What Should the LCS Do About the Import Rule?
The LCS import rule has been one of the hottest topics of conversation so far in 2021. While the fans of the LCS are happy with the current rule, LCS ownership is not. While not every team has publicly asked for the rule to be changed or removed entirely, the overwhelming majority have at least hinted at that preference. Travis Gafford has compiled responses from each team on Twitter.
WHAT IS THE IMPORT RULE TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH?
The problem with defining what the import rule is trying to accomplish is that different people want different things. That said, there are a few worries that have dominated the conversation around the import discussion.
Primarily, the import rule exists to promote North American talent in the LCS. Whether the current rule is the best way of doing that is up for debate. However, the most important reason to limit imports is to give more opportunities to NA players.
At the same time, there are no rules against building a team full of non-North American players. With the grandfathering of NA residency and the addition of OCE players to the pool, teams can build rosters without a single native player. Is that something ownership, players, and fans are OK with? Or is it only starting to become an issue as more non-native NA players are no longer imports?
Perhaps fans are okay with the dwindling North American player representation cropping up with the current rules, but there are limits. For example, seeing the NA StarCraft scene dominated by Korean players in the past was a huge disappointment. For fans the same thing happening to the LCS is a big concern. Fans want to connect to the players. That’s why fans celebrate imports who stick around for years and welcome them as representatives of the region.
Owners certainly want to keep fans happy and engaged with the league. However, they also want to bring down player salaries while finding more success internationally. Some of those owners think the best way of accomplishing that is by eliminating the import rule.
To decide the best way to move forward, we have to look at potential rules’ pros and cons.
POTENTIAL IMPORT RULES
Keep the Current Import Rules
PROS: The pros to keeping the current import rules are pretty obvious. The LCS remains consistent with the other major regions in allowing two imports. This puts them on a level playing field in that aspect. The fans of the LCS have also overwhelmingly been in favor of keeping the current set of rules, fearing the identity of the LCS would be lost by removing the import rule. There are probably ways to keep that identity while adding change, but there’s less risk when you don’t change anything.
The current rules also reward longevity in a region. Players like Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen and Jeong “Impact” Eon-young may have started as imports, but their long-term commitment to playing in North America makes them feel like representatives of the region rather than mercenaries.
CONS: If the rule is meant to keep the LCS from becoming an import league, it’s not really working. At the start of the 2021 Spring Split, only 24 of the 50 starters in the LCS were original residents. Five of the top teams in the league — Team Liquid, Cloud9, TSM, Evil Geniuses, and 100 Thieves — had a combined six LCS starters. That number dropped to five when 100T benched Tanner “Damonte” Damonte for Tommy “ry0ma” Le. 100T also became the first full import team since the days of LMQ.
The LCS owners would also argue that the current rules artificially inflate the salaries of NA residents. Jensen isn’t the best player on his own team, let alone the entire league, but he is certainly the most valuable in terms of team building. It’s possible that with the same budget and no (or fewer) import restrictions, NA teams could build an objectively better roster because they could negotiate the native player salaries against talented imports.
Remove all Import Restrictions
PROS: The talent pool in North America would get better. It’s fair to argue that the talent pool isn’t the biggest obstacle NA has had to finding international success. Still, it’s undeniable that there would be a better crop of players in the region. Roster construction could start with the best player available, rather than with the best NA resident. Drawing from more player pools undoubtedly raises the ceiling of each roster, whether or not that ceiling is ever realized.
LCS owners are also under the impression that it will drive down salaries. This comes with the increased competition for the spots among more qualified candidates. Whether that is what ends up happening is debatable, of course, because the owners are the ones who have dictated what they think are the “inflated” salaries we already have.
CONS: The major contenders in the LCS are already doing everything they can to field as many imports as possible. By removing residency, there’s no longer any incentive for owners to develop North American talent at all. Further, there is no incentive for outside players who join the LCS to remain in the LCS year after year. In the current system, residency increases player value. In an LCS with no import restrictions, we would see more roster turnover and players quickly entering and leaving the league.
The biggest con to removing import restrictions is the backlash from the fans. The overwhelming majority of polls online point to NA fans not wanting to change the import rule. Fans are worried that LCS owners would import full Korean teams that they have no connection with. Would it be worth the potential of better teams at a lower cost if a large chunk of the fanbase quits watching and supporting the league?
Teams Must Field a Minimum of NA Players (One or Two)
PROS: This would do more to ensure there will always be NA players in the LCS than the current rule. With so many of the arguments against removing import restrictions being centered around the loss of jobs for NA players, shouldn’t it be more of a priority to guarantee spots for them?
This would also open teams up to importing three or four players at the same time. While teams can already achieve full import teams through residency, the players who have aged into NA residency are often in the late stages of their careers. In this way, LCS teams can import three or four players in their prime. They could also take players who have built synergy together on a previous team for more immediate team synergy.
CONS: For the LCS owners, this doesn’t solve the problem of the value disparity between NA residents and non-residents. Even if players like Jensen and Impact were not grandfathered in, that would just make players like Mingyi “Spica” Lu and Robert “Blaber” Huang even more valuable than their peers. It would also stop LCS teams from ever being able to field a full import team, potentially limiting the outside talent that can be brought into the player pool.
While this would ensure NA players always have a place in the league, it still leaves the door open for huge turnover on the rosters. NA fans want to see players that they connect with to represent the region. Pretty much any version of removing the current import rule would threaten the connection with the pro player pool.
No Minor Regions Count as Imports (like OCE)
PROS: Opening the doors to all minor region players would widen the pool North America can draw from without necessarily taking from the other major regions. Like NA, there is plenty of talent that is deserving of playing in a major region but is hurt from their import status. We’ve seen Brandon Joel “Josedeodo” Villegas, who original played in South America’s LAS and LAT leagues, play well in his time so far for FlyQuest. There are surely more players like him who would benefit from this rule.
CONS: This again does nothing to guarantee there would be North American players playing in the LCS. If teams start prioritizing players who play well in minor regions, that could force aspiring North American pros to ditch collegiate programs and Academy to start their professional careers abroad. This would also lower the quality of play in the minor regions and make them a sort of feeder system to the LCS.
Teams Can Field Two Imports From Each Region
PROS: While an admittedly controversial idea, allowing LCS teams to import two players from each region offers a compromise between owners and fans. For the owners, it allows them to bring in more quality players and would likely bring down salaries. For the fans, it guarantees that owners could not just buy a challenger team from Korea. This would help keep the diversity in the LCS.
CONS: Besides the obvious that LCS teams have no incentive to use NA players, it is probably a compromise in which neither side is happy. Even with salaries going down, there would still be bidding wars on the top talent from each major region. There is also once again no incentive for players to stay or owners to keep them there once they join the LCS, so there would be high roster turnover and little long-term connection to the new players.
WHAT SHOULD THE LCS DO ABOUT THE IMPORT RULE?
In the end, it’s hard to see the LCS giving in to the owners and removing import restrictions. The fans don’t want it, and the LCS doesn’t want to see owners importing full teams over.
However, that doesn’t mean that some adjustments can’t be made. It seems silly that teams can field a starting lineup featuring zero native North American talent. If keeping North American players in the LCS is a priority, there should be a requirement to have at least one NA player in the starting lineup at all times, if not more. If that means grandfathering in the current imports who have gained NA residency, so be it.
As for the import slots, it might be worth opening another for the teams. This is especially true if there are already mandated NA player requirements. If going to three unrestricted imports feels too much like buying the majority of a foreign team, the LCS could even limit the third import to minor region residents only. That would give those players a better path to joining a larger region while expanding the talent pool in NA.
In the end, it’s up to the league to decide whether or not to loosen the import restrictions. Regardless of what they choose, here’s hoping their decision also comes with ideas to improve the current NA environment (Solo Queue ping, anyone?) as well.