After every LCS team failed to escape the Group Stage at the 2019 League of Legends World Championship, the fires of conversation around North America's inability to develop talent have been rekindled. China's international dominance over the past two years and G2 Esports' elevation of Europe to new heights leaves NA the odd major region out.
An event like the 2019 NA Scouting Grounds is never going to stand alone as a direct fix to the complex problem that is North American talent development, but it does serve as a step in the right direction. Since its inception, NASG has served as an opportunity for LCS coaches to evaluate the peak of the region's amateur talent, and should it align with their organization's priorities, potentially sign and develop a player that shows promise.
Let's take a look at how four different coaches from LCS organizations approached working with amateur talent at NASG 2019, and in doing so, examine how their respective approaches benefitted the players, the organizations, and the community at large.
The Pro Player Experience
While the ideal goal for many a Scouting Grounds prospect is to sign a deal with an LCS or Academy team, nearly a full week of bootcamping with and learning from professional coaches is invaluable on its own. Team Liquid and Counter Logic Gaming, who worked with Team Ocean Drake, decided to take that experience one step further by having the team play half of its scrims off-site from the Riot Games campus — a day at CLG's training facility, and a day at TL's Alienware Training Facility.
Evandro "Yaltz" de Cerqueira, Head Coach of Team Liquid Academy, headed TL's side of the program for Team Ocean Drake. Yaltz explained the multiple benefits of having the players at both facilities.
"The idea is for the players to have separate days with each team, because each teams do things differently," Yaltz explained inbetween scrim blocks. "I think being here instead of just riot motivates the players to be here and get to this level some day."
Yaltz also cited his own familiarity with the facilities, and the higher amount of control that being within TL's walls give them. "Obviously, I’m more comfortable being here because I am used to it, and we have more quality control compared to how things might go at Riot."
In addition to practicing in the same room as Team Liquid's LCS squad does, Yaltz also brought in then TLA Top Laner Thomas "Jenkins" Tran and Mid Laner David "Insanity" Challe to share their insights with Team Ocean Drake. "They will have a lot of insights on various individual matchups and things like this," Yaltz explained. "I wanted them to be here; they thought it would be fun." Both solo laners are now free agents.
League of Legends possesses more depth than nearly any other game, and with less than a full week with the players, coaches have to set priorities. In his third year of NA Scouting Grounds, Golden Guardians Head Coach Nick "Inero" Smith continued to put priority in getting to know these players on a human level, and what that can imply about their potential as a teammate.
Not much has changed in how I approach it. In general, I try to be pretty active with how I monitor and interact with the amateur scene," Inero explained before a Team Infernal Drake scrim block. "This is about figuring out what these people are like in real life, how they act in a team environment and how they react to different types of feedback...There are a lot of things that you won’t be able to tell or pick up about someone in an interview...you can’t really tell what people are like just through messages."
100 Thieves Head Coach Tony "Zikz" Gray, who was also participating in NA Scouting Grounds for a third time in coaching Team Mountain Drake, focused entirely on the big picture of the event while the rest of the Thieves coaching staff saw to the rest of responsibilities.
"I'm here primarily as a manager and scout, while [100 Thieves Academy Director & Head Coach] Kelsey [Moser] and the other teams work with our players," Zikz said. "Though, from what I've seen they seem to be focusing in on planning and getting the members of the team on the same page."
In his experience at multiple Scouting Grounds events, Zikz has learned a lot about the most important factors in scouting a player, and also, how that has changed with the overall meta trends throughout the past few seasons. "The thing I've learned the most from my time attending all of the scouting grounds was definitely refining my eye on what I look for in upcoming talent," said Zikz.
"In the first few events I primarily worked as a coach directly with players and coachability mattered a lot to me as a primary focus, but with more time and the way the meta is shifted, my priorities also have changed. Mechanical ability as an example is something that's very hard to teach, and as long as a player is coachable, we can teach just about everything else, making standout mechanics an important asset to look for."
Yaltz emphasized the importance of prioritizing getting players on the same page due to the truncated practice time:
"We don’t have the amount of time to go over every aspect of macro step by step, so we want to help them learn and let them show what they are capable of to help them best utilize the knowledges they already have and get them on the same page in terms of execution."
There are specific examples in which players can grasp and absorb a concept at the highest competitive level, such as proper side wave control and pressure when closing out a game with the Baron buff. Still, a team's identity is formed over weeks and continues to evolve after months and occasionally, even years. A handful of days is not enough to teach every aspect of teamplay in a way that can be comprehended past one group of players' core identity.
That doesn’t mean the players can’t grow, however. Yaltz explained that the fruits of labor at NASG may only reveal themselves well after the event. “They can learn from Scouting Grounds and use the knowledge they honed here to improve in the future. But it will take more time for those improvements to set in than just a few days so it’s important to make the most out of the time we have.”
Inero mentioned that Golden Guardians wasn't particularly focused on picking up players from the event compared to the previous year, and that was reflected in the team's relinquishing of exclusivity rights after drafting Team Infernal Drake Top Laner Ian "MistyStumpey" Victor Alexander as the 4th overall pick.
MistyStumpey was the best of the top lane pool at NASG 2019, but with Kevin "Hauntzer" Yarnell playing his best League of Legends in 2 years on Golden Guardians in the LCS, and Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaya still contracted to GGS Academy, another top laner isn't necessary.
However, GGSA would end up filling a slot on its roster after all. Team Cloud Bot Laner Alex "Gorica" Gorica was drafted by 100 Thieves as the 3rd overall pick. However, Golden Guardians would end up signing Gorica as the starting Bot Laner for GGSA after Yuri "Keith" Jew roleswapped to play Support for the main roster.
Before the draft took place, Yaltz explained the choices made by Team Liquid and CLG in selecting players for Team Ocean Drake earlier in the week, and TL's respective reasoning behind the approach:
"If we think a player is doing well and has potential, we’d like to pick them up. Our whole team has rookies, and that was our goal to draft all rookies. TL is trying to show it’s possible that young players can learn if you give them the knowledge, and also, if we can prove that, someone might be worth scouting."
Team Liquid did not find it was looking for amongst its selections on Team Ocean Drake, instead selecting Team Cloud Drake Mid Laner Michael "Wolfe" Taylor with the 10th and final draft pick. Wolfe is a veteran player with NA LCS experience, but as of now, the only player currently signed to Team Liquid Academy's roster is Jungler Shern "Shernfire" Cherng Tai, who joined from the Oceanic region in the off-season.
Team Ocean ended up having three of its players drafted. Mid Laner Jackson "KatEvolved" Dohan was selected 1st overall by Evil Geniuses, who also purchased Immortals' 5th draft selection to pick Bot Laner Frank "Tomo" Lam, and Support Jon "Chime" Pomponio was drafted 8th overall by Dignitas.
Despite all three draft selections failing to result in a contract between org and player, KatEvolved found a home as the new Mid Laner of TSM Academy for the 2020 LCS Spring Split.
The Big Picture
The exposure at NA Scouting Grounds doesn't just benefit the players and organizations involved; it also benefits those participating as individuals, and by extension, the LoL Esports community. Inero has consistently maintained an interest in developing younger talent, even doubling down on the focus in the 2019 LCS Summer Split by stepping down from his Head Coach position at Golden Guardians to be Head Coach of Golden Guardians Academy.
"We’re trying to see what the big picture of talent looks like here," Inero explained. "It gives us a really good indication of what the amateur scene is like as a whole, and personally, that’s something I’ve always been interested in improving and developing."
The current state of NA's reputation in the context of international competition puts an extra emphasis on the development of domestic talent into world class player. G2 Esports, Fnatic, and Splyce all made it to the Knockout Stage at Worlds 2019, and all three starting rosters were entirely comprised of domestic European talent.
Connor "Artemis" Doyle, who has officially joined Evil Geniuses' coaching staff, personally understands the gravity of the LCS' failure at Worlds after personally experiencing it with Clutch Gaming in Group C, and emphasized the importance of improving the scouting and development of North American talent at the beginning of NASG 2019: "After Worlds, it feels like the stakes are higher and that this event is really important."
Zikz has a surplus of personal familiarity with the difficulties in developing NA talent in droves that rival other regions, and expressed his gratitude for the NA Scouting Grounds and his ambition to make 100 Thieves the leading organization in LCS scouting.
"In my time on CLG and TSM, I've experienced and continue to experience this feeling that North America's ability to understand the pool of talent below academy has been pretty poor. I'm happy that Riot has given us this opportunity and that teams are looking to expand more into this unknown ground and we intend, at 100 Thieves, to put resources toward making sure we understand this pool of talent better than anyone."