Collegiate League of Legends, LCS and the Future of Discovering North American Talent

As amateur system reform and major roster turnover take place in the LCS, could collegiate esports one day become part of the competitive formula?
As amateur system reform and major roster turnover take place in the LCS, could collegiate esports one day become part of the competitive formula? | Photo courtesy of David Lee/Riot Games

As the dust settled from the most explosive offseason in professional League of Legends history, Golden Guardians announced its rebuilt roster.

In large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s fiscal impact on professional sports, the Golden State Warriors-owned Guardians were forced to make franchise-altering budget cuts.

As the flame for the League Championship Series’ hottest team smoldered in its fire sale, the Golden Guardians looked where most teams wouldn’t to try and rekindle their success. Fielding a lineup that centers around player development, their new roster includes a LCS veteran, an Academy call up, one Latin American import and, in an unprecedented move, two players from the collegiate level.

On one of the least experienced rosters the LCS has ever seen, Aiden “Niles” Tidwell and Ethan “Iconic” Wilkinson will look to swiftly catch up to the level of their competition, a contrast from their previous playing careers for collegiate esports powerhouse Maryville University in St. Louis, Missouri.

While players with month-long stints from the collegiate scene have come and gone in the LCS and Academy before, the ex-Maryville rookie duo is among the most accomplished to ever play in college, and will be asked to hold a significant responsibility for the Guardians' performance from day one.

“Part of it was I didn’t feel anything because it was expected,” said Tanner “Zeu” Deegan, the head coach of Maryville’s three-time national champion League of Legends team. “It’s not like I knew that they were going to get the offer ahead of time or anything like that, it’s just I felt like it was time.”

Although Maryville was left scrambling to find replacements for two of the team’s cornerstones ahead of spring play, Zeu believes losing Niles and Iconic is worth it for the betterment of North America.

“It hurts our program, but not in a bad way,” Zeu said. “It’s self-inflicted pain, we want this to happen. We want to make the job harder for ourselves because that means that things are going well for other people. We want to take the burden of responsibility to do these things so that things can progress forward.”

How Niles and Iconic fare in their first season will be held under the microscope. After all, collegiate esports to this point in time is not a tried, true or realistic path for aspiring North American League of Legends prospects to pursue professional careers, especially in a region where the deck has historically been stacked against developing talent.

Worlds Shortcomings and the North American Talent Dilemma

Despite the world-class investment that the LCS, its teams, and its players have put in, North America’s level of play has paled in comparison to the rest of the major regions. Year after year, the hopeful become hopeless, spurring moments of reflection for the LCS and its fans during scrims and stage play at the League of Legends World Championship.

After yet another year in which zero LCS teams made it to the knockout stage at worlds, the performance gap between North America and the rest of the major regions only seems to be widening.

“2019 and 2020 were tough years for LCS teams internationally, especially compared to C9’s success in 2018,” said Chris Greeley, the LCS commissioner and Riot director of esports. “Developing homegrown talent and creating systems where young talent can thrive is essential to a healthy and enduring ecosystem, no matter if it’s the LCS or another regional league. The biggest challenge is that every region is unique in its player base, its esports ecosystem, and its culture, so there’s no catch-all solution.”

The challenges facing the development of North American talent are plentiful. Part of the problem can be attributed to how the veteran, import heavy formula of the LCS has been a crutch.

When constructing the ideal LCS roster, domestic North American talent dictates the market in supply-and-demand fashion thanks to the much larger pool of experienced international imports willing to take on the optics of “retiring early”—taking a higher salary to play on lower level teams in North America. LCS teams have also developed a stigma for prioritizing immediate results domestically over patiently building to reach new heights internationally, with most rosters spots filled by seasoned popular players for sponsorships and revenue.

The structures for identifying and growing domestic talent have simply been weaker than in other regions.

Compared to those on European, Chinese and Korean servers, North American players face a plethora of region-specific problems, such as longer Challenger queue times and higher ping. LCS Academy teams have been criticized for giving spots to veteran backups instead of prospects. Opportunities for North American amateurs to showcase their talent are scarce.

“Scouting and developing talented new players is vital to the success of North America as a region,” Greeley said. “Having talented players like Blaber, Spica and Tactical a year or two ago who are talented, ambitious, and hungry for LCS time forces everyone else to keep up. That competition makes their teams better, it makes LCS better, and it makes the sport better. We firmly believe there are more players like them out there. Helping to make sure those players have opportunities to not only compete, but also be coached and seen, is how we ensure that we’ll have a highly competitive region in the years to come.”

It all comes down to changing the two narratives of North American League of Legends: the inevitable disappointments of the region at worlds and its lack of domestic all-world talent.

Aside from Luka “Perkz” Perković and Hu “SwordArt” Shuo-Chieh signing the largest deals in LCS history, as well as the rift-shaking retirements of Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg and Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, Niles and Iconic starting next split might serve as one of the brightest examples of how North America could be starting a new chapter.

One that includes collegiate esports under its competitive umbrella.

Splintered Goals in Collegiate League of Legends

A fundamental pillar of esports is that unlike sports, each form of competition does belong to someone.

Developers and publishers are ultimately in control of their intellectual property and servers. However, whether or not they dictate how exactly they want their esports ecosystems to be structured can only be answered in practice.

With League of Legends booming as the largest and most developed esport in North America, investment in academic programs from the professional and developer sides has begun scratching the surface, opening up pathways for students drawn to Summoner’s Rift to pursue lifelong careers in the industry.

“I’ve done program development within the gaming and esports space at both the high school and collegiate level,” said Anthony Scala, the collegiate lead for Evil Geniuses. “What was always very apparent to me though was that the professional side of the business, the Evil Geniuses, the TLs, C9s and even on the developer side with Riot and all the other ones, they weren’t directly accessible to those in the collegiate and the K-12 scene. There was this grey area where nobody was really understanding how you connect with them or how you get in touch.”

With stops along the way as the director of esports at Divine Child High School and Concordia University Ann Arbor, Scala now aims to position Evil Geniuses as one of the most public-facing and accessible professional organizations to provide resources to those in the collegiate and youth community hoping to break into the industry.

“When this scene really started exploding a few years back, the fixation quickly became ‘path to pro’ in the sense of, ‘I want to be on the next LCS roster, and be the next person featured on Riot Games and all these things,’” Scala said. “The reality of the situation is, as much as we do want to help support that and help foster that pipeline of ‘path to pro’ competitively, it’s a large focus for us in that it’s also a path to pro in terms of a business sense. We want to help inoculate and educate and provide resources to the next students that are going to be entering this market, that are going to be the next CEOs, the next marketing specialists, the next sales team representatives.”

While it's a welcome sight that initiatives to propel careers for students in the industry are blooming, the competitive structure of collegiate esports is still in its nascent stages. With programs usually classified under student affairs as opposed to being embedded in athletics, the question of funding for competition opens up.

As the various parties within collegiate esports look to figure out a way to scale out the ecosystem, the growing number of varsity-level programs isn’t necessarily beneficial to the growth of competition.

The first question college administrations tend to ask, “How much investment do I need to get going?” Most programs set their recruitment sights based on having more students in the computer lab, not competitive performance as the top of the deck does unestablished recruiting across a shallow talent pool of amateur prospects.

While collegiate esports is far from needing divisional alignment in competition, as seen in the NCAA, there are only about 30 programs widely considered to be truly competitive on the college rift. Oftentimes, these same teams who’ve historically been successful with sustainable models remain established contenders year in and year out with little opposition.

The lack in competition stems from the current state of collegiate esports program structuring.

Brain trusts often believe they have to choose between two distinct identities to focus on building: a hyper-competitive program that competes on a national scale, or a student life-enhancement program to stimulate enrollment and create a campus culture in a larger community.

“I’m not saying they’re mutually exclusive, but I do think that people get too fixated often on one side or the other and don’t understand that there are elements you can incorporate from both,” Scala said. “It’s people hear one thing from somebody who’s doing it well or of noteworthy status in the space and they automatically assume, ‘That’s it. That’s it right there. That’s how we have to do this and run our program.’”

A concern perhaps hindering the growth of the collegiate scene is the existence of this echo chamber environment.

On the professional side, Scala says that most investment from esports organizations to the collegiate and K-12 spaces has fixated on pumping in money and placing logos next to logos. Save for their own micro-differentiation models, another example is that competing third-party tournament organizers in collegiate esports often have similar operational structures and concepts. 

With the two seemingly polar opposite goals of propping up enrollment versus winning championships remaining a main disconnect between schools across the nation, some wish there was more clarity from game developers and publishers on what their expectations are for the ideal collegiate esports program.

In tune with the idea that there isn’t a model that will singularly work for every school in the country, Greeley says that Riot hopes collegiate esports programs opt for the model that best fits their campuses’ goals.

“We believe that the best college esports ecosystem is built to first and foremost serve the needs of colleges and universities themselves, and we structure our support around that mentality,” Greeley said. “We believe a thriving and sustainable college ecosystem will naturally develop talent upwards and systems like Proving Grounds or Scouting Grounds are great vehicles for ensuring that, but theoretically shouldn’t be the goal of college esports programs.”

What is Delayed is Not Denied

Maryville’s varsity League of Legends program stands alone in growing players for the LCS. 

Despite decimating most schools with both of their A and B teams for weeks on end, and competing with the best teams in the amateur scene, Maryville wants to see more competition at the collegiate level.

“I want the Maryville culture to mean more,” said Daniel “Clerkie” Clerke, the director of Maryville Esports and general manager of eUnited. “I don't want it to be just us coming in and beating up on teams. I really want to see more competitors in the space. I don’t think that there’s some kind of secret formula. I don’t think we’re some god-tier managers and coaches. I think that it’d be really easy to contend with us. I would say that we’re hard to beat, but I don’t think that the formula is something that other schools can’t replicate.”

The biggest advantage that Maryville possesses is its leadership, whose qualified directors and coaches come from a background in professional esports. They know how to secure the necessary resources for operations, know what to look for in recruiting, support their players as growing students, and can sell the business side to players, their parents and university administrators.

In spring, Zeu says that those watching will see that the new players Maryville recruited have mechanical firepower, but more importantly, are willing to sacrifice for their coach and their teammates. With an emphasis on picking up players that will play as hard as he coaches for them, Zeu reiterates that showcasing mastery of the fundamentals is what Maryville’s developmental system strives for.

“The whole point of Maryville, this whole ecosystem, we’re not trying to be literally the best team in the country or anything like that,” Zeu said. “We’re just trying to create the best foundation possible for our region.

“Vulcan for Cloud9. He was a straight diamond-in-the-rough situation. However, you don’t need to find diamonds in the rough if there are multiple smaller [diamonds]. Albeit the diamonds are a bit smaller, they’re not going to be as big, there isn’t going to be [any] rough. You’re going to have 10 smaller diamonds in front of you that you can choose from, and you get to pick one to grow.”

As it stands, professional organizations seldom scour opportunities to watch collegiate teams play outside of Maryville’s practices and seasonal Scouting and Recruiting Combine, which attracts the majority of LCS teams, some LEC teams and other colleges during recruitment windows.

Zeu says the general feedback he’s heard from professional organizations is that Maryville doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel by any means; just continue to do the good things correctly, consistently and with discipline.

“We’re trying to make players that are eight out of 10 with really consistent fundamentals,” Zeu said. “We’re trying to essentially give [LCS teams] the best moldable piece that we can create. For people like Niles and Iconic and Shady, that’s not necessarily the case because those players are just so talented that they are the complete package right off the bat. That’s not me, that’s just them being good. Of course, I helped them get a bit better.”

A Parallel Path to Pro

In popular opinion, the ideal path for North American players to the LCS runs through the amateur scene, starting with an immense dedication to solo queue at the Challenger level, impressing in Academy by the age of 16, and being fortunate enough to be called up as a rookie by the time they’re 20.

Greeley says that this idea is overblown, mentioning that more college players have transitioned into Academy through events like Scouting Grounds every offseason in the last few years.

“There is a romantic notion around teams discovering and developing the next Faker, which drives this perception that 15 to 16 is the sweet spot for scouting and development,” Greeley said. “Teams like the opportunity to teach younger players how to be coached and how to communicate before bad habits set in. With that said, teams want players who are individually talented and who can play well with a team. Whether that player is 15 or 25 doesn’t much matter. From a maturity standpoint, systems like college and Academy help ensure that when a player steps into the LCS, they are used to the pressures and expectations that come from being in a team environment. While Academy helps those just on the cusp of LCS, college helps provide a level of stability while a player refines their skills further.”

Relating the timeline issue to his experiences training 1-on-1 with coaches, skills instructors and skating instructors for hockey as a kid, Scala believes that as much as people want players to illustrate how competitive they can be early on in their careers, that’s not going to be the case for everybody.

“[Players] still need somewhere to go that they can still be in that very intuitive environment where they’re going to receive training and development,” Scala said. “You look at the overall lifecycle of a professional career in the space right now and it’s pretty small. Most players are out of the scene at still a relatively young age, so I think though if we can find unique ways to activate in terms of wellness and holistic well-being, and put emphasis on the actual mental component that goes into playing and competing at the highest level, we can hopefully extend that life cycle of a pro player onward and people will be less focused on, ‘Oh, the 15 or 16 year old, and let’s take somebody who’s a comparable skill at 20, 21 that’s a bit more matured.’”

Players at the collegiate level, no matter the area of expertise, aren’t there solely for performance. More often than not, this emphasis on life skills is also something student athletes never experienced before. 

Directors at the collegiate level maintain that instilling their programs’ culture and values to their players takes time, repetition and buy-in from everyone in every facet of the program. Aside from the standard personality meshing, conflict resolution, and X’s and O’s of League, a common thread collegiate coaches find is measuring success by monitoring the development of their players in areas such as social interaction and academics.

A big proponent for bringing in more ex-pros like himself to coach collegiate LoL, Zeu preaches that after stints in LCS Academy, the Oceanic Pro League (OPL) and with amateur teams, his current gig has become his favorite.

“The biggest change that I had to make when I was coaching Maryville was I had to stop coaching players and I had to start coaching people, if that makes sense because I’m not just handling their gameplay anymore,” Zeu said. “The coaches have to be more well-rounded. The players have to be more well-rounded. We’re all adults with varying responsibilities when you’re at the collegiate level. You have school. You have your job. You have all that stuff. I feel like you more of an impact on the person than the player at this level.”

Collegiate esports could also fill a void in the amateur-academy route by providing a much more financially stable path for North American talent similar to college sports, giving aspiring pro players a way to refine their skills while also receiving a free education and a fallback career path.

“I just think that it’s the natural progression of this,” Clerkie said. “I don’t see it as being the pathway to pro, I see it as being parallel. If you want to take the amateur route, you can do that. If you want to risk that or like take years off school to pursue that you can. But if you want to take a little bit of a safer route and use your talents to get a free degree and grind out League at a university, you can still make pro that way too.”

Clerkie’s motivation to help mold and develop the collegiate esports system and see this pathway for competitive players come to fruition stems from his time spent as a LCS team owner with Enemy.

“One of my players on that team went through that whole meat-grinder, and I saw him grind it out for three or four years couch surfing, giving it all up to go for pro,” Clerkie said. “And then I saw the amount of stress that was just lifted off of him when we made pro. It was insane to see, and then I saw the exact opposite when we got relegated later on. I just want there to be opportunities like Maryville out there for kids to have a backup plan, a fallback plan or something to look to, to help educate their parents so they’re more supportive of it while they’re trying to pursue pro.”

A New Era, Made by Many

Entering 2021, the LCS is set to begin its next chapter.

In the past 18 months alone, just three names—Nicolaj "Jensen" Jensen, Jo "CoreJJ" Yong-in and Kim "Ssumday" Chan-ho—have stayed put out of the 50 players and 10 head coaches since the 2019 Summer Split. With 2020 in the rearview, gone are many of the brands and legacies that LCS fans have idolized for years.

Surprisingly, North American teams will be starting even more imports in spring despite the challenges that have arisen with the pandemic. 

Counting the number of players who’ve received permanent resident status, as well as the newly sanctioned OPL players, the most active importing major region in the world will see just 48% of original North American residents hold starting spots in the LCS next split.

Perhaps even more shocking is the increase in opportunities for North American rookies in the LCS.

In a league that has historically shied away from playing inexperienced players on stage, Golden Guardians will be thrown into the fire from the jump in hopes of developing four rookies.

While some might write off the roster as the result of a budgetary nightmare, there is potential for the Guardians to do exactly what their front office has envisioned—set the standard for what a reset and what a developmental team looks like.

“Maybe it’s not the results that everybody wants,” Zeu said, “like the standard fan and going and competing at Worlds, but when I see a team like that, that’s exactly the type of North American team I want. A team that takes risks, and a team that trusts the process. I’m just really happy that those guys got the opportunity, and I’m really happy that Golden Guardians trusted us and trusted the players to take that opportunity as well.”

Collegiate League of Legends is still years away from developing a pipeline to pro with a laundry list of needs to address, including figuring out better ways to organize competition, training and poaching more savvy minds to be leaders of collegiate esports programs, and developing a high-level talent pool wide enough for the growing number of directors and coaches to recruit from.

However, 2021 has the makings of a foundational year for North American League of Legends. If Niles and Iconic can show some of their potential, then maybe the pendulum of the LCS’ attention will swing away from veteran players and imports and more towards domestic player development and collegiate esports.