Massive shakeups set stage for 2018 NA League of Legends season

Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng playing for Team Liquid during Week 7 of the 2017 NA LCS spring split. (Riot Games)

Welcome back to Summoner’s Rift.

Professional League of Legends has started again around the world and on Saturday the 2018 North American League of Legends Championship Series (NA LCS) season begins with historic clubs Team Liquid and Team Solomid (TSM) kicking things off at 5:00 p.m. EST.

As always, there was a lot of player movement during the off-season, but there were also new and different developments. From a new league format to new teams and shocking roster decisions, the NA LCS had an off-season to remember. Here’s a look at some of the most interesting changes and what they mean with play set to begin.

The NBA LCS

The most significant news of the off-season was NBA organizations’ decision to buy into the NA LCS.

The Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers and defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors created the teams Clutch Gaming, 100 Thieves and Golden Guardians.

NBA interest in the NA LCS makes sense given the amount of activity and moves traditional sports owners have made into the esports industry — such as what we’ve seen with Overwatch League and even the NA LCS’s own Echo Fox, which is owned and operated by former NBA forward Rick Fox.

Cynics will say introducing these new NBA-backed teams is merely a money grab, but it’s not like these NBA clubs aren’t trying any less to win the spring split than they are an NBA title. The Golden Guardians and their odd decision to field an all-American team, notwithstanding, both 100 Thieves and Clutch Gaming have the talent to make the playoffs and potentially go on a run. 100 Thieves, in particular, looks formidable, picking up a roster of veteran players including star Korean top-laner Kim “Ssumday” Chan-ho.

New league structure

So what paved the way for the NBA to enter the NA LCS? The answer is simple: the league opted to completely change its fundamental competitive structure.

The NA LCS used to run on a European soccer-style relegation system. It’s a system that, in theory, works best for competitive balance as it gives every team incentive to remain within the top league and play as hard as possible, regardless of where they are in the standings.

For well-established leagues, like the Premier League or La Liga, the relegation system works great because history and existing infrastructure keep relegated teams afloat financially. In the NA LCS’s case, that simply wasn’t the case. Though extremely popular, League of Legends esports teams don’t generate a ton of revenue. As a result, the operating costs of fielding a team for organizations who were relegated from the NA LCS didn’t make it worth it to continue long-term.

Thus, in June of last year, the NA LCS announced a new structure for 2018, a franchise model that mimics the big four North American sports leagues.

The franchising process was relatively simple. Existing NA LCS teams, like TSM and Cloud 9, had to pay a $10 million for a bid, while new owners forked out $13 million each. Afterwards, the league reviewed the applications and then announced the teams. Additionally, league revenue sharing was introduced to help the franchise owners who were accepted into the league.

This was all well and good for franchises that got the greenlight, but many that didn’t were left scratching their heads as to why.

The 2017 NA LCS season featured a 10-team lineup comprised of Cloud 9, Counter Logic Gaming (CLG), Echo Fox, FlyQuest, Immortals, Phoenix1, Team Dignitas, Team EnVyUs, Team Liquid and TSM. Only six of those 10 — Cloud 9, CLG, EchoFox, FlyQuest, Team Liquid and TSM — were accepted into the new franchised NA LCS. This led to much confusion when word first came out because the league didn’t seem to offer much in the way of explanation — even to the team owners.

So, it’s understandable if there’s cynicism around the NBA entering the Rift.

Immortals left out

Of the existing teams left out of the new structure, Immortals stands out. Phoenix1, Dignitas and EnVyUs had always shown mixed results at best — coming in and out of the league via relegation and promotion over the years. But Immortals burst onto the scene in 2016 with an all-star roster and found a lot of success early on, including a 2016 spring split regular-season first-place finish, a third-place finish in both the spring and summer 2016 playoffs and a 2017 world championship appearance.

Heading into the franchise application process, most believed Immortals were a lock to remain in the league. When that didn’t happen, it sent shockwaves through the League of Legends community. Even now it’s unclear what exactly happened. There were rumours that Riot, the developers of LoL, may have been upset that Immortals also bought into the Overwatch League, but that shouldn’t have mattered — OpTic Gaming, one of the league’s new owners, is also an Overwatch League participant.

Immortals CEO Noah Whinston summed up the general reaction in a video following the selection announcement: “By now, news has broken that Immortals has, unfortunately, not been selected to be part of the permanent partnership for Riot Games’ LCS going into 2018,” he said. “I’m as disappointed as, I’m sure, all of you are and, to be frank, I don’t fully understand or agree with the reasons behind that decision.”

Major TSM shakeup

No other team in the NA LCS can rival the popularity of TSM. One of the original teams in the league, it’s not exaggeration to say TSM are the New York Yankees of the NA LCS. They have a rabid and vocal fan base, and have developed players into real stars over the years.

This off-season, team owner Andy “Reginald” Dinh made the bold and controversial decision to release three of his most popular players: jungler Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen, AD carry Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng and Canadian support Vincent “Biofrost” Wang.

The decision broke up a core that has won the last three splits, and it seems like things didn’t end so amicably for at least one of the players involved. While the departures of Johnsen and Wang seemed pretty normal without much being said on either side, Peng’s case was a lot different. Probably the best player of the three, and certainly the most popular, Peng is also a pretty emotional guy. When word he was going to be replaced leaked, things got weird:

There are endless Reddit threads speculating on the details of the departure, but the general sense is that a lot of fans believe Peng was “betrayed” by TSM. Judging by that last tweet above, the man is out for revenge.

Peng’s new team, Team Liquid, kicks off the season Saturday. And fittingly their opening match comes against TSM. Good job schedule-makers!

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