Is this what awaits the Korean Region after a long reign of international dominance?
Everyone wants a satisfying ending. If you’re reading a book, or watching a movie, you want there to be a payoff for all the suffering, and all the pain the characters go through. If the author has built up a romance, you want to see it come to fruition. The journey has to have a purpose, to mean something. The same is true for Sports, and yes, eSports. Competitive League of Legends has a story, and we’ve all read the first few chapters. The rise of Fnatic in Season 1, when the World Championship was a mere side show, and the only real reward was the ability to call yourself a Champion. The growth of competitive League of Legends into the premier eSport in Season 2, and the rise of Korea, China and South East Asia. League of Legends arriving as the biggest eSport in history in Season 3, as the leagues around the world set viewing records, and the World Championship sold out the Staples Center. SKT1, the Korean Jauggernaut taking their rightful place as World Champions. And now Season 4, the year the Western Teams began to claw their way back into relevence. The year League of Legends finally hosted the World Championship in the Mecca of eSports. As we move ever closer to the 2nd consecutive Korean World Champion, the story now turns to the next Chapter, the fall of the Korean Empire.
We all know how this story should end, how we want it to end. It goes like this. The top NA and EU teams arrive at the World Championship, after narrowly losing out to the Koreans at All-Stars and the IEM World Championship in some of the most competitive matches the world has ever seen. Nobody questions whether the NA/EU teams will be able to take a game off the Koreans. Nobody worries that a group with the top Korean team could be a group of death. There is no talk of overlords. The Koreans know the time for games has past. The Western Teams know they’ve finally arrived. And in the greatest World Championship in the history of League of Legends, a western team takes down a Korean team 3-2 in the finals.
Now, not everyone wants the Western Teams to rise. But if it has to happen, everyone probably agrees that this is how it should happen. Instead, the past few days have given us two increasingly more likely scenarios.
It’s all about the Money
It started with Seraph and Lustboy moving to NA, inSec and Zero going to Starhorn Royal Club, and a few Challenger Korean Players going to Brazil. But nobody paniced, not yet. These players were either past their prime, or unproven. inSec, Lustboy, and Zero were supposed to be on the downswing, while Seraph and the Koreans going to Brazil were just challenger players, and subs. That’s all beginning to change. Rumors began to crop up in the middle of the World Championship that top tier players may be leaving Korea for China. In a recent interview, inSec implied that Chinese organizations are paying players twice as much as Korean ones, and without all the overbearing rules (e.g. no girlfriends). Since then, rumors of Chinese Super Teams with All-Star Korean imports such as Kakao have blossomed, while the Korean organizations they play for have remained silent. And this is after plans for an All-Korean Super Team in EU sponsored by Samsung leaked following Riot’s announcement of a new regional movement policy. What’s hard to fathom is how with all their much ballyhooed infrastructure, the salaries of Korean players are being outstriped by those of players in other regions. Add in the fact that a lot of Korean players have already professed the desire to play overseas, and it’s pretty clear that Korean Organizations are going to have to start ponying up the dough if they want to keep their players. Threat Level: High
It takes two to tango
Earlier today, a rumor that OGN would be introducing a one team per organization rule similar to what already exists in NA/EU took the LoL community by storm. This a day after a rumor leaked that the KT oragnization would be combining its two teams. Since it’s highly possible that the Organizations themselves have been aware of the possibility for a while now, this lends credit to the rumors of Kakao and other players going to China. But the real problem here is that the sponsorship market for Korean League of Legends is mostly saturated. With half of the teams in the League needing to find sponsors, we may be this close to the vaunted Korean infrastructure falling apart. I don’t know if there are enough new sponsors out there to support 8 full rosters, and the coaching staffs that go along with them.
That said, anyone who thinks this is going to kill the Korean Region needs a reality check. One of the most likely outcomes of this rule would be a condensing of all the talent into those top 8 teams that would remain after the rosters combine. So the overall average strength of the top 8 Korean teams could possibly go up with this rule change. On the other hand, a lot of Korean Pros are about to use their job, and I don’t think there is any way that is healthy for the scene. Threat Level: Low
Death from Within
In reality, either one of these factors alone is insufficient for causing real damage to the Region’s long term potential. But if Korean salaries don’t rise, and the one team per organization rule is put into place, watch out. What incentive is there for a player to stay in a region that’s been thrust into turmoil, and pays less than other regions? Surely a confident, and skilled Korean player could talk himself into the belief that he can be just as competitive on the World Stage regardless of what region he plays in. In the end, it could be the Korean Region’s own infrastructure that spells its doom. All those coaches, and that infrastructure costs money. Money that isn’t going to the players. Can Korean maintain that edge and offer competitive salaries to prevent its players from following the money to other regions? That’s an answer the Korean Organizations are going to have to find soon. (Let’s be real, the likes of Samsung shouldn’t be having a problem with this)
Finding a Satisfactory Ending
Like most western fans, I look forward to the day a Westen Team wins the Summoner’s Cup. But not like this. This would be the worst possible ending. The Korean Region, the Mecca of eSports, collapsing from within without having ever been truly challenged in its prime. Like watching the heavyweight Champion of the world fight his way through years of inferior opponents, only to grow old and finally lose to an opponent unworthy of the fighter he once was. That’s not how this story should end. League of Legends deserves its Ali vs Frazier. It is my hope that whatever happens, when a Western Team finalls wins the Summoner’s Cup, it will be because they stared down the best team from a region smack dab in the middle of its prime, and still came out victorious.