Moser: Why combining EU and NA into one LCS would be a mistake

Negativity and disappointment surrounding the European League of Legends Championship Series (EU LCS) has precipitated since the conclusion of last year’s League of Legends World Championship. Spectators have since complained about a lack of storyline, parity, production value, or forward-looking plans to match North America’s franchising restructuring in 2018. European teams hardly clawed out wins at Rift Rivals.

Disdain and uncertainty surrounding EU LCS culminated in an ESPN report that four of the league’s teams have applied for NA’s franchised league. Although the article dismissed the idea that Riot Games would accept applications from G2 Esports, Fnatic, Misfits, or Splyce, Reddit’s comment section latched onto a different possibility: one LCS. The idea has continued to circulate throughout the community.

Combining the best players from Europe and North America into one league has come up before as a means for attempting to overcome Korean teams by pooling talent. That kind of comment is extremely outdated given general understanding of how teams from League Champions Korea win their games, but even if it wasn’t, it’s important to discuss the general implications of the idea.

Does the EU LCS as a separate league even matter? Organizations competing in the highest league face more sponsorship and marketing challenges because there isn’t one central “European” audience. Players often find more success streaming in their native language over English. For people not involved in the scene, there might even exist a misconception that a singular “European culture” exists when pride and patriotic leanings still motivate fans to cheer for one player over another.

All of that might make it more difficult to attract sponsors to teams with players of different nationalities located in Berlin. Organizations in Europe might struggle to compete with North American teams for higher salaried players, and if discussions regarding the removal of region locking persist, much of the existing top-level talent in EU LCS might consider an NA team a more stable and attractive option.

I think it would be a mistake, however, to overlook the importance of the EU LCS to the overall League of Legends ecosystem. Fans who get excited about the idea of “one LCS” located in North America might overlook the impact such a move would have in players starting out playing the game on the European servers, or even North Americans playing on North American servers.

It also cuts the head off a massive ecosystem with many tiers of competition, ignores a powerful history for recent results, and completely flies in the face of the idea that esports is getting bigger. It creates a panic and squashes the notion that LoL is growing rather than shrinking.

The largest hit that combining EU LCS and NA LCS and moving it to one location would have is on the ability to raise the next generation of talent. The North American LCS has had only three rookies this split. Players like Michael “MikeYeung” Yeung or Omar “OmarGod” Amin would start to get passed up for starting spots, spending more time in a yet-untested Academy division before seeing play.

So far, attempts to create Reserve Leagues have faltered in China and Korea. The 2016 LPL Reserve League required LPL organizations to field a team of five players for lower league games. It has since been scrapped with barely a word. Players like Zhu “NaMei” Jiawen who participated in the reserve league didn’t consider it “that important.” Managers I spoke with expressed slight confusion as to how to properly use it.

China has moved on to the LDL system, which will allow organizations independent of LPL teams to continue to operate teams in local sub-leagues, not unlike Europe’s existing National League system. The Reserve League is an unofficial failure.

Although the concept of a Reserve League still has potential, there’s no evidence to suggest it would be instantly fully functional. With awkward player substitutions in NA LCS so far, few organizations have given any inkling they can raise rookie talents properly before giving them time on the main LCS stage.

In the short run, the talent pool loses. Rookies in the Academy teams will likely receive less attention from staff and players competing in a grueling season. Academy teams might even heavily bring in European or Korean players if a few team owners get their way, and Riot removes region-locking.

That makes for fewer resources to bring up the next generation for North American players, but for European players, it’s even worse. If NA organizations choose to heavily draw from top European teams, local Challenger or Master-ranked players competing on the EU servers lose the ability to interact with some of the top professionals in client.

EU LCS pros are part of an ecosystem. Younger players looking for a way to compete at a higher level benefit not only from encountering competitive success stories in their games, but being able to interact with them on the client, set up custom games and 1-v-1s, or discuss matchups.

Those types of interactions become more difficult. At the moment, the community wants more high-level players and better methods for developing them, but consolidating the LCS as is will remove opportunities for players to gain stage experience or to interact in ranked games with the best players from their own countries.

Many might automatically respond to that concern by suggesting my notion is too romantic. That there simply isn’t enough talent to field two full LCS leagues. I’d argue North America is only just now starting to dig deep in its talent base, and in EU, National Leagues are full of players like Yasin “Nisqy” Dinçer, who could at least boast a competitive debut in LCS. The talent problem in NA and EU has less to do with players, and more to do with giving them opportunities and resources to improve — and that’s where “one LCS” would cut the legs out from under them.

Those who argue European teams have already shown signs of being unable to compete have somewhat short memories. G2 Esports’ success at the Mid-Season Invitational this year and H2K’s trouncing of EDward Gaming on the final day of group stage at last year’s World Championship have more lasting impressions than Rift Rivals. Suggesting that NA’s resources can make up for the loss of the current National League structure and the value of having pros on the EUW server in producing competitive teams and talent is questionable.

Once again, I have conveniently failed to mention that it is, of course, about money. Europe’s fragmented fan base and sponsorship problem become exacerbated by the competing NA franchise model.

Teams like Team Liquid have managed to court large cash injections from non-endemic sponsors. A few European teams have followed suit to a lesser extent, including Splyce’s and Misfits’ partnerships with the Boston Bruins and Miami Heat, respectively, or moves by Schalke S04 and Paris Saint-Germain to enter the scene. A certain sense of dread suggests those sponsors will start ignoring European teams entirely without a solid future, opting to partner with NA’s franchised orgs.

The biggest problem with the “One LCS” suggestion, however, is that it doesn’t align with what Riot has continuously said is its goals. Rather, it fits with older esports fan assumptions that games cannot last for very long as popular titles. Esports fans were desperate for “One LCS” for a short-run option of competing against high level Korean teams that likely wouldn’t have panned out because it’s a contrived shortcut at best.

Setting up a franchise system with a $10 million buy in flies in the face of desperate shortrun attempts to compete with LCK’s top teams. It says “we will be here for decades, not years.”

That would make the loss of a European league even harder to bear. Perhaps now, sponsorships are hard to come by. Perhaps now, the structure of the EU LCS needs an overhaul that allows teams to appeal more to national fan bases.

The closer blend of local leagues and LPL in China that will come through with the LDL actually has a fair amount of merit as an option for Europe. Encouraging more National League attention and giving their players a clearer path to EU LCS might make more teams feel more “German” or more “French” and inspire nationalistic competition, opening the door for more sponsorship appeal and storylines.

And if EU organizations really want franchising, perhaps it should be explored.

But removing EU LCS to create one LCS limits options for talent as it develops. It cuts the head off an ecosystem that has produced more World Championship semifinalists in League of Legends history than any region except Korea.

Reddit loves to say that “EU LCS is boring,” but teams are constantly bringing up new rookies who will be the stars of tomorrow. The rivalry of Europe’s old and new kings in Fnatic and G2 had a gripping downturn and upswing for both around Rift Rivals. Individual players have rich characters and stories. Erlend “Nukeduck” Våtevik Holm stands out as important characters who not only influence many opinions of the players around him, but have an ever-present will-he-or-won’t-he narrative.

If you think EU LCS is boring, then that is my fault. I haven’t told the teams’ and players’ stories well enough.

“One LCS” isn’t a solution. It contradicts everything Riot has been trying to convince the community for the past three years. It makes esports smaller, not bigger, and it hurts players looking to rise through the ranks in the west.

None of Reddit’s recent complaints of format or story — not even EU’s recent fall at Rift Rivals — actually make the league doomed. Whether you’re an EU owner applying for an NA franchise spot or Riot Games looking for a solution, if you think LoL has longevity as an esport, Europe shouldn’t be dismissed.

At least, not again.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games

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