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The LPL’s secret to its emerging dominance may lie in its development league

Jonathan Yee 2019-02-27 03:00:56
  With franchising comes the opportunity for more teams to develop players, but not all development leagues are equal. China's LoL Development League is leading the world in its key purpose: to provide a platform for upcoming talents to gain stage experience in a competitive environment.
Much has been made of the connection between Europe's talent mill and their national leagues, which provide a training ground for upcoming European talents to show their stuff. Many a player has made the step from national leagues (or the Turkish league) to the LEC, and franchising has only elevated the relative prestige of these unique leagues which run parallel to the top league. However, there is another league out there which has been performing the same function since at least 2014: China’s LoL Development League (LDL), previously known as the Secondary Pro League (LSPL) acts as a secondary division to its sister league, the LPL.  The LSPL has historically consisted both of upcoming talents and those who did not quite cut it at the LPL level. Players below the age of 17 are allowed to compete in the LDL, which is unique among all regions to the best of my knowledge. Players like 369, who played last season in the LDL for King of Future and now plays for its sister team Topsports Gaming, only turned 17 last November and were direct beneficiaries of the non-existent age barrier. Other players whom we are now very familiar with like Knight and Ning also cut their teeth in the then-LSPL with Young Miracles, narrowly failing to make it to the LPL on multiple occasions.    

The LDL’s unique format

  Franchising and the sheer amount of organizations in the LDL actually necessitated regional divisions; in 2018, a staggering 32 teams competed each split and the top teams were seeded into play-offs. Despite the advent of franchising, the LDL would continue to serve as a hybrid academy/second league and its best non-franchise team would be promoted to the LPL on a yearly basis until 2020 at least. This environment where upcoming organizations can still potentially make it to the LPL adds a dimension of actual competition to the league, and even provides a stage for said orgs to show that they can create a team that is able to compete in the LPL in the future - barring that, they can still work on developing players and selling them on. When the Academy league was created in the LCS, its online environment resulted in the observation that Academy players were not getting stage experience; indeed, although several academy players got to play on the LCS stage over the course of 2018, few looked better than an average rookie plucked out of solo queue. The Academy environment, unlike the LDL and National Leagues, did not appear to be adequately preparing its players for the jump to the LCS. The prevailing thought seemed to be that it made very little difference as to whether the academy teams were winning or losing, resulting in the Academy Worlds meme being perpetuated by fans, players and even commentators.  

No substitute for stage experience

  No amount of scrims or practice can make up for high-pressure scenarios and playing in front of a crowd on a regular basis; the atmosphere is completely different from playing at home or in a gaming house/office. The LDL, with its mandated academy rosters for all 16 LPL teams alongside 9 other organizations, is arguably as competitive as any top league; teams will play a majority of their games offline in a single round-robin. At the conclusion of 2018’s summer split, the best teams in both spring and summer were seeded into a Grand Final, wherein only the winner was guaranteed an LPL spot - which SinoDragon Gaming duly won. SDG has taken to the LPL like a fish to water, easily holding their own despite featuring a lack of known players. Indeed, to get through the LDL play-offs is perhaps already a trial by fire of its own, as although it featured best of 3 series until the final, there was a losers’ bracket in play. Elsewhere, when Rogue Warriors let go of its entire 2018 roster, it brought up its entire academy squad in an unprecedented move, and are doing about as expected for a team full of rookies: able to take a few games but still making mistakes that more experienced players would not make. The key is that they are being put on stage regardless, and no matter the result, they will learn and grow with each series.  

Grueling, but extremely competitive schedules

  It is not just the depth of talent China harbors that allows organizations to place so much faith in youths. Prior to 2018, the LPL could only make a case for being perhaps the second-best region in the world, beside EU and behind Korea. There is also a competition-first mentality instilled in the LPL and LDL, which resulted in the most grueling schedule of any region in 2018; LPL teams played an average of 46 games during the summer regular split (games are distinct from series played). The 2019 spring split has reduced the amount of games played for LPL teams, but the 16 teams are still set to play a minimum of 30 (15x2) games, while LDL teams will play a minimum of 48(!) games in spring 2019 due to the single round-robin format featuring 25 teams. For comparison, LCK teams played an average of 43 games last summer, and LDL teams posted 34 games. This is without even going into play-offs, where the winner would have to win three Best-of-5 series in a row to be crowned champions. Much of Korea’s competitiveness as a region arguably stemmed from its OGN Champions format, which promised the same grueling bracket - it was such that Worlds seemed much less difficult in comparison, because there weren’t as many Korean teams to overcome. The following table shows the amount of regular games played over the course of a summer split, not including play-offs. Median is used to illustrate how much any team can expect to play during a split.
Team LPL Summer 2018 LCK Summer 2018 LDL Summer 2018 - North
Bilibili Gaming 48 Afreeca Freecs 46 SinoDragon Gaming 33
Edward Gaming 44 BBQ Olivers 43 OnlyGame 32
Funplus Phoenix 46 Gen.G 44 Virtual Reality Game 35
Invictus Gaming 49 Griffin 41 Victory Song Gaming 35
JD Gaming 50 Hanwha Life Esports 46 Joy Dream 36
LGD Gaming 42 Jin Air Green Wings 45 Royal Club 32
OMG 46 Kingzone DragonX 43 Big One Gaming 35
Rogue Warriors 44 KT Rolster 43 LaoPengYou 32
Royal Never Give Up 44 MVP 41
Snake Esports 47 SK Telecom T1 44
Suning Gaming 47
Team WE 48
Topsports Gaming 47
Vici Gaming 46
Median 46.5 43.5 34
Compare this to NA and EU, where both main and academy teams played 18 regular split games during summer. The West is already at a disadvantage in terms of games played even before stepping onto the international stage, and as long as Tencent and Riot keep up the Best-of-3 schedule along with competitive secondary leagues allowing for promotion, new talents in China and Korea will continue to emerge to replace ageing stars; already in Korea we are seeing the rise of the likes of Griffin and SANDBOX Gaming, both rosters filled with players with little experience in the LCK but taking over the league regardless.  

Development leagues can use improvement

  Europe has arguably found its answer to developing players through its national leagues, but if the likes of North America are to churn out more players ready for the LCS and international play, it is going to have to do a lot more than collegiate and Academy Worlds. There is also a need from organizations to embolden young players more than it already does; keeping them in academy in its current state will not do as much as giving them stage experience in the LCS. It has to be stressed, however, that more games without improvements in the format (such as making teams play 4 rounds of best of 1) are not necessarily going to be as useful.   

Conclusion

  The LDL is still in its second year and the format is always undergoing changes, but it cannot be denied that the LDL to LPL system in China is one that almost guarantees a progression from amateur to pro play. There is simply no substituting stage experience with any placebo, and the less a player gets, the more likely it is that they will choke and worse, be deemed not good enough. Not only do LDL players get stage time, they also play an amount of games that is comparable to the LPL, allowing at least for the best LDL teams and players to fit into the rigour of the LPL’s schedule. Finding a better academy system in existence for League esports will be a tall order.
If you enjoyed this article, follow the author on Twitter at @amigrainelol
 

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