Franchising is coming to the North American League Championship Series next year, and hundreds of applicants are currently awaiting the call from Riot Games to see if their team will be represented in the league next spring.
Right now, 10 spots are up for grabs, but I don't think there should be just 10 in the NA LCS next split. The time is now for Riot to expand the league.
Waiting another few years, even one year, to grow the league in North America could be too long when a year in esports is nearly equivalent to a decade passing in a traditional sport.
After the summer season, all of the current NA LCS teams managed to stave away relegation, as bottom-of-the-table clubs Team Liquid and Phoenix1 prevailed over minor league front-runners Gold Coin United and eUnited in the promotion tournament. All of the teams currently in the NA LCS are the best that the league has ever seen; while not every team can be a winner, each organization has shown a willingness to make moves to become one.
The best example can be seen in the difference in results between teams the last two splits. Phoenix1, a team in relegations in the summer split, finished third in the spring, and FlyQuest, the fourth-place team, was in the fight to not get banished from the premier league. Immortals, seventh and out of the playoffs last split, made necessary moves inside and outside the lineup and will be playing for the league title on Sunday at the TD Garden in Boston. Even Team Liquid, which overall had the worst year of any of the league's 10 teams, was the most aggressive team when it came to signing and gunning to be competitive, going as far as bringing Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng out of a short sabbatical to save the team from being relegated in the spring split.
So since the 10 current clubs are committed to the future of the NA LCS -- and since no team is a doormat for the rest of the league -- it'd be disheartening to see any club ushered out of the league after a year in which it fended off all challengers from the minors.
Riot shouldn't be satisfied with the current crop of teams, though. Where Blizzard has had to actively recruit big-money investors and traditional sports owners for its inaugural season of the Overwatch League, that same money is standing in front of Riot's headquarters, ready to take the leap into a league that has established itself as a juggernaut on Twitch, YouTube and other online streaming services since the spring of 2013. Franchising means permanence, and although Blizzard's OWL has a lot going for it, Riot has the trump card that makes it more attractive to the vast majority of traditional sports owners: a track record and a built-in fan base that has shown it will continue to show up each time a new NA LCS season begins.
North America isn't at the same level as China, which has already implemented franchising and will have 14 teams in its premier division, the Legends Pro League (LPL), by the start of next year. China's player base dwarfs NA's, and the addition of teams didn't dilute the talent pool; it actually gave a broader spotlight to some of the younger talents in China's secondary league, the LoL Secondary Pro League (LSPL) -- far and away the strongest minor league of any region in the world, even South Korea's.
Waiting a year or two for the talent pool to hopefully catch up to the possible number teams in the league could work, but nobody knows the future of esports. A year of waiting could dissuade current applicants, and by the time Riot is open to adding them, they may already be committed to the Overwatch League or out of esports entirely, on to the next venture to invest in.
The perfect number for NA LCS next year should be 12. Most, if not all, of the current crop of the league's teams should return, and for the final two or three spots, the best new applicants should be accepted. Although Gold Coin United and eUnited failed to make it into the NA LCS this year, and other minor league teams would get brushed away by the current NA LCS teams, there is enough North American talent -- such as eUnited's Eric "Licorice" Ritchie and Gold Coin's Richard "Rikara" Oh -- that bringing two more teams into the mix shouldn't weaken the overall league, and those new franchises should have an opportunity through free agency to make sure they're not lame ducks come opening day in 2018.
Riot needs to walk a fine line come November when the teams for the new NA LCS will be announced. Maybe in a few years, if things go well with franchising and the region's growth overall, we can talk about an even bigger league.
Right now, the time is perfect to expand a little, and adding two more franchising positions is the correct step for the NA LCS going into the new year.