The Cost of Imports: An LJL Case Study

Another international event gone by, another missed opportunity for the LJL.

Since their international debut in 2015, Japan has always been a region of possibilities. Every tournament they failed again, defeated by more experienced and talented players. Yet they always carry around them an aura of hope and potential, fueling a false faith that flickers until the next disappointment. Japan always brings something special to the table, a tiny hope that makes them enticing despite their continuous failures.

To understand why Japan have always fallen short on the international stage, one must understand why the region remains so enticing after years of underperformance. After all, not every Japanese team has failed outside of their home country. Just months ago, the LJL took first place in Rift Rivals, upsetting the Garena Pro League in Ho Chi Minh City.

The key to their success, after so many missteps rested in the hands of their junglers. Lee “Tussle” Moon-yong, Moon “Steal” Geon-yeong, and Moon “Neo” Ji-won stole the show, topping the scoreboards against all other junglers in the event. Neo surprised with his niche counterpicks such as Warwick and Ivern, as Tussle and Steal used their aggressive style to win their teams the game. No one could stand up to the junglers of the LJL.

Apart from their strong performance at Rift Rivals, there is one other thing that these three players all have in common. Each one of them is Korean, imported to Japan as an international star. In fact, Japan is the only region in the world with at least two imports on every single team. These imports have dramatically increased the individual skill of a relatively weak region.

A comparatively miniscule playerbase makes up the entirety of LoL Japan, and very little national talent exists on the island nation. Koreans have provided a band-aid to this problem, providing a temporary boost in overall talent in order to foster long-term improvements. Japan’s biggest hope comes from outside their own region.

However, their biggest hope may also be their largest detriment. The surplus of Korean imports may have actually lowered the success of the overall region. The influx of imports has shifted the focus away from tactics and onto the stars. The LJL is not won by the most tactically proficient team, but by the one who most effectively implements their foreigners.

As the Japanese metagame stalls and strategical ability falls by the wayside, large organizations continue to spend on young Korean talents. This blatant disregard for the fundamentals of the game undermines what makes a group of skilled individuals into a truly powerful team.

Additionally, the onus on imports has stalled the development of regional talent. As the majority of the attention goes to foreign players, Japanese stars are cast to the asphalt. Instead of growing the next generation of Japan, talent scouts turn to Korea to find their next big superstar.

The problem with Japan isn’t that the country doesn’t have enough good players to take them to victory. The problem is that no one is willing to foster their growth and synergy. Instead, they habitually turn back to Korea, stealing another challenger player from a far superior region. This is not how to take a region to success, this is how to drive them into the ground.

The LJL is certainly an outlier in the League of Legends scene. No other region comes close to their extreme reliance on foreign talent and Korean farming. Yet the troubles of Japan provide a valuable lesson to other regions as well.

The NA LCS and LPL have struggled with this issue over the years. at the moment, only one North American team lacks an import, while OMG and RNG are the only all-Chinese teams in the LPL. Certain teams like Echo Fox and Vici Gaming have shown the dangers of import over-reliance. These regions aren’t at the level of the NA LCS yet. However, if their current trends continue, there could be an eerily similar situation in these major regions.