How (Kind of) Lifting the Import Rule Could Solve Most of the LCS’ Problems

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“TSM is a global esports org. We obviously want to sign the best talent possible. We believe talent is universal…Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much we invest into coaching or infrastructure and facilities, and performance programs, if we don’t have access to the same talent as other regions.” This was TSM Parth’s response to Travis Gafford’s question earlier this year, regarding lifting the import rule.

Almost every LCS organization’s representative answered the question with veiled remarks about “talent” and “interests” and “adjustments” when put in the same position. The topic escalated to dominate Travis’ channels. It spawned conversations across the space (Reddit, Twitter, the infamous Voyboy stairs, etc.) for most of February 2021. The general sense was LCS fans and personalities do not want the import rule removed. Meanwhile, participating LCS organizations think something should change.

Maybe neither side is approaching this issue with the full picture in mind. Domestic talent development needs to accelerate for a sustainable future. Meanwhile, importing players is as old as the LCS itself. Taking these issues into account, as well as viewership, broadcast quality, entertainment value, and inflated salaries, there is a possible fix. The import rule should be lifted–but only for minor region players.

LCS owners even silenced players from discussing the controversy.

The Viewpoints: The Import Rule Stays or It Goes

LCS fans see the organizations’ history of importing players without investing in a North American talent pipeline. They think that lifting the import rule will only exacerbate the problem. Longstanding top teams like Cloud9 and TSM spend millions on a single player. Yet, they only recently developed an amateur team. The Academy system has been in place for several years, but this spring 34 of 50 Academy League players were non-OCE North American residents. Only 21 would be considered rookies this Summer Split. If the import rule were completely removed, the orgs might simply acquire more talent from Europe, Korea and China. The result, pushing down the North American talent into Academy, forcing up-and-coming residents out altogether.

From the organizations’ perspective, North America faces challenges that other major regions do not. Eastern regions–China, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan–are close enough in proximity to practice against one another and play solo queue across servers. Their ping is significantly lower than pro players in North America, who are located in Los Angeles, while the League of Legends server sits in Chicago. Other major regions, including Europe, have larger player populations on their servers. They get access to significantly more raw talent and more grassroots competitions for development. North American organizations want to pursue opportunities that would level the playing field for international competition.

The Reality: Domestic Talent Development Alongside Imports

The LCS is the only league trending towards less domestic talent on playoffs teams.
The LCS is the only league trending towards less domestic talent on playoffs teams.

Of course, a middle ground exists between these two positions. The simplified perspective that North America cannot cultivate its own talent ignores the nuances of reality. Jamaican sprinters and Cuban boxers have storied histories of global success, despite being islands of 3 and 11 million people. Within League of Legends, look at Denmark’s contributions. The country has 1/50 the population of the United States.

As Tim Sevenhuysen points out in Run It, “it may be true you can’t win the LCS without imports, but you also can’t do it without a rock-solid North American core.” LCS teams seem eager to acquire hot imported talent every offseason, while plug-and-playing North American residents. Players including Bjergsen, Jensen, Impact and Svenskeren have achieved residency over the years. These trends have allowed a steady increase in non-North American players throughout the league. For example, Tactical, Blaber, Spica and Vulcan were the only North American players on the top three LCS teams this spring. Meanwhile, players from outside of the US and Canada fill the other 11 spots.

The LCS and LCK are trending down in average Worlds finishes for their top three teams.
The LCS and LCK are trending worse in average Worlds finishes for their top three teams (lower is better).

Despite this concentration of global talent, the community recognizes how poor the teams play domestically. The international results continue to degrade. If the import rule went away, and Cloud9, Team Liquid and TSM replaced their four North American players with four mid-level LEC, LCK and LPL players, would the situation actually improve?

Other Interests: Entertainment, Viewership, Business

Riot, the LCS and the organizations have more than just competition to worry about. Keep in mind, this whole ecosystem exists as a business–one that relies on ad revenue. Esports personalities love to discuss declining LCS viewership, citing a boring or cookie-cutter broadcast, tired storylines, poor international results and more to blame. This is ultimately the real problem, and the organizations seem to think importing more talent will generate better results at international events. They believe better performances will lead to a higher return on viewership.

However, most of the audience acknowledges a threshold of imported players that would turn people away from the LCS. LCK fans can watch Chovy and Showmaker and Faker in Korea, while LPL fans can watch Jackeylove, Ming and Doinb in LPL.

Some of the most popular players from before 2021 are now co-streamers.
Some of the most popular players from before 2021 are now co-streamers.

Some fans watch LCS for players like Bjergsen, Doublelift and Sneaky, whether they go 0-6 at Worlds or make it to semifinals. They can relate to their personalities, and Bjergsen has been around for so long he became an honorary NA player.

2021: The Exodus of Fan-Favorites

But Doublelift, Sneaky and Bjergsen are not playing in LCS anymore. Xmithie, Meteos, Froggen, Apollo and many more tenured players did not start in 2021 either. Ssumday is currently the only player with at least three years with the same organization. This shift of players has left fans empty, not knowing who to cheer for. Do they follow PowerOfEvil to TSM or stick with FlyQuest, who are starting Palafox? Are Team Liquid still worth following now that Impact joined Evil Geniuses? What about the developing rosters like Golden Guardians or the surprise success Dignitas?

Without audiences’ longtime favorites in the league, Spring 2021 probably felt hollow for some people. Tactical brings a fun vibe in Team Liquid’s SQUAD, while also providing the Malphite ult meme on Tristana. He’s not Doublelift. PowerOfEvil has established himself as a talented, well-spoken German mid laner, but he doesn’t quite have the edge that Bjergsen brought. Meanwhile, Zven is a stoic, determined marksman on Cloud9–the total opposite of Sneaky. These new LCS representatives might attract some fans, but they have not replaced the powerhouses that left.

Domestic Players: Less Success or Lower Entertainment Value

Spring Split 2021 brought in several first-time LCS players, including six true rookies. Revenge, Niles, Iconic, Ablazeolive, Palafox and Diamond suffered from inconsistency. Their teams were decisively bottom four, so none of them made playoffs. Golden Guardians only secured three wins out of 18 matches. Where are their storylines beyond being rookies that lost in their first split? Developing domestic talent isn’t just about putting them in the games. Organizations, Riot and third-party media need to help push them into the spotlight.

Fudge had an incredible rise in his first LCS split.
Fudge had an incredible rise in his first LCS split.

Compare these rookies to the influx of OPL players this year. Fudge, Raes and Destiny overall found more success. Raes flew under the radar, not really standing out, for better or for worse. Destiny at least gave a couple of fun interviews and played fairly well. Truly, it is Fudge who is obviously the crown jewel of first-split players. He should be a shining example of how the LCS considers the future.

C9 Fudge: An Example of Future LCS Talent

Skewed perceptions surrounding importing players feed right into the viewpoint that lifting the import rule would bring better results. After all, the top teams do have mostly non-North American players. The bottom teams have mostly North American players. The non-North American players get more interviews, because they win more. Organizations that invest millions into imports can also invest into all the bells and whistles that keep their players famous, including docuseries productions.

However, look past that disparity and think about the most charismatic LCS players this year. Perkz, Fudge, Huni, Josedeodo, Closer, Damonte, Jiizuke and Broxah are the first that come to mind. These players show on-camera personalities that go beyond the game. Fudge and Josedeodo gained more dedicated fans in one split than Smoothie or Stixxay currently have. Their confidence and candor speak volumes. Damonte still has more fan support than Ry0ma, mostly due to his personality. Large swaths of the community were disappointed with Broxah’s gameplay last year, but because of his demeanor and calmness, he is still a fan favorite.

Think about the Mid Season Invitational and which players made a name for themselves. Every player on RNG and DWG KIA showed they are beasts. But could they make a connection with LCS fans off the Rift? Did they win hearts or just respect? Now look at HolyPhoenix, Armut, Pabu, Elyoya and brTT. These guys gave fantastic interviews, followed by soulful competition and grit. Some of them even spoke candidly about their losses. This is where most North American players and veteran major region imports fall short.

Inflated Salaries/Fewer Major Region Imports

Reducing inflated player salaries should be a side effect of lifting the import rule for minor region players. Organizations would quickly realize that the budget it currently requires to acquire Perkz or SwordArt would provide an entire team of cherry-picked top talent from around the world. The non-North Americans who already acquired residency would still probably have higher salaries, but they might lower as well.

If the salary bubble burst, then the LCS would most likely see fewer imports from the major regions anyway. Significantly higher pay is one of the main draws for a player like Alphari to make the move to North America. The pressure from both sides–a wider available talent pool and a lower average salary–would squeeze major region imports out. Travis Gafford and MarkZ recently joked about the LCS buying out Oceania’s LCO for $2 million. Allowing minor region players residency would theoretically create that sort of change.

Josedeodo brought an instant storyline to the LCS.
Josedeodo brought an instant storyline to the LCS.

The Broadcast and Guaranteed Storylines

Waning viewership has been a hot topic for a while now across the LCS community landscape. No one has great recommendations for how to fix it. They point to North America’s failures on the international stage, and the overall poor quality of play compared to the other major regions. It doesn’t really hold up when considering Brazil’s CBLoL, which continues to grow, despite their poor performances.

What if the LCS accepted these shortcomings and became the true melting pot league? The LCS could scout every emerging region’s best players to develop alongside North America’s. Not to mention, the broadcast narratives within North America would automatically get more interesting. Every player coming over from a minor region would bring a story with them.

Consider players like Levi, Broken Blade and Lost. The community was excited to see these guys getting their shot at playing in a major region. Broken Blade quickly became a star on TSM, like Fudge is now with C9. Imagine an LCS team picking up Pabu from Pentanet.GG or Doggo from PSG Talon, following their Mid Season Invitational performance–it would be hype.

At the end of the day, the LCS broadcast needs personalities. They need more players willing to trash talk. They need jokes and memes on camera, candid interviews and content beyond competition. What if an organization imported Oddie to pose as Josedeodo’s rival? Bring in BioPanther versus Fudge and Shadow versus Newbie. These moves would provide all kinds of content for the broadcast to play with.

Broken Blade left an impression during his time in LCS.
Broken Blade left an impression during his time in LCS.

Conclusion: Lift the Import Rule for Minor Region Players

It would take some work, and it would take adaptation from the fans, the broadcast and the LCS organizations. Granting minor region players automatic residency could potentially solve several problems the LCS currently faces. All in one fell swoop, player salaries decrease, major region imports into the LCS decrease, domestic and imported talent would develop concurrently, engaging storylines flood the league and the broadcast improves. Not to mention, North America would be the biggest beneficiary. The LCS has the budgets and demand for importing talent, while the other major regions do not.

North America’s team managers and content creators should look for more Fudges and Josedeodos. These minor region talents can bring more charisma, better stories and more determination than LEC and LCK veterans. Teams’ operating budgets allow for a higher volume of wildcard players, which will more likely increase the quality of solo queue and professional practice than a handful of the best individuals from the major regions.

Fudge’s rise through the ranks in the 2021 LCS Spring Split, as well as the quality of interviews and storylines surrounding 2021’s MSI, demonstrate that this type of shift could work in North America. Fans think they do not want the import rule lifted. They might actually enjoy having more imports–just not from the usual places.

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