The North American Challenger Series has operated for several reasons in the past. Established organizations sat in time-out, as they wait to re-qualify into the LCS. New players showcased their abilities on rag-tag teams. Veterans tried their hands at building a squad to relive the glory days. Others put together rosters hoping to challenge the bottom-feeders of the LCS.
2018 is going to be different. The NA LCS is franchising, which will remove the promotion-relegation system. Each organization is required to field a 10-man roster–five for LCS, and five for an Academy team. The CS will mirror the LCS as a double round robin of best-of-ones. Riot stated that their goal with this updated Challenger Series is “developing future stars of the NA LCS.” Here are the major steps towards fulfilling this primary goal in 2018.
expand the size of the league
Since 2015, North America has fielded six teams for the Challenger Series. These teams won their way in through an open qualifier bracket, or by carrying over from a prior series. Starting in 2018 the Challenger Series will expand to 10 teams, one for each LCS team. This expansion will open up a minimum of 40 new spots for players to fill.
A shallow talent pool, a small financial pie and a lack of resources could have been problems in the past. However, with the revenue-sharing model of franchising, Riot and the 10 LCS organizations should be able to reconcile these issues. Teams will be more likely to offer higher salaries to more of their starters, pulling experienced players, like Cris, GBM, or Santorin, from CS into LCS. Investing into Scouting Grounds will further help increase the available talent pool, and this year each team is required to draft one player. League of Legends organizations must acquire 10 total players directly from Scouting Grounds. Riot can also incorporate incoming revenue from organizations buying slots into producing the higher volume of broadcasts necessary in a 10-team CS league.
Even if 16-20 players in the Challenger Series are already established, the broadened league would still present 30 or more slots for others to begin their esports careers. By simply introducing more young players into the system, Riot and the franchised LCS will develop much more talent for the future. This is just one element of the 2018 Challenger Series that will result in more North American star players.
Limit Veteran and Import Players
How can a team develop future stars when past and current stars are taking up roughly 50 percent of all Challenger slots (~16 out of 32)? If the goal of the CS is to advance players from the solo queue ladder into the LCS, then Riot will need to create clear guidelines regarding veteran and import players. They will also need to define these terms in a way that reinforces the CS space as a “minor league,” while avoiding limiting the full potential of these organizations.
Grza, Senior Manager of Riot Esports Operations, mentioned “there will be limits on the amount of veteran players and imported players that can play in Academy games,” while noting “there will be a lot of fluidity between game rosters.” For example, Riot may dictate that each Academy team must always start a majority of rookie and sophomore North American players. That would mean three of the five players in each match would need to have started one or fewer years of professional League of Legends. By this definition, CLG Academy and EUnited would be the only two teams from the 2017 Summer Split to meet the standards.
Otherwise, Riot could restrict each team to one veteran and one import, or only one veteran or import. These provisions would quickly disqualify many of the past Academy teams, but make room for several more inexperienced players. Riot should still allow imports and veterans in the Challenger Series, because playing with these players can guide budding stars in communication, out-of-game growth and overall maturity. It would also provide opportunities for talented imports to practice English or adapt to North American culture prior to entering the LCS. Veterans may get the opportunity to become leaders or gain team captain experience. Development is not only restricted to young American and Canadian players. This is all another way to develop talent in the new Academy teams.
Tie CS teams to LCS Organizations
Every Academy team will have a parent organization that is fit to operate an LCS team. This association brings numerous benefits. The Challenger Series will introduce new players to esports in a way no others have in the past. These organizations will provide the same high-quality financial, legal and professional resources to their Challenger players as their LCS players.
This connection removes any opportunity for shady businesses and unscrupulous owners to take advantage of inexperienced, talented players. Organizations will not fail to pay their players, or fail to give them proper housing, or fail to provide gaming equipment. The owners and managers will treat the players with all the respect of a professional, and this is the true opportunity for development.
LCS teams were able to have sister squads in the Challenger Series in the past. For example, Team Liquid and Cloud9 owned Academy teams in 2016, but used them in different ways. Five veteran players composed Cloud9’s team, and only incorporated Contractz when Rush decided to return to Korea. It was obvious they were farming a strong Challenger team with hopes of promoting into the LCS and cashing in on a buy-out. Liquid started almost exclusively rookies, until they benched Piglet from the LCS in favor of fabbbyyy. Dardoch, Moon, Goldenglue and Stunt promoted into the LCS from this roster, which is the point of the Challenger Series. Cloud9’s 2016 roster is an example of what this new minor league will avoid, while Liquid’s 2016 line-up would be perfect going into 2018.
In 2017, Team Liquid, Echo Fox and Phoenix1 already experimented with rotating starters and roster changes in the LCS. However, they took these steps to avoid relegation, rather than developing new talent. They were not bringing in properly vetted Academy players due to proper seasoning. The organizations demoted their starters due to poor performance and fear of relegation. Riot is removing relegation and promotion in 2018, which should end this unstable practice.
This is a momentous change in the history of North American League of Legends. Audiences watch at the end of every split, as teams battle to the death for the well-being of their organizations. If an LCS team demotes, then they almost certainly fail to bring in enough revenue. Relegation is a huge loss, and promotion is a huge win for organizations trying to curry favor with sponsors. Team Liquid, Echo Fox and Phoenix1 were scrambling out of anxiety towards relegation, rather than hope towards star players.
Riot will still maintain a certain level of competitive integrity, though. According to Grza, “if a team finishes in ninth or tenth for five out of eight splits, the league can remove them.” Under these circumstances, it would take four full years before the first team is relegated. Spreading the pressure of relegation over eight splits, rather than compressed into one, makes it much more tolerable.
Organizations can focus on the big picture–branding, infrastructure and developing talent. Teams can sign multi-year contracts with players that they hope to bolster into the next big North American talent. They can experiment with coaches and other staff to provide the proper guidance necessary for growth. Owners can invest in spaces and equipment to give their roster the edge over their opponents.
Combining the expansion of the Challenger league, limiting veterans and imports, attaching Academies to LCS teams and dropping relegation, the 2018 Challenger Series will provide a more optimized environment for developing future stars. The stabilized financial system will allow organizations to make longer commitments to young diamonds in the rough. There will be fewer instances of player mistreatment that might scare some away. More slots will open for the next tier of North American players to fill, instead of meme teams and others. Think of 2018 as a planting season. Riot and the LCS is investing into the seeds of today, hoping they produce a harvest in the future.
Featured Image: LoL Esports Flickr
Other Images: LoL Esports Flickr
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