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New franchise system heralds changes at LCK

What you need to know about 2021 LCK

New logo of LCK (Riot Games)
New logo of LCK (Riot Games)

Longtime fans following League of Legends Champions Korea, the 2021 LCK spring season will have many changes with the implementation of the franchise system. For those new to the LCK, it presents a good opportunity to get into LoL esports. With the opening match of the season between Gen.G Esports and KT Rolster set for Wednesday, here’s what you need to know.

Ten teams have qualified for the LCK franchise system: Afreeca Freecs, DWG Kia, DRX, Fredit Brion, Gen.G, Hanwha Life Esports, KT Rolster, Liiv Sandbox, Nongshim RedForce (previously Team Dynamics) and T1.

The LCK spring season plays two matches every day from Wednesday to Sunday for the first round, where each of the 10 teams in the league face the other nine, with the first match at 5 p.m. and the second at 8 p.m. However, starting this season, if the first match ends early, the second match will be played after an interval of around 30 minutes, instead of waiting until 8 p.m. The second round-robin, which starts Feb. 19, will be played Thursday to Sunday. Each match will be held as best-of-three, with the first team to win two sets victorious. At the end of the two rounds, which comprise the regular season, the teams are placed according to wins, with the difference between the number of sets won and lost acting as the tie-breaker should match wins be equal. The order in which the teams face each other is drawn randomly before the season begins.

One of the biggest technical changes this spring is in the format of the playoffs. Previously, after two round-robins between the 10 teams in the league during the regular season, the top five teams advanced to the playoffs. The fourth- and fifth-place teams of the regular season played a best-of-three series, in which the winner played the third-place team of the regular season for a best-of-five series and continued the format to face the second-place team and eventually the first place team in the finals. The single-round elimination, where the team that won advanced, allowed little room for mistakes. It also meant the first-place team of the regular season would only be able to play in one best-of-five match in the entire playoffs and had over 10 days of waiting after the regular season.
New LCK Playoffs format (Riot Games)
New LCK Playoffs format (Riot Games)

Starting this year, the top six teams of the regular season will advance to the playoffs, which will be held as a six-seed tournament starting March 31. All the games in the playoffs will also be best-of-five. The third-place team will face the sixth-place team while the fourth- and fifth-place team of the regular season will play each other. The winners of those matches will advance to the semifinals to play against the first- and second-place team of the regular season, with the first-place team choosing the opponent of the semifinals between the two qualifying teams. This means a team must win at least two best-of-five series in order to win the playoffs, making them more competitive heading into international events after the split ends. The winner of the spring split qualifies for the Mid-Season Invitational, while the winner of summer season qualifies directly for the World Championships.

Although LCK considered implementing the double-elimination format employed in both European and North American leagues, with a loser’s bracket, the tight schedule of the season made the implementation difficult unless the games in the regular season were played as best-of-one. Most of the 10 teams in the LCK, according to Riot Games, wanted to maintain best-of-three matches in the regular season but wanted the playoffs to increase slightly, resulting in the new system.

“There was a consensus among the league, teams and fans that a change in playoffs format was needed in order to raise international competitiveness of LCK,” said LCK Secretary-General Lee Jung-hoon. Many of the teams wanted to maintain the regular-season format and wanted an expansion of the playoffs, according to Lee.
New league format (Riot Games)
New league format (Riot Games)

Another big change is that Challengers Korea, the minor league of LCK, has been abolished and replaced by the Challengers League, which is composed of lower-tier teams affiliated with each of the 10 LCK teams. Thus, one of the requirements for entry into the franchise system was that the teams be able to also operate a subdivision team. Players of the Challengers League and LCK are able to move back and forth three times during the season. Also, a minor league called the LCK Academy Series, for amateur players and team players not registered on rosters, will be held regularly.

In addition, the prize pool as well as the minimum salary for players and coaches were raised this season with the introduction of the franchise system.

For the spring split, the total prize money increased to 400 million won ($365,00) from 300 million won, with the winner receiving 200 million won and runner-up 100 million won. The minimum salary for players in the LCK roster tripled from 20 million won to 60 million won starting this season, while the minimum for coaches has been set at 40 million won.

Interest in the league has increased as well, with McDonald’s, Woori Bank and Logitech coming in as official sponsors and Secret Lab, HP Omen, among others becoming global partners.

Each of the 10 teams in the LCK also formed partnerships with large companies in the offseason, with Kia, LG, Nongshim and KB, among others, joining the league.

The logo for LCK has also changed with the implementation of the new franchise system.

Furthermore, the Young Player Award given at the end of the split has been changed to the Rookie of the Year prize, and will be given only once instead of after each season. While best players under the age of 19 who played over 18 sets during the season were eligible, the new award applies to players who have been in the league for less than two years. The Best Coach Award will also be given only once a year instead of each season.

Games will be held online without an audience until further notice due to the pandemic and the opening video for the spring season that usually involved iconic players of each team gathering together and taunting each other, highly anticipated by fans, is likely to be skipped this year. Also, YouTube livestreams of the games will not be available, as LCK and YouTube were unable to come to an agreement. Korean online broadcasts are available on Naver, Twitch and Afreeca TV, while English broadcasts will be available only on Twitch.

By Lim Jang-won (ljw@heraldcorp.com)
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