In the Team Mountain practice room, League of Legends Scouting Grounds participant and jungler Gabriel "Fanatiik" Saucier looked up at bot laner Bradley "Vex" Miller.
"They can see these hardworking players at Scouting Grounds, very passionate players, and pick them up," Vex said. "Give them a f---ing low salary. That's fine."
"That is not --" Fanatiik interrupted.
"I don't care, just give them a shot! I just want a shot to prove myself," Vex said.
"If a team will know that, they will make sure they will do that," Fanatiik warned.
"As long as I get a shot," Vex said.
The rest of the players in the room laughed good-naturedly, but they also expressed sympathy for Vex's plight. They also warned him never to say that he would accept a low salary, even in jest.
Vex participated in the inaugural 2016 Scouting Grounds event and made it back into the event this year. His fervent pleas to be considered by any League Championship Series Academy team underline the significant jump from amateur play to Academy in North America and how few opportunities there are outside of Scouting Grounds to be noticed.
Team Mountain teammates Fanatiik and Kostyantyn "PCL" Dudarchuk cited the lack of attention toward amateur events as well.
"My path has been weird for sure and not normal going from OpTic and then to TSM," Fanatiik said. "I was in and out, so it's hard to build fundamentals and learn from it or grow. I think this shows that I still have talent in me and that I've improved in my time off."
Fanatiik won the Scouting Grounds MVP award and was drafted second by FlyQuest on Nov. 16, the final day of the event. He will be FlyQuest Academy's starting jungler in 2020.
"It's getting that opportunity, you know," Vex said. "I've been playing at a high-level Challenger for three years now. Unfortunately, I haven't made Scouting Grounds the past two times, but it's just getting that opportunity, having someone see you and be like, 'Yeah, I can make this guy good.'"
Scouting Grounds is a worthwhile event because it gives much-needed attention to amateur players. The problem is that it has become one of the only amateur events that draws the attention of LCS teams.
Since the 2016-17 offseason, high-elo solo queue players or amateur players have been flown to the LCS Arena in Santa Monica, California, for what was touted as a League of Legends scouting combine. The eligibility rules have varied over the years, as has the format of the event, but the desired goal has remained the same: Aid North American teams in scouting their own talent and give organizations a bit of a push to look locally for prospects.
Community members looked at this year's Scouting Grounds with a slightly keener eye, and with good reason: The event played out against the backdrop of North America's recent failures at the League of Legends World Championship.
100 Thieves Academy picked up four players from Scouting Grounds in 2018 and went on to win this year's summer split in the Academy league. Coach Kelsey Moser attributes some of her team's success to 100 Thieves' commitment to pulling talent from the event.
"I think that we've had some really cool players come up who are maybe players who sit around high Diamond or Master tier because they just don't have a lot of time, but then Scouting Grounds is a window of time where they're grinding constantly and suddenly coming out of nowhere in a span of a month or two months," Moser said. "Those types of players are really interesting, and they do pop up. I think Scouting Grounds is a big incentive right now.
"The downside of Scouting Grounds is that maybe there's not enough scouting done in the rest of the year. Maybe players feel, 'Oh, I didn't make it to Scouting Grounds this year,' or 'Oh, I made it to Scouting Grounds, but I didn't get picked up by any teams, so now I have a year of: What am I going to do?'"
No North American team made it out of the world championship group stage this year, the first time that has happened since 2015. Fans and analysts cried for a new approach by LCS teams: Develop talent at home, commit to the growth of players and try to broaden the pool of potential pros who could help the region be competitive internationally.
Instead, LCS teams went out and spent big once again, or tried to, on players from South Korea, China and Europe. Meanwhile, North American players like Eugene "Pobelter" Park went unsigned. The futures of young talents David "Yusui" Bloomquist and Tanner "Damonte" Damonte, were uncertain until they went to Team Liquid Academy and Dignitas Academy late in the free-agency period.
Even events like Scouting Grounds, where teams are supposed to get a look at fresh players, have been bogged down by known commodities because of this year's rules for qualification. Team Cloud were at the forefront of Scouting Grounds discussion due to the inclusion of top laner Derek "zig" Shao and jungler Rami "Inori" Charagh, both of whom have played on LCS teams before and qualified through the new Scouting Grounds Circuit with ANEW Esports.
North America has earned its reputation as the weakest of the four major regions -- China, Europe, North America and South Korea -- and has several other inherent infrastructure issues that should be addressed.
Among myriad issues being brought up in the current discussion of North America's international League of Legends failures: high ping on the native server, an inability to scrim stronger teams once reaching the top of North American competition, a smaller player base than other major regions, and the hottest current topic: a failure to invest in its own native talent.
Infrastructure is a broad term that has become the default reason for North American teams' poor showings in international events. It can be broken up into two parts: hard infrastructure (server location/ping, geographical location) and soft infrastructure (scouting, talent development, coaching staff).
Organizations can't control those hard infrastructure problems. They can, however, improve on the latter.
The ping problem is one that has plagued North American players since the regional server was created, and the issue was only exacerbated by the server moving from Los Angeles to Chicago. Chicago is a more central location for the entirety of the North American player base but results in high ping for professional players, all of whom reside in the Los Angeles area.
The server location results in significantly worse game quality on the native solo queue ladder.
"If we could make one change to the infrastructure of NA," Evil Geniuses assistant coach Connor "Artemis" Doyle said, "there absolutely has to be lower ping."
In-house scrimmages and the recent ability to stream while on the Tournament Realm server, which offers little to no ping, are the easiest fixes for individuals and teams.
But those workarounds also create a separation of pro players from developing amateur talent in the region.
The ladder becomes an odd, self-defeating cycle, made worse by the fact that the North American player base is smaller than that of any other major region. Pro players learn less when playing against amateur players who are significantly below their level, but separating them means that up-and-coming solo queue players have fewer opportunities to hone their skills against top competition.
The NALCSPA is excited to announce that pro players can now stream matches on the tournament realm. The PA coordinated with Riot to create this policy to enable players to get more quality practice in a low ping environment. (1/2)— NALCS Players Association (@NALCSPA) October 28, 2019
Many top-tier professional teams outside of North America also have in-house trainee squads focused on training up-and-coming talent before they become age-eligible for pro play at 17. Making a one-to-one comparison between a North American player and a Chinese rookie like Top Esports top laner Bai "369" Jia-Hao, a European rookie like Fnatic mid laner Tim "Nemesis" Lipovšek or, going back a year, KT Rolster's Son "Ucal" Woo-hyeon, is misleading because those players learn more in their development leagues and respective solo queue ladders.
"I think solo queue doesn't adequately prepare you for a team environment, especially NA, which is something that people are trying to figure out what to do about with in-houses and stuff," Maryville University support and Scouting Grounds hopeful Jordan "Shady" Robison said. A national champion in the collegiate scene this year, Shady has played on LCS, Academy and amateur teams. "It's just not a good representation of how the game is played on a competitive level. Bridging that gap, you have to do a lot on your own."
Initially, when foreign pros from Europe and South Korea came to North America, it was thought that they would help raise the level of solo queue play. Through the years, though, their presence has made little to no difference; those hard infrastructure problems still stand in the way.
The solo queue issue could be alleviated by adding another North American server, much like how China has more than 30 servers due to the sheer number of people who play League of Legends in the country. This would also mean that one server, likely the western one, would become the more competitive server. The tradeoff is that players on the "less competitive" server would still be able to practice on a lower ping, honing their mechanical skills more effectively before going to the "better server" on higher ping.
The player base problem, however, remains.
"The North American server isn't growing, and I think that's pretty telling," Artemis said. "I know that Korea's the biggest it's ever been and I think EU West is the biggest it's ever been. Ours is the same it has been and maybe even declining. And I think that's maybe indicative of a larger problem, and there's no quick fix."
At this year's world championship, Clutch Gaming were touted for developing domestic talent in Damonte, bot laner Cody "Cody Sun" Sun and support Philippe "Vulcan" Laflamme alongside veteran players from South Korea in top laner Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon and jungler Nam "Lira" Tae-yoo.
Artemis, who was an assistant coach for Clutch prior to joining Evil Geniuses, said the roster choices were less about the talent itself and more about the team's internal coaching system. Although Clutch went 0-6 in their group at worlds, the team looked much better than its play-ins counterparts and outperformed perennial powers like Team SoloMid in the regional gantlet and summer playoffs.
"Tanner came from Academy, Vulcan came from Academy, even me myself, I came from our Academy system," Artemis said. "I'm not sure if it's changed the way people think about North American talent. There are a few people in Academy who I think at least deserve a shot in LCS to see what they can contribute, but I think if anything, the takeaway that people had from us was that it's about the system you create, not necessarily how strong your players are.
"We had a lot of weaknesses to our roster and a lot of weaknesses to our gameplay, and we really had to be creative with how we approached draft and how we approached strategy and tactics within the game to find success. I think that teams saw that and hopefully rethought how they were creating a system to play."
If teams did tinker with their systems, however, it didn't show much during free agency. Clutch, now Dignitas, spent a reported $2.3 million on a two-year contract for Huni while leaving behind Damonte, Cody Sun and Vulcan.
Vulcan, and his $1.5 million buyout, was picked up by Cloud9 to be their starting support for the 2020 season. Cody Sun returned to 100 Thieves as their starting bot laner.
Damonte returned to Dignitas, but on their Academy lineup despite a fairly strong LCS performance. And of the 50 presumed starters on LCS rosters in 2020, only one, Dignitas' Johnson "Johnsun" Nguyen, is a rookie, in part because it is so difficult for teams to find the right fit.
"There's just not as many resources put towards scouting," Moser said. "A lot of times, people don't even have a system for scouting where they check things. They're just kind of like, 'Oh, this player looks cool.' Anecdotally, that has happened."
No other position in North America has been as maligned as Damonte's. The mid lane is a crucial control point on the map. Teams can get away with a lot of mistakes elsewhere if they have a solid mid laner who knows how to control minion waves and make the most of a good, or bad, one-on-one matchup. Synergy between a mid laner and a jungler is still seen as one of the most important relationships on a team due to how stifling a strong mid-jungle duo can be; a top-tier duo can essentially give full control of the map to a team in the early-to-mid game.
Of all LCS rosters for the upcoming 2020 spring split, only one has a native North American mid: Golden Guardians, who signed former Cloud9 Academy and LCS mid laner Greyson "Goldenglue" Gilmer. Even an established LCS-level talent like Pobelter was unable to find a starting spot in the LCS. He will spend his upcoming spring split as a position coach for Team Liquid.
"Mid is a high-impact role that demands high mechanical skill," Yusui said. "Simply put, teams don't want to take a risk that their mid laner has a rough start or fails to match up to the bar of LCS competition, so it's hard to get the chance to promote to LCS as a rookie mid."
Yusui has been on the periphery of the LCS since 2015 when he played on Cloud9 Tempest. Since that time he has retired, unretired and was given a brief stint on the LCS stage in 2019 with the now-defunct Echo Fox organization.
"I think Academy provides a more sustainable career, and Scouting Grounds offers a direct way to achieve this career coming straight out of solo queue, or amateur, so in a lot of ways it's easier now to be an amateur/Academy player," Yusui said. "That being said, it's still very difficult to make the transition to LCS from Academy because a lot of teams don't want to develop a player on the LCS stage and would rather sign a known quantity."
"The North American server isn't growing, and I think that's pretty telling. I know that Korea's the biggest it's ever been, and I think EU West is the biggest it's ever been. Ours is the same it has been and maybe even declining. And I think that's maybe indicative of a larger problem." Evil Geniuses assistant coach Connor "Artemis" Doyle
Other players who shined at Scouting Grounds are still seeking opportunities, too. Nearly all of the players drafted at Scouting Grounds have been released by the teams that drafted them and allowed to explore other options. Some have found new homes: AD carry Alex "Gorica" Gorica, for example, was picked third overall by 100 Thieves in the draft but went unsigned. He will be given a chance as Golden Guardians Academy's starting bot laner.
Earlier this year, Gorica's collegiate team made it to the College League of Legends Championship, where it faced Shady's Maryville squad. Unlike Maryville, which offers scholarships for its esports players, Gorica's Western Ontario team received no funding or backing from its school and was led by a group of five strong solo queue players. Although it lost to Maryville University in the finals, Western managed to upset a top varsity team in the 2018 champions the University of California-Irvine.
Collegiate has been regarded by many as a good starting point for investment in North American infrastructure. The LCS is a fully franchised league, and having a network of collegiate teams underneath it seems like a natural through line to connect investors' minds to something they're more familiar with: traditional sports. But outside of top programs like Maryville, collegiate is still not the best entry point for scouting domestic talent.
"The amateur scene is generally higher level than collegiate," Gorica said. "Macro is taught easier at an amateur level because most of the players have basic mechanical fundamentals compared to collegiate."
The variety in that skill floor comes from, again, a smaller player base and amount of talent in the collegiate scene. In traditional sports, not only does scouting typically begin at the high school level through collegiate programs, but there are enough top-tier recruits in Division I, many of whom are already well-known before the collegiate level, that having a wide pool of talent isn't an issue.
The League of Legends North American player base is already significantly smaller than a traditional sports talent pool. As with nearly all collegiate programs, even at the Division I level, not all of the players are there to go pro. The amateur scene remains the most likely feeder for new talent, but even that comes with some caveats.
"Something that could be interesting in terms of attracting more amateur players is more media around amateur stuff," Moser said. "I tried to watch amateur tournament streams. Half of the time the events aren't broadcasted. Of the remaining half, half of that isn't casted; it's like, 'Oh, we're going to stream the game.' There's very little energy built into promoting amateur, and a lot of people think collegiate could be an alternative. And I think there are a lot of good players and a lot of really motivated players in collegiate, but I think you have so many cross-sections and disconnections of motivations for doing something like collegiate that it can't be considered the primary source of talent scouting for sure."
One of Moser's own domestic players, Max "Soligo" Soong, a former Scouting Grounds talent who was brought up through 100 Thieves' Academy system, has recently made more of a name for himself in the Twitch Rivals League of Legends event than he did in Academy, erasing some of the negative stigma around his somewhat premature LCS debut on the main team.
The pool of opportunities to showcase that talent away from a Tier 1 stage remains small, however. The Tyler1 Championship Series, organized by streaming personality Tyler "Tyler1" Steinkamp, is one of the only other amateur events alongside Scouting Grounds that garners significant public attention. While the level of play isn't high, it draws attention to amateur players in a way that few NA tournaments do.
Ultimately, the so-called North American talent problem is multifaceted, and it includes many issues beyond organizations' control. A long competitive year means a small timing window to create rosters. Fewer international events mean fewer opportunities for top North American teams to scrimmage against stronger lineups from other regions. High ping on the native server and a smaller player base mean players fresh from solo queue will know less than solo queue talent in other major regions.
All of that adds up to this: Although the cream generally rises to the top, the typical top North American solo queue talent is less mechanically gifted and not as well equipped to compete at the top level as a South Korean, Chinese or European prospect. That reality then trickles into the pro scene, where teams are less willing to bring that player up as opposed to bringing over a foreign player.
But there is opportunity for improvement. There are things teams can control, such as talent development and scouting. Whether organizations want to put resources toward that growth, though, is unclear at best given the results of this year's free-agency period.