LCS 2021: LCS Teams Continue to Not Learn Their Lesson

Los Angeles, California - February 8: --- during 2020 LCS Spring Split at the LCS Arena on February 8, 2020 in Los Angeles, California, USA.. (Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games)
Los Angeles, California - February 8: --- during 2020 LCS Spring Split at the LCS Arena on February 8, 2020 in Los Angeles, California, USA.. (Photo by Colin Young-Wolff/Riot Games) /

It’s been the same story for LCS teams during the 2021 offseason as past, unsuccessful years.

Every offseason, LCS teams talk a big game about how they are going to rectify the mistakes of years past that have caused the region to continuously fall behind the three other major regions – Korea, China, and Europe. There’s always talk about investing in native talent, teams re-evaluating the structure of the amateur scene, and not letting the “paycheck stealers” hang around the region next year. Yet, as the 2021 offseason has begun, it feels like Groundhog Day all over again.

Despite this repeated insistence that LCS teams are going to invest in young, native talent, there have been more players imported to the league (five: Alphari, Josedeodo, Xerxe, and likely Perkz and SwordArt) than were promoted from Academy teams last year (four: Diamond, Palafox, Revenge, and Fudge). And those import numbers don’t include the Oceania “imports” such as Destiny and Raes who technically don’t count since they are considered North American residents.

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While LCS teams have been saying that we won’t see more shuffling of “proven” players who haven’t been able to perform on the international stage, names like Huni, Impact, and Broxah have swapped teams. There are also players like Johnsun, PowerofEvil, Ignar, and Licorice, who don’t have the same “stink” of being underperforming veterans, either due to talent or youth, that just keep getting shuffled around.

None of this is to say that teams are not making good moves, in a vacuum. FlyQuest has done a great job of adding Licorice plus augmenting with some young players – Diamond and Palafox – along with smart imports like Josedeodo. And some teams are investing in youth talent, like Immortals signing Revenge and Cloud9 promoting Fudge.

The problem is that, yet again, NA teams seem insistent that they’re this close to figuring out the formula for international success, ignoring that the past few years have proven that the region, as a whole, is not close at all. Teams seem to think if they can just make that last little adjustment they’ll be put over the top.

To a certain extent, this makes sense for a team like Team Liquid, who narrowly missed making it out of groups at Worlds 2020 and proceeded to spend like Scrooge McDuck on upgrades at jungle and top lane. But even for TL, it’s just another spin on a Merry-Go-Round to nowhere.

Yes, the (reported) signings of Alphari and Santorin make Team Liquid better. But those two players hardly make them a Worlds contender more than they were in 2018 when they brought in Impact and Doublelift, or 2019 when they brought in CoreJJ. The moves assume that these players will mesh with the existing TL roster and players will not suffer any regression. If that is the case, Liquid is closer, for sure, but realistically a competitive Worlds run is still far out of reach.

Then you have “competitive” teams like Cloud9, Evil Geniuses, and TSM who were decidedly not close to a deep Worlds run and decided to double-down on big-name imports like (again, reportedly) Perkz, Ignar, and SwordArt. Like TL’s acquisition, in a vacuum, these moves make sense for all the teams involved.

The problem is that LCS teams have tried this before and it hasn’t worked. We have seen Liquid and EG shell out money for big-name imports that don’t work out, and we’ve seen Cloud9 and TSM underachieve before flaming out after a full gutting of their rosters. It’s the same song, just a different chorus.

None of these top-tier teams have invested heavily in their own Academy players (apart from Cloud9) and none of them have done considerable lifting to improve their scouting and/or coaching infrastructure (apart from Team Liquid). While credit should be given to those teams, the fact that they are the only two teams in the league to take an incremental step towards the improvement needed for their organizations and the league as a whole is concerning.

And that’s more concerning because, again, the teams had been talking like they knew their previous operations weren’t working. Yet, after another offseason of teams vowing to change their approach and spend more smartly, it is irksome that when decision time arrived, the most competitive teams defaulted to “buy the best talent on the market and hope the team gels.”

None of this is to suggest that these teams realistically have better options, because the systemic issues in the region (small player base, high ping, “for fun” attitude in solo queue, etc.) hinders the ability to constantly refresh the crop of young talent in the league like it would in the other major regions. But just because there are issues that prevent the teams from being on the same level as the other major regions doesn’t mean LCS teams can just throw their hands up and keep doing what hasn’t worked.

And, to their credit, plenty of teams like FlyQuest, 100 Thieves, and Immortals are taking advantage of the available young talent and new talent that is coming in from Oceania. The problem is that those teams have had to do so either because they were picked clean by bigger orgs (FlyQuest), or did such a poor job with their talent management last year that they basically needed to start over from scratch (100 Thieves and Immortals).

That’s before we even discuss teams like Dignitas and CLG, who have basically rolled over and done nothing. These teams are essentially scavengers, looking to pick up whatever leftovers the “big fish” didn’t gobble up (like the reports of Hauntzer/Sneaky for Dignitas and Broxah for CLG)

So you have an offseason where the top teams are spending wildly, blowing up their rosters to acquire whatever talent they can, teams in the next tier are scrounging to fill holes with young players who are likely to be overmatched, and the other five teams are taking the leftovers. Sounds familiar?

I don’t pretend that there are good alternatives, given the restrictions the region as a whole faces. What I do know is that repeating the same cycle of “big name teams shake up their roster with big free agent signings and imports while smaller teams go for budget rosters” has been done before. And it didn’t work.

I think the best path forward is taken by orgs like 100 Thieves, who brought over basically the entire Golden Guardians young roster to give them more time and resources to mature. I also agree with the path taken by Cloud9, who elected to promote a promising player from within and then made one other roster change (reportedly) for a transformative import player. We’ve also seen some great steps from Team Liquid, who are quietly building one of the best coaching rosters in the LCS.

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These are all very solid decisions by orgs that appear to be moving the needle closer to where we need to be going as a region. Unfortunately, it may still not be enough. And with the majority of other LCS orgs still churning away on the hamster wheel of big-name signings becoming disappointments, it’s likely that the overall level of competition in North America will still hold down even the most ambitious of orgs.