Riot Games announced on Oct. 7 that the Oceanic Pro League, the professional League of Legends League in Oceania, would not be returning in 2021. The decision was a shock for the community; the OPL just had their best performance at Worlds with Legacy Esports and has exported talented players.
In order to ensure that Oceanic players still have opportunities to perform at the highest levels, Riot Games in the same announcement said “Beginning with the 2021 season, we are adding OCE to the competitive territory for the LCS, so OCE players will no longer take an import slot on LCS rosters.” In addition, Oceanic teams will still have a chance to make Worlds, as qualifying events will be held within the region.
Perhaps no team benefited more from this decision than Cloud9. Their academy toplaner, Fudge, is an import from the Oceanic league, so the fact that he no longer would take an import slot massively increased his value. Many fans expected the team to sell him for a high price; Fudge is one of the most promising academy players in North America.
Few people expected the opposite. In 2020, Cloud9 started Eric “Licorice” Ritchie, who was once again one of the best top laners in the league and helped the team win the Spring Splint dominantly. Despite that performance, the team struggled in summer and missed Worlds. Even after this setback, Cloud9 confirmed in early September that the roster would be staying together for 2021.
And then the OPL collapsed, and Fudge wasn’t an import anymore. Cloud9 already has two imports in mid laner Nisqy and bot laner Zven, so starting another import wouldn’t be possible. But with Fudge no longer taking an import slot, he could start alongside Zven and Nisqy.
Licorice announced on Monday that he will be looking for a new team after Cloud9 informed him he would not be on their starting roster heading into the 2021 season. Free Agency hasn’t even opened yet and the biggest move may have already happened; Licorice was rookie of the split for Cloud9 and is still a top player who will certainly have a number of teams chasing him.
Many fans were upset with the decision. It feels cheap, especially considering Cloud9 had so recently stated the team wouldn’t be changing. Licorice wasn’t a problem in 2020; he played well. The only reason for this change seems to be the OPL’s collapse and Fudge becoming a player who has residency in North America. The team seemingly believes that however good Licorice is and has been for them, Fudge will be better.
That’s a big burden for a player who has not played his first professional game in North America yet. His record is already impressive; he won the OPL in 2019 Summer and made Worlds, though his team at the time, Mammoth, did not impress on the Worlds stage. As a member of Cloud9 Academy, he and his team won both regular splits and both playoffs in 2020. There is little Fudge has done as a professional player that has not ended in victory.
And yet in 2021, Fudge will be taking his first steps into the higher echelon of league. Even for those who do not believe that North America is a major region, it is certainly a more major region than the now-gone OPL. And while Fudge deserves a chance, trying to live up to what Licorice did in his first split is going to be hard, but that’s what the bar is.
There is also the question of Licorice; what team will he go to? It’s certain that most of the other NA teams are going to want him—he was likely the best top laner in the league in 2020, only potentially really behind TSM’s BrokenBlade. In addition, he’s not an import, which makes him much more desirable to teams that have their import slots filled. Free Agency won’t open for a few weeks, till after Worlds, but Licorice’s potential new home is already set to be the biggest signing of the offseason.
Cloud9, meanwhile, will be fine. Fans have insisted they lost the offseason for the last half decade, and every time they come back better and win more games and definitely do not lose the offseason. Games aren’t won in the offseason, and they aren’t won on paper. In six months, no one will remember who they thought won or lost the offseason; they’ll just remember who won or lost the games.