As I’ve written in the past, I’m a firm believer that a strong commitment to the Challenger Scene is vital towards building a stable future for the Western League of Legends scene. While the LCS is a showcase of where the talent is now, the future lies in these Challenger Series and the ability for the teams & organizations in them to develop their players into the top tier talents of tomorrow. It’s crucial, then, for Riot’s decision making to do the best that it can to maintain the integrity of the scene and make forward looking decisions, rather than grabbing short-term gains at long-term costs.
Sadly, that hasn’t been the case recently. While fans certainly enjoyed a nice weekend of games at the Wembley Arena, the costs are impossible to ignore. Dave Throop’s article already thoroughly discussed where Riot went wrong, so I won’t delve into that here. Still, it’s impossible to discuss Riot’s recent issues with long term thinking without looking at the fallout for the Ninjas in Pyjamas, a team that, unlike Gambit (who undoubtedly was also wronged in this situation), needs every win they can get if they want to secure their job. The team already had a ton of ground to cover thanks to the completely deserved bans of Nukeduck and Mithy, so having to find a replacement for Alex Ich was essentially a knockout blow to the team’s chances. Would Alex Ich have been enough to turn their series against a strong H2k-Gaming team around? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it’s a looming question that will haunt the European Challenger scene, especially if those points end up having severe consequences for the roster down the line.
This isn’t the first time that Riot has sacrificed a long term benefit for the sake of a short term goal. While Riot made room for Millenium to go to IEM Sao Paulo last split, the same luxury was not handed to CLG and Cloud 9, both of whom would have been able to attend OGN Winter had Riot given them just one more week to do so. While one could make the case that North American teams shouldn’t be competing in Korea in the first place, it’s undoubtedly clear that Korea is the centre of the League of Legends professional scene right now, and the experience would have been invaluable for those rosters. Best of all, the experience would have a trickle down effect that could have benefitted the entire North American scene. Instead, it stands as an incredible missed opportunity.
The only real difference between the two situations (as there is no rule that currently forbids a team from an outside region participating in OGN as of this writing) is that CLG and Cloud 9 would have missed a Super Week, a practice that is also based more on hype than practicality. There’s a reason that the GPL, LPL, and OGN tournaments would never ask a team to play four games against four different teams within a three-day period of time, and it isn’t because they’re incapable of coming up with the idea themselves. The best teams use their free time to strategize, scout their opponents, and come up with the most likely path to victory they can muster. When you have to play four teams in one week, that’s just not possible. That’s likely the biggest reason we’ve often seen poor teams do quite well and good teams struggle in these situations.
All of this is in the past, however, and as I said before, it’s Riot’s decision making towards the future that will ultimately shape where this scene goes. Unfortunately, their approach towards the second Challenger Series has made it clear that they haven’t learned from their lesson. After being contacted by multiple managers within the Challenger scene, I was surprised to find out that Riot had accelerated the typical Challenger process. Instead of having a week between the ladder lock and the play in games in which teams can fill out paperwork, teams that Riot believe will likely make it through to the play-in games have already been notified to fill out their paperwork, and the play-in games have been scheduled for the day after the ladder lock, as seen here:
The most obvious problem with this decision is the lack of preparation time this gives teams whose careers rely on success in these matches. There simply isn’t much time to practice within the 24-hour period between the ladder lock and the play-in games. Teams won’t have much time to figure out who their opponent will be, let alone developed a fully-fledged strategy to take them out. What was already far too subject to luck thanks to the nature of a best-of-one format has now become a minor travesty, as teams will essentially be forced to go into these games blind. Some lesser-known teams may benefit from being under the radar, but it certainly is a poor marker of which five teams most deserve to advance.
A less obvious, but possibly more dangerous issue comes from the Tournament Realm. As is always the case with the Challenger Series, teams will be making the switch from the live client to the Tournament Realm for these games. Since these aren’t professional players, most of them don’t have the most recent update to the tournament client installed, and according to the managers I’ve spoken with so far, the instructions for the latest update have not been given out. The problem with this is that the Tournament client is both notorious for bugs—one manager who chose to remain anonymous said, “so many issues come up, and half the time its not downloaded correctly”—and difficult for players who aren’t very computer literate to figure out. Zorozero famously found himself unable to download the client in time for the “Please, Anyone but Lemondogs” Replacement Play-in, and ROBERTxLEE’s incorrect install crashed the server for CompLexity Black and forced them out of the second Challenger Series last split. Usually, smart teams used the week between the ladder lock and their play-in games to test the client and ensure that everyone on their team had it up and ready to go. Now, teams won’t have that opportunity. Don’t be surprised if you hear rumours of several forfeits due to computer issues.
Of course, these kinds of issues only matter if the team is able to submit their paperwork and get there in the first place. Now, I’m not so petty as to complain about the fact that several of the managers that got these emails will have wasted their time filling out unnecessary paperwork; that’s part of the job description, and there’s only upside towards doing it. The problem is that not every team that’s in contention got these emails, as this screenshot shows:
Remember, these emails were sent last Wednesday, June 18th. It’s possible for a team to spam the ranked 5’s ladder for a week, play well, and leapfrog into the Challenger Series play-in from the thirtieth spot. Any team that does so and manages to fight their way into the Challenger Series will be rewarded with far less time to fill this paperwork out, and while it’s not an incredibly long form, it does require the cooperation of five players that may not live anywhere near their manager or each other. Losing that week between the ladder lock and the play-in games dramatically increases the likelihood of a team losing out on a chance to fight for their dream due to a silly logistics issue.
I reached out to J. T. “RiotTiza” Vanderbree, Riot’s eSports Coordinator, for comment, but was unable to reach him for this article. He did, however, provide this reasoning to a Challenger manager who asked why the accelerated schedule took place:
I don’t blame Riot for this situation. Right now, Riot’s eSports division is being pulling in countless directions simultaneously. Running a single league with this scale and production values would be difficult; doing it four times is practically insane. And while it’s easy to make the argument that Riot has just bitten off more than it can chew, doing so ignores the Season Three wasteland in which Challenger teams were desperate for any amount of structure and organization. Despite already having plenty on their plate, it was Riot who stepped up last year to give the scene the type of infrastructure and attention that was previously unthinkable. To ignore this would be to slander them unfairly.
But since Riot made this Challenger Series, more and more organizations have stepped up to provide opportunities for Challenger teams to hone and improve their talents. Organizations like Gamegune that have had success in other eSports are starting to enter the League of Legends scene in hopes of “giving teams the opportunity to test themselves in LAN”, as Head Admin Manuel Arregui puts it. And of course, one cannot forget the growth of computer festivals like Dreamhack, whose upcoming event in Valencia is destined to be an entertaining affair.
The last few weeks have been a good example of what happens when a company is forced to overexert itself in far too many directions. When a single entity is tasked with providing the infrastructure for two unique regions with their own needs and difficulties, things are going to slip through the cracks. While this does not excuse these decisions that sacrifice the long term in favour of bringing immediate value, it goes a long way towards understanding why these issues keep coming up. As Riot continues to get more experience under their belt and outside organizations grab a larger presence within the scene, things will improve. But that improvement will only come if Riot is able to properly value long term growth and recognize the potential costs of short term boons like Super Week and events like Wembley have on the scene as a whole. If not, the West runs the risk of falling further behind.