Critique of the League of Legends Championship Series isn’t anything really new, it has been heavily criticised for limiting international play, killing off third party tournaments and generally having a flawed structure for qualification into the World Championships. These claims have merit and the clamour for international competition will only increase as scenes become increasingly isolated due to the LCS. So what are the problems? Why have Riot seemingly imposed a major restriction on teams from participating in competitive events? Is there any advantage to this at all? Are there any better solutions? This article aims to explore the four major circuits and see if there is anything Riot can learn from its regional partners and vice versa.
NB: I will not be covering the respective regions challenger league formats in this article.
Riot Games and the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS)
28 games in front of 200,000 – 300,000 viewers every week. That is the amount of exposure an LCS spot gives an organization and it’s no surprise that organizations such as Ninjas in Pyjamas and Evil Geniuses are willing to fork out a large amount of cash to obtain an LCS spot. No matter how well you do once you are in the LCS, your organization gets paid 175,000 per season by Riot in addition to travel and housing stipends for the players. The catch? Strict rules governing the participation of the contracted teams in tournaments and also rules regarding the behaviour of players whilst participating in the LCS. Teams aren’t allowed to play in non-partnered events for the duration of the LCS contract.
The LCS is divided into two splits per year: Spring and Summer. Each split contains 8 teams, the top 6 teams after the regular season has ended will advance into a playoff bracket and from summer 2013 onwards, the top 5 teams from the playoffs will progress immediately into the next split while the bottom three will have to play their relegation matches to see if they are worthy of continuing into the next split. Qualification into the League of Legends World Championship is at the moment purely determined by the place a team takes in the summer playoffs regardless of how their actual performance throughout the rest of the season was.
Advantages (in comparison with Season 2):
The LCS provides an opportunity for newer teams to rise by paying them a monthly salary.
Back in Season 2, North America was ruled by a triumvirate: CLG, Dignitas and TSM. While the standings differed between the three teams on a tournament by tournament basis, the three teams were undisputedly the best North America had to offer, there was no real upsets, and no real up and coming talent in the NA scene. TSM, the number one team at that time, had significant difficulty in international tournaments because of this, they even moved to the EUW servers to scrim European teams because the teams in North America were of lower quality than their European counterparts.
The LCS has dramatically changed that. The triumvirate no longer exists – only TSM remains as one of the best teams in North America, as upcoming teams such as Cloud 9 have taken the reins in leading North America, displacing the traditional powerhouses of CLG and Dignitas. The strongest season 2 team now has good competition in its home base and while, it still has a 0% win rate against Korea, it’s clear that the gap between North America and Europe isn’t as large as it was in Season 2.
Other examples are Supa Hot Crew, Roccat and Lemondogs, those teams probably wouldn’t have as improved as much in the old circuit point system. One of the biggest advantages of LCS is that it does allow local talent to foster.
No Matter how badly you do, you are guaranteed 28 games, which ensures stability for fans, organizations and players.
The guarantee of 28 games in front of 200,000 viewers and a salary ensures stability for fans, organizations and teams. There are roster changes, but nothing as major as the ones Europe experienced in Season 2. NiP/LD may have had a drama filled year but most other teams have been stable throughout the LCS. Season 2 was a wreck where we had circuit points removed from teams because their team had entirely disbanded. Teams such as Sypher, aAa and mouz come to mind. 28 games vs the best of the best in your region allows a team to consistently test themselves and improve and make adjustments if this doesn’t happen.
The 28 games also ensure that fans get to see their team play every week, a Dignitas fan will be able to cheer his team every week where a KT Bullets fan in OGN will only be able to cheer their team on when the group stages are playing and if they advance to the playoffs. An argument can be made that teams that win more should have more exposure and it’s something that I agree with, however, the LCS system ensures that teams do not fall into obscurity if they have a slew of bad weeks. A MYM fan for example could still continue to watch his team duke it out vs some of the best European teams. It’s more positive for the fans of a specific team and that team in general for a team to be part of the LCS system rather than the OGN system.
Playoffs create the opportunity for great upsets and storylines, allows teams with roster changes to take pole position even after a mediocre season and generally creates excitement
The spring split of the NA LCS was great for such stories. GGU, a middle of the pack team would upset both Dignitas and Curse and would give TSM a run for their money in the grand finals. GGU had to use a substitute all season as their midlaner Shiphtur had visa issues and could not participate in time for the spring split. Their sub, Jintae would make impressive displays with Orianna and be catapulted into the spotlight to the point where many people were puzzled when GGU decided to continue with Shiphtur (of course Shiphtur is proving to be a best so GGU (now Coast) were correct in the end).
Similarly, Vulcun’s run at the playoffs signalled the rise of another strong North American team. The mtw-na/clg black hybrid would initially have a medicore season with Muffinqt and consistently struggled to gain traction. Their addition of Bloodwater helped the team improve significantly and the team would eventually place 3rd in the Spring Split after a great run at playoffs.
Having a single, professional tournament takes ensures consistency for the viewer, the teams and the organizations.
Removing the nostalgic glasses for once, it’s quite obvious to see why Riot implemented the LCS. Back in Season 2, the competitive scene was a Wild West environment, with everyone attempting to cash into the League of Legends gold rush with mediocre prize pools and poor production. Games would often start late, teams would be dqed and generally the tournament scene was poorly organized.
Players weren’t exactly treated the best either, numerous complaints about MLG’s handling of their events were raised on reddit. I still remember the problems CLGeu had to face when they played in MLG Anaheim, or when Aphromoo (?) wasn’t allowed to use the toilet. Generally, the experience of players and viewers varied from event to event and even the same organizations wouldn’t have the same quality as every event was held in a different location. Time and quality constraints also meant that some games also weren’t shown. I remember not being able to watch the CLGeu-Dig match at MLG Dallas because of restrictions imposed by MLG.
The existence of the LCS provides a one-stop solution to all of these problems. Gone are the days of fans not being able to see their teams play and the condensing of the entire circuit into one league has ensured that there is a consistent set of rules that the players and organizations must follow. Rather than having to adapt to MLG’s, IEM’s and Dreamhack’s rule sets every tournament, players just need to focus on one.
Now that we’ve covered the major advantages of Riot’s LCS system, it’s time to look at the problems of the biggest (and only) circuit in Western League of Legends.
The Spring Split is essentially useless in terms of qualification into Worlds
The Spring split, essentially means almost nothing for qualification into the LCS. So long as you are not relegated, your results in the Spring split does not matter at all for a chance at the World Championships. Teams have openly stated that as long as they avoid relegations then they are happy with their performance in the Spring Split. It has been described as a stepping stone for the real competitive split of summer. Something has gone terribly wrong when the main objective of the split isn’t to win but to not lose.
In 2013, a top tier team such as TSM and Gambit could theoretically decide to sell their Spring spot, participate in OGN Winter, re-qualify for the Summer Split (via Ladder or one of the LANs such as the ones in Gamescom and Tenerife) and represent North America/Europe at Worlds. The risk is of course too great for a team to attempt this but this example is shows how little the LCS Spring split really meant in 2013.
It’s a lot harder to do now with the Coke Zero league acting as the sole funnel for the LCS promotionals (it’s still doable, however, as the ladder freeze for the second Coke Zero league will certainly be after OGN Winter finishes). Spring Split performance aids players to represent their region at All Stars but the Summer split is the split that really matters and it doesn’t matter if you don’t qualify for the spring split in terms of worlds participation (just ask C9 and LD).
Riot’s NickAllen had this to state on the subject:
This is something we talk about quite a bit on the Riot eSports team: How do we make the Spring Split more valuable? We have ideas–some of which you’ll be hearing about relatively soon.
However, I think there are a ton of reasons an LCS player should care about success in the Spring Split:
- The title and prestige of being the top team in the region
- Sponsor implications around being considered the best
- Considerable prize money
- Acquiring more fans, which can result in higher summoner icon sales, higher team merch sales, and higher streaming numbers
- Future acquisitions of talent (Would Bjergsen have come to TSM if they weren’t at the top of the NA ranks? Not sure, but it likely made the decision easier!)
- Press coverage around success which means more overall exposure for team and sponsor brands (ROCCAT is getting a bunch press attention in EU at the moment because of their success)
- Fan girls? (looking at you, Doublelift…)
We’ve been looking at other eSports leagues, as well as traditional sports models, and we are discussing if those systems are the right fit for the LCS. We haven’t found anything that really speaks to us–Najin Sword got into Worlds based on a point system that had some flaws, and we’d also like to have more short term incentives beyond just points that affect qualification months down the line. However, like all of our policies/rules/formats, we are open to being wrong and constantly evaluate whether we need to pivot in a different direction. We’ll be keeping this in mind as we continue to discuss and plan for next year.
Does Seasonal Performance matter?
Thorin raises an excellent point in his article. He talks about the fact that there is really no difference between the 3rd and 6th positions as all four of the teams qualify for the quarter finals and no distinguishing feature between the 1st and 2nd places for teams to actively try their best in the split. Honestly, there really isn’t much else I can add to this section that isn’t covered in the onGamers article already. So I’ll just post some of the quotes which I agree with.
The problem there is that, first of all, both of the top two teams get those exact benefits, meaning that that only really works as motivation for those teams who are around 3rd-4th. If a team is clearly top two then it’s not necessarily worth investing every waking hour to decide if they finish in first or second.
Beyond the top two spots, there is the problem of positions third through to sixth all making the playoffs, in a split that only contained eight teams to begin with. That means that a team finishing in third place doesn’t gain anything extra, except matching up against the sixth placed team instead of the fourth or fifth. There’s no extra prize money for finishing third instead of sixth.
The team who is placed seventh can potentially make a late surge, grab the sixth spot, find themselves facing the third place team, who they might match-up well with, and upset them for a victory and then some guaranteed prize money. All that is possible because they finished in sixth place at the end of the season. Meanwhile, a team busts a gut to claw and grind their way into the third spot, could find themselves with a bad match-up against the sixth place team, who only snuck into that spot in the last two weeks, and after losing two games they are out of contention for prize money and now fighting to even retain their LCS spot for the next split.
Even the teams who do finish first or second, not only do they not get any extra prize money, but they themselves are two game losses from finishing third or fourth overall for the split.
Read the rest of Thorin’s article here
But I do want to state that when comparing the LCS to other sporting competitions, the playoffs are always more important than the regular season, and it should probably stay that way. However, the regular season does need more importance in the LCS and right now the 28 games feel like an exercise in pointlessness.
International Competition is Basically Dead.
The formation of a single overarching league is in my opinion a very good concept for the scene as a whole and its advantages are numerous. But not when it chokes out international competition. Riot’s obsession over creating League of Legends as a sport has made them ignore what’s so great about Esports: witnessing the best from all around the world compete with each other for glory and victory.
No other international sport has this lack of international competition. Liverpool from the English Premiere League for example has the opportunity to play annually (depending on their performance) in: the FA cup, The League Cup, the UEFA Champions League/UEFA Euro League and the FIFA Club World Cup. Rugby and T 20 Cricket (National Leagues + Champions League) are probably the closest we could get to the LCS’s policy, but those sports have National teams which players from the leagues play in consistently so there is really no lack of international competition there. An LCS team gets to participate in the LCS, BoTA, some IEM events (including the upcoming World Championship) if they’re popular enough and the World Championships. We’re never really going to see an IPL 5 again with this policy.
Riot’s policy is inconsistent with their partner leagues as well. No other region has these restrictions imposed on their teams. Yes, the LPL, GPL and OGN take priority but there is no restriction otherwise. In 2013, OMG participated in: the World Championships, the 2013 WCG, the National Electronic Sports Tournament, the Nvidia Gaming Festival, Starswar and numerous other tournaments. The CJ organization also participated in the Battle Royale, IEM Singapore and WCG 2013. Riot’s policy has unfortunately stripped teams of this opportunity. Cloud 9 has participated in the World Championships, Bota and IEM Cologne only.
The competition block not only hurts the fans and teams but also other organizations that would have benefited the League of Legends scene massively. MLG dropped League of Legends in favour for Dota 2 because the return on it wasn’t effective enough to continue supporting it (because, let’s face it, not many people want to watch amateur tournaments). Rebull has also recently announced their entrance into the Dota 2 scene. There is a significant lack of LANs for North American teams to participate in and the competition block like this only make it worse.
We’ve highlighted some of the problems with the League of Legends Championship Series and displayed a tiny glimpse of how Riot’s partner leagues operate. It’s time to head across the Pacific and analyse the positives and negatives of how they operate. Let’s start off with the region that has the most similar structure to Riot’s LCS: China.
Tencent and the League of Legends Pro League
The LPL functions similarly to the LCS. It too is divided into two splits: LPL Spring and LPL Summer. The LPL also has a challenger series called the LSPL which feeds into the relegation tournament and the LPL teams also play four games versus each team per split and the winner of the playoffs is deemed the winner of the split.
Similarities end there however as the structure of the league diverges significantly. Starting from 2014, the teams all play each other in a best of two series rather than a best of one. Furthermore, only two teams are relegated. Only the top four of the eight teams of the LPL advance to the playoffs and the World Championship spots are allocated via a regional tournament which consists of the best two teams from the regular seasons of each split.
Advantages over the LCS
The Spring split actually matters.
With the spring and summer splits being considered equal in terms of the LPL rule-set, there is actual significance to a team’s performance in the summer split. The top two teams of the regular season get seeded in to the tournament that decides the Regionals spot. Since the spring split actually matters in terms of Worlds Qualification, teams have proper incentive to work hard and attempt to take the top two positions in the Spring split.
Regular Season is far more important.
The regular season is more important in the LPL than in the LCS. Essentially, the LPL is divided into 4 tiers of rewards based on the performance on a team in the regular season.
Tier 1 (Positions 1 and 2): Qualification into the regional tournament that decides the Chinese representatives for the World Championship and qualification into the playoffs bracket that determines the champions of LPL Spring and Summer
Tier 2: (Positions 3 and 4): Qualification into the playoffs bracket that determines the champions of LPL Spring and Summer [[LPL Summer only: If one/both of the tier 1 teams have already qualified for the regional tournament via their LPL Spring record then, the tier 2 teams are given a spot in the regional qualifiers (3rd given preference to 4th).
Tier 3 (Positions 5 and 6): No qualification into the playoffs but Teams are auto qualified into the next LPL split.
Tier 4 (Positions 7 and 8): Have to requalify to the LPL via the relegation tournament.
This tiered rewards structure encourages teams to play to their best of ability. It’s not perfect, for there is no disparity between the positions within the tiers (eg 1st and 2nd position), but at least there is a disparity between the 3rd and 6th positions in terms of the regular season, which the LCS seems to lack.
No restrictions are present on teams competing in third party tournaments.
Whilst the LPL is obviously the priority tournament, L-ACE (the organization that runs most of the League of Legends teams in China ) and Tencent haven’t enforced a total ban on the competition of LPL teams in third party tournaments.
As, a result, China has a flourishing third party tournament scene. Here is a list of some of the tournaments the Chinese team Invictus Gaming attended/will attend since the beginning of 2013.
WVW National Elite Cup
2013 WCG China Qualifiers
2013 GALAXY eSports Carnival
G-League 2012 Season 2
GIGABYTE StarsWar League Season 2
IEM Season VIII – Shanghai
National Electronic Sports Tournament
IEM Season VIII – Singapore
IEM Season VIII – World Championship
Here is a list of ALL the tournaments that Gambit Gaming has attended or will attend since the start of 2013.
IEM Season VII – Global Challenge Katowice
IEM Season VII – World Championship
2013 MLG Winter Championship International Exhibition
ESL Major Series Winter 2012
IEM Season VIII – Cologne
Battle of the Atlantic – Los Angeles
IEM Season VII – World Championship
With MLG dropping League of Legends and Gambit not being allowed to play in the EMS, 2014 looks even more bleak for an LCS team.
Now that we’ve covered some of the advantages of the LPL System, it’s now time to look at the disadvantages of Tencent’s circuit.
Auto qualification into regionals via Spring Placement means that the qualified teams do not have to try as hard in the Summer split
Well, this only really applies when solely looking at the point of the Worlds Qualification. I seriously doubt teams will stay lax in the Summer split. But the potential to do so is there as they already have their regionals spot secured. In fact, the Chinese representative for the World Championships could theoretically not even make it back into the next LPL as they are not really interlinked once you have secured your spot. It’s an interesting trait of the Chinese League.
Only two relegation spots means that the LPL is fairly stagnant in terms of new blood coming in.
One thing the LCS does right is the opportunity for new blood to come in and challenge incumbent teams for a spot in the LCS. The LPL has a similar system but the system is entirely downsized with only two teams being relegated and only two teams from the LSPL being promoted.
Looking at the EU LCS, in Summer 2013 we had 3 new teams (Alternate, Meet Your Makers, Lemondogs) out of a possible 4 and in Spring 2014 we had 2 out of a possible 3 (Copenhagen Wolves , Kiedyś Miałem Team [now Roccat]) teams that displaced incumbent teams and entered the LCS. The limitation that only two teams are permitted to challenge the spot of an incumbent team hinders the advancement of the LPL.
The Chinese system, whilst being better than the LCS in many aspects, still has a number of flaws that don’t make it the ideal system. Perhaps Korea, the so called Mecca of Esports has a better solution.
Ongamenet/ Riot Korea and the Champions (OGN)
South Korea functions very differently to the Western (North America and Europe) and Chinese (People’s Republic of China) scenes. It, like every other league has an amateur circuit, called the NLB. Whats different about the NLB is that Champions teams that do not make the semifinals are eligible to participate in the latter rounds of the NLB. The most recent winners are well known teams such as Najin e-mFire Blacksword and CJ Entus Blaze.
The Champions league is also vastly different from the LCS and LPL. Firstly, it is vastly bigger in terms of team participation, with each Champions season consisting of sixteen teams as opposed to LCS’s and LPL’s eight. It is also shorter in length as each team only plays each other twice as opposed to the four times the teams in the LPL and LCS play. A more similar comparison to the LPL and LCS would be the League of Legends Masters tournament which effectively runs as the proleague for League of Legends in Korea.
The final major distinction between Korea and the other two aforementioned is the difference in the qualification rules for the League of Legends World Championship. Korea uses a circuit system similar to Riot’s Challenger Circuit. Depending on the amount of slots allocated to Korea, the first and possibly second teams which have accumulated the most points during the year are auto qualified into the League of Legends World Championship and the remaining spot is run via a gauntlet system, with the positions of the teams in the gauntlet system being determined by their total accumulated point values.
The Allocated points can be viewed here
Advantages in Comparison to the LCS
Past results matter
Results obtained earlier in the year contribute to the teams’ overall point totals which ensures their past results have merit. The teams that represented Korea in 2013 were Najin e-mfire Black Sword, Samsung Galaxy Ozone and SK Telecom T1 (now SK Telecom T1 K). All of the representatives had won a Champions season (Samsung Galaxy Ozone won the OGN Spring 2013 season whilst they were representing the MVP organization), so one can argue that the Korean representatives for the 2013 World Championships was indicative of the strongest teams in the region when taking the whole year into account.
8 re-qualification spots mean the potential for new talent is extremely high
The LCS offers up 3/8 spots for challenger teams to challenge incumbent teams. The LPL offers up 2/8. The OGN offers 8/16 spots. The teams that did not progress into the quarter finals of the previous season will have to re-earn their OGN spot. This allows for some interesting upsets such as Midas Flo winning over the Jin Air Stealths or the KT Arrows managing not to qualify for the tournament for two straight seasons. Overall it increases the competitiveness of the region because teams have to work harder to secure their spot in the most prestigious league in the country.
There are a variety of competitions.
International or third party competition is not forbidden under the rules of the Korean Circuit. In addition to Masters, Champions and the NLB Korean teams have participated in the MLG Winter Invitational, the AMD Inven Game Expereience tournament, IEM Singapore, IEM Katowice, IEM World Championships 2013, WCG 2013, IEM World Champions 2014 and the NiceGameTv Battle Royale tournament. It’s unfortunate that the LCS only allows IEM to host LCS teams when we could be seeing great international rivalries born.
Well, those are some of the positives of the OGN format, I don’t really feel like I’ve done enough justice to it but it’s time to move on to the negatives of the OGN Format.
Victories early in the year count the same as victories later in the year.
The major flaw of the Korean format is that OGN awards the same circuit points in Winter, Spring and Summer. This seems like a fair decision until you factor in the fact that League of Legends is dynamic evolving game based on the patches Riot Games decide to implement. The strongest teams when worlds starts aren’t necessarily the teams with the highest circuit points. It was well accepted that the KT Bullets were the second strongest team in Korea during the start of the World Championship but they were not able to qualify as circuit point differentials were too great for a guaranteed spot and they had to vs the best team in the world in the gauntlet finals. Perhaps the system would be better if only the top seeded team was guaranteed a spot in the World Finals rather than the top two.
The winner of the NLB was given too much points in 2013
It was a bit odd that the winner of NLB was given the equivalent amount of points as a 4th place finish at Champions. This enabled Najin Blacksword to essentially bypass the gauntlet and clinch the first place position despite the team not being able to pass the quarterfinals in two of the three seasons. Despite Blacksword doing well at the World Championships, it highlighted a flaw in the circuit system. It seems that Riot Korea agreed, and reduced the points obtained by winning the NLB to 75 points. Had the 2014 points system been applied to the 2013 standings, Najin Blacksword would have had to compete with SKT T1 in a bo3 to see who wins the automatic qualification spot and who has to go to the gauntlet.
Those are the two major flaws that I could think of from the Korean system, it is very good otherwise. But is there a better system out there? Let’s take a look at Garena and how they run the GPL system from 2014.
Garena and the Garena Premiere League
After substantive criticism from their local scene about the GPL tournament format, Garena significantly changed their tournament structure. The tournament structure gets rid of the 2013 Garena sponsored teams process and puts the teams into a large and exhaustive qualifier process. If you thought OGN’s qualifier slot allocation was extensive, the GPL makes all teams requalify for each season regardless of performance. Teams qualify for the GPL via their respective national leagues: the LNL, the Glorious Arena, the Legends Circuit etc.
Each team obtains circuit points respective to their placement in each season and like Korea the top teams run via a gauntlet system. The major difference between Korea’s system and Garena’s is that the allocated points per season increase as we head from Winter to Summer and the Summer Champion is guaranteed a spot at the World Championship.
The allocated points are displayed here
The Summer Champion is auto qualified into Worlds
Theoretically, the Summer Champion should be the best team in the region right before Worlds. This specific rule allows the region to send their best team at that time to avoid the complications with Circuit points that the Korean system imposes.
Previous results matter but not as much as recent results.
I feel like I’m repeating myself but the LCS is the only circuit where previous results don’t matter at all for Worlds Qualification provided you don’t get relegated. Every other region has a system in place where the previous split or season matters. Garena’s is in my opinion the best one for this. As the Circuit points increase from Winter to Summer, it ensures new teams have the ability to be competitive with established teams provided they are extremely good whilst also rewarding consistently performing teams.
One of the comments on the news aggregation site Reddit.com by /u/jessekremer identifies a major problem when designing a circuit:
In the end it’s choosing between the lesser of two evils:
- A team that is worse goes to worlds
- A team that never did anything but acquired a good player for the last playoff week goes to worlds(an example)
You’re either rewarding for consistency, a team that deserves it goes to worlds. Or you want the ultimate competition at worlds, having the best team at those times of the year attend, no matter how poorly they did during the season.
The GPL’s circuit system, in theory seems to do a very good job of adequately fulfilling both conditions.
International participation is still present.
I don’t really think I need to expand on futher, as I’ve covered it in the other sections. International Competition and Third party events are a good thing.
Time to check some of the disadvantages.
LNL, Glorious Arena, Legends Circuit, blah, this is all too confusing.
Due to the way the Circuit is set up, a casual viewer may be confused at all the different tournaments that the SEA scene is reliant on. It is a valid problem as the SEA scene is pretty unique in the fact that teams do not generally mix members from other countries. The closest representation would be the European Scene but barring a few exceptions like MYM, Roccat and Gambit, the European teams are a mix of different nationalities and all speak in English. SEA isn’t like that just quite yet, so the numerous qualifiers whilst necessary, bound to be confounding for a person who doesn’t really follow the scene.
All teams having to requalify adds instability to the scene
Garena’s requirement for all teams to requalify via their respective national tournaments does add instability to the scene as the winner of the GPL Spring season could theoretically, not make the GPL Summer season. It’s a unique feature of the GPL Scene and I’m not so sure if it’s a good one.
After briefly going over the 4 major League of Legends circuits, I’ve concluded that in terms of competitive play, the Korean circuit with Garena’s methodology of awarding World Championship spots is probably the best way to go. Of course, when determining other metrics, a different league structure may be better.
Thanks for reading this, do you agree with the conclusion? Do you disagree? Discuss this article on Reddit or in the comments section below.