America has long been the weakest of the three hotbeds of StarCraft. The highest level of play can be found in Korea, and Europe takes a clear second place. America's comparative weakness to Europe and Korea, and the consequent weakness of the American server has created a self perpetuating cycle that prevents new North American players from going pro. Ladder practice is a key part of nearly all player's training regimen, and this means that American players that lack good ping to Europe or Korea simply don't have access to high quality practice.
The problem then is obvious, North American players are unable to train adequately unless they are fortunate enough to live on the East or West coast. The potential solutions are all imperfect, but with the upcoming release of Legacy of the Void now seems as good a times as ever to revisit the issue.
Forcing Players to Ladder in their WCS Region is One Solution
Perhaps the simplest solution would be to require WCS players to practice on the server that they qualified through. Assuming that this rule could be enforced it could theoretically increase the level of play on the American server. The WCS Premier players that qualified via North America are nearly always at the top of the ladder when they do choose to play on the American server. For players like Sam “Kane” Morrissette, Brandon “puCK” Qual, Chris “HuK” Loranger and Juan Carlos “majOr” Lopez the question isn't could they hit number one on the American server it's simply “How long would it take them?” Forcing these players to ladder on NA would unquestionably raise the level of play, and would certainly be beneficial to Challenger tier American players. The draw back is obvious though, the top-tier American players would have a much smaller pool of decent practice partners. This type policy would help Challenger tier players and others that are near that level but would punish the Premier class competitors. The other less obvious issue with this type of policy is the uneven ramifications across the various regions. European players would be largely unaffected as the Europe to Korea ping is not playable anyways and the European server is vastly preferable to the North American one. Oceanic players and Chinese players would both be forced to content with ladders that are inferior to even the American server. The SEA server is so inactive that there are only 12 players currently in Grandmaster League. The Chinese server is more active, but the level of play is still inferior to the American server. Both Chinese and Oceanic players rely on the Korean ladder for practice, and locking them into their “home” servers could arguably kill both the Chinese and Oceanic scenes. For the above stated reasons this rule is simply not viable, at least not without serious fine tuning. Forcing players in already struggling scenes to adapt sub-optimal practice habits is a band-aid and an ugly ineffective one at that. If we step away from the idea of using rules to try to fix the American ladder we can discover a potentially better solution.
Perhaps its time to realize that “How do we fix the American server?” is no longer the question we need to be asking. At this point the best solution may be to simply remove the American region and replace it with “Europe US East” and “Korea US West”. Currently when you select a region you're selecting which physical server you want to play on. Imagine if instead choosing a region was simply a choice of which player pool you were to be a part of. Which server the game was actually played on could be dynamically assigned during matchmaking. The matchmaking service could ping both players and determine the optimal server, in a situation where there is no optimal server the matchmaking service could perform a silent coin flip. The same solution could also be applied to SEA, with an SEA Korea player pool, and an SEA North America player pool.
Some players would likely lose their status of GM but that's a small price to pay
The biggest drawback to this solution would be the fact that players could encounter high latency games. Midwestern players with poor ping to Europe and Korea would still have poor ping to the European and Korean servers. Pings could be taken into account during matchmaking to avoid these scenarios. The Midwestern players would still be unable to practice against Korean or European players, but at very least they would be in the same player pool as the top NA players on the East and West coasts. It's not a perfect solution, but it would provide American players with poor ping to Europe and Korea significantly better quality practice than what is currently available to them, and it would do so without negatively affecting the North American players that do have access to the European and Korean servers.
We've seen how access to high quality practice can greatly bolster a region's strength. After a year of serving as Ko “Hyun” Seok Hyun's ZvT practice partner Patrick “Bunny” Brix has emerged as Europe's top Terrans, recently finishing first in his Fragbite Master's Group defeating both HyuN and Kim “Soulkey” Min Chul. American players simply don't have these same opportunities, even those that are talented enough to become top foreigners if they had better practice enviroments.
Johan “NaNiwa” Lucchesi once said that the single most important benefit of going to Korea is low ping access to the Korean ladder. There's no way around the fact that ladder matters. If there is any hope for American players to compete against Korean or even European players at any kind of meaningful level, there has to be massive changes to the way the American ladder is handled.