Up until a few weeks ago, no one has heard about Sergen “Broken Blade” Çelik. Now, he’s the starting top laner for TSM, and his stream racks up an average of 10,000 concurrent viewers. He didn’t just come out of nowhere either. Broken Blade hails from the Turkish Champions League (TCL) where he’s well-known for his mechanical prowess and carry-oriented mindset.
Of course, it’s too early to call him a success story. The NA LCS is a different beast than the TCL, and Broken Blade has yet to prove he can fill Hauntzer’s shoes and perform under the spotlight. But the fact that a North American powerhouse was willing to take a chance on a wildcard player opens up a conversation on whether other teams should follow this example. After all, emerging regions could act as great scouting grounds if you approach them from the right angle.
As much as every esports fan winces at the sound of the p-word, it’s hard to deny that there’s a lot of untapped potential in emerging regions. The League of Legends scene is vast, and even if you exclude NA LCS, LEC, LCK, LPL, and LMS, there are nine more similarly structured competitions taking place all over the globe. Granted, none of them have the scope and the scale of the premier leagues. But you still have a decent chance to stumble upon an undiscovered prodigy simply because no else bothered to look for him over there.
Another argument in favor of emerging regions is cost efficiency. It’s no secret that player salaries are getting higher and higher with every passing year, and some League of Legends orgs already started downscaling their rosters because they could no longer afford to pay the big names. With that, players from emerging regions suddenly become a very lucrative prospect. Not only will most of them jump at the opportunity to play in a premier league, but they’re also likely to be cheaper than local talent since esports wages aren’t nearly as big in the wildcard regions.
Finally, there’s a proven record of emerging regions producing top-tier players. At Worlds 2016, Likkrit and his playmaking supports were the driving force behind Albus Nox Luna’s explosive group stage showings. Half a year later, Levi made a splash by challenging world-class junglers at the 2017 MSI. And while no wildcard teams made it past the Play-In stage at Worlds 2018, the likes of Diamondprox and Zeitnot still stood out as players that could easily hold their own in premier leagues.
Barrier of entry
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though, and recruiting players from emerging regions comes with its own set of challenges. For instance, it’s much harder to tell how good a wildcard pro really is. A player can look overwhelming on his home turf, but that might only be the case because he’s facing weak competition. Take him out of that ecosystem, and he will just turn into an average LCS pro. With that, the only ways to find out if he’s a wildcard player is a good fit for your team is to fly him out for some scrims or hire a top-tier talent scout to analyze his play.
Then there are cultural and language barriers. One of the main reasons why established orgs are hesitant to sign unproven imports is that it’s impossible to tell how they will adjust to a different environment. Sure, some wildcard players can have a decent grasp of English, but it might still take a while before they get used to communicating in a foreign language. Meanwhile, pros like 100T’s Levi might not know English at all, so they will have to spend several splits learning how to talk to their teammates.
You also need to consider the probability of visa issues. A team can easily miss out on a good player because it’s close to impossible to sort out the paperwork. Granted, this doesn’t apply to all cases, but the fact that even a high-profile player like Diamondprox had to change the course of his entire career when he couldn’t get a work visa to play in the EU LCS still leaves a lot of room for concern.
Still, the biggest problem with players from emerging regions is that they take up import slots. There are only so many foreigners European and North American teams can sign, so every import slot is worth its weight in gold. You need to know that a wildcard player is worth it. Otherwise, you’re just taking a shot in the dark and hoping to hit the bullseye.
Gamble or strategy?
Signing wildcard players is the definition of a high-risk, high-reward move. The cons are substantial, but the pros can be big enough to outweigh them. Some orgs have already tried to pull this off with mixed results, but TSM Broken Blade is the first wildcard player to start in the LCS from the beginning of the season. His success or lack thereof will largely dictate whether Western teams will turn to emerging regions as their next scouting grounds.
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