It has been an unsurprisingly contentious topic. The likes of Cloud9’s Jack Etienne and Team Liquid’s Steve Arhancet have been publicly frustrated about NA’s performance internationally, especially considering the level of investment put into the LCS, and are tipped to be two of the strongest advocates for removing the import restrictions.
And, bluntly, there is an argument to be made. While this article will advocate for retaining import restrictions, there are completely valid reasons to consider removing (or at least loosening) import and residency restrictions.
What are the LCS' import restrictions?
Before we do go any further, it’s important to clarify exactly what current LCS import rules are. In short, teams can only field a maximum of two non-resident players at any one time, not including substitutes. Currently, Imports can become residents by participating in eight out of the last 12 Splits in a region, with “participating” defined as being a starting player in 50%+ of regular-season games. That means four years minimum to become a resident - a significant investment by anyone’s standards.
The case for relaxing the rules
With that in mind, the context for team owners’ frustrations becomes much more apparent. Both Etienne and Arhancet were quite candid with the problems North American teams were facing in the off-season: prospective imports were “nervous” and worried about selling out, no matter how much money was on the table, especially players in the formerly lucrative hunting grounds of the EU and LEC, who have been inspired by the recent firepower that the likes of G2 have brought to international events. In other words, players see a chance to win in Europe - not just regionally, but internationally.
In comparison, moving to NA feels like moving to a region that’s at least a step behind.
“There is no number,” said G2’s Rasmus “Caps” Borregaard Winthers to C9’s Jack Etienne in the aftermath of 2018 Worlds, “I want a chance to actually win [Worlds].”
That sentiment has only grown since. G2 won MSI in 2019, then made the finals at Worlds that same year, and while 2020 wasn’t quite as explosive, a semi-finals loss to the eventual champions Damwon Gaming for G2 and a heroic 5-game series against LPL behemoth TOP Esports from Fnatic is nothing to be sniffed at.
Compare that to mediocre international results from NA - outside of an MSI finals appearance in 2019 - and the difference is stark to players and organisations alike. However many caveats you put on it, TSM going 0-6 as the number one seed from NA at Worlds 2020 is a glaring indictment, despite reasonable performances from other NA teams.
(Picture: Riot Games)
Add to that issues of a smaller player base to scout players from, a much-maligned solo queue environment, and what is considered to be a less competitive league, and the LCS clearly has a number of perceived issues.
The question then becomes, would removing import restrictions actually help the region resolve these issues, or otherwise circumvent them? If your player base is too small, then acquiring talented players from other regions makes sense on the surface.
To take the argument further, if players from EU are now hesitant to make the jump to NA, and Korean players are favouring similarly lucrative but vastly more competitive LPL offers over LCS ones, then removing import restrictions in order to create even more competitive rosters to entice otherwise reticent talent is that argument taken to its logical extreme.
A history lesson: LMQ, Starcraft and the birth of import restrictions
Formerly a sister team to the LPL’s Royal Club, LMQ made waves on their move to NA. (Picture: Riot Games)
Of course, such an experiment has been done before - in NA, no less. In 2014, Chinese organisation LMQ upped and left China and speed-ran the NA Challenger scene to enter the LCS in the days before import restrictions and franchising, becoming NA’s 3rd seed at Worlds that same year. The restrictions on player eligibility came in shortly after.
Take a step back and look at the wider esports scene, and Starcraft also comes to mind. For a long time, regions were unlocked and NA and other regions were flooded with Korean players. Good, competitive players for sure, but most of the local talent was choked out of a chance to either grow or compete in their home region. It was only after a soft lock was brought in that international talent was given space to develop and contest at the upper echelons of the esport - look at Joona “Serral” Sotala.
Of course, these are two different esports at two very different points in their histories with very different requirements. That said, comparisons can and should be drawn. Valid fears over teams and rosters coming to the LCS to avoid or circumvent the intense competition in their home regions should definitely raise concern, especially if it stifles existing NA talent. Moreover, historically such rosters coming into a region and then being considered a “local” team despite limited investment into the region or system, heavily impacts fan engagement and interest.
Both Mark “MarkZ” Zimmerman and Barento “Razleplasm” Mohammed raised their own concerns about fan engagement on that point. Viewers who want to see the best of the best, regardless of region, are far more likely to watch players whatever region they are in - consider the international followings of T1’s Faker, iG’s Rookie, or FPX’s Doinb - whereas viewers who are invested in teams and leagues are far more likely to be driven away if their own region’s talent is completely subsumed by imports who aren’t invested in NA or the LCS.
New look, new rules? With their rebrand, could the LCS also be changing their import restrictions (Picture: Riot Games)
To clarify, that is not to say that imports are inherently bad (nor is it what the Hotline League pundits were implying), but imports who have little to no investment in the region or league don’t build viewership or fanbases. Would North American fans really consider a team of full imports turning up for a split, and going on to win Worlds actually an NA team? Compare that to CoreJJ, Bjergsen, Jensen or any other number of long-term imports who have earned their residencies. Granted, CoreJJ isn’t a resident yet, but the point stands - outside of inter-regional heckling, few would truly argue that these players haven't bought into the LCS system regardless of what their passports say.
Crippling the local scene: how imports are set to undercut the strides forward made in the NA amateur scene
Fanbase and engagement aside, even from a competitive perspective removing the import cap poses systematic issues. As has already been alluded to, many LCS team owners are rightly unhappy with the lack of success NA has had considering the level of investment in the league. If one were to disregard viewers as extraneous to success, especially considering the limited competitive dividends teams have seen despite heavy investment, then immediate imports to increase those dividends might make sense.
More alarming still is that it seems Cloud9 and Team Liquid are at the forefront of this push against import rules - two of the teams that are most invested in the amateur scene in NA. Etienne even stated that when Cloud9 acquired Vulcan, it was him or “no-one” since there was such a dearth of high-end regional talent.
Vulcan or quits. (Picture: Riot Games)
If Cloud9 and Team Liquid are stating this, despite their regional success and grassroots investment, then where does the rest of the league sit? Would they even stick around, or would they try to sell off to LPL and LCK teams looking to make an impact outside of their saturated home leagues as some community rumours suggest?
The problem lies in that importing might make for short term success, but in the long term it will dry up and disincentive any prospective rookies from entering the scene. If import rules are rescinded, then there may never come a day when NA produces and develops consistent numbers of regional talent, because any chances to improve or develop will instead be given to a revolving door of imports who have already proved themselves elsewhere.
It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: rookies aren’t at a high enough level, so imports are brought in, leading to no chance for rookies to improve, which leaves no rookies at an LCS level… and on and on it goes.
People who think there is no NA talent are not doing scouting/talent development properly.— Peter Dun (@pcdv8r) February 4, 2021
I don't have the knowledge to comment pre-2020, but there is NOTHING that would destroy huge future benefits to NA of 2021 changes to Amateur harder than removing import restrictions.
Even worse, the glaring argument against removing import restrictions is that it flies in the face of widely well-received systematic changes to the North American amateur scene that came into force in 2021. Head Coach of Evil Geniuses’, Peter Dun, went so far as to say "there is NOTHING that would destroy huge future benefits to NA of 2021 changes to Amateur harder than removing import restrictions.’
By incentivising wholesale importing, the long-term infrastructure to develop competitive talent and high-end players and the player base in NA would be completely undercut.
Instead of encouraging and streamlining the development of young players from amateur scenes to the LCS, an artificial glass ceiling made up of a rotating door of temporary imports would curtail all the potential benefits the new changes bring.
Nor does importing talent solve critical player base issues. Kelsey Moser, the Competitive and Collegiate Development Lead for Evil Geniuses, and a well-respected analyst raised her own arguments about the alleged proposals in a Reddit thread discussing the topic.
She points out that importing “hasn't had a meaningful impact on solo queue,” and that the only way she sees it improving is “long term investment in infrastructure that focuses on improving [the] player base.”
She concedes it doesn’t play well into teams who are results-incentivised, nor is it a short term solution in a wider esports scene that has often been hesitant to plan for the long term. Nevertheless, papering over wider systemic issues with imports debilitates any attempts to correct issues like solo queue or player base that also core to the issues NA faces.
As a last note, unlocking the LCS would surely force Riot to consider doing so for other regions on grounds of competitive integrity. Such a move is unlikely to fare well with teams, systems, and even governments, particularly in places like the EU and China. With enough international pressure, the LCS may not be free to act unilaterally regardless.
Even without that, it is hard to actively advocate for the short term success unrestricted importing may bring to the LCS when it would come at the cost of crippling the region’s long term development. Staying the course seems the wiser plan of action, lest NA goes from importing talent by choice rather than being forced to do so by necessity.