Competitive League

November 5, 2012 by Tim

I regularly play League of Legends, and I regularly watch competitive League of Legends. I tune in to the tournaments, I root for my favorite team (TSM!), and most days I watch TheOddOne stream while I’m working (/salute The General). I think this combination of being a casual player and a spectator of professionals is one of the reasons I’m still playing the game after a year and a half. I find the game fun in its own right, but that it has become such a popular eSport extends that appreciation for the game beyond the casual solo queue.

Season 2 recently drew to a close with the World Championships last month, and MLG’s last season 2 tournament took place this past weekend. League of Legends is a game that’s constantly changing, and it’s changed a lot since the end of season one when I first started tuning in, and I’m sure season three next year will bring a bunch of new changes again.

However, one of the most dramatic, immediate changes I’ve seen to the competitive scene (and by ripple effect, the solo queue scene to a lesser degree, since competitive League informs casual play), is the recent introduction of the Korean teams to the tournament scene, and I have mixed feelings about it.

Asia always had some showing at League’s world events… I recall seeing a lot of Southeast Asian teams I’d never heard of show up at some of the European venues like Dreamhack. The Koreans beginning to field teams on the worldwide competitive stage was inevitable… eSports was a thing in Korea before we’d ever even considered it as a legitimate pasttime over in North America (and we still don’t even compare in size and scope). And with League of Legends becoming the juggernaut it is (they recently revealed some forty bazillion people play the game, or something crazy like that) with millions of dollars up for grabs, no one should be surprised that it draws out the best of the best.

And right now, Korea/Asia is the best. The last two major events I saw (the Worlds and MLG Dallas) ended with all-asian finals, the NA/European teams getting knocked out. The metas for League in NA, Europe and Asia essentially each develop in a bubble, with little to no crossover aside from tournaments. Champions that are huge in Europe may see little to no play here in North America, for example. Strategies that work in one meta, fall apart when up against a different meta.

The strategies and playstyle that have developed on the Asian servers are, in my opinion, the scissors to NA/Europe’s paper. From a culture where Starcraft is huge, and the sort of fast, precise, meticulously calculated playstyle is the only option for victory, the Koreans in particular have brought a brutal, aggressive, incredibly coordinated playstyle to League, and the NA/European teams just don’t have a great answer for it yet.

Mechanically speaking, NA/European players are just as amazing as Korean players. They all know what they’re doing. But there’s a difference in mentality that needs to be overcome. NA is used to a somewhat careful laning phase, not turrets being dropped in the first five minutes, and tower dives at level two.

Now on the one hand, this is fantastic for the competitive League scene. It should force NA/European teams to step up their game, train harder and longer, come up with new strategies to go toe to toe with the Asian teams. And that makes for some incredible games. The finals between NaJin Sword and Azubu Blaze yesterday were some of the more intense matches of League I’d seen (though I still enjoyed the Dignitas/Azubu matches better).

So I’m excited because hopefully this will mean great things for League… new metas, new lane combinations, new uses for old champions, etc. Strictly speaking, as an exhibition of pure skill, it’s great to watch.

However it also makes me nervous. Nervous that the NA/European teams won’t be able to compete, and that Korean/Asian teams will dominate the sport the way they do Starcraft. If it happens that way, you can’t argue with it because they’ll have earned the top spot by outplaying everyone else. But the Korean teams don’t stream at times or in places that I can watch (if they stream at all). And even if they did, I don’t speak Korean, so I wouldn’t understand what they’re saying anyway. This means I can’t make a connection with those players the same way I can with NA/European players. I don’t know their personalities… I can’t like or dislike them…beyond an admiration of their skill,  they aren’t accessible to me on any personal level.

Watching two Korean teams play in the finals yesterday was fun and intense… a matchup between some undeniably skilled League players… but I couldn’t root for one team over the other, because I know nothing about them besides their names.

I’m worried about losing that completely if the Asian teams begin to dominate competitive League, and it becomes less viable for the current NA/European teams to continue to compete, or worse, impossible for new teams from NA/Europe to break in. Because it’s one thing to watch a match between two skilled opponents… but it’s a completely different experience when you can make a connection with one of the teams… learn about and follow the players, root for their successes, share in their defeats, etc.

I love watching competitive League, and so ultimately I want what’s best for the scene. And what’s best for any competition is that the best players rise to the top. That’s what’s happening right now. Season 3 is going to be big in regards to whether TSM, CLG, SK, and the rest can adapt and evolve. Whereas earlier I said the Asian meta was the “scissors” to NA/Europe’s “paper”… it’s now up to NA/Europe to figure out what constitutes “rock” and bring it to bear on Asia in Season 3.

I hope they can, because while I’ll probably follow them no matter what, it just makes for a much better show when everyone is playing at the highest level possible.

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