As esports grow, so do the pockets of those who exist within the industry. While esports might not have reached the same salary level of traditional sports athletes, it’s not far off. And player contracts are only getting more and more lucrative. When it comes to signing top talent, esports organizations are willing to pay top dollar.
In no other esport than League of Legends would fans find evidence for these astronomical prices. And these top players are usually worth the impressive checks they are handed. But what makes a player “worth it?” And why are orgs choosing to offer these substantial payouts? What’s more, will it pay off for everyone involved?
The 2020 off-season: money, money, money
As League of Legends Worlds ended, the off-season began. A flurry of LoL News came from orgs and players alike as they tried to secure the bag commenced as teams continued to trade and buy players for their respected rosters. One player in particular springs to mind as the victor is Hu “SwordArt” Shuo-Chieh.
SwordArt had an unbelievable Worlds journey. Scratch that, it was mind-blowing. His support role in LPL team Suning led the underdog team to the Finals, and a respectable second place against the top dog LCK side DAMWON Gaming.
Suning is a good team but that’s where the accolades end. The team has managed decent LPL runs in both 2019 and 2020, placing everywhere from first place to 11th place in various playoffs and seasonal splits. But the org never managed to find consistency.
Suning won the hearts of many LoL fans this year at Worlds, especially those who were bored by the same old outcomes and the same old comps. Suning turned the series on its head, and put on the show of a lifetime.
On the other side of the world, North American teams weren’t faring too well. After a disappointing run for number one NA side, TSM’s founder Andy Dinh went looking for talent in greener (and more globally successful) pastures.
SwordArt has signed with the LCS team TSM to the tune of $6 million. The two-year contract will compensate SwordArt with $3 million a year for both 2021 and 2022, in what many think could just be the highest salary ever paid in North American League of Legends history.
Esports pundits break the internet
The reactions to this signing from both pundits and fans were complex. Given that Suning only really showed up on the world stage at Worlds itself, what qualifies SwordArt to be elevated to this highest of high positions?
Self-proclaimed “esports historian” and culture commentator Thorin took to Twitter (and YouTube) to let his voice be heard, calling SwordArt “past his prime.” Others have also mocked TSM for bestowing this vast sum on the player, without any real evidence of his talents (bar Worlds).
$6,000,000 for WHO?!? PAST His Prime Shot-Caller – TSM Signs SwordArt – Thorin’s Thoughts (LoL)https://t.co/AqhfySJFOW
— Thorin (@Thorin) November 28, 2020
It was suggested in the replies to this initial tweet that Thorin simply doesn’t like TSM, and would react this way regardless of who they signed. In the video, Thorin himself cited the reason SwordArt moved away from the LPL to the LCS was that this was “his chance to do something in the way-out of [his] career.”
The replies were also full of differing opinions as to the decision to move to TSM, including support for SwordArt, and also suggesting he was going for the “easy bag.”
I think regardless of his LPL performance, dude will be clutch where it should matter. If he maintains like 80 % of his worlds form he should be a strong point of that team , unless they get seriously mismanaged
— 精神病院の患者ーー第２３号 (@tsunabashigo) November 28, 2020
He had a amazing run at worlds, would not say he is past his prime but 1 thing is for sure. He came for a easy bag
— chakachalin (@chakachalin) November 28, 2020
It’s safe to say someone who has just come off the back of a second-place finish from Worlds is not what most would consider as a “ready to retire” player. And given SwordArt’s pretty decent track record, he seems like a safe bet for a TSM battered by defeat.
Who pays in the end?
One thing should go without saying: TSM wouldn’t pay this much for SwordArt if they didn’t think he was worth it. The history of fantastic overseas player talent is undeniable, and investing in those for North America may just be where they need to go to find success.
Dinh doesn’t even see the $6 million as a crazy amount, and told The Washington Post the signing sum was “a really small investment a decade down the road.” He also said “it just makes sense for TSM to spend these dollars to recruit players.”
So, is SwordArt worth breaking the bank for? His veteran status in League adds inherent value, as does his play style. Worth noting is the fact that TSM’s team jigsaw is not finished (their full five-man roster has not yet been confirmed), meaning SwordArt is just a very expensive puzzle piece, hopefully zooming out to reveal a mosaic of triumph.
League of Legends fans also have to talk about the retired elephant in the room: superstar bot-laner Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng. His recent shock retirement from League of Legends, and subsequent leaving of TSM, left a space open for not only newer talent to thrive, but extra cash for the org to spend.
Will SwordArt lead TSM to victory? The yellow brick road is freshly paved, it’s up to him to take the first step to Emerald City, and Worlds 2021.