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Opinion: Sponsors Need to Fight to Save the LCS Import Rule

The League of Legends esports world has been lit aflame this week thanks to reporting from Travis Gafford that the LCS team owners are actively petitioning Riot Games to remove the import rule which requires a set number of active players on any team to be North American residents.

The rule change request is in response to North America’s consistently lackluster performance at the international level. NA is the only major region to never appear in a Worlds Grand Finals, and has consistently had the worst performance of the four. Viewership for the LCS is in decline, as viewers can simply watch better gameplay from other leagues like the LEC and LCK. I know this is true for myself, as I have effectively stopped watching the LCS in favor of the LEC, because I would rather get invested in teams that actually have a shot at winning Worlds.

This is a significant issue that threatens the very existence of the LCS, and owners are right to look for solutions to the problem. However, as eloquently laid out by YouTuber Gbay99 in a recent video, removing the import rule will not fix this issue.

Here’s the reality: an LCS team will never win the League of Legends World Championship. North American players across all PC esports have consistently underperformed other regions since the early days of StarCraft. It’s just a reality of esports. The average American or Canadian does not care about competitive PC gaming the way these titles have been embraced in other cultures. This is an important point regarding the import rule. Even if you bring the best Korean players in the world into North America, they still have to practice on North American servers. Playing against weaker opponents makes you worse. We’ve consistently seen elite talent from other regions move to North America, stay for a few years, and never live up to their full potential.

Removing the import rule will make North America a farm league Korea. Players who want to win will stay in the LCK, players who want a pay day will come to the LCS, and the LCS will continue to finish fourth out of four major regions at Worlds until the end of time.

If I were a sponsor of the LCS or an LCS team, I would be very concerned about this rule change and the entire conversation surrounding it. Sponsors have a vested interest in the LCS improving its viewership, and right now the conversation seems to center around two losing prospects — removing the import rule (making North America irrelevant to a local and global audience) or maintaining the status quo (making North America irrelevant to a local and global audience).

In reality, the issue with the LCS is one sponsors and marketing executives can identify with well and can help address: the LCS has a branding problem. Because North America is technically a major region, the expectation is that it compete on the same level as Europe, China, and Korea. In reality, however, that will never ever happen, and that’s ok! No one expects Brazil, Japan, or CIS to make it out of the group stage, but their fans still turn up in droves to support their leagues because they have pride in supporting their region. That is the whole point of a regional league — to showcase the talent of a specific region. 

The LCS is not the NFL, it’s not the world’s singular League of Legends league intended to showcase the very best talent. It is a league specifically built for the North American players and their fans. Rather than embrace its status as a regional league, the LCS and its teams have tried in vain for nearly a decade to find an audience by offering false hope that maybe this will be the year North America figures out how to win at computer games. Now fans have finally caught on, abandoned hope, and with no other selling point to the league, they’re moving on.

If the LCS actually embraced its regional status, it could turn things around. We know for a fact that regional esports leagues work, TSM owner Andy Dinh even noted the impressive viewership numbers for the French regional league in his post arguing for the removal of the import rule. No one expects a French team to win against Korea’s best, but viewers are still interested in following and supporting local talent.

France has a much smaller potential audience than the entirety of North America. With the right branding and proper setting of expectations for both owners and viewers, the LCS could transform itself into a proper regional league that offers a unique viewing experience to a group of fans loyal to their hometown heroes.

The future of the LCS isn’t buying the five best Korean superstars and letting their talent degrade in California, it’s in embracing the things that make North America unique and interesting, and selling that to a massive local audience. And then telling that audience to order some food on GrubHub. In the current climate, sponsors need a team to win on the international stage in order to get the greatest bang for their buck, but that is an extremely unreliable and unsustainable model. Every stakeholder in the league has a much better chance at creating a sustainable environment worth investing in by transforming the LCS into a true regional league.

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