The Wildcard regions and what we don’t see: An insight into the process cover image

The Wildcard regions and what we don’t see: An insight into the process

After following the LCO, I spoke to some pro players about the reality of being a pro in the region and just how difficult it can be coming from a region where little is expected.

Wildcard regions are what got me started in esports, it was where I started, and how I got to where I am today. And beyond that, in my opinion at least, wildcard regions in League of Legends in particular, are interesting to think about. For many of you, I'm sure the Wildcard regions only feature if your watching at MSI and Worlds. Beyond that, maybe you don’t watch them, or care, and that’s ok! But for the Wildcard regions, there’s a lot we don’t see that doesn’t make it to the international stage.

But just what is a Wildcard regions? Well its a (slightly unfair) term used to describe any region in League of Legends competitive play that is not a major region. Minor regions are frequently considered as Wildcards due to their explosive appearances on the international stage

The Wildcard regions as we know them are as follows:

  • CBLoL - Brazil
  • LCO - Oceania
  • LJL - Japan
  • LLA - Latin America
  • PCS - Pacific Region (technically a wildcard but considered by some to be a major region)
  • TCL - Turkey
  • VCS - Vietnam

The LCO (League Circuit Oceania) in particular, which is where all of my contributors for this article are from, is seeing a lot of changes. The region which is not run by Riot Games and is instead ran on a local level by ESL Australia since 2021. But the region is seeing some changes; the LCO is being integrated into the PCS and as such is losing a direct slot to MSI and Worlds. So despite Riot not running the region, they still have most of the power.

The LCO Summer Finale 2022 - Dreamhack Melbourne
The LCO Summer Finale 2022 - Dreamhack Melbourne

Whatever your level of knowledge on the Wildcard regions, this is a big change from any perspective. But for the LCO as a "minor" Wildcard region, who has often received less funding and opportunities, this is another change to come to the league in a very short space of time. As Riot stopped managing the former OPL (now LCO) in 2019.

When we think of Wildcard regions, there is this narrative of the underdog, with a storyline of an upward struggle. Which to be fair, is not that far from the truth. As such, when I was brainstorming for this article, I wanted to ask the questions we don’t usually get answers to. As a result I asked several current and former members of the LCO. My lovely contributors, who I couldn’t have done this article without (and who have all been anonymized) have been asked some very awkward questions. And I'm gracious for their answers.

Probably questions they wouldn’t expect from a journalist, but I want you to be able to leave this article having had insight into the wildcard regions, and what we don’t hear on the main stage.

The beginnings of a career

To start an esports career, we all know, is no easy feat. But let’s consider the reality of attempting to start a career in esports in the minor regions. Often with reduced funding, reduced exposure opportunities, and less opportunities to even start a career, never mind maintain one; there is a lot to be considered for those with big aspirations. I asked the contributors what they felt were the chances of building a successful career in Wildcard regions were, and how they began their careers.

One veteran of the LCO and OPL who is still playing professionally said “putting myself out there and playing in any amateur tournament I could, trying to get my name normalized in the scene and after my first Challenger Series game I promoted to the main team” was his path into professional play and that he believes it to be easier to start a career now than before because “since most veteran pros aren't around to hold the spots for the younger generation but it's still a hard scene to get into even though we're a minor region” and that the key here was “networking.”

"You reach high rank and get reached out to"

Contributor - Retired Pro, on how to get scouted

A retired pro player, agrees with that “as a player it's actually not that hard, you just have to be consistently good in solo queue and you will get picked up eventually” and this was how he began his own career. As similarly to the veteran player, the retired pro was picked up playing in amateur.

I also spoke to another retired pro who had represented the region internationally, his thoughts were similar to those mentioned above “I started my LCO career just like any other player. You reach high rank and get reached out to” he also added that “I personally wouldn’t continue to work in minor regions only because I fell out of love with the game... If you ever have an opportunity to play in a minor region, I would say do it just for the experience.” So, if starting a career in esports in the Wildcard region is easier enough, what about building up and maintaining?  

Maintaining and building

For any career, it always comes down to can you maintain a standard and continue to build and improve. Wildcard regions are no different but having spoken to the various contributors, I wouldn’t feel overly optimistic about building a career in a wildcard region like LCO compared to the LEC. That isn’t meant disrespectfully; the region is in many ways disadvantaged and that is no fault of anyone who works there.

One thing I was curious about was asking the contributors who were retired or had moved out of the region; was if they felt they could build a long sustainable career from the LCO alone. A retired contributor told me, “Yes [it is possible] but it would involve a large investment in content/branding, playing pro alone (particularly in OCE) is not sustainable enough in the long term.”

Many new upcoming players who have been achieving rank one and been picked up don’t last long in the scene, especially for players on huge rosters or on lower performing teams. Interestingly the same contributor who said he felt being pro alone was not sustainable had some advice for anyone attempting to climb the career ladder of pro play in LCO – applicable to other regions too. “For the majority of players no [not sustainable], unless you play on the top teams you make well below minimum wage. Either get out of the region or invest into your brand.”

But as the veteran pro said, there is a lot to be said for networking if you want to build a long-term career in a minor region. Having spoken to several player scouts in the past as well, they have agreed with the veteran in saying that “[You need to make sure] You're on good terms since players usually in minor regions control the teams and the outcomes so some players would not allow you to join their team if they see you in a poor light.”

That is for sure something that hadn’t come to my mind immediately when I had envisaged building a career in a minor region, but in retrospect it isn’t surprising. Esports is an industry on the whole where connections matter a lot, and your name being known for the wrong reasons could be a huge setback. This was further proven by another retired pro who told me that “You just have to not ruin your image before you’ve acquired one. ” For a region as small as the LCO this is unsurprising but brings back into discussion the importance of player image.

Perhaps most interesting though was what the veteran pro had to say about sustainability in the region: “Most players, it's not really sustainable and most organizations inside the region don't give enough incentives for it to make it worth it at times.” This is a sad reality for the smaller regions, as reduced funding and general less money flowing around makes it hard for the hours that would need to be put in to equate to wages.

Always the underdog

It’s no secret to anyone that the wildcard regions are frequently labelled the underdogs at any and all international events they turn up to. But there is also something to be said for being an underdog within your own region. We know teams aren’t created equally, some will simply have better players; others will have better resources and the ability to give players better opportunities. It sucks, but it is something we are aware of.

But in wildcard regions especially, these differences are far more visible and evident. For starters, wildcard regions usually have fewer number of teams – though don’t let this make you think they have fewer players. Less teams and team divide in quality, become far more evident.

LCO’s results from Summer 2022

The Chiefs Esports Club
Dire Wolves
Kanga Esports

There is a very clear divide among those at the top, the middle and the bottom. Which becomes more obvious when in such a small region, and that isn’t meant to be a talk down on the LCO. It would be evident in any minor region, who is at the top and who is at the bottom, due in part to having lesser teams. So with this in mind, I asked the contributors how big they felt the divide between teams within the region itself was. For one of the retired pros in particular the “The divide between teams domestically is HUGE, big spenders and top orgs (CHF, PGG) will always demolish orgs with lower budgets/worse rosters, LCO is a very top heavy league.” As seen via the table above – side note, ORDER is now in administration.

But even with ORDER in administration, when I spoke to another retired player he made a good point; even if LCO reps at international tournaments don’t take games, they still show up in some way. “I believe the divide between OCE and other minor regions is not different at all. Most games would be competitive but usually would end up dropping the ball. Even at MSI this year, ORDER didn’t even vs a minor region (considering NA is a major region) and CHFs won teamfights 10k gold down vs Japan and Brazil. It really isn’t that far off.”

With this in mind, I hasten to add in something else that was noted in my conversations – namely that “The finals being the Top 2 teams projected before the season started. The third and fourth teams would often take games from these Top 2 teams. The rest of the teams are usually never in contention of making it far in the playoffs, let alone making it.” Even if you don’t follow the LCO actively, you can see from the table above who the top teams are. These teams are always predicted to be the top, there is a magic to wildcard regions but there is also a predictability from having less teams in play.

Chiefs Esports Club Winning LCO Summer 2022
Chiefs Esports Club Winning LCO Summer 2022

For the veteran player, the opinion was very much the same “After many years of overseas play and having varied success, the skill level is not really that big it's mainly the drive, coaching staff, improvement tools from outside the players themselves. The individuals can usually contest those from the major regions, it's just from every other area is where we lack which makes the divide seem so big.”

And this of course links back to the retired pro’s perspective, the lack of budget for many teams puts the region behind, but not all hope is lost. Both the retired pro and veteran could agree that there is a lot of talent and even with the underdog perspective – sometimes within the region itself as well as the international stage – there is always the possibility for upset.

These upsets get center stage when it comes to the international stage. Where the rhetoric narrative is the LCO and other wildcard regions, as the underdogs and any achievement is good. And to some extent this is true, wildcards showing up on the international stage is always something to celebrate. But how can we expect the wildcards to keep up with the major regions when they have reduced scrim opportunities?

Pentanet.GG vs Chiefs Esports Club Summer finale
Pentanet.GG vs Chiefs Esports Club Summer finale

With these factors in mind I also asked the contributors if they found the underdog narrative at all helpful to the region. Is it better to be from a region with no expectations placed on them? To the retired pro the narrative was highly beneficial to players coming to events from the LCO as “I think having no pressure on you to perform should actually help” and this sentiment was echoed by a current player too.

“Everyone loves the underdog story though it would be appreciated for the narrative to shine some light on the players showcasing the history of them so more people can support them as fans - since the narrative usually drives the spectators opinions on the players themselves. So we're just seen as underdogs instead of players that have made it here through a hefty long career or multiple achievements etc.”

"Players might take it to heart when they hear their favourite casters not cast their games to a high level..."

Contributor - Retired Pro

Additionally, another retired pro made a point I honestly hadn’t considered “players might take it to heart when they hear their favourite casters not cast their games to a high level because of this narrative that OCE has no chance” we talk a lot about having the fan support or community support, but what about the casters? Not to say they are at fault, but how does caster opinion affect mental state?

Having followed the wildcard regions a lot, I can definitely see where the current pro is coming from. When the narrative is centred purely on the underdog story line and doesn’t discuss the players who are veterans and can contend other regions, a whole opportunity is missed. To give an example, the ADC in Summer 2022 for Chiefs Esports Club had previously played in the LCS, so while the Chiefs may not have performed how many had hoped, they’re also not underdogs as players as they can compete.

And as one of the retired pros reminded me “I think a team of the best players from a minor region will always have a fighting chance against most teams in the world. Just not against the top dogs like T1 or RNG.” There is always a chance, and even if the teams are playing catch up to RNG and T1, that doesn’t mean the middle of the pack teams are unbeatable. But this beat-ability is also in part thanks to one big things about wildcard regions – they are unpredictable and that is the magic they bring to the international stage.

Playing catch up

We all know that in League of Legends, it is the major regions you have to beat to progress at international events; and being good in your own league isn’t enough. But for the LCO in recent years, the teams sent to international events seem to have to play catch up more and more. So, I asked the contributors if they felt that the LCO would ever be able to catch up to and compete with the major regions; and their answers were very understandable.

To the veteran pro “I think it will take a long time at this rate personally, and there will be a handful of players outshining the rest of the league but infrastructure wise it will be quite a while to ever catchup to the major regions resources and support systems.” To compete on equal footing would require a lot of funding (which we will discuss in the next section). Additionally, the veteran player stated that: “There will always be upsets and it's amazing to see the wildcard regions with less funding and support showing their one best team in the region toppling major regions, I think consistently probably not there yet but I do believe there will be a team coming from a wild card region that will surprise everyone!” and if that isn’t a reason to keep your eye on the wildcard regions then I don’t know what is.

"There will be a team coming from a Wildcard region that will surprise everyone!"

Contributor - Current Pro

Interestingly though, to the retired player it wasn’t simply a case of a long time to see change but rather “As a league, no, but that's simply due to the budget not being there. I think certain teams will have chances to beat major region teams,” and we can assume these certain teams to be those which have the best funding in the region. But additionally, the retired pro put forward a solution on how to compete with the major regions and in cases beat them. “The key is for the wildcard regions to find and master their own playstyle (something major regions don't have much experience playing against). Think GAM with their level six Nocturne rush strat” and as such “certain rosters can contest NA/wildcard regions” as seen by the given example of Gambit Esports’ Nocturne strategy.

Additionally, another retired pro I spoke to was in agreement. “Sadly, no. I don’t even believe NA can catch up to EU anymore. I think the first step is to catch up to minor regions, and competing with PCS is a good start.” Saying that he felt the gap was just too big to expect it to be solved quickly, and that similarly the constant changes made by Riot to the LCO, “Disadvantaged. Yes. Deserved. Probably yes.” But this in particular got me thinking about something that I think a lot of us have been thinking. Does Riot even care about the minor regions anymore? Why keep making all these changes that leave the LCO like an unwanted child unless they really aren’t interested?

Setback after knockback

For the LCO in particular, recent years have not seen the region flourish on many levels. Riot handed the region back to local organisations and companies in 2020, and for 2023 the region is seeing more changes. Including the loss of direct MSI and Worlds slots, which the top teams will have to compete with the PCS for.

If there is one thing that really stuck with me while I was talking with the contributors it was how one of the retired pros described the LCO from his perspective in regard to Riot making so many changes in such a short time: “Riot has viewed OCE as their unwanted child, evident in their abandonment at the end of 2019” and I can see where he is coming from. From withdrawing Riot’s involvement, to then bringing their involvement back in, in less than five years, the region seems to be going through constant periods of adjustment only for it to change all over again.

"Riot has viewed OCE as their unwanted child"

Contributor - Retired Pro

There are benefits to this if we look for them, it pushes up the level of competition and the slots haven’t been completely removed, but nonetheless; there is something to be said for the minor regions being disadvantaged as a result of funding and opportunities. Players can gain exposure but many likely view the lack of direct international slots as a disadvantage for this exposure, thus slowing down the pace a career could be built at. And to the contributors I spoke to, they all could agree that these changes would benefit the region but take some adjustment.

One contributor who told me how good he thought the changes were, also reminded me that wildcard regions on more of a time stamp than other regions.“ Not only will there be more exposure for oceanic players, but I think our region will level up (for the two teams that go). With that being said, there may be a chance that not a single team from OCE will go to MSI or Worlds anymore. I honestly believe if OCE does not make an appearance at any of these two events then the region will die next year. In my opinion, this year is do or die.” Withdrawing the MSI and Worlds slot has seen a lot of players worry about exposure, and the withdrawal of direct spots to international events has me in agreement with the retired pro. For the LCO, this season is do or die, time is running out, and Riot’s constant chopping and changing is proof of that.

"It's fair that we have to at least beat PCS to get to international events given our most recent performances at worlds and MSI"

Contributor - Retired Pro

As for the other pros I spoke to, they also agreed that it was an inherently good thing, a current pro told me that to him “The changes are quite positive as the recent performances globally has been a poor showing of my regions potential and this will be another hurdle for us to overcome to be seen on the global stage.” The LCO hasn’t performed outstandingly in recent years, and the pressure is mounting to show up on the international stage in a way that leaves no doubt about the region.

Something that really got me thinking was a point made by both the current and retired pro “Making it through the PCS league shows to everyone internationally that our region really made it in my eyes.” And “I think it's fair that we have to at least beat PCS to get to international events given our most recent performances at worlds and MSI” maybe if the LCO is seen to compete with the PCS, more people will view the region in a more optimistic light. Additionally, one retired pro told me he felt the changes being made by Riot weren’t actually what is most important for the region and that instead “it is just the skill level of the teams that needs to be addressed” – something which arguably isn’t Riot’s problem.

Dropping out or pushing through

With the changes coming to the LCO, it is interesting to consider if this could be a time we see more players drop out of pro play, and how life will change for those who continue. Therefore, I finished my list of questions by asking the various contributors who were retired or had moved regions if they were happy with where they had finished in the LCO.

To those who were still in the region actively playing I asked if they were happy with where they were already and what they wanted to achieve going forward. For a current pro, “I want to show not only my own skill but also the potential of our region so that my region always has someone pushing them to the best that they can be! I know that we're better than our recent performances.” The reason to keep playing is to show up and show more and more so that the LCO doesn’t become a forgotten region is an admirable one, and I'm sure he will do everything in his power to make sure the LCO doesn’t slip out of our minds.

"I know that we're better than our recent performances"

Contributor - Current Pro

But to everyone, I had one main question – what leads to dropping out of pro play in the LCO or other wildcard regions generally? The answers were varied but frequently circled in on one main point “The hours worked to pay ratio is horrible (…) if you're not on one of the top teams you barely make anything. [as such] players leave because they realise it's not sustainable and want to pursue university or other things in their life.” And there is the challenge of attempting to find games. One of the current pros explained to me that “most pros don't stream as well since sometimes they can't find games.”

This of course makes sense, but it also helped me understand why when I’ve played on the OCE server on unranked low level, I’ve sat in queue for half an hour if not longer. I can’t imagine how long the challenger soloqueue wait must be. But one of the retired pros made another good point “I believe that there are two main contributing factors for someone to leave. Passion and money.” I hadn’t considered how passion could be a reason for pros, but I know from my own experience that it is a factor as a writer. So why wouldn’t it affect pros too? And maybe that is a discussion we need to have more.

"If you're not on one of the top teams you barely make anything"

Contributor - Retired Pro
Top Two LCO Teams 2022 - Image via LCO YouTube - Chiefs Esports Club and Pentanet.GG
Top Two LCO Teams 2022 - Image via LCO YouTube - Chiefs Esports Club and Pentanet.GG

I also asked one more question about dropping out or pushing on, and that was do you think you could make a successful long-term career in the LCO? But similarly, to the factors for dropping out of a career in pro play, it was evident that money was a big issue for keeping going. Both the current pro and one of the retired pros pointed out “It's hard for some to see since there isn't a lot of incentive unless you're on a top team to get overseas and reach the general populace” and of course money.

I was also told how “You will most likely get paid below minimum wage, and that is ONLY if you are on one of these Top 2 teams, otherwise, you get paid peanuts. I’d say a majority of players study while playing. I personally was studying during my first year of pro play. As sad as it is to say, if you are on the bottom of the pack team then you should treat the LCO as a part-time job, rather than a long-term career, for money, there just isn’t enough.” In a Wildcard region, it’s no one’s fault that there isn’t enough money but it is a fact of life.

Looking forward to the future

As for the future of the LCO, the contributors who helped with this had several ideas on how to develop the region. One pro told me about the changes he has seen and how this has felt like a starting point towards better exposure and improving the region “More events have happened like the Melbourne Esports Open to get a community back inside the scene. if it slowly keeps going the way it does we might have an actual proper event that everyone looks forward too and pros can interact with fans/spectators.

"I think the LCO will slowly fade away."

Contributor - Retired Pro

With more support and recognition, pro careers might be more sustainable as well!” but one retired pro also made a good point “As for a long term future, I would love to have all this hope that it will become a sustainable place for future players. However, it's just not the case. Riot has already left Oceania, and they have decided to not give us a MSI and Worlds spot directly from our league. I do believe that we still have a few more years before it all ends. The beauty of our league is that you follow the players. You hope that they all go overseas and have long, fulfilling careers. You are literally cheering for them to leave our region. Leaving the region is considered as finally making it, and for that reason, I think the LCO will slowly fade away. You could say that that's how it's been from the start and if it was going to die it would’ve died already, however, our player base is getting smaller each year, our international results are at a historic low, and Oceania is slowly becoming the lost child of Riot.”

Chiefs Esports Club headed to Worlds 2022
Chiefs Esports Club headed to Worlds 2022

There is one thing I'm going to leave this article with, something for us to all consider and to circle back on later. “From import rules in NA, to playing through PCS playoffs for an international spot. In my opinion, Riot has viewed OCE as their unwanted child, evident in their abandonment at the end of 2019. However, I know fully that there is a team of five Oceanic players who are capable of competing with the majority of the Western world.” And I hope, like everyone else in the LCO, that we get to see a day where this happens.

I know fully that there is a team of five Oceanic players who are capable of competing with the majority of the Western world

Contributor - Retired Pro

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