[Op-Ed] NA's Identity Crisis and how a League of Legends player is like an NFL Running Back
The NA Region has been undergoing an identity crisis over the past two seasons. As members of one of the first two professional Regions, North American Players and Teams struggled coming to grips with the fact that they were no longer players on the World Stage. The likes of Gambit and Fnatic from EU, and essentially all of Korea had surpassed them. Part of this was the age old arrogance of the elder, refusing to believe that those that came after could surpass them. Most of it was an inability to accept the necessity of change. These two problems have continued to plague North American teams since they first reared their ugly heads way back in Season 2 when NA players dismissed the idea of a Korean World Champion. North America's failure to adapt their mentality to an increasingly competitive eSport has been the primary reason for their lack of success in international play, but the moment of truth is finally coming, even if it's about a year later than it should have.
The North American Region developed differently than either the European or Korean Region. Europe and Korea had long histories of prior eSports success in Counter Strike and Starcraft respectively, while League of Legends is really NA's first big eSport. A cut throat mentality is necessary to succeed, and something both Europe and Korea were forced to develop a long time ago when eSports was a far less lucrative career path. Most NA teams either began as a group of friends or grew into one over time and have thus struggled to develop the same mentality. Players like Scarra, Snoopeh, and Yellowstar lingered much longer than they should have, even as their obviously deteriorating skills cost their respective teams victory after victory because their teammates couldn't stomach removing them from the roster. Each time one of those players comes under fire, you heard the same platitudes you'll hear from aging players each year at a major league training camp.
I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life
I doubled down on my practice regimen over the offseason
I just need to make a few adjustments
The truth is always much harsher. Father Time has an undefeated record. It's become very clear that the career of a professional video gamer is exceedingly short. As fans, we like to talk about how long some players have been in the scene, but it's really a matter of relativity. The first World Championship was three years ago. In just 3 years, we've seen almost a complete turnover of players in the competitive scene. And this trend isn't likely to end anytime soon. League of Legends isn't like traditional sports. When a pitcher loses a few miles off of their fast ball, they can make up for it with better pitch location and altering speeds to throw off the opposing batter. A basketball player might learn to be more efficient in their play, eliminating wasted movement in order to maximize their depleting energy reserves. A perfect example would be to compare an NFL Quarterback and a Running Back. Peyton Manning is as good as he ever was despite approaching 40 because he can read the field like no other, adjust to plays on the fly, and has pinpoint accuracy. Running Backs are different. Most Running Backs are done by the time they are 30. The moment the speed starts to go, another youngster with wheels is ready and waiting to take their place. League of Legends players are the running backs. Sure, a Jungler might be able to extend their career a little longer by playing more intelligently, but for the carry roles, a lack of mechanics means certain death. And when those mechanics do go, the player's fall is hard and fast.
For many of us, video games are an escape from the real world, and this mentality holds true for pro League of Legends players who almost certainly did not start playing the game with the intention of making it a career. But once a player does make a career out of League of Legends, they need to change their mindset to embrace the realities of the sport. A short career in a volatile industry with mostly awful working conditions. They need to begin seeing their eSports career through the prism of a job, and not a game. And the primary purpose of a job is to make money. That's why I've never understood the mentality NA LCS teams are just now growing out of. When your career is only going to last a few years, you need to grab as much money as you can before you get out. Whether that's through winning tournaments, or streaming, you have to chase the money. These players are putting off their lives to play in the LCS, including some who never even finished school. As it stands, no LCS player can reasonably say that they will be able to make a long-term career out of eSports. It's just too volatile an industry right now. There are only so many jobs available at Riot for former players. Not everyone can go on to be a caster, or analyst. The infrastructure isn't able to support more than a few coaches per team right now. Every pro League of Legends player should play their career with the mentality that the moment their playing time is done, their career in eSports is done and they will have to go to school, and get a traditional job. You have to plan for the worst case scenario and the truth is, that isn't the worst case scenario, it's the likely scenario. That is why professional League of Legends players need to treat their career like the job it is. If a player is holding your team back from success and making money, then they have to go. It may sound cold, but it's what has to happen if Western Teams are going to compete on an equal footing with Korean Teams, where a single bad game can cost a player their whole career.
As the flurry of early roster changes can attest, the moment of truth has finally come. While I don't think NA players have fully embraced their eSports career as a job yet, I do think they've finally realized that the team has to come before the players. The LCS is the only guaranteed money out there in western League of Legends, the rest of it is in sponsorships and streaming, and both can be fickle. Maintaining an LCS spot should be of the upmost priority for any team. To that end, it's nice to see that teams are going all out in an effort to acquire top talent from anywhere they can. Underperforming players are being kicked to the curb, while others are being held accountable for their behavior and contributions to the mental health of the team. In true American fashion, the NA region is becoming a melting pot of players from all over the world chasing the dream. With each region bringing their own unique outlook and strategies, it's easy to get excited about the future of North American League of Legends now that they've finally begun to take themselves seriously. All we have to do now is wait and see whether it all pays off.