The State of the NA LCS

Team Liquid raises the trophy after winning the 2018 NA LCS Spring Split finals 3-0 over 100 Thieves.
LoLeSports/Courtesy

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Dynasties are boring. Players lose the motivation to put in effort, and fans don’t bother watching, because the end result is already determined. Boring is bad for business, and at the end of the day, esports (and sports in general) are an entertainment business.

Believe it or not, the North American League of Legends Championship Series, or NA LCS, prior to 2018, was a league of dynasties. The introduction of franchising, resulting in a shift of power throughout the league, was set to change all that. After the 2018 NA LCS Spring Split — the first split of franchising — it’s important to consider the state of the league.

For starters, the most dominating team in “League of Legends” was overthrown in this split. Team SoloMid, or TSM, lost in the quarterfinals, 3-1, to Clutch Gaming. One of the brand new franchises of the league in Clutch Gaming upset one of the world’s premier esports organizations in TSM. For the first time in NA LCS history, TSM — winner of six titles (the most in league history) — did not make a finals appearance.

But that wasn’t the only dynasty that fell.

In the history of the NA LCS, only three teams: TSM, Counter Logic Gaming, or CLG, and Cloud 9, or C9, have ever won a title. None of those three teams even made it to semifinals in this split. CLG failed to qualify for playoffs, and C9 was swept by Team Liquid, or TL, in the other quarterfinal match.

From the ashes of the old guard, four new contenders stepped up to the plate. TL and Echo Fox were teams that had previously struggled, and Clutch Gaming and 100 Thieves were brand-new franchises. After the dust settled, TL emerged as the victor and became the fourth organization to ever win a NA LCS championship.

Sports aren’t supposed to have dynasties. They should be an equal playing field. One team shouldn’t be able to establish a monopoly, and similarly, a small group of teams shouldn’t be able to establish oligopoly. Whether it’s through the retirement of old players, the drafting of new players or the free-agent market, there are supposed to be mechanisms that prevent a handful of teams from accumulating all the wealth and power in a league. It’s an ideal that comes with living in a democratic society.

That ideal isn’t always implemented fully in practice, but you can see how it was completely missing in the NA LCS. Three out of 10 teams held all of accolades, all of the glory and, frankly, all of the fanbase.

If you weren’t a fan of TSM, CLG and C9, it was difficult to remain interested in the league. The NA LCS was becoming an aristocracy along with a series of second-tier teams. The free market failed to establish equality, and when that happens, the governing body usually has to step in to restore order.

That was why Riot Games introduced franchising to the NA LCS. While every team did benefit from franchising, losing teams benefitted more than winning teams. Previously, there was no reason invest in teams such as TL or Echo Fox that were in the bottom half of the standings. No one in their right mind would bet against TSM, C9 or CLG.

Nevertheless, franchising made it so that a team’s financial success was not dependent on their competitive success, thereby giving investors a reason to invest in other teams. Those teams then got the ability to grow and thrive and to eventually one day challenge TSM, C9 and CLG. Riot Games was considering this reality from the moment they considered franchising; they just didn’t expect it to come so soon.

For fans of the old guard, this is not the end of the world.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. TL’s championship roster consisted of several familiar players. Jake “Xmithie” Puchero, Eugene “Pobelter” Park and Yiliang “Peter” “Doublelift” Peng all have previous won championships while on CLG or TSM. Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black, who also broke down barriers this split by becoming the first support player ever to win the split MVP award, also comes from a CLG championship pedigree. We’re still seeing some of the same star players flying different team banners.

And these losses experienced by TSM, CLG and C9 can actually be a good thing. Dynasties are bad for the winning team too. Players, coaches and fans all grow complacent. Just look at how the Golden State Warriors limped into the NBA All-Star break, after dominating the NBA for the past three seasons. They gave up the No. 1 spot in the league to the Houston Rockets, and they are now crawling into the playoffs.

To be candid, TSM, C9 and CLG were stagnating too. Considering North America’s never-ending struggles on the international stage, the teams needed a wake-up call. They needed a domestic challenge in order to up their play on the international stage. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

In the grand scheme of things, the spring split doesn’t really matter.

Any team can still qualify for Worlds by winning the summer split. This adversity is an opportunity for the old guard to prove that they are truly the kings of North America. If they can return to dominance in the summer, then that means that they will have made significant improvements, which will serve as a promising sign for North America’s chances at Worlds this year.

If they fail, then they should step aside and give another team a shot at representing North America at Worlds. They’ve already had their chance — several chances in fact.

All in all, the 2018 NA LCS Spring Split was a refreshing reboot to a competitive atmosphere that got a little dry. Several new teams and new faces found success, but the league didn’t change so much that it became unrecognizable.

Franchising was a well-calculated and proactive move by Riot Games in an industry that is getting more and more crowded with the likes of the Overwatch League, the NBA 2K League and the H1Z1 Pro League. It should set up an exciting summer split and end to the season.

Lawrence Zhao covers esports. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @CelticsWpn

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