players Niles and Iconic (who was known as Zoun during the Scouting Grounds event), were two collegiate players that were invited from the dominant Maryville University roster.
The duo became the first players to go from college straight to becoming starters as part of the Golden Guardians roster.
Scouting Grounds also showed the LCS’ increased commitment to improve their infrastructure for measuring player performance by collaborating with Mobalytics as their official data partner for 2019 and 2020.
Mobalytics created a website that provided in-depth stats to help scouts and coaches analyze the players, giving teams more options for evaluating potential pickups.
The New Amateur Ecosystem: Another Big Step
At the end of 2020, the LCS announced a new Amateur system designed to provide “new ways for LCS teams to support the growth of amateur players”.
In summary, the new ecosystem is composed of a series of tournaments that lead into a final tournament, called Proving Grounds, which boasts a $100k grand prize.
The revamped format allows more opportunities for upcoming players to show off their skills since the tournaments involve amateur teams, collegiate teams, and perhaps most importantly, Academy teams.
For example, we’ve seen players from the collegiate level test their skills against established veterans. During the Unified Grand Prix, a Tier 1 tournament, we saw Winthrop University take a best-of-three series to its third match against TSM Academy’s roster, which fields former Worlds attendees like Cody Sun and Hauntzer.
In the past, it would have been much more difficult to directly measure potential recruits against current levels of talent, but now the differences in talent gaps can become more clearly defined.
The system also allows aspiring pros to practice against current Academy pros and LCS veterans in a competitive environment, whereas in the past, they may have only faced them in solo queue.
As a continuation of their data partnership with the LCS, Mobalytics has created a dedicated site, esports.mobalytics.gg, which allows scouts and fans alike to track tournament schedules, standings, and player stats.
The Future Path to Pro
Time will tell how much of an impact the new LCS ecosystem will make as we’ll have to see how success in the tournament translates into roster signings.
An elephant that looms in the background at the writing of this article are the pleas from LCS owners to remove the current two import players per team rule. If the rule is changed, we may see teams take less chances on NA talent in favor of players from other regions.
However, so far, Riot’s continued experimentation throughout the years with formats and events has shown that they do want to build a more sustainable path to pro.
The LoL esports scene has been around long enough that more and more colleges have begun to field rosters and build programs.
With how much progress League has made in just a decade, we shouldn’t be surprised if, in another ten years, the path to pro may begin at high school or perhaps earlier, with teams beginning to scout at a much younger age as they do in traditional sports like the NBA.
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