For the briefest of moments, there was hope for North America at this year’s League of Legends World Championship. Clutch Gaming and Cloud9 had been eliminated, but Team Liquid went into the last day of the group stage with a 2-1 record. All they needed was to reproduce that effort to have a strong shot at surviving into the knockout stage.
It didn’t happen. They only beat winless ahq e-Sports Club, falling to DAMWON Gaming first and then to Invictus Gaming. At 3-3, their final record was respectable but not nearly enough to get them through to the next round.
Of all the times that North America’s top seed failed to get out of groups, this one had to hurt the most. Liquid have shown this year that they are capable of beating squads like DAMWON and IG. But when all the chips are down and the next round is on the line, they just couldn’t do it—in fact, they weren’t even close.
It’s clear now after so many tournaments that this loss doesn’t just belong to the NA top seed. It’s a failure on the part of the whole region.
The obvious problems
There are some pretty obvious reasons why NA is not competitive internationally that we’ve covered ad nauseam before. The player base is smaller. The ping is bad. In a lot of ways and despite Riot’s best efforts, this feels more like a minor region.
Caster Isaac “Azael” Cummings Bentley brought up the topic following Liquid’s loss. He talked about the infrastructure below Liquid and how that failed them. It’s no accident that in the typical year, two out of the three NA representatives at Worlds get eliminated in groups, or that this year, none of them made it out.
It’s more than just Liquid, Cloud9, and Clutch playing at this tournament. Those three teams represent the other seven LCS squads and the entire Academy system. And that system has fallen even more behind those of other regions. In many of those regions, there are layers of professional and semi-professional play below the Challenger scene. Where is our version of the popular EU Masters tournament, which makes the most out of cross-border competition and can be a showcase for young talent?
If anything, the gap has only increased this year with the start of the LEC. The LEC has beaten the LCS at pretty much everything: social presence, production value, hype—and, of course, the on-stage product. Whatever shine the LCS carried as the first of the two regions to develop into a franchised league has long since departed.
The bad news about all of this is that we’ve been talking about it for years, and it just doesn’t seem like things are getting any better.
Failure of spirit
The other issue is that even if NA were to develop a better farm system and Academy structure and upgrade things talent-wise, it’s unlikely that would have any effect on a top team like Liquid. Liquid already signed what it perceives to be the best possible roster with three international players—this team is built specifically to win at international tournaments.
The question is whether marginal improvements in the player pool or slightly better practice environment would actually help them. And we’re not just talking about getting out of groups. For Liquid, that would merely be a relief. True success would be winning one or more best-of-fives. The team did that at MSI but looks far from capable right now.
If Liquid were to find a young jungle talent to plug Jake “Xmithie” Puchero’s spot, that might allow them to beat an IG squad starting Gao “Ning” Zhen-ning. But what do they do against the Marcin “Jankos” Jankowski, Gao “Tian” Tian-liang, and Lee “Tarzan” Seung-yong’s of the world?
Of course, Liquid could always just import a player of that caliber. They have the slot open—a difference between them and most of the region. But that’s not a long-term solution, and Riot has been averse to opening the import floodgates like was done in Overwatch League.
This isn’t to say that Liquid is doomed. But they—and everyone else from NA—need to stop pretending that they’re the top dogs from a major region. Despite Riot’s classification, NA just isn’t on the same level as Europe, China, or South Korea. That means that these teams can’t play like they are. They need to change their thinking.
It’s no surprise that Cloud9—the team most willing to try crazy stuff—has been the most successful NA org at Worlds the last few years. Or that the last time two teams from the region made it out of groups was in 2014 when Jason “WildTurtle” Tran showed up on Tristana and immediately shifted the bot lane meta. If NA needs to cheese to win, so be it. At least the region might win.
The sad part is, Liquid did try something this year. In the second game against DAMWON, they put Nicolaj Jensen on Anivia and even tried to lane swap. As ill-fated as that swap was against a Kayle, it was still an idea. But in the last battle vs. IG, the team tightened and drafted for comfort. Trusting Jensen to beat Song “Rookie” Eui-jin one-on-one in a battle of assassins was not the solution. Neither is getting Jeong “Impact” Eon-yeong to dominate lane vs. Kang “TheShy” Seung-lok.
North America needs to get more out of its scrims, where the emphasis is placed still too heavily on winning instead of innovating. Teams need to figure out more champions and more ways to play the map. And if it doesn’t work out, everyone—the teams, the fans, the analysts—should accept that result. Too often, Liquid players scoff at other teams in the region that they don’t perceive to be trying hard enough. That sounds like the pot calling the kettle black.
Until the obvious problems are fixed with long-term solutions, this region is going to continue struggling if it tries to copy the other major regions. But if NA teams can blaze their own path, they might give us a more exciting version of the game. And who knows, they might win with it too.