NA LCS: Franchising – good or bad?

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Four weeks ago, Riot officially announced that the time for franchising in the NA LCS is now. Several writers and content creators have debated the positives and negatives of Riot’s vision for the future of its professional scene. Specifically, the end of relegation – a move that marks the end of the Challenger Series and the beginning of a new Academy League – has drawn mixed opinions from fans and writers alike.

Dom Sacco of Esports News UK writes that “uncertainty is better than stability”, arguing that relegation adds an element of suspense and competition for every team involved. This is a fair point given that teams are defined by their success or failure. For example, Origen in Europe took the world by storm with a memorable EU LCS debut in the 2015 summer split, capping off their season with a strong run to the semi-finals of the World Championship as Europe’s third seed. Three splits later, Origen was relegated to the European Challenger Series after a winless spring, officially marking the worst season in EU LCS history. Relegation removes the flair for the dramatic, but as Dot Esports’ Xing Li points out, the move “should lead to better scouting and player development as teams will now have the opportunity to practice in a more structured environment than ever before.”

I’m inclined to agree with Li on this point. While removing relegation could potentially harm the amateur scene and stifle investors from spending money on a team that may be waiting years before being considered to join Riot’s organized league, the positives outweigh the negatives. There’s nothing to suggest that Riot would not expand the league to welcome more teams into the fold – a bold, ambitious task that might prove to be too costly for Riot’s own good – but the better argument to make here is to find the infrastructure to organize another league for promising young squads while working with Riot to allow those teams to earn their spot at international tournaments through the wild-card play-ins.

Perhaps ELEAGUE wouldn’t be objected to organizing a branch for League of Legends players to host a similar format to the LCS, especially considering ELEAGUE’s television deal with Turner Broadcasting. If it can host Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Street Fighter V tournaments, why can’t it do the same for League of Legends? Even if this what-if scenario was never going to be a possibility, that’s not the point. The point is, if there are people who are passionate about having a scene for the amateur players and young organizations, then take the initiative and create a league that can stand on its own compared to Riot Games.

In other words, make a new, different LCS. (With blackjack. And hookers.)

But let’s go back to the topic of the Academy League, which is a great move for Riot and the ten teams accepted into the franchise. This will allow teams to stock up on developmental prospects and take a better look at players who are serious about playing professionally. Here is an article I wrote last week on Team Liquid’s signing of Rami “Inori” Charagh that illustrates exactly teams stand to benefit from this development. The league will also give organizations valuable reserves in the events that a starter goes down due to injury, has an immediate emergency that will take his time away from the game, or has visa issues that will affect his availability.

But the most important aspect of the Academy League with franchising will be an organization’s ability to pull out underperforming starters in a lost season to give young players valuable time on stage, with the chance that those young players will earn long-term starting jobs. I’m sure Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett and Felix “Betsy” Edling can testify to that.

With the main league itself, teams will now have guaranteed contracts that will remain dependent on performance. Although I think the performance clause is too broad for those searching for a happy medium of turnover and longevity, that doesn’t mean it still can’t be a good idea in practice. Five splits, which is two and a half years’ worth of LCS games, is a fair benchmark for patience. All organizations will go through a rough patch and won’t find the same amount of success as years past. The rule respects those times of struggles.

However, Riot is making it clear that they will not tolerate intentional tanking or lack of effort. Teams who consistently finish near the bottom of the league will quickly be weeded out and valuable players will not want to sign with those teams in fear of ruining their chances at securing a job with a larger, more successful franchise that will take them to the next level. When the players avoid an organization like the black plague, so too will fans, meaning viewership and support will drop until the team is no longer in the league. Ask any team in major league sports and they will tell you that success drives most athletes to sign with their team.

Nobody willingly wants to be on a loser if they want to win now. But there will be the crops of players that just want to play and want to do what they can to turn the franchise around. Their jobs, and their organization’s jobs, will depend solely on their success. That’s the nature of the business and that’s the major reason why I believe franchising is a wonderful move for Riot’s long-term future. Teams will get long-term investments with a sense of security, but know they must perform in order to keep their business.

Players, in turn, will now be under a microscope from ten major organizations and will now be held accountable to a team’s success or failure. If a certain signing ends up making a team’s value drop dramatically, future teams will not look to sign that player. Likewise, if a player lights up the rift in spectacular fashion, every team will break the bank to secure that player to a contract, thinking they’ve now got the golden ticket to success. For the spirit of competition, franchising is a major improvement.

However, there are still questions remaining about the business model. The Rally Point Esports podcast does a sufficient job at illustrating the future concerns there could be down the road with the revenue share. It’s one thing that teams have to shell out $10 million just to participate in the league. But now, teams will be required to share part of their revenue (such as sponsorships or merchandise sales) with Riot. On paper, this is a fair deal considering the long-term security Riot is giving ten organizations to participate in their league. The bottom line for Riot, just like the teams in its league, is in the numbers.

The concern comes from the exact numbers that Riot will take from these teams in the long run and whether or not these numbers will allow organizations a chance to make their money back. Knowing that Riot has control over how much of a team’s share they take and how much they will give back, will investors still feel their long-term investment will be safe if Riot’s share turns out to be their biggest losses?

Organizations are already operating at a loss as it stands, which makes their income entirely dependent on sponsors, merchandise, streaming revenue, marketing, and player success. Riot controls the portion they will take from the teams, which could be potentially damaging to young organizations. I expect Riot to be able to crunch the numbers behind a team’s financial backing to determine if their organization is built to handle what Riot is building, but if Riot accepts a new organization into their league and that team can no longer field a roster after a year due to mediocre performance and low revenue, what does that say to future investors that do not have knowledge of the industry?

There is also a fair amount of concern over Riot’s player association. Again, this is an idea that’s solid on paper – Riot funds the association in its initial operation until the association has grown to a point where the players will assume full financial responsibility over the business – but the concern here comes with the representation.

As Xing Li puts it, although players can vote to reject Riot’s recommended candidates for representation, “the fact that Riot is vetting reps at all is somewhat troubling.” This could lead to a dangerous conflict of interest, such as this one with the Oceania Pro League’s Tainted Minds, where Riot was found investigating themselves and finding nothing wrong as opposed to leaving this matter to third-party investigation. This means that Riot ultimately will have control over the potential candidates, unless the news comes out that the representation was independently elected by the players. Still, this should be seen as a positive sign moving forward, and at least shows Riot’s commitment to improving the process for players in the present and in the future.

While the concerns for the future are worth a pause, fans should be optimistic heading into the future. From a pure entertainment standpoint, the potential storylines for the NA LCS are about to get even bigger with the moves being made for the future. Riot has shown they are listening to all parties involved with their product and they are slowly taking steps toward delivering the vision we all want for esports. The initial system isn’t perfect, but the vision for the future is promising and worth believing in. Riot deserves the benefit of the doubt here.

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NA LCS: The fall of FlyQuest

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In my Week 4 rundown of the North American League Championship Series (NA LCS), I argued that the veteran team, FlyQuest, was the worst team in the league. After some generous feedback on Reddit (thank you, Reddit!), I’ve decided to dive back into the writing to see what the numbers truly reveal about FlyQuest’s nightmarish summer slump.

I will mainly be using these incredibly detailed stats found right here at OraclesElixir. If you’d like to follow along with me or take a view at why your favorite team is doing well, why your team isn’t playing up to par, or just to take a look at who the league leaders are, feel free to click the link and see the numbers for yourself! So, without further ado, let’s take a deeper look at the numbers!

We’ll start with the simple numbers: Kills, deaths, and assists. These are numbers that we can equate to acting like yards and touchdowns in the NFL, points scored in the NBA, number of hits at-bat in the MLB, and so on and so forth. Why? Because these numbers, while a strong reflection of individual performance, may not directly correlate with a team’s success. A team’s success in League of Legends goes much further than who’s got the best KDA – a sentiment I’m sure fellow solo queue players can share in contrast to the LCS.

Player [Position]: Kills (Rank by lane position)/Deaths (Rank by lane position)/Assists (Rank by lane position) / KDA (Rank by lane position)

Balls [Top]: 43 (5th) / 70 (1st) / 86 (8th) / 1.8 (11th)
Moon [Jungle]: 44 (7th) / 63 (2nd) / 106 (6th) / 2.4 (11th)
Hai [Mid]: 61 (8th) / 74 (1st) / 88 (7th) / 2.0 (11th)
WildTurtle [AD Carry]: 53 (8th) / 60 (1st) / 79 (8th) / 2.3 (10th)
LemonNation [Support]: 20 (2nd) / 66 (3rd) / 108 (8th) / 1.9 (12th)
Total combined K/D ranked amongst all 10 NA LCS teams: 221 (8th) / 333 (1st) / 0.66 (10th)

The first thing you’ll see right off the bat is that FlyQuest are getting killed a LOT. Some of this can be from overly aggressive playcalls that don’t work out in FlyQuest’s favor (such as this botched fight around the 12:50 – 13:00 mark in FlyQuest’s third game against Team Envy from Sunday) while some of this can be from poor decision making or ill-advised rotations. Does this mean FlyQuest need to be more passive to insure more success? No, not exactly. Counter Logic Gaming has been one of the most aggressive teams in the league this split, ranking first in total kills and second in total deaths, and are currently tied for 2nd place with Team Solo Mid at 6-2. But in the linked clip above, you’ll see that FlyQuest had a great play in mind that looked solid on paper. If Renekton’s Slice and Dice is unavailable, Ziggs secures the kill thanks to Jarvan IV’s well-timed Cataclysm. If this happens, Ziggs can logically move in to continue raining damage down on Varus and Braum. Instead, Renekton simply E’s out of the pit and moves in to stun and kill Ziggs, a sitting duck by the time Lee Sin joins the fight. From that point, it all goes downhill for FlyQuest. (By the way, if the NA coaches haven’t figured it out by now, let this game against FlyQuest be the defining example why you don’t allow Lira to play Lee Sin.)

If the play worked out as intended, FlyQuest probably continues the momentum to a 2-1 victory and we’re potentially gearing up for a competitive second half of summer split. Instead, we’re wondering what in the world happened to this promising squad and why everything has gone so wrong so soon.

So, we know FlyQuest is dying a lot and aren’t racking up a lot of kills. If you went off these numbers, FlyQuest individually are among the worst in the league at their positions. But there’s more to the game than who’s dying and who’s doing the killing. After all, high-level League of Legends isn’t anything close to Call of Duty, so there’s definitely more to this than meets the eye here. To take a deeper dive into the players individually, we’ll have to break down more of their advanced stats, such as DPM (Damage Per Minute), GD10(Gold Difference at 10:00), and DMG% (Damage Share – how much percentage of the team’s total damage is one player is responsible for?). There’s a vast amount of information to run through here, so I’ll pick a few things that catch my eye and expand my view on what I think they say about the player.

Let’s start with FlyQuest’s top lane. A sentiment I shared with Aidan “Zirene” Moon during yesterday’s LCS broadcast was that An “Balls” Le has been FlyQuest’s most consistent player. I personally argued that Balls has earned more mileage on that front. That suggestion looks reasonable on paper when taking his spring numbers into account, especially given that his champion pool mainly consisted of tanks such as Maokai, Nautilus, and Shen. The spring numbers show that although Balls is far from the player he was in years past, he still turned out to be a serviceable, if unspectacular, top laner. This would only be a problem if FlyQuest were deliberately trying to funnel resources into Balls and relying on him to carry games, but his GOLD% (Average share of team gold), EGPM (Earned Gold Per Minute), and DMG% were among the lowest during spring – which should be expected from someone who played a majority of top lane tanks.

So what’s the problem in summer? A quick look at Balls’s current champions played in summer shows mostly carries or bruisers, and only one of those champions – his signature Rumble – has something resembling passable numbers. Perhaps the meta doesn’t suit Balls’s strength as a tank player. But it certainly doesn’t help FlyQuest’s dire situation. Balls is in the bottom five for DPM (363) and has the worst DMG% (18.7%). Even worse is that Balls is regularly down in gold with the worst EGPM (226.1) and the worst GD10 (-199), meaning he is in no position to help his team carry out of the top lane. Maybe the simple solution is to put Balls back on low-economy tanks and only require him to pick the odd carry once in a blue moon. But would this really fix FlyQuest’s problem at its source or make things worse? Put yourself in the coach’s shoes and think to yourself: “Do I stand to benefit from limiting Balls’s champion pool? Maybe so, but wouldn’t teams just ban out the meta tanks and force me to put Balls on a carry? Haven’t I seen this happen before at the first Mid-Season Invitational when teams pulled this exact strategy against Team Solo Mid during Dyrus’s final season? If not, who steps up for the team?”

Well, why don’t we judge by the numbers?

You may think Hai Lam is past his prime and should rightly sit as one of the worst mid laners in the NA LCS. What you’d be surprised to see is that Hai is actually very capable of handling himself against the stacked competition. Currently, Hai is in the top five for DPM (543), DMG% (28.9), GD10 (-16), GOLD% (24), and first blood rate (21). And he’s doing all of this while having the fourth lowest EGPM (255.2). When cross-referencing those numbers with his total K/D/A on the split, maybe Hai’s just been unlucky. Maybe some of those bold, gutsy calls he’s known for haven’t worked in his favor. As of right now, the numbers point in favor of Hai still being able to play mid lane at a high level. Even when you take his spring performance into account – he’s near the top of the leaderboards in several areas amongst all mid laners who played in spring – it’s insane to suggest that Hai is past his prime. It’s almost like Hai never left.

Maybe his own comparison to Brett Favre as Cloud9’s jungler during the 2015 summer split was appropriate after all; as a member of the Minnesota Vikings, Brett Favre proved he could still play football at a high level when surrounded by young, explosive talent such as Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson. I believe the same could be true for Hai if the talent surrounding him was mechanically gifted, young, and motivated to make an impact on the LCS – three words I would use to describe FlyQuest’s jungler, Galen “Moon” Holgate.

Although Moon has more stage experience than you’d expect from a young player, take into consideration that this is only Moon’s third split as a full-time starter. His debut split with NRG Esports left a lot to be desired. He was routinely in the lower half of the league in almost every category amongst starting junglers. Take out the spot starters with less than 10 games and 2016 shows a player who wasn’t ready for the LCS. One year later, we see that Moon has made strides to improve. Some of the credit should go to FlyQuest’s veteran leadership, but let’s take a moment to appreciate some of the numbers Moon posted in spring.

2016 Spring- NRG Moon: 28 (8th) / 41 (5th) / 89 (8th); 2.9 KDA (6th), -240 GD10 (11th), 262 DPM (11th), 183.3 EGPM (11th) over 16 games

2017 Spring – FLY Moon: 158 (6th) / 105 (8th) / 240 (5th); 3.8 KDA (1st), 34 GD10 (5th), 336 DPM (7th), 225.1 EGPM (8th) over 43 games

The numbers will look skewed given that 2016’s LCS format was still under Best-of-1 rules, but the improvements can be found in the ranks. In spring, Moon was in reach of the top half of the league in almost every relevant stat. That’s a pretty big jump from year-to-year. If Moon could match those numbers in summer, he’d be a guaranteed league-average starter. Unfortunately, that’s not the case so far. Of junglers with at least 10 games played on the split, Moon has the lowest DPM (236), the third worst GD10 (-17), the second highest deaths (63), and the second worst EGPM (194.9). That’s not a good look for FlyQuest if its starting jungler isn’t able to lift the team’s performance up. Still, Moon deserves the benefit of the doubt after a solid spring. As the youngest player on FlyQuest’s starting roster, Moon deserves a fair shake to start the rest of the split and FlyQuest should trust Moon to shake off the cobwebs and get back on track.

For as much flack as Jason “WildTurtle” Tran receives for his positioning and ill-advised flashes, I still believe WildTurtle, like Hai, can help a good roster make a push for playoffs. He was far from the problem with Team Solo Mid’s disappointing finish at the 2017 Mid Season Invitational, he was still a good fit for TSM’s roster, and Peter “Doublelift” Yillang was the overall better option for TSM’s immediate future. All three of these things can be true. But no one can blame WildTurtle for wanting to be an unquestioned starter as he is in FlyQuest. As the AD carry of this squad, creep score and experience stats will provide more effective analysis here than they will for the other four positions. With every relevant stat in mind, WildTurtle is still far from the problem in FlyQuest. Among ADCs, he currently has the fifth best GD10 (49), fourth best XPD10 (91), sixth best CSD10 (0.2), second best CSPM with five other ADCs (9.0), and the fifth best DPM (516). He’s doing all of this with the fourth highest GOLD% at 24.7, slightly above Hai’s share in the mid lane.

The argument can be made that WildTurtle’s box score looks better than his tape. This is an argument worth making with the correct supporting evidence. But from a pure numbers perspective, WildTurtle is doing his job. He’s not the reason FlyQuest is 1-7 on the season. In other words, FlyQuest can do a lot worse than playing WildTurtle at ADC.

Supports are tough to judge based on the numbers. As the most macro intensive role in the game aside from jungling, reviewing the tape will say more about Daerek “LemonNation” Hart than the numbers will. But for the purpose of this article, we’ll use the limited information we can gather from the numbers to see where LemonNation sits on the season. There are positives to be found here. LemonNation has the highest DPM (268) and DMG% (13.6) among starting supports in the league. But with the worst KDA and the worst wards per minute (1.25), we can start to make an assumption from a pure numbers perspective. Taking a look at his champion pool on the season, we see that Zyra is his most played champion on the split. Zyra is a high-damage support, which explains his lead in average DPM. We can now assume with his high number in deaths and DPM that LemonNation typically goes for an aggressive play in an attempt to set up something for his team. Unfortunately, the aggression hasn’t paid off. One notable example I can immediately think of what happened in FlyQuest’s third game on Sunday against Team Envy, after the team fails to kill Seraph on an attempted pick. This point is where everything goes wrong for FlyQuest.

FlyQuest attempts to start a fight at Rift Herald around 15:23. Hai is immediately picked off by Lira in mid-rotation while Moon jumps the gun and is left to die against Apollo and Hakuho. At this point, LemonNation and WildTurtle should not be doing anything because the fight is over and the team can no longer contest Rift Herald. However, LemonNation makes the ill-advised decision to join the fight way too late with Tahm Kench’s Abyssal Voyage. WildTurtle goes along for the ride and it costs both members their lives. FlyQuest had the right idea to force the issue in the mid-game – their chances would be slim to none in the late-game with an assassin and an AP caster against Cassiopeia, Varus, and Braum due to their high damage and hard engage – but the execution was horrible. It’s almost as if FlyQuest decided to intentionally feed and throw the game when it wasn’t quite out of reach.

It’s true that the season is still far from over for this squad. But it’s going to take a superhuman effort to turn this squad around. Never count Hai out to pull off some more magic, but it’s hard to see this squad avoiding relegation, let alone making playoffs. The veteran instincts on this squad gave them their biggest edge, but just like Cloud9 a few years ago, it’s the biggest thing holding this squad back. FlyQuest could use some new blood in the ranks, particularly at top and support, while keeping their eyes on the future at mid and ADC. You never want to be ill-prepared in the event you avoid relegation or you believe you have a shot to make the playoffs. But if FlyQuest chooses to move forward with this roster, then the change has to begin with Balls, Moon, and LemonNation stepping up their play. Two of these players are arguably the worst at their position right now while one of these players’s bright spots get overlooked for his mid-game misfires.

After a magical start in spring, it’s amazing to see how far FlyQuest have fallen. If this doesn’t change now, FlyQuest fans will be in for a long season.