How NA LCS' Academy System can earn top marks

by Gabriel Zoltan-Johan Jun 28
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games Asset Kit / Riot games

As Riot unveils the details of a franchised 2018 NA LCS, much of the focus has been on the stability a league without relegation will bring to the competitive scene. Only briefly did Riot address the removal of the Challenger Series, which is set to be replaced with an academy league of sister teams.

This league, Riot suggested, would have franchised teams “field a team of developmental players,” according to the developer’s initial announcement. “This will hopefully meet multiple needs for NA LCS teams: deeper rosters to experiment with younger talent, enough spots in the league for all LCS teams to be represented, and more games played to speed the development of their Academy players.” Beyond that, the details are slim, if not wholly speculative, on just exactly how this Academy League will work.

That leaves us with a long list of questions. Namely: Is the current Challenger scene structured in a way that is able to support the standard of player development Riot wants? If not, what exactly is the structure that meets those goals?

With radio silence from Riot on the matter, we decided to lay down some of the key rules and best practices we’d like to see in the Academy League’s first split. As a coach for a top collegiate team — the University of Toronto — I have some unique insight that could help nudge the NA LCS academy system in the right direction and ensure that the best talent in North America get the best opportunities to succeed and grow the region.

Young guns: Restricting imports AND veteran players

Though social media is awash with rumors about a system where imports would not exist, there is still value in bringing foreign talent to an academy team. Restricting the talent pool available for teams to nurture makes little sense in the current climate. In the current system, having mentors like Hong "MadLife" Min-gi and young, talented imports such as Yasin "Nisqy" Dinçer are both great opportunities for academy teams to pursue.

Though there ought to be an import restriction regardless of format, there should also be an experience-related restriction that ensures teams are using developmental rosters for actual development, not as a nest egg of branding opportunities or a silo of older pros.

Similar to the import restriction, a limit on the amount of players who have competed at the top level in some capacity can help ease young players into a system without shutting them out. A rule where three out of five players on an academy roster must be ones who have not competed on a top level roster in any region, for example, would do the trick.

There are some caveats to this of course, such as a year-long exception for players who get moved up to play a few games before going back down to the academy team (think Jonathan "Grig" Armao). This prevents the league from being an outright retirement home, while also cultivating a system where young players can learn from veterans at both the LCS and Academy level, if teams choose to invest in that as well.

Have minimum salaries

Minimum salaries are being changed at the top level, so they should change at the bottom end as well. $75,000 USD is a bit much for players on academy teams as a minimum salary, but players should have an above-average living wage on academy teams. This shouldn’t be an issue either, as teams that enter the franchising system ought to have the money to commit a fair amount to their academy roster.

But why specifically should young players get a good amount of money? For one thing, the elevated payment encourages a level of professionalism that will allow players to become better trained and better overall. Players are likely to treat the position more as a job in an environment where they are reasonably paid.

Mandate dedicated academy team staff

Obviously I'm biased here, but part of player growth and development in NA is also the fact that a competent staff needs to grow alongside them. With the ability to mandate staff to work with the academy team, similar to the original goal of mandating staff in the early throes of the LCS, we ought to see a greater system of staff development that can foster player development in tandem.

Zenith eSports is a sub-Challenger organization, where well-known players such as Matthew "Akaadian" Higginbotham, Nickolas "Hakuho" Surgent, Juan "Contractz" Arturo Garcia and Lyonel "Arcsecond" Pfaender have all played on their way to bigger orgs. Its owner, Sam "SammyB" Benfer points out that competitive experience for staff only further benefits the players.

"Competitive experience is something that is difficult to come by, and the amateur scene gives that opportunity to young players and coaches," he said. "While the funding may not be adequate to sustain oneself, the experience is priceless."

As that staff grows, better strategies and ways to foster that talent will become apparent. Preferably, not everyone from the dedicated academy staff would be inexperienced, so mandating some sort of previous experience (either from traditional sports or esports) for a head of talent development, similar to what is seen in soccer, would be ideal. The staff can then grow through these positions without the burden of needing immediate success in results, knowing that they can work to become NA’s future authorities on strategy or management.

This will also encourage professionalism within staff, something that isn’t necessarily enforced or taught beneath the Riot Leagues more broadly. This is preferable to having an environment with high demand and low supply that encourages lazier staff members to coast by.

Do not have parallel scheduling with the NA LCS

Parallel scheduling, or having the same schedule as your LCS counterparts, would be a detriment to the growth of talent in the region, plain and simple.

Parallel scheduling also prevents active substitutions of players as they would not be in the LCS studio and be unlikely to swap in between games. With this in mind, academy prospects would actually have the opportunity to earn stage experience that is difficult to come by in the current climate of amateur League of Legends.

This isn’t a superficial thing either. Often we see that stage performance drastically differs from pro to pro. Some thrive while others have difficulty adjusting. And that makes sense, especially when you consider the environment most pros come from and what they are thrust into. Plucking players from solo queue — a somewhat common practice in the current climate — means literally removing them from the comforts of their own homes and putting them onto the stage without any clue as to how they may react.

Matthew “Matt” Elento of Team Liquid expressed this sentiment to theScore esports earlier this year, outlining his own issues with panic attacks. It’s worth considering whether earlier exposure to the stage could have helped him identify the issue and work to alleviate it. The same can be true of players who have confidence issues, letting that exposure ease them into what is otherwise unfamiliar territory.

Mobalytics owner Amine Issa adds to this as well, in his company's recent report on helping Team Liquid secure a new AD carry during their 2017 Spring Split roster shuffle. "However, if we’re keeping everything in perspective, all the metrics in the world regarding an individual’s performance may not accurately reflect how they perform on stage in a team environment. This is where human elements like instinct and resilience come into play to make pro gaming all the more interesting."

I followed up with Issa, and he kept the same line of reasoning. "The important thing to remember about the conclusions is, as stated in the article, performance is multifaceted. In game, numbers alone only tell a small part of the story when an organization is looking to pick up a player."

Make Scouting Grounds mandatory and incorporate a partial draft

While League of Legends talent turnover is not necessarily akin to any traditional sport, an opportunity for teams to attend a combine-type event and look to secure talent for the future should be developed — and Scouting Grounds is a perfect platform to build off of. While the process for inviting players should be a little more competitive and transparent than the last iteration, Scouting Grounds has an opportunity to be the foundation of a yearly talent scouting and draft event.

Firstly, all franchised teams should be required to attend the event with staff and players who are contributing to the scouting effort. Whereas the previous Scouting Grounds drafted players into full teams which were placed under particular organizations, under the new system that would result in very spread out teams with huge talent discrepancies.

I think a better solution would be to sort the players into four teams, have them play a round robin on stage. After this, teams can request for certain players to do interviews and perform individual tasks and practice regimens in order to assess their skill. After the event concludes, I'd recommend a partial draft where teams have a two round snake draft in order to draft the rights to sign two players out of the pool of talent attending.

This partial draft does two things. Firstly, it reduces the need for organizations to constantly be recruiting, and balances that commitment to recruit alongside a need to actually develop the talent that you’re active recruiting. By not over-recruiting, teams can actually help players improve for the benefit of everyone involved. This also prevents a hoarding of top prospects by teams with the most money, a problem with a free-for-all system in a franchised environment. Imagine if the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Lakers had constant access to the top prospects in the draft; this would be devastating to any idea of League parity over time.

As well, the players that don’t get drafted get a similar competitive experience thanks to Scouting Grounds, and can always be recruited in other capacities or through the same process the year after. This keeps the talent pool active as free agents will always have the opportunity to participate in these activities.

While there are some yet unanswered questions for academy teams, these rules, alongside a clear distinction or incorporation with the collegiate leagues, will be paramount in improving North American LoL talent. Scouting Grounds can serve as a potential showcase for incoming franchises who still need academy talent, or function as a draft for remaining spots.

The implementation of an Academy System has a lot of potential to improve talent development in NA, but is not a guaranteed solution on its own. If Riot is able to navigate the challenges in front of them, the future is as bright as it could be for League of Legends below the NA LCS.

Gabriel Zoltan-Johan is a news editor at theScore esports and the head analyst for the University of Toronto League of Legends team. His (public) musings can be found on his Twitter.