Azael on inflated buyouts: "It's clearly not sustainable. It doesn't make any sense to have Jensen and Nisqy not have any team."


It’s been a few weeks since working the analyst desk for the World 2021 finals, but Isaac "Azael" Cummings Bentley is still keeping his mind on the game. Inven Global had the opportunity to sit down with Azael during the Worlds 2022 announcement event and discuss the crazy offseason, his perspective on Worlds, and the future of the LCS.

What were your impressions of working the desk for Worlds finals? How did that compare with the past?


It's tough, right? I think it was great working with Caedrel and Dash. Obviously, in an ideal world, you can have more LCK representatives there in person, or you can have people from different places. Obviously, it's difficult in the COVID world but I think it was great. I think Caedrel did a great job. Dash is one of the best hosts in the world. So they're absolute professionals. And it was a lot of fun planning with them and prepping with them, and being able to do it on the day. 


Just recently, you spoke up about how the ridiculous player contracts and buyouts are harming the game and the players — you predicted you could see that slowing down. My concern is just a few years ago, when there were big contracts with people like Huni, that it would slow down then, but it’s only sped up since. Will this be naturally corrected?


I think that some teams are kind of enacting those corrections already. I think that the fact that we're seeing some top players not get picked up is due to the buyouts being too high. And there's supply and there's demand, right? You can say, "Oh, the market price for a buyout is X million dollars." But if no one is willing to pay that, that's not what it is anymore. And I do think that we are seeing a little bit of that with the offseason.


Obviously, contracts got bigger and bigger, and bigger. We saw these massive buyouts happening, which I think led some teams and some players to have their buyouts set at potentially unreasonable levels. And now, as a result, most players don't have teams, because no one wants to spend that much money. 


So my hope is that that will self-correct. Whether or not it happens in Spring or Summer or over the course of this next year, I'm confident that something is going to happen with that over the next couple of years, because it's clearly not sustainable. It doesn't make any sense to have Jensen and Nisqy and all these other top players not have any team. It just doesn't make sense. They should be playing for someone. Clearly, if you're looking at the 20 starting spots in LEC and LCS, they're clearly in the top half at the very least of those mid laners. So, I think we're gonna see some self-correction. 


And honestly, I think that maybe it would make sense in the future to look at things like salary caps. That's obviously not my job and I don't know everything that would go into that. But I have heard that there's some of that going on in the LPL and something that's being considered in some other regions. So to me, it makes sense. Because otherwise, I just think it becomes kind of an arms race where teams are paying to win and trying to one-up each other constantly, and putting it to unsustainable levels. Because we want the league to be sustainable. We want the teams to be sustainable, and they kind of have to look long-term. 


Azael with Caedrel at Worlds 2021. Source: Riot Games


Now that Worlds has concluded, what is your general optimism about North America?


I think that the reality is every year, it's a pretty close thing with a lot of teams. This time, we had all our teams get three wins in groups. 100 Thieves and TL were very close to getting out of those groups potentially as well. So I do think that we're on the right track. I think some of the rosters have gotten a lot stronger. 


I'm excited about some of the amateur initiatives, I'm excited about the fact that there's going to be the Champions Queue, I think it's cool. Because that's the number one thing that, when you talk to players, they always complain about have really been wanting for a lot of years. So I'm hopeful that that is a tool that is actually going to be utilized well, and it's going to help the players and teams improve at a faster rate. Because that's always been kind of pointed to something that's handicapped some players in this region. So hopefully, the combination of the team's getting better and Riot working with them with things like Champions Queue, we can continue to improve. 


But it's always gonna be hard. The reality is, right now, it's depending on what you consider about the results of Europe, we're probably the fourth-best region. And all the other regions above us are also putting in tons of money into it, and have much larger player bases. So yes, the advantage that NA has is basically money. But you're working somewhat of an uphill battle, because you can't just take all the players from the ERL, LFL, and European Masters that are very deep leagues that have a lot of players coming up into them. Or you look over at China, where there are 18 LDL teams plus the 18 LPL teams. There's such an enormous player base. Korea even has something like four or five times the ranked player base. There are just more players to pick from.


So while money is an advantage for us, it has to be spent oftentimes on importing talent, unless there's a better way to do it, unless we figure out a way to get returns by investing more into amateur. So I'm hopeful, but it's not an easy thing. Every region is trying to get better. Every region is working at each other in the same way. We're not the biggest region and we're doing basically the best we can.


What was your opinion of Europe in general? Some people have been dismissing Europe's victories more as G2's victories and a couple of fluke runs. What's your perspective?


I think that this year, Europe just wasn't as strong. I think that's kind of just a fact. But I would say that it's unfair to just characterize all European success as just G2. Origen made semifinals in the past. Fnatic didn't just have that one run, they had a finals and a semifinals. Splyce got out of groups. There was that year where all their teams got out of groups. It has been more than just G2. So I do think it was it was a down year for Europe, for sure. But also, there's a lot of promise around teams like Vitality. Obviously, Fnatic and G2 are gonna try to be really competitive. So there are teams that are trying to invest and have that success in Europe. And there always seems to be more and more talent coming up. So I think European fans, it's not doomsday because you didn't have the results you wanted at one Worlds.


Eliminated in quarterfinals, MAD Lions were the only LEC team that got out of Worlds 2021 groups. Source: Riot Games


What was your general impression of NA's playstyle at Worlds? I spoke with MAD’s coach Mac a few weeks prior to the tournament, he said that he thought NA teams don’t play a style of League that could be adapted and succeed internationally. Was that a concern for you? What do you think of the actual style NA brought this year?


I would say that that is one of the things that we've struggled with over the years. And I think that Worlds is often about adapting to the meta and being on the cutting-edge. There are so many examples of that. When you think back to 2018 — that was Ardent Censer meta, I believe, if I have this in my head correctly. And it was all about these really weak laning phase bot lane duos, where people were playing Kog'Maw, Lulu, and Janna lanes — all these kinds of things. And people were thinking that early game lane bullies just wouldn't work. And it actually turned out, by the time quarterfinals and the end of groups came around, it was all about playing Jayce and Caitlyn, taking all the towers, and actually pushing for it. And the teams that realized that first were the teams that advanced through — Cloud9 being the only one that actually did that for North America. So they moved on. 


And 100 Thieves were obviously relatively close [at Worlds 2021]. They went 3-3, they were talking about how they felt they had the wrong read on the meta, they were a little bit slow to pick it up. And those things are really important, right? If the meta is different in your region than what the Worlds meta is going to be, you've got to be able to be adapting really quickly. But that's the reality of international competition. All these teams are put under the same level of pressure, and the ones that are quickest to adapt, the ones that within their "scrim circles" figure out the best strategies often get advantages really early on.


And that even changes throughout the tournament. You saw in the early days of groups this year, the LCK teams were all bringing out Yuumi and getting early wins off that in groups. You can get one or two early wins off of a strategy that is gonna get banned out for the rest of the tournament. That could be the difference between getting groups or not. So I'm hopeful that our teams are going to be more confident and take swings, because the way you succeed internationally is by playing confident and playing aggressively. When our teams have kind of sat back and played on the backfoot and relied on the opponent's mistakes, it just never works.


Source: Riot Games


I asked this question to Kobe as well and wanted your perspective— looking at the LCS broadcast for 2022, if there was one factor you would change or improve on, what would it be?


I think that a lot of it is going to just be getting more experience for some of the people. We brought in a whole cast of really talented people in 2021 and I think people were somewhat unfairly critical of them. A lot of the guys that have come in haven't had as much broadcast experience. And I think that given the time to grow, they're going to get better and better, and better. And I think that's going to be awesome. 


For things that I can control, I'd like to get back to doing more comedic content and doing a wider variety. I think that's something that everyone else wants to focus on. Making sure that we're doing not just educational and serious content, but comedic stuff and having a good balance. Because I think that's something that the LEC does really well, and something that I think we did better in previous years than we did this year. 


Another thought I was hoping you could elaborate on was when you discussed how negative the community can be on the pro scene. Since you’ve initially started that discussion, have you seen things improve at all?


I think it's improved a little bit, I generally feel like when attention is brought to that kind of things, it at least makes people think about it a little bit, and maybe reevaluate how they're doing things. But I do think that the community has kind of gotten to a place where it's almost as though criticism is associated with intelligence or analytical ability. So people really, really, really want to point out as many mistakes as possible. And I think that is valid and criticism should be there. And I criticize players and plays and that kind of thing. And that's totally fair. But you have to be making sure that it is honest and fair. And that if you're going to criticize harshly, you need to also compliment and do things like that, and kind of promote and point out good play in equal measure. And really recognize and be fair to the players on the things that they are doing exceptionally, instead of just sh*tting on a player or a team completely because they made a mistake. 


And even within a lot of the great plays — you're referencing Faker's Zed play. That is like the most famous play ever, there are so many mistakes to it, right? But people back then were more focused on the positives than the negatives. Both Shens don't use ultimate. Faker walks into a tower and dies after this. Those would be the things I think are highlighted more today, unfortunately. So my hope is that people can find a middle ground and we can criticize and help teams grow and kind of play the analytical card, but also celebrate success and talk about how incredible these players really are. Because all these pro teams are playing at such an incredible level and often mistakes are more forced errors than unforced errors, so to speak. And I think that's important to keep in mind too.


What’s a personal lesson you’ve learned recently that you think would be of value to other people?


The value of protecting your own mental health I would say is incredibly important. I think over the last year or two, I've tried to put more value on protecting my mental health. In the past, I think I was very quick to be like, "Well, this shouldn't bother me. So I'm just gonna ignore that." I would kind of put myself in situations or be reading comments. Or be in discussions that would frustrate me and leave me not feeling great. But I kind of brushed it aside as like, "Oh, that shouldn't bother me. So I'm just gonna keep doing it anyway." I think over the last couple years, I've realized that it's like, "You know what? If something is affecting my mental health negatively, if reading flame of the LCS, or flame of my friends who are my co-workers, or flame of the teams, or Riot or whatever— if it's just kind of frustrating me or making me feel bad, then I should avoid that." And I should find different avenues and make sure that I am taking time to relax and not just spending 24/7 on League of Legends all the time. Spending more time unplugged. 


Obviously, I still spend most of my life on my work, but it's something that I just think has made it feel more sustainable. Because I had this conversation a couple of years ago with a bunch of casters. We're at an MSI, and I went around and I was like, "Can you see yourself doing this for another 30 years? Average age of retirement 65, 30-35. Could you do this?" And literally, everyone was just an instant no. Because people are so stressed. And people are so just psyched out a lot of times by the pressure that they feel working these events, having criticism from fans, and pressure to perform and do really well or maybe be replaced by someone else coming up. So that just really kind of hit home to me. That it's like, "Hey, I do want to spend my whole life in esports. I've been doing this since I was a teenager. I want to retire doing esports. And if I'm going to do that I have to protect my mental health."

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