"Where were you when the West Rose up?"
Europe's first true taste of international victory since the game's inception was a sentiment that spurred on the region. Three of the eight quarter finalists in the 2019 World Championship were from the League of Legends European Championship (LEC), and G2 Esports made a historic run all the way to the world finals. But Europe has not reached these highs again, and indeed in 2022's World Championship, Rogue - the singular European team to even qualify for the quarter finals - were soundly sent home in a 3-0 sweep by the League of Legends Pro League's (LPL) JD Gaming (JDG).
So why is it that with competitive League of Legends on the rise worldwide, European League of Legends is declining, and what can be done to stop it? With its revamped 2023 format and EMEA changes, the LEC is seeking to answer that question.
For those who don't know, the LEC (formerly the League of Legends European Championship) has rebranded ready for 2023 to the League of Legends Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) Championship - still the LEC for short.
The LEC is changing from a two-split system to a three-split system, incorporating more high-stakes games, as well as best-of-three and best-of-five matches into the championship more frequently, in an attempt to increase the competitive strength of the region.
With this rebranding also comes a change in catchment regions accredited by Riot Games. Amidst the league's expansion however, the Northern League of Legends Championship (NLC) is notably no longer an accredited region.
Out of the 50 main roster players slated to play in the LEC in 2023, 16 of them are either from and/or have played in the NLC or its associated regions during their careers, particularly when rising through Europe's competitive League of Legends scene.
Therefore, nearly a third of the LEC has been contributed to in some way by the Northern Region in total, including standouts such as Carl Martin Erik "Rekkles" Larsson, Rasmus "Caps" Borregaard Winther, and Martin "Wunder" Nordahl Hansen. Furthermore, notable 2023 LEC rookies such as Kim "Chasy" Dong-hyeon and Martin "Yike" Sundelin follow suit, proving the NLC is still invaluable as a piece of Europe's talent-producing puzzle.
Therefore, it may seem like an odd decision to cut funding from such a crucial region during a time when European League of Legends is struggling. Most popular during the Summer split, the LEC has fallen from having a peak viewership of 1,002,178 and an average viewership of 301,165 in 2020 to a peak viewership of 732,573 and an average viewership of 211,743 in 2022.
On the other hand, NLC viewership has been on the rise in the past two years. Also most popular during the Summer Split, the NLC has risen from a peak viewership of 9,925 and an average viewership of 1,860 to a peak viewership of 14,023 and an average viewership of 3,822 in 2022. Due to no longer being accredited, however, the NLC is a pipeline that could suffer immensely moving forwards, and this could be the start of a worrying trend in Europe's ability to produce talent.
For example, X7 Esports, the organisation from which Chasy has just joined MAD Lions, is shutting down. A major NLC competitor, placing first in Spring and second in Summer, the changes to the region's accreditation mean they can no longer continue to operate, and so their skill in producing and integrating talent into Europe has been lost.
In a public statement Josh Kingett, Founder and CEO of X7 Esports said:
"Our intent throughout 2022 has been to raise capital and continue our growth in 2023, however X7 - like many other businesses, was hit with a series of unforeseen global circumstances this year.
"However, due to the recent changes made by Riot Games for European Regional Leagues (ERLs) for 2023, in collaboration with our regional TO, Freaks 4U Gaming, it was announced the NLC will be downgraded to non-accredited status, which includes heavy budget cuts. The knock-on effect has a profound impact on our projected revenue moving forwards, devalues the assets we hold and puts a stop to the business model we implemented to provide sustainability for the company."
It is important to note, as Kingett does, that a myriad of unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances have contributed to an economic decline, however the NLC's loss of accreditation has compounded what was already a dire situation.
As with X7, many teams are looking internationally for talent during these times.
Kingett said: "Having noticed a steady demand for imported talent in both the LEC/LCS, our goal with X7 and its League of Legends project was providing a platform to foster world-class players from East Asia, and to help integrate them into Western teams.
"We achieved demonstrable success with this business model, and are proud to have worked with and transferred Kang "Haru" Min-seung and Kim "Chasy" Dong-hyeon to Team Vitality and MAD Lions respectively to the LEC."
Perhaps, what we see in X7's collapse, is a potential future of the LEC if it relies too heavily on imported talent and continues to neglect ERLs. Yet, imports in the LEC continue to rise, from just two in 2021 to seven in 2023, including players such as Kim "Malrang" Geun-seong who has made a name for themselves in the LEC, plus new talent, and regional standouts such as Shunsuke "Evi" Murase.
Anne Banschbach, Esports Director at Team Vitality, sees a different reality. Team Vitality has imported top laner Kyeong "Photon" Gyu-tae from the LCK Challengers League's T1 Challengers and jungler Zhou "Bo" Yang-Bo from the LPL's FunPlus Phoenix for the new season.
With both players set to debut in Team Vitality's 2023 starting roster, Team Vitality sees the new format changes and importing players as an opportunity to increase Europe's competitiveness, and therefore the calibre of its upcoming talent.
Banschbach told us: "We and the players are excited for the new format in 2023. Having more officials during the regular season and a chance to play more BO3s and BO5s is what we wanted for a long time. More officials mean more stage experience. After all, the best practice is the actual competition."
Speaking about their roster, Banschbach added: "Team Vitality's first ambition has always been to identify, develop and celebrate new talents. Our focus in the last years has been more and more centred around making solid scouting decisions with more informed insights. That paired with the respective great opportunities around these international talents, we went for it.
"Building a team around Bo and Perkz was the goal for 2023. Photon was simply the perfect mix of playstyle, character and availability we had the chance to pick up.
"Performance is in our DNA, we want to be successful on LEC and international stages. We have therefore chosen a veteran core with experienced LEC players as well as promising talents who did not yet have the chance to show their full range.
"Further talent development is why we continue to operate our LFL Academy team and where we focus on rookies with great potential to become a future star and starter in the LEC."
Banschbach signed off with: "We believe that the new format has the potential to positively impact not only the LEC standing internationally but also make space for new talent coming from Europe. Having international talent in the LEC will challenge the rest of the European scene to adapt and improve in order to stay competitive, which will only strengthen the scene in the long run."
Similarly, frequent NLC and LEC caster Alex "Nymaera" Hapgood believes the EMEA changes and importing of players will inject life back into a quickly stagnating region - both in the case of the LEC and NLC.
Nymaera told us: "It is very hard to overlook up-and-coming Korean talent.
"The actual orgs and development of players (in Europe) is far, far behind Korea.
"Is it easier to integrate someone from a foreign culture with a second language English speaking ability, or teach someone higher level League of Legends to the highest degree so they'd be on par?"
There seems to be a shortage of experience and talent in Europe as a whole. This makes it hard for teams - which are, at their core, businesses - to justify the significantly higher financial costs of long-term investments in ERL-grown talent that may not pay off.
Instead, importing cheaper, highly-skilled players and investing in reliable integration systems seems to be the way many are looking to go.
As a franchised league, teams in the LEC have often been able to coast throughout splits, and tolerate sub-par performances. With earlier knockouts, the pressure to perform increases.
Nymaera said: "You have the fear of irrelevance in a much higher degree than you've had before.
"What you essentially have is relegation fear without actually being relegated.
"I think it's going to affect the bottom end of the league in a positive way just through sheer fear of having to improve."
Naturally, Nymaera states, less on-screen game time means less brand representation for organisations' partners, and so they are forced to push for performance like never before, as it directly impacts their revenue streams.
This pressure also extends to ERLs. In a region which he argues already suffers from a "non-intuitive" collective marketing identity, the economics of the NLC's pipeline business model seem to have run dry.
He added: "Now, you've got very important and influential players, staff, and teams pulling out of the league.
"You're losing a bedrock of skill sets that are hard to replace at an ERL level.
"It leads to another period of instability, it leads to another kind of emotionally difficult situation for a lot of people involved with it, and for new folks coming in, in all walks of the industry, there are less skill sets to train yourself with - it is a less premier environment to be a talent pipeline for greater things - which is what the NLC positions itself to be."
Increasing pressure can lead to diamonds in the rough, however, and Nymaera sees pathways for improvement and innovation across the board in European League of Legends.
"Maybe there is room for expansion (in LEC franchising) in the future, or for more resources to be put into the European Masters circuit," Nymaera stated.
"Maybe in best-of-three matches, you can think about how substitutes work in the LEC."
Looking at the NLC, Nymaera concluded: "Maybe it's better to have a cut back so you can organically grow from that point.
"We're in the dirt - let's go make something out of it."
Whatever the case, it's shaping up to be an interesting and unprecedented year for European League of Legends. But will it be the start of a new golden era, or the last nail in the coffin? We'll see when the LEC kicks off for 2023 on January 21, followed by the NLC on January 24.
What are your thoughts about the future of the LEC and NLC? Which teams are you most excited for this year? Let us know below.