What is the LCS? Everything you need to know

Since the beginning, the LCS and its sister leagues in Europe and Asia have set the standard for what esports leagues can be.

Dropping Dimes

While it’s never been thought of as the peak of League of Legends gameplay, the North American League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) has a dedicated fanbase, professional broadcasts, and a rich history. Since the beginning, the LCS and its sister leagues in Europe and Asia have set the standard for what esports leagues can be. This article will break down what keeps the league’s weekly 200,000+ viewers tuning in: the teams, the quality of the broadcast, and the history of LCS. 

League origins

In the early, “wild west” days of competitive League of Legends, tournaments were held in convention rooms across Europe and North America, drawing a few hundred fans and a few thousand dollars. The tournament circuit was put on by the established esports powerhouses of the time: Intel Extreme Masters and Major League Gaming. Teams were mostly owned and invested in by the teenaged and early 20-something players who traveled around the world to attend the competitions. Viewership on Twitch was steadily growing, but still small when compared to the dominant esport of the time – Starcraft. Then came the Season 1 LoL World Championship, a tournament produced by the game’s creator – Riot Games – with a prize pool of $100,000 and a viewer count that reached over 1 million people throughout its run.  

With such a massive show of potential for the game, everything changed. Riot took control of the esport side of things and competitive LoL became more professional in a hurry. Games moved from convention halls to sports arenas, investments came in from traditional sports figures like Mark Cuban, and Riot announced the formation of a professional North American League called the North American League of Legends Championship Series, or LCS for short. 

Format

The LCS is a ten-team league that plays a regular season of two round robins in a best of 1 format. After each team’s 18 game regular season, the top six finishers are entered into the playoff bracket pictured below, with every round played in a best of 5 format.

LCS seasons are divided between two “Splits” – spring and summer. The two regular seasons are structured the same, but have different rewards and playoff structures. Both splits have a prize pool that awards $100,000 to first, $50,000 to second, $30,000 to third, and $20,000 to fourth. The winner in the Spring Split is entered into the Mid-Season Invitational (MSI). The top 3 finishers from the summer bracket below are entered into the LoL World Championship.

Broadcast

The LCS regular-season broadcast is done live from a Los Angeles talk-show-style studio with a few hundred seats. It is mainly broadcast on internet platforms Twitch and YouTube, but has made a foray onto traditional sports networks like ESPN. Playoffs are typically broadcast from larger sports arenas like Madison Square Garden. 

The show itself is very familiar to traditional sports viewers. It has an analyst desk of talking heads – who fill the space before and after games – and an announcing team that breaks down game action as it takes place. Think College Football Gameday, but with much smaller humans and much larger computers. 


Teams

Team Solo Mid

  • Abbreviation: TSM
  • Current roster: 
    • Top-Huni
    • Mid-PowerOfEvil
    • Jungle-Spica
    • ADC-Lost
    • Support-SwordArt
  • LCS championships: 7
  • Best international finish: 4th place at Worlds 2011
  • Notable investors: Steph Curry, Andre Iguodala

TSM is to the LCS what the Los Angeles Lakers are to the NBA. They are by far the most dominant team in LCS history, winning 67 championships in the first 156 splits and finishing 4th or better 134 times.  They have represented North America in 78 of the 910 world championships. They have the largest and loudest fan base. They even have enough organizational instability and controversy to rival the Lakers. Despite all their domestic success, TSM has struggled with the quality of competition at international tournaments and never really made a run there.

In 2020, TSM made a final run at being North America’s best team with the Bjergsen/Doublelift core by winning the Summer Championship. However, once again TSM fell short at the World Championship with a disappointing group stage flame out. Doublelift and Bjergsen have since retired and TSM will only return one player in 2021: jungler, Spica. It is the first time since 2013 that a TSM team will feature someone other than Bjergsen in the mid lane. He will try out his talents at the head coach role. 

Expectations will remain high for TSM though as they brought in  2020 Worlds Finalist Swordart, 2017 Worlds Finalist Huni, and 2017 Worlds Quarterfinalist PowerofEvil to pair with their homegrown youngsters Spica and Lost. TSM will hope this combination of veterans and young studs will continue their run of domestic success and finally push them over the top at an international tournament.    


Counter Logic Gaming

  • Abbreviation: CLG
  • Current roster: 
    • Top-Finn
    • Mid-Pobelter
    • Jungle-Broxah
    • ADC-Wildturtle
    • Support-Smoothie
  • LCS championships: 2
  • Best international finish:  2nd place MSI 2016
  • Notable investor: Madison Square Garden group

If TSM is the Lakers, then CLG is the Knicks. A team with a huge fanbase, an enigmatic owner, a short run of success in its history, and much longer runs of pain and suffering for their fans. As one of the oldest organizations in North American League of Legends, CLG has managed to hang on to their die-hard supporters, despite generating near-constant disappointment. Doublelift started his career with CLG, with his talents largely wasted as the team held on to inferior players from the Pre-LCS days. When CLG finally found the winning combination to claim their first LCS championship in summer 2015, it produced the most emotional moment in LCS history.

After a disappointing Worlds run, the team moved on from Doublelift due to long-rumored personality conflicts. However, the team maintained their success and won spring 2016. They followed that up with the LCS’ best finish at an international competition in a miracle run to second place at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational. Unfortunately, what felt like the turning point for the frequently agonizing team turned out to be a blip on the radar, as they slowly sank back down the standings in the years following.

The current iteration of CLG is caught in the purgatory of the middle of the LCS. Never bad enough to completely blow it up but never good enough to truly compete, their team is mostly composed of good but not great veterans who can get them into the playoffs and not much further. For CLG to reward their still enormous fan base, they need a top-to-bottom reboot, or some folks may just lose faith.


Cloud9

  • Abbreviation: C9
  • Current roster:
    • Top-Fudge
    • Mid-Perkz
    • Jungle-Blaber
    • ADC-Zven
    • Support-Vulcan
  • LCS championships: 3
  • Best international finish: 4th place at Worlds 2018
  • Notable investors: WWE, Hunter Pence

Cloud9 may not have the tenure of CLG and TSM in pre-LCS League of Legends, but their history in the LCS is one of consistent competition for championships. On top of their 3 titles, they have 10 top 4 finishes and have appeared at every World Championship since entering the LCS. It’s Cloud9’s willingness to grow and nurture talent that has set them apart. When they entered the league in 2013, they began with a team of five relatively unknown players from North America, and they dominated. Then, rather than give into the allure of signing more talented foreign players, Cloud9 kept their team together and let them grow year after year until the players retired or declined. In a maturing esports world that was still too often seemingly run by children, Cloud9 was the example of stability and professionalism that brought the LCS into the modern era.

2020 was a year of high highs and low lows for Cloud9. After only dropping only 2 games in the Spring Split en route to an easy title, Cloud9 caught a bad run of form and a bad metagame at the wrong time in the Summer and missed the World Championship. Cloud9 did not push the panic button for 2021 though, hoping that Summer 2020 was a small blip for a team on the rise towards international competition. Rather C9 has brought back a lot of what was working with their homegrown talents Vulcan and Blaber and European veteran Zven and now added perhaps the most hyped transfer in the history of the LCS with mid laner Perkz.

Perkz comes over with the experience of playing in a World Final, winning an MSI, and arguably still in his prime. After taking on the ADC role for G2 to make room for Caps, Perkz will go back to his preferred Mid lane with C9. It is the role he was once thought of as one of the best in the world and where his decisive mind and shot-calling can be the most influential. Some are saying Perkz will be the best player to ever play in the LCS after this split. If he is, C9 could be the most internationally competitive team North America has seen in a long time. 


Team Liquid

  • Abbreviation: TL
  • Current roster:
    • Top-Alphari
    • Mid-Jensen
    • Jungle-Santorin
    • ADC-Tactical
    • Support-CoreJJ
  • LCS championships: 4
  • Best international finish: 2nd place at MSI 2019
  • Notable investors: Michael Jordan, Tony Robbins

Team Liquid’s early history was one of falling short. For a long time in the LCS, it was said that TL should just add 4th place to the front of their name due to their penchant for finishing just outside of Worlds qualification. When the LCS switched over to a franchising system in 2018, new investment and new players completely upended Team Liquid’s narratives. After signing Doublelift – the greatest North American player ever – along with former World Champion Impact, TL went on one of the most dominant runs the LCS has ever seen. Liquid won a record 4 straight splits and finished second at the Mid-Season Invitational. That run ended, as it always does for LCS teams not named Cloud9, on a tough bowing out in the group stages of Worlds 2019.

Post-Worlds, Liquid struggled with interpersonal conflict and motivation issues – mostly stemming from Doublelift – prompting the team to move on from their franchise player after missing the playoffs in Spring 2020.

eam Liquid’s infrastructure ended up winning out as Tactical developed into one of the best ADCs in the league and the team had a respectable World Championship showing, despite losing in the group stage. For 2021, Team Liquid has tried to upgrade their top lane by bringing in Alphari, a player who has been thought of as the best at his position in the LEC at times and jungler, Santorin, who was the best jungler in the LCS last split. It was certainly an impressive offseason for Team Liquid who will again be competing for an LCS championship and a shot at international success.   


100 Thieves

Aug 25, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; Team Liquid celebrates during the trophy presentation holding up four fingers after winning the LCS Summer Finals event against Cloud9 at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
  • Abbreviation: 100T
  • Current roster:
    • Top-Ssumday
    • Mid-Damonte
    • Jungle-Closer
    • ADC-FBI
    • Support-Huhi
  • LCS championships: 0
  • Best international finish: N/A
  • Notable investors: Drake, Dan Gilbert of the Cleveland Cavaliers

100 Thieves joined the LCS in 2018 after the move to franchising, with deep pockets and a clear intention to win. In their first splits, 100 Thieves focused on signing former greats, including World Champions Bang and Ssumday. The veterans delivered immediate success, as 100T made the playoffs in each of their first 2 splits. However, as the players aged, there started to be a significant decline. Ssumday has remained at the top of the league but, at every other position, it was clear fresh blood was needed.

This brings us to the present-day 100 Thieves, a squad that seems focused on long-term success rather than short-term one-offs. A recent video by respected LoL analyst Gbay99 highlighted how well 100 Thieves has done at scouting and signing the best talent in North America.

That will be on full display in 2021 as 100T poached 4 of the 5 players from the 2020 Golden Guardians team that finished 5th and seemed to be on the rise, but in need of a top lane upgrade. On 100T, those players will get their top lane upgrade with former World Champion Ssumday. 100T will be a team that expects to make playoffs this year, and if things go just right, pull off their first LCS championship.


Dignitas

  • Abbreviation: DIG
  • Current roster:
    • Top-FakeGod
    • Mid-Soligo
    • Jungle-Dardoch
    • ADC-Neo
    • Support-Aphromoo
  • LCS championships: 0
  • Best international finish: N/A
  • Notable investors: David Blitzer and Joshua Harris of the Philadelphia 76ers

As one of the oldest organizations in NA LoL, Dignitas has appeared content to remain in the scene without actually competing in any meaningful way. Despite being one of the league’s founding teams, they have only advanced to the LCS playoffs twice. Dignitas was even relegated and disbanded before the franchising shift in the LCS. They are a team known for hanging on to veteran fan-favorite personalities way past their prime. The few times Dignitas has had promising talent, they let them go – like in the case of Korean CoreJJ, who later went on to win a world championship.

Today’s Dignitas is, as expected, a collection of LCS veterans who have had multiple flame-outs with other teams. Their one bright spot in 2021, ADC Johnsun, has left the team for FlyQuest and been replaced by Neo, a player who has been in between the first tier and second tier of North American LoL. It will be another season of low expectations for Dignitas in 2021. This team needs their 76ers ownership to do a “Process” 2.0.   


 Golden Guardians

  • Abbreviation: GGS
  • Current roster:
    • Top-Niles
    • Mid-Ablazeolive
    • Jungle-Iconic
    • ADC-Stixxay
    • Support-Newbie
  • LCS championships: 0
  • Best international finish: N/A
  • Notable investors: Joe Lacob of the Golden State Warriors

The Golden State Warriors-owned franchise Golden Guardians has started its LCS history as a bottom feeders. In their 6 splits so far in the LCS, the Guardians have yet to achieve a record above .500. They have tried signing both proven – if slightly washed – veterans and, most recently, new talent.

After their most successful split in Summer 2020, where the team went 9-9 and pulled off some playoff upsets, Golden Guardians sold their entire roster and will play with a team of mostly unknowns in 2021.  There were rumours that the basketball ownership was looking for ways to cut costs after a less profitable 2020 due to covid and no longer wanted to spend the kind of money their old roster would have cost. 

It is one of the first times in the LCS a team will try the strategy of using a season to develop new talent, rather than be competitive. Time will tell how it pays off. 


Evil Geniuses

  • Abbreviation: EG
  • Current roster:
    • Top-Impact
    • Mid-Jizuke
    • Jungle-Svenskeren
    • ADC-Deftly
    • Support-Ignar
  • LCS championships: 0
  • Best international finish: N/A
  • Notable investors: Peak6 Investments

Although Evil Geniuses is one of the oldest names in esports, they are the newest LCS team, having bought their spot in the league from Rick Fox’s Echo Fox in 2020. So far, EG has done what a lot of new teams do in LCS: sign big-name veterans and former world champions in hopes of being competitive right away. This has proven successful for Evil Geniuses, as they made the playoffs in their first two splits.

For 2021, Evil Geniuses will remain in “win now” mode with a team of 5 players with extensive LCS and LEC experience. By bringing in former World Champion Impact and Worlds quarterfinalist, Ignar, Evil Geniuses has made it clear they see themselves among the LCS’ elite.


Flyquest

  • Abbreviation: FLY
  • Current roster:
    • Top-Licorice
    • Mid-Palafox
    • Jungle-Josedeodo
    • ADC-Johnsun
    • Support-Diamond
  • LCS championships: 0
  • Best international finish: Group Stage of Worlds 2020
  • Notable investors: Wesley Edens of the Milwaukee Bucks

“Flyquest is exceeding expectations” has been said over and over since they joined the LCS in 2017. This is the kind of half-compliment that hints at the fact that Flyquest’s collection of talent has never been elite, but the team still finds themselves in 3rd or 4th place after each split. They are a testament to the power of consistent team play becoming greater than the sum of their parts in LoL. 

Flyquest will look to find more diamonds in the rough in 2021 with a collection of prospects and stars that they believe other teams undervalued. Licorice comes from C9 where he was the best top laner in the league last year, Johnsun comes as the lone bright spot from Dignitas in 2020, Josedeodo is the jungler from the Worlds-Qualifying Latin American squad Rainbow7, and Palafox and Diamond come in as highly-touted prospects from the Cloud9 academy. Flyquest seem to have become the moneyball team of the LCS and should return to the playoffs this year.


Immortals

  • Abbreviation: IMT
  • Current roster:
    • Top-Revenge
    • Mid-Insanity
    • Jungle-Xerxe
    • ADC-Raes
    • Support-Destiny
  • LCS championships: 0
  • Best international finish: Group stage of Worlds 2017
  • Notable investors: AEG, Steve Kaplan of the Memphis Grizzlies

Immortals have been on a roller coaster ride since joining the LCS. In their inaugural split, they brought in a roster that is still thought of as one of the most talented to ever compete in LCS, featuring Koreans Huni and Reignover. That team failed to live up to their potential and never made a World Championship. After losing their Korean duo, Immortals turned to North American talent in 2017, a move that carried them into the World Championship, where they went out in the group stage. Then, shockingly, Immortals were not one of the team’s selected for franchising as the league shifted structures for the 2018 season.

Fast forward to today, where Immortals has reacquired a spot in LCS, but seem to be at a low point of their perpetual roller coaster ride. The team picked up an underwhelming collection of veterans for their 2020 spring season and has since moved toward a rebuild for 2021 by promoting some of its academy players and by adding players from the now-defunct Australian league.

Immortals could be ready to compete if one of their American prospects, Revenge and Insanity, turns into a budding star, but Immortals is likely still a year away from real contention.


Comparison to other leagues

The LCS is generally thought of as the lowest caliber of the four major leagues in LoL: the LCS, LEC, LPL, and LCK. The results support this ranking, as LCS is the only league of the four to never produce a Worlds or MSI champion. There are lots of theories about why this is, but most come back to one major sticking point: the player base of the North American solo queue.

Solo queue

Because the game can be played by anyone with a computer and an internet connection at any time, a lot of the practice for a LoL pro is done in something called “Solo” or “Duo” queue. This is a matchmade game where the player matches up with 4 other similarly telented players in their region, against a team composed the same way. The total number of players in North America is significantly smaller than the other major regions, making the number of players competing at the highest level smaller as well. This leads to lower quality practice, according to a lot of pros who have made the jump to North America from other regions. The issue is compounded by the fact that the majority of the LoL pro scene exists in Los Angeles while the game’s servers are in Chicago, meaning pros in North America play with much higher latency than their European and Asian counterparts.

Best of 1s

North American players get less exposure to that kind of environment than Asian players because of the best of 1 format. Each match in the LCS regular season is only a 20-40 minute game of LoL, whereas in the LPL and LCK, every match is a best of 3 series. Fewer high pressure games equals less time to practice and perfect one’s game in that environment. 

Residency requirements

With a limited, lower quality player pool and all the money flowing from the notable investors listed in this article, one might ask: “Why don’t LCS teams just buy the best Korean, European, and Chinese players until North America catches up?” The answer to that question is residency requirements. When Riot Games set up the LCS, they intended for it to be a way to foster local talent. With this in mind, they made a requirement for LCS teams to always start at least 3 NA players. Imports can become de-facto “NA” players after playing in the region for four years. These rules have kept teams with deeper pockets from buying all the best players in the world.

Macro gameplay

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, North American teams have never grasped the game on a macro level the way the best teams from other regions have. When tested on the international stage, NA players have shown their ability to control their mouse and keyboard as well as the best players in the world but, when it comes to execution of team concepts, mastery of the map, and understanding the numbers of the game, NA has consistently fallen short. There is, though, a reason to hope for North American fans. In 2020, Cloud9 executed some of the cleanest and clearest macro gameplay we have ever seen in the LCS and have now added noted shot-caller, Perkz.

If there’s one team that can finally push the LCS over the top, Cloud9 just might be it.


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