"The League Championship Series is a professional sports league, with players who compete for most of the year, live with their teams and travel extensively. All this adds up to a full-time job and commitment that requires significant sacrifice and lot of maturity. That’s why we believe that 17 is the appropriate minimum age for a pro player."
-Riot's 2014 Season 4 FAQ
One of the remarkable facets of esports is that the medium of competition, with matches taking place inside a virtual environment inside a computer, means that this is a competitive discipline or sport which truly can transcend societal limitations. If someone can perform to a high level then they can be a professional and earn a degree of respect, regardless of age, gender, religion, ethnicity or income level. Battles that must be fought on those fronts in other sports, where societal labels have held back potentially great athletes, become almost moot in the world of esports. It's merely about whether the person has game or not inside the server.
In that sense it's worth considering the impact of age restrictions on esports and its future. Riot Games explicitly enforces a restriction that says only players aged 17 or older may participate as professional gamers in their League Championship Series (LCS), which covers the highest level of play in North American and European regions.
It was initially assumed, and often cited in public discussions, that Riot had made this ruling on the basis of some labour laws that meant an American company could not salary an individual under the age of 17 to work full-time. Were that the case, then there could be little argument with Riot themselves. As their FAQ and interview answers (above and below, respectively) show, though, Riot themselves deny this as the impetus.
"The decision to limit eligibility in the Championship Series to players 17 and older is not based upon an American standard. The Championship Series is a true pro sports league and its players will be training and competing for most of the year. They won’t just be attending a few weekend tournaments, scattered throughout the calendar. Championship Series pro players will be living with their teams, traveling extensively and making an adult commitment to eSports. They will need to be able to make decisions and sacrifices which require a high degree of maturity.
Our pros will have full-time jobs and we believe that 17 is the appropriate minimum age for a player to operate at this level."
-Dustin "RedBeard" Beck, Riot Vice President of eSports, speaking in an interview (Mobafire)
This is significant as players under the age of 17 have accomplished incredible and admirable feats, both in other esports titles and in competitive LoL itself. Some of them are still under the age of 17 and yet have proven themselves worthy competitors and deserving of the title "professional".
This column will tell the story of some of the esports names, past and present, who have proven themselves to be professional gamers, despite not being old enough to pass Riot's restriction.
The Russian Quake maestro
Name: Anton Singov
Current age: 27
Date of Birth: August 5, 1986
Anton 'Cooller' Singov is one of the most legendary names in the history of Quake dueling. While he now stands as an elder statesman of the game, he was once a young phenom from Russia who came roaring over the horizon and dominated the world's best players. Surprisingly qualifying for the 2002 World Cyber Games (WCG) from Russia, one of the deepest scenes for Quake 3 dueling talent, a 16 year old Cooller defeated reigning WCG champion ZeRo4, considered the world's best dueler, in the group stage.
The following year Cooller won QLAN, beating top aimer Z4muZ, to signal he was ready to challenge for the title of world number one. At the first Esports World Cup (ESWC), Cooller met ZeRo4 in the final and slayed the former number one in emphatic fashion. From then on Cooller would be constantly in the conversation for the world's best duel player.
What's most interesting about Cooller's successes before the age of 17 is that one of most famous qualities was his composure under pressure, never letting on if he was nervous or having it manifest in his play. He was the ultimate cool competitor, seemingly unshakeable in big matches. There are players who are 25 who lack such composure and mental strength.
Quake's impossible talent
Name: Alexei Yanushevsky
Current age: 23
Date of Birth: May 17, 1990
There have been many talented players in the history of Quake dueling, but none shone as brilliantly as Alexei 'Cypher' Yanushevsky has done. This Belarusian possessed such an incredible skillset in-game that his range of consistent rocket damage exceeds even the rest of the world's best players by such a margin as to almost not make sense. Cypher came into the spotlight in 2006, defeating the aforementioned Cooller in the semi-final of ESWC in Quake 4. For a 16 year old player to be an ESWC finalist was more than a hint at the potential the young man possessed, as he would show over the years.
Cypher would go on to become one of the greatest Quake duelers of all time.
Name: Maciej Krzykowsk
Current age: 23
Date of Birth: April 1, 1991
15 year old Maciej 'av3k' Krzykowsk came into a Quake 4 scene dominated by the impossibly consistent aim machine that was toxic. Where others simply couldn't beat the Swedish tyrant, who had won seemingly every event that year, av3k emerged as a new name to enter the circle of contenders. At the Digital Life event in October of 2006, av3k defeated legendary Quake 3 champion Fatal1ty in two series, in the upper and lower brackets, but fell to toxic twice to finish runner-up.
Eight months later, aged 16, av3k defeated toxic 2:0 in the upper bracket and then edged out the Swede in the finals. The player who had seemed unbeatable, and for good reasons, had been taken down by a 16 year old Polish dueler. Two weeks later, av3k won ESWC, defeating Cooller in the final. He would finish fourth at WSVG Toronto later in the same year, still yet to hit the mark of 17.
av3k brought an aggressive playing style, coupled with sheer fearlessness, that made other professional players uncomfortable, both in terms of their in-game movements, which were restricted by his constant aggression and willingness to fight, and in terms of their mental frame at all points of the game. If you were in control of the map against av3k you always feared he would break control at any moment, launching a furious surprise attack, and if you were out of control then his ceaseless pressure left you unable to formulate a plan to turn the game, due to lacking time to think.
Nevermind the upset
Name: Park Sung Gyoon
Current age: 22
Date of Birth: October 3, 1991
Park 'Mind' Sung Gyoon emerged from nowhere, competitively speaking, to win the GOMTV MSL Season 3 tournament in Korean BW in late 2007, all at the tender age of 16. Having defeated iloveoov, the monster macro Terran of 2003-2004, in the Ro16, he then bested sAviOr in a close five game series in the semi-final. sAviOr had been in five straight MSL finals, the last being only two seasons prior, and won the most MSL titles in history.
Despite having beaten that legendary Zerg name, Mind was expected to be the sacrifical lamb for the final, facing off against Bisu, the champion of the last two MSL tournaments, playing in his third straight final. Mind was scripted, seemingly, to lose to Bisu and see the Protoss player elevated to the status of bonjwa of the scene, ruling over the year comprehensively. Instead, Mind pulled off the upset and brilliantly thwarted the efforts of Bisu, taking the MSL title for himself.
In the next season's MSL, still aged 16, Mind made another legend killing run, beating NaDa, the most accomplished player in history, in the Ro8. In the semi-final he was defeated by Jaedong, who would go on to win the title and would later be known as one of the game's greatest ever winners.
Name: Lee Young Ho
Current age: 21
Date of Birth: July 5, 1992
Lee 'Flash' Young Ho was only 14 years old when he qualified for his first Ongamenet StarLeague (OSL), the most prestigious individual league in Korean BW, in 2007. The South Korean BW scene was the most competitive and difficult to break into of any esports scene which had existed to that point in time, packed with professionals of all ages, all practicing 12 or more hours every day to attempt to reach the top of the scene. To qualify as a 14 year old was an incredible feat on its own, but Flash had much more to show in this rookie season.
The young KTF Terran would go up against Bisu in the Ro8, at a time when Bisu was widely considered the best player in the world, the reigning MSL champion and having just reached his second consecutive MSL semi-final a day prior. Flash paid the Protoss player no respect, cheesing him and outing him in the quarter-final. Eight days after turning 15, Flash lost a five game semi-final series to GGPlay, who would go on to win the title that season.
In March of 2008, a 15 year old Flash would win the GOMTV Star Invitational and Bacchus OSL titles in the same month, defeating Jaedong in two Bo3s and Stork in both finals. Stork had been considered the world's best PvT player, with a supposedly unbeatable carrier build, but Flash had been able to edge him in the first final. In the second, taking place only two weeks later, Flash smashed Stork 3:0 in the fastest OSL final in history. His bracket route for that tournament had been crazy, facing Jaedong in the Ro8, Bisu in the semi-final and Stork in the final, the three players who would, along with Flash, be considered the greatest of that era. 15 year old Flash had reached the top of the most competitive esports scene in the world.
Aged 16, Flash finished top four in the Arena MSL, losing to the eventual champion fOrGG in the semi-final, and finished runner-up to Jaedong in the GOM Classic Season 1. Before reaching the age of 17, Flash had won more than $115,000 in prize money.
The lower bracket monster
Name: Lee Dong Nyoung
Current age: 19
Date of Birth: April 1, 1995
Lee 'Leenock' Dong Nyoung was able to reach the final 16 of the first two GSL Open seasons in 2010, aged 15 years old. In November of 2011, the young Zerg player attended the stacked MLG Providence, MLG's year-end championship. The format of the event meant that pros who had earned points throughout the circuit were seeded into the bracket accordingly. Leenock's low seeding meant that only two rounds into the upper bracket he met DongRaeGu, perhaps the best Zerg player in Korea, and was defeated 2:0 and sent to the lower bracket.
From the lower bracket Leenock would mount an improbable and incredible run, defeating six pros to reach the final. Amongst those he slayed along the way was Mvp, the best player in SC2 history and a multiple time GSL champion, as well as MMA, reigning GSL champion, and the aforementioned DongRaeGu. In the final, Leenock faced foreign Protoss star NaNiwa. The Swedish Protoss had run through all of his opponents in the upper bracket and looked set to take the title, needing only to win a single Bo3 to take the crown. Leenock edged NaNiwa in the first Bo3, winning 2:1, to make the series into a Bo7. Winning two straight maps, he took the crown and the hefty first prize back to Korea with him.
Back in Korea, Leenock had been making a similarly impressive run through GSL Code S, the highest level of competition in Korean StarCraft2. Beating Mvp in the final, the man who had reached the past two finals consecutively, he fell to jjakji there, taking a silver medal. Prior to reaching his 17th birthday, Leenock had racked up $84,000 in prize money.
A rookie unlike others in SC2
Name: Lee Seung Hyun
Current age: 17
Date of Birth: January 11, 1997
Lee 'Life' Seung Hyun had made it onto an SC2 pro team in Korea at age 14. At 15 years of age, the young Zerg was able to win GSL 2012 S4 Code S, all in his debut to the tournament. In the quarter-final he had bested MarineKing, multiple time finalists, to reach a semi-final against TaeJa, perhaps the hottest tournament player in the world at the time, dismissing that player in a 3:0 sweep. The finals had met matching up with Mvp, a four time GSL champion, accounting for the most titles in the game's history. Going all the way to a deciding seventh game, Life there defeated Mvp to take the hardest title in the SC2 world.
Over the next two months, Life won the MLG Fall Championship and the GSL Blizzard Cup, against defeating big names in high level competitions. After his 16th birthday, the StarTale Zerg would add the Iron Squid - Chapter II title, defeating former GSL champion DongRaeGu in the final, becoming only the first player in history to return from 0:3 down in a final to win 4:3. The mental composure life showed under pressure went beyond anything expected of most 16 year olds.
In March, Life won his second MLG title, adding the Winter Championship to his haul. Later that year, Life would made the semi-final of a very stacked Dreamhack Bucharest, win IEM VIII New York in emphatic fashion and finish second to an unbeatable TaeJa at Dreamhack Winter. Before his 17th birthday arrived this year, Life had collected $196,000 in winnings.
A young mechanical master
Name: Jian Zihao
Current age: 17
Date of Birth: March 29, 1997
Jian 'Uzi' Zihao was already known in the Chinese scene as a monster AD Carry of the LPL, the top Chinese competitive league, going up against the likes of WeiXiao on a regular basis. It wasn't until the Season 3 World Championship that the entire LoL world understood the talent level of this young Chinese player, though, as the ADC put on a clinic against fellow Chinese rivals OMG in the Ro8. In the semi-final his team dispatched European side fnatic to reach the final, where they would lose to SK Telecom T1, arguably history's greatest LoL line-up.
What's astounding about Uzi is that not only was he his team's star player, all at age 16, but his team was even notable for a strategy which was entirely focused on protecting him and having him carry the end game late. The pressure to perform could not have been higher for a young player, yet Uzi shined against all but the best team in the world. The Chinese player, who turned 17 last week, has already helped his team win more than $334,000.
Coming into his own at the right time
Name: Cho Sung Choo
Current age: 16
Date of Birth: July 28, 1997
Cho 'Maru' Sung Choo was competing in the first season of GSL Open as a 13 year old. The next two years of his career would see him frequently appearing in Code A, the second tier of Korean SC2 competition, and making a single Code S run to a Ro16 finish. At age 16, Maru made a true competitive statement, winning the WCS S2 KR OSL title. Smashing INnoVation, considered to be the world's best player, in a 4:0 sweep in the semi-final, the young Terran then went up against Rain, the reigning OSL champion of the previous year and one of the world's elite Protoss players, defeating the SKT player 4:2 to take the crown.
In the next season of GSL, Maru defeated former GSL champion jjakji to reach the semi-final, there losing to a Dear in blowtorch hot form, who went on to take that season's title. In the WCS Season 3 finals Maru again ousted a former GSL champion, defeating MMA in the Ro8, only to face Dear in another semi-final, again losing by a 1:3 scoreline to the player who would win the event and was considered unbeatable at the time.
At the WCS Global Finals, all of two weeks and a few days later, Maru knocked out two time GSL champion MC in the Ro16, beat WCS S2 EU champion duckdeok in the Ro8 and then lost out to Jaedong, legendary BW champion and multiple time runner-up of SC2, in the semi-final. In the Hot6ix Cup, the final tournament of 2013, Maru swept soO, GSL finalist that year, in the Ro8 and fell to Soulkey, the year's most consistent player, 1:3 in the semi-final. In the first GSL of this year Maru finished in the Ro8, losing out to former GSL champion Life in 2:3 series.
In the span of just over seven months, Maru was able to win an OSL title, finish top four in five elite level tournaments and finish in the top eight a total of six times. Still aged 16, the young Terran has won over $75,000.
Youth without youth
Name: Liu Zhihao
Current age: 16
Date of Birth: August 25, 1997
Liu 'Zzitai' Zhihao began competing in LoL in 2011, at the tender age of 13. Joining invictus Gaming (iG) in April of 2012, he managed to qualify for the Season 2 World Championship, representing China, at the age of 14. At age 15 he helped his team emerge from the group of death, featuring Frost, CLG Prime and SK Gaming, to a quarter-final finish, pushing European masters Moscow Five before losing both games.
In 2013, Zzitai's iG were the team that stopped the incredible domestic run of World Elite, where they had been unbeaten in a series for over six months, in the final of StarsWar League Season 2. A month before his 16th birthday, Zzitai finished runner-up to World Elite at IEM Shanghai. As a 16 year old he would win IEM Singapore, defeating Frost in the final.
Zzitai was known both for his creative champion picks and his ability to swap to the AD Carry position, as needed, something highly unique for a top level professional player, especially in a scene as packed with ADC talent as China's.
The 16 year old Zzitai's teams have accrued over $271,000 with him in the line-up.
A new talent rises in China
Name: Han Jin
Current age: 16
Date of Birth: September 24, 1997
Han 'SmLz' Jin may well be China's next AD Carry star-in-the-making. The ADC of World Elite Academy, the second team of the famed Chinese organisation, the 16 year old has already shown off numerous highlight plays in the second tier competition of Chinese LoL. Many tip him as one of the next stars of the scene, with the joke often being that the WE.Academy is better than the main WE line-up that competes in LPL.
Those restricted directly
Having looked at numerous examples of players who have accomplished incredible things in other games or outside of the NA/EU region for LoL, let's take a look at two famous cases of players who were limited by the Riot restriction.
The young Danish mid master
Name: Søren Bjerg
Current age: 18
Date of Birth: February 21, 1996
Søren 'Bjergsen' Bjerg was only 16 years old when he helped his Copenhagen Wolves team grab the spotlight by beating Curse.EU, the talented but troubled team who had beaten Moscow Five at Tales of the Lane, in the group stage of Dreamhack Winter 2012. Two weeks later, his team beaten ALTERNATE three times to finish runners-up to fnatic in the THOR Open final. Less than a week after that, CPH Wolves won NorthCon, beating Team Acer, featuring the likes of CitizenWayne and Amazing, in the final.
In the span of less than a month of play, Bjergsen had proven himself a fast rising talent in the European scene, one packed with star mid laners, and helped his team grab numerous respectable placings. There was one problem though: with his birthday on February 21st, he would not meet the Riot age restriction before the qualifiers had takent place for the first LCS split. This meant his team had to attend the split without their star. As it happened, a miraculous run of form allowed the team to qualify, even when some of its members had assumed they wouldn't, despite numerous strong teams attending the qualifier.
With the first two weeks of LCS Spring taking place before his birthday, Bjergsen had to sit on the sidelines and watch his team go 0/5, plunging to the very bottom of the league. Returning to the line-up in week three, now aged 17, would help revive their form and they went 13:10 in their remaining 23 games, totalling an impressive 56.52% win-rate. Their 13:15 overall final standing meant they finished fifth at the end of the regular portion of the split, leaving many to wonder where they might have finished with Bjergsen in the line-up for the first five games.
Name: Martin Larsson
Current age: 17
Date of Birth: September 20, 1996
Martin 'Rekkles' Larsson was only 15 years old when he competed at the MLG Summer Arena with Team BLACK in August of 2012. Getting to play against the likes of Team SoloMid (TSM), the dominant team in NA LoL, and Azubu Blaze, the reigning OGN champions, was quite the competitive debut for the young Swedish AD Carry. Three and a half months later he got a chance to play for fnatic and immediately helped turn the ailing European team's fortunes around.
Rekkles and company shocked CLG.EU, formerly Europe's second best team and a semi-finalist from the World Championship, 2:1 in the final of Dreamhack Winter. A week later, at the stacked IPL5 event in Vegas, Rekkles would shine as fnatic stormed to an impressive and explosive runner-up finish. After beating Blaze in the group stage, Rekkles' team were able to twice defeat reigning LoL World Champions Taipei Assassins 2:0 in the bracket stage. The young Swede even got to go up against Doublelift, mechanically gifted and highly touted American AD Carry of CLG Prime, in the upper bracket.
Facing the likes of Cpt Jack, Bebe, WeiXiao and Doublelift, Rekkles had been given the chance to test his skills at AD Carry against some of the world's most famous and accomplished names, frequently proving up to the task. A week after IPL, fnatic won THOR Open. Less than a week after that Rekkles played his final tournament of the year and his last for fnatic in that incarnation, finished runner-up at IEM VII Cologne. Beating Reapered's SKT in the group stage, fnatic won 2:1 against a CJ Entus team featuring dade and inSec in the semi-final. In the final they fell to the same SKT they had met in the group stage.
Over a one month time span, Rekkles had helped fnatic to top two finishes in four straight events, one being arguably the second biggest and most competitive of the year. The age restriction, with Rekkles' birthday not until September of 2013, meant he would not be able to compete for fnatic in the first two LCS splits. The team let him compete in the amateur scene while they went off and won both LCS splits. On the amateur circuit Rekkles was able to win three offline tournaments and place top two in two others, shining as one of the stars of the semi-professional environment. Before turning 17, Rekkles had won his teams over $96,000 in prize money.
Accomplishments that matter
By outlining these stories I've shown numerous cases of young players accomplishing incredible feats, sometimes even becoming the best player in the entire world in their game at age 15 or 16. Flash's unbelievable climb through the ultra competitive Korean BW scene to reach the semi-final of his first major tournament, then going on to win a title in record time the next year, would barely be believed if it was the plot of a movie. Life ascending SC2 to knock off the greatest player of all time in his first season is both a captivating tale and one that inspires admiration.
Yet if the names on this list, minus Bjergsen and Rekkles, had been competing in the North American or European regions, with LoL as their competitive game of choice, then they would not have been able to show us these incredible runs. Their chance to prove themselves elite competitors in the world, as good as any of the professional players older than them, would have been denied them.
No doubt many reading this article remember being wowed by the mechanical perfection of Uzi's performance against a scary OMG team in the Ro8 of the World Championship, yet we must consider that if he had been competing in a region where the league was run entirely by Riot that we would still not know who Uzi was, or not to the same degree. His skills would not have been able to shine to the same degree competing in an amateur circuit.
Players like Flash, Life and Maru, had numerous hurdles along their competitive careers in the early years. Deny them those first couple of years to figure things out and nobody can know if they'd even have been capable of half of their accomplishments. Denied access to elite level competition, how would they learn composure or adapt to opponents figuring out their strengths? These failures, mixed with their successes, were part of the path they had to take to reach the pinnacle of their games.
If Riot waved their magic age restricting wand all of the stories in this article, minus two, would be gone. But what of those two stories? In Bjergsen's case it's not simply a fun 'what if?' to speculate on what might have happened in CPH Wolves had been able to use him for the first five LCS Spring games, being as they would finish only two wins behind fourth placed EG, it's also an important consideration to make in terms of them even getting to play in LCS. Replay that LCS qualifier five times and CPH Wolves might not even make it in a second time, that's how dangerous a field it was to navigate. Without CPH Wolves in LCS Spring we don't get to see Bjergsen's incredible rookie performance that split.
In the case of Rekkles, had fnatic won the Summer split without any dip in form, nobody can even know if he'd be in fnatic right now. The Swede might be playing for another team entirely. While Uzi, who is seven months younger than him, competed in the final of the Season 3 World Championship, Rekkles, who had already proven himself at IPL5 and in the rest of the pre-S3 circuit, was forced to sit at home and watch the tournament online, wondering how he might have done under such circumstances.
If Riot waved their wand, then the careers of Zzitai and Uzi as LoL professionals would not yet have begun. There'd have been no S2WC group stage for Zzitai, no S3WC final for Uzi. In fact, none of the accomplishments listed here, minus those of Bjergsen and Rekkles, would have ever taken place.
In "real" sports it's simply not going to happen that a 16 year old possesses the physical gifts to beat the best player in the world, who is in his physical prime. In esports, this was both possible and has happened on numerous occasions (Cooller, Cypher, Flash, Life). To deny those players the opportunity to accomplish such feats, on the basis that some people their age might not be able to handle the strains and rigors of a professional career, is both arbitrary and questionable.
Players have proven themselves capable of conducting themselves as professionals, sometimes even above and beyond the level of older peers. Meanwhile, some professionals buckle under such pressures at ages beyond 17. Such matters would be best judged on an individual basis, perhaps left to the player himself or his parental figures to make a decision on. Arbitrarily telling players they can't compete, on the basis they might not be able to handle being a professional, both hinders their development along the path of becoming the best pro player they can be, but also denies the world a chance to see their talents in full bloom on the biggest international stages.
If it is the case that in fact the impetus forcing such a restriction is a legal one, then Riot should simply be honest about that and then there would be little reason for anyone to dispute it. Instead, they have framed this as a debate about the developmental age at which someone should be allowed to compete. Allowed by who? The people who made the game and invested money into the league, these are the people who have set themselves up as arbiters of such a condition. I say that there have been cases of players who could play as well as anyone older, remain composed just as well as anyone older and act as professionally as anyone older. They should not be denied a chance to prove that to be the case.
I was awe-inspired by Flash's early BW accomplishments, Life's victory over Mvp left me stunned and Uzi's mechanical mastery left me speechless. If Riot waved their age restriction wand over those proceedings, I'd never have seen any of those things come to be. That would be an awful shame, especially in a field like few others, where limitations can truly be transcended.
Photo credits: Riot Games, Taza, FOMOS, ESReality, fnatic