North America’s lack of homegrown talent in the LCS had been highlighted by many as being the main bottleneck for NA’s growth and competitiveness as a region. This issue has risen again to the forefront of the League of Legends community, with G2 Esports coach Weldon Green voicing this concern during his talk with theScore esports on March 31st:
“One of NA’s biggest problems is lack of home-grown talent. The skill level is just lower. And part of that comes from just sheer population… When you have a bell curve, and you are taking the top 0.002%, if your bell curve is two or three times as big, you just get better 0.002%.”
He, like many before him, have pointed to the low server population – equating to low talent pool – in North America as being a significant factor in the lack of NA talent in the pro scene.
Source: op.gg (2017)
It is well-known that NA server population is a fraction of Europe’s and South Korea’s, which affects the rate at which home-grown talent emerges onto the pro scene. Many worry that the lack of NA talent will decrease the competitiveness of the region as a whole, leading to the demise of the region in the long term. However, is it really the worrying trend it is made out to be?
Examining the current popularity of League of Legends in North America juxtaposed with the general pattern of growth of a sport in any region, it would be unreasonable to expect the trend to continue. The natural progression from popularity, then ease of access to population growth, and finally emergence of home-grown talent – seen historically across multiple sports -point to this lack of NA talent being just a phase. The correlation between player base size and emergence of home-grown talent is well established, so two cases will be used to focus on the relationship between popularity and player population growth.
Hockey in Canada demonstrate the effect ease of access has on the talent pool, while PC gaming in South Korea demonstrate that popularity lowers the barriers to population growth.
Best Hockey Nation for Talent Development: Canada
Relationship between Ease of Access and Population
Canada is the undisputed best when it comes to developing hockey talent, having produced seven #1 NHL draft picks in the last ten years. Its strength comes from its wealth of junior hockey leagues – OHL, WHL, and QMJHL – in which the best in the world come to participate in.
This abundance of junior hockey leagues and tournaments are made possible by having the biggest hockey population in the world. The 2016 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) survey figures report Canada’s registered player base as 639,500, beating out the United States’ hockey population of 543,239 by almost a hundred thousand.
To an outsider, this is shocking news, since Canada’s total population is just 35 million. In contrast, United States boasts almost ten times that number, with 321 million people. So what enables Canada to have such a high talent pool? High popularity bordering on religious levels is an obvious answer, but not a sufficient one. Ease of access rounds out the answer, in determining a sport’s population levels.
Canada has 8,250 hockey rinks, according to IIHF reports. This means there is one hockey rink per 4,242 people. On the contrary the United States has one hockey rink per 114,643 people, which contributes to its hockey talent pool being lower than that of Canada’s.
Discount retail stores like Play it Again Sports further lower the barriers to entry. allowing hockey players to get hockey equipment for cheaper prices.
La Masia of South Korea: PC Bangs
Ease of access to popularity? Or popularity to ease of access?
Korean youth playing League of Legends at a PC bang.
Youth visit the 9,139 PC Bangs in South Korea every day. They click and clack through various games, the biggest being Riot Games’ League of Legends. When asked, every Korean pro will admit they played at a PC Bang as an amateur at some point. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Korean community jokingly refers to the PC bangs as a youth development system, likening it to elite soccer player factory La Masia of Barcelona FC.
It is obvious that the abundance of PC bangs creates the ease of access in the same way the Canadian hockey rinks do, growing the Korean PC gaming talent pool. Since the history of PC gaming and PC bangs are very short compared to hockey, it provides a clear example with which the relationship between popularity and ease of access can be studied.
Although they seem to have been around forever, PC bangs were not a concept familiar to Koreans even just twenty years ago. People played in arcades, and only the select few with the luxury of owning a personal computer enjoyed a few PC games. Then, Starcraft appeared on the market. The new exciting game greatly increased demand for computers, which was met by new businesses – PC bangs.
The explosive popularity of Starcraft made PC bangs a viable option as a business for people, and it was on the back of this boom that South Korea’s gaming population and environment grew to today’s standards. Now, League of Legends at PC bangs offers all the champions, and there are Riot hosted amateur leagues in sixteen regions. In Korea, the dream of becoming a pro gamer isn’t just a dream; rather, it is a realistic goal that talented amateurs – ones that might not even have computers at home – can pursue.
What goes around, comes around
Popularity of a sport lowers the barriers to entry, making it easily accessible. This ease of access then creates an environment conducive to growing the talent pool – growing the bell curve to create the better 0.002% as mentioned by Weldon. This is a natural progression, one that cannot be interfered or skipped by artificial means.
Relating this to the argument that player population determines the amount of home-grown talent, a full causal cycle can be created:
With good home-grown talent comes competitiveness and innovation as a region, which then contributes to popularity. It is a continual cycle, and the development of any sport in a region follows this pattern.
NA Talent: Patience is a Virtue
North American League of Legends is no outlier to the aforementioned historical pattern. The huge popularity of League of Legends and the LCS is currently leading to the lowering of barriers. The mainstream opinion of gaming in general is being changed, and it is not uncommon to see e-sports bars and internet cafes around cities. College leagues and scholarships also work to give talented amateurs a stepping stone for pro play.
Good Game Bar in Toronto advertising their Overwatch tournament. It also offers League of Legends.
This snowball will continue to grow. Patience must be had while the barriers to entry are naturally lowered by a collective effort of people working off the popularity of League of Legends and e-sports as a whole.
Players like Akaadian, Contractz, and Dardoch may seem like outliers. It would be better to think of them as the start of a new wave, and stay patient. The path that North America is on presents solid support for that claim that superstar players will continually emerge from North America in the future.
What can be done now?
Just continue with what is presently being done and professionalize.
The failure of the German national soccer team in Euro 2000 demonstrates that without proper infrastructure, even a large talent pool cannot effectively yield good home-grown talent
North America is currently building up solid infrastructure, and should continue to do so while waiting for the natural progression to lead into talent pool growth. This includes a players’ union, as pointed out by Weldon.
If NA can stabilize its infrastructure to standards similar to traditional sports, it will be able to take maximum advantage of the next generation of top 0.002% gamers from a bigger bell curve. With investment from big NBA organizations, stabilization seems to be coming very soon for North America.
The current lack of talent in NA is not a worrying trend. It is just a phase, and it will soon climb out of Diamond 2 into Challenger.