Jadon Sancho, Kylian Mbappe, Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson – What do all of these football and basketball players have in common? If you have any interest in the sporting world, it is likely that you have heard of these names as some of the most exciting young players who are already contributing to the success of each of their respective teams with aplomb. While these players can be considered the exception in professional youth development, their existence speaks to the nurtured early development of athletes, providing young talent the best opportunity to perform. Esports organisations and tournament organisers alike should aim to develop talent early in order to breed the next generation of esports superstars.
Just as major sporting organisations have academy teams to develop young talent, esports organisations have recently adopted a similar approach, most notably within league of legends. The strategic direction behind adoption of academy teams for both conventional and esports is twofold. From the organisational perspective, the academy player hopefully develops into a future star, who will either become a franchise player for the organisation or be sold on for a tidy profit. The organisation saves expenditure on potential transfers if the academy prospect fills a gap within the team, and the team have secured a strong asset before the market price (estimated transfer cost) of the asset (player) has risen as the player develops. From the players perspective, signing the contract offers financial security, and provides them with the opportunity to train with the senior team’s players and coaches, bolstering their development through veteran guidance. Furthermore, the player may gain more notoriety depending on the prestige of the academy and team they have signed for. Jadon Sancho of Borussia Dortmund arrived form the Manchester City academy, where he had gained enough experience training with the likes of Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling to immediately assimilate and succeed at the highest level of football – the Champions League. Esports should view these examples as something desirable and achievable, and should at least consider youth development as part of their operating expenditure.
League of Legends have established leagues in both North America (LCS) and Europe (LEC), both of which promote academy teams and competitions. The league of legends main roster is composed of five (5) players, and accordingly the supporting academy team usually has five players to match the main roster; a like-for-like substitution for each role. Teams often rotate academy players in and out of the main roster each week depending on player form and match ups. While some teams take advantage of the academy players more than other (most notably Cloud 9 of LCS and Spring 2020 Misfits of LEC), the academy system provides teams with an additional level of strategic flexibility both within the game and the organisation.
We have already seen Korea League of Legends teams successfully integrate youth talent into their line-ups. One of the best organisations at doing this is T1 (formally SKT) who have a history of promoting young talent to their starting roster, with great success. We need only look at players like Faker who debuted in the LCK at 17 years old, and more recently at Canna (20) and Clozer (17) who are both succeeding on T1, with a current fourth placing in the league.
Unlike in conventional sports, where scouts must attend live games to witness a player’s skill level, esports scouts are able to watch online game performances to determine how skillful a player is, without ever meeting the player in person. However, as skillful as a player may be, there is a natural risk that they do not interact well in a team environment. Still, this is an ever-present risk in all sports. Take for example Emmanuel Frimpong (formally of Arsenal). He was considered a strong academy talent and performed well in a number of appearances. However, he had a notable temper and would often receive yellow and red cards, resulting in his early ejection. Due to his rash nature, he was never able to succeed at the highest level.
Riot Games, League of Legends developer and league manager, have created initiatives to support the development of young talent and academy teams within their leagues. In the LCS, Riot run an annual event “Scouting Grounds” in which exiting solo queue prospects are invited to compete in a team setting against each other in a round robin tournament structure. Representatives from all ten LCS teams are invited to attend, and the event is used as unique scouting experience for the organisations witness the players interaction in a team environment first hand, who will have already scouted the players technical ability through match reviews and analysis of online performance. While the success of scouting grounds has been limited, we have seen some players, notably Tactical of Team Liquid (formally of TSM Academy) blossom under the amateur to pro route offered by Riot. This type of initiative should be adopted by other esports to allow young talent opportunities to demonstrate their value to the large organisations.
With the recent release of Valorant, a tactical first-person shooter (similar to CounterStrike: Global Offensive), many organisations are rapidly picking up rosters, compromised mostly of former esports professionals from other titles. This is a strong move early into Valorant’s life cycle, as the organisations can capitalise on the name value of big name players including “sinatraa” of the Sentinels, “Wardell” of TSM and “ScreaM” of Team Liquid. However, as the game continues to develop, originations should look towards to future and consider developing young talent that has shown success in the LCK and traditional sports.
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Featured image courtesy of TheGameHaus