How North America can fix its League of Legends scene

Team Liquid look on at the League of Legends World Championship as they await the result of G2 Esports vs. Suning on Oct. 8 in Shanghai. Suning's win eliminated Liquid from contention for the knockout stage at worlds. Photo by David Lee/Provided by Riot Games.

Team Liquid coach Joshua "Jatt" Leesman and his players sat backstage at the Shanghai Media Tech Studio and watched as their world championship fates dwindled during a match between G2 Esports and Suning.

What happened next would determine whether Liquid's trip to China would end after four and a half weeks, or if, as happened last year, his team's world championship run would come to a disappointing end, with one of the best teams in North America bounced before the knockout stage once again.

More: Cloud9 to promote Fudge to starting lineup, move Reignover to head coach | G2 make third straight worlds semifinal with sweep of Gen.G | A conversation about race and diversity in esports and gaming

Team Liquid bested Suning and Machi Esports in must-win matches on the final day of their group stage, but none of that mattered because of Liquid's 1-3 start to the group. Their hands were tied. If G2 won, Liquid would get a shot at Suning in a tiebreaker to, for the first time in organization history, advance to the playoffs of the world championship.

In a tense, 44-minute slugfest, Suning pushed the Nexus for a win. It was over for Liquid, and a few days later, for the rest of the LCS.

North America's No. 2 seed, FlyQuest, went 2-1 in its final day of competition, besting tournament favorite Top Esports but failing to qualify out because of its Week 1 results. Meanwhile, North American No. 1 seed TSM didn't win a single game, going 0-6 across the two weeks.

Jatt summed up the experience for Liquid and the LCS in an interview with ESPN after his team was eliminated from worlds, with all the disappointment and could-have-beens surrounding their performance.

"It just kind of sucks," he said.

After the region's 6-12 finish at worlds, last year's debate about what has gone wrong for the LCS has restarted. Front-office executives, league officials and players alike have gone back to the drawing board. Some, like Liquid, are looking to make high-profile roster changes this offseason to build better teams. Others are assessing the structural issues that lie within the region.

These failures continue even though North American teams spend more annually on salary in League of Legends than almost any other region in the world, just slightly behind China. Yet Europe and South Korea both have teams competing in the semifinals on Saturday and Sunday, despite much lower average salaries and much younger players.

Some of those deals are coming off the books this offseason, like Liquid's three-year, $3.4 million contract with top laner Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong, which expires in November and seems nearly impossible to renew given the team's worlds performances these past three seasons.

But that doesn't mean the mentality of spending big to win will go away.

"The problem is that the proven model is that there are a lot of veterans who win in North America," TSM head coach Parth Naidu told ESPN. "Also, there isn't a way to develop domestic talent as the Academy system and amateur system doesn't do very much to bring those players up."

North America's stagnancy starts with that lack of talent development. Of the three worlds-qualifying North American teams this year, the average player age was 23.4 years old. By contrast, Europe -- which had representatives in the finals in both 2018 and 2019 -- has an average player age of 21.3 across Rogue, MAD Lions, G2 and Fnatic.

Reasons for the struggle to develop young talent in North American League of Legends vary depending on whom you ask. Some think it's the solo queue servers, which are based in Chicago, while players live in Los Angeles, presenting unique lag circumstances. Others cite the solo queue itself, known for its toxicity and as a poor practice environment.

Others think it's team infrastructure, that many LCS organizations don't work to optimize practice for either their main or Academy rosters. The last theory centers around how these teams make revenue and the notion that without popular players or a winning team, sponsorship opportunities decrease.

"There's this fear that without these big names that these teams won't be able to get any sponsorships," Cloud9 CEO Jack Etienne said. "I understand that fear. The problem is that just because you have a big name on your team, if your team performs poorly, that clout that that player has isn't going to be enough to protect your brand. Additionally, it's really fake popularity because as soon as that player is gone, the fans are gone too.

"I've heard this feedback a lot, that Cloud9 would never fire X player because that guy's so popular. And to be frank, I don't give a f--- about how many Twitter followers you have, YouTube subscribers you have. That means nothing to me. The only thing I care about is if the player fits into the culture that I'm trying to build."

While teams like Rogue and MAD Lions qualified for worlds for the first time off the backs of talented, young players, the teams being sent to worlds from North America remain familiar. FlyQuest were a new addition this season, but teams like TSM, Liquid and Cloud9 are the usual suspects. Cloud9 were just one series away from being back there again this year, too.

"We lack a depth of strength in the LCS in that we tend to be extremely top-heavy in terms of the teams we field annually," FlyQuest general manager Nick Phan said. "What we're learning from scrims and competing against a lot of the teams at worlds is that a lot of the systems and structures by which LCS teams operate is weaker than in other regions."

Some of that lies in experience -- TSM, Cloud9 and Liquid, then known as Curse, have all been a part of the league since its first season -- while other teams are newer and therefore less savvy in operations. But the other component is a commitment to their developmental system. TSM and Cloud9, in particular, shine in that area, with their Academy teams being the best in class this year and some of those players getting called up for the main roster, such as TSM jungler Mingyi "Spica" Lu and Cloud9 top laner Ibrahim "Fudge" Allami, who will start in 2021.

Reform for the amateur system is coming, sources familiar with Riot's discussions among its internal league ops teams and team ownership told ESPN. Those won't make an impact overnight, however, as Naidu anticipates that any changes will slowly trickle down.

Looking at a rough framework, North America should aim to be like Europe. Five seasons ago, North America was competitive with its rival region at every event. Riot's decision to support regional leagues in Europe -- in England, Spain, Germany, France, Poland and others -- has been a boon for young players and led to competitive opportunities for less-known talents.

LEC worlds play-in squad MAD Lions and group qualifiers Rogue and Fnatic have multiple players with that background of success in regional leagues. The LCS, meanwhile, continues to depend on veteran players who haven't gotten the job done internationally, in part because taking a chance on a new face is seen as tougher in North America.

"Those rookies have a solid enough base and have the competitive experience in the EU Masters leagues and their own respective regional league," Naidu said of the LEC talent. "You can tell what their progression has been like in the past year or so. So when they get dropped into the LEC, you know what their progression is going to be like. There's a lot lower risk for those teams compared to ours."

Scouting in North America is difficult. The solo queue ladder is muddled, and players usually get their first shot at Academy or the LCS by knowing another player already on a team. Events like Scouting Grounds, Riot's annual, end-of-year North American amateur talent showcase, have helped in some instances -- producing notable alumni like Cloud9 jungler Robert "Blaber" Huang and support Philippe "Vulcan" Laflamme -- but one event is not enough. Players getting their shot and even getting good practice on the live server is difficult, as it's an often harsh experience with less reliable competition compared to playing on other servers like Europe West and South Korea.

The pool of talent, too, remains an issue, just as it was a year ago. Riot recently shuttered the Oceanic Pro League and brought the region under LCS jurisdiction, making Australian and New Zealand players no longer count as non-residents should they receive deals to compete in North America. That will help, Etienne said -- his team has already taken advantage of the change -- but the Cloud9 CEO thinks that no team should see a broader player pool as a total solution.

LCS players have taken some of it in their own hands: In 2019, they negotiated with Riot that private, non-team scrimmage matches played on the Los Angeles-based tournament realm server, often used for practice, could be livestreamed. The idea was that players could organize pickup games among themselves and get better practice that way. But Naidu said his TSM players have not used this option because there isn't a large enough diversity of playstyles among the players with access to that server.

ESPN Daily newsletter: Sign up here!

Naidu's players, he said, argue Riot needs to open the funnel and let more individuals into the tournament realm.

While the theories on fixing the state of the North American League of Legends scene differ, Etienne, Naidu, Phan and Liquid co-CEO Steve Arhancet all agree on one thing: Change will take time. No matter what they, Riot or the players do, becoming competitive with the best again could be a yearslong process.

"Fixing North American League of Legends isn't something that happens overnight," Arhancet said. "It'll take a long, concerted effort by multiple parties to begin pushing the region in the right direction. No one organization can do it alone."