On one night in early October, the Korean professional League of Legends team SK Telecom T1 took to the stage at Los Angeles' prestigious Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers NBA squad. There, they faced off against the Chinese team Royal Club — and systematically dismantled their opponents in a clean 3-0 sweep of the best-of-five final.
SKT T1's dominating victory capped off League of Legends' Season 3 World Championship tournament, in which 14 teams from around the world came to Los Angeles to fight over three weeks for a share of a $2 million cash prize. SKT took home half of that money as the grand champions. It was developer Riot Games' attempt to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that eSports, like professional League, could match the glamour and spectacle of real-world pro sports, and in that regard it certainly came closer than any event before it.
Looking back on the three weeks of competition, it was hard to view the World Championship as anything but a general success despite its disappointing final match. It was enjoyable and supremely well-produced, and featured some splendid nail-biters in earlier rounds. But there were more than a few kinks, large and small, that Riot needs to fix for next year's event. Here's a look at where the event succeeded and where it stumbled.
Yay — the spectacle was spectacular: I had some friends over to watch the finals, and while they were certainly familiar with eSports events like MLG and professional StarCraft, they found the sheer image of the estimated 13,000 fans filling the Staples Center stunning. The intro ceremony went on a little too long (and if you weren't familiar with a specific champion's intro theme, it became difficult to tell that the musical performance did, in fact, have anything to do with League of Legends at all) but as a visual show it was splendid from start to finish.
Yay — the production value and professionalism further legitimized eSports: You could argue that the visual aspects were a little overdone — the teams' podiums rising out from beneath the stage with dramatic smoke and lighting was silly — but from the beginning of the group stage onward, Riot's production was thoroughly professional. The casters provided excellent play-by-play and analysis throughout, and managed to weave in humor and fun without dropping the respectable veneer.
The production value was great, too. Beyond the nice sets and suit jackets, the camera quality and live editing were absolutely on-point. I can think of one or two flubs that were only notable because everything else went off so smoothly.
An aunt of mine spent a few minutes watching between-game chatter during one of the semifinals; she remarked that it felt like she was watching Wimbledon about video games. That says it all, really.
On some level, this is absolutely superficial, but the matches — from group stages to semifinals at the Staples Center — felt more like watching a real sporting event than anything I've seen before in eSports. The production value and spectacle previously mentioned wholly cemented for fans and neophytes alike that this was something that people could absolutely watch and enjoy like they follow, say, pro basketball. It's difficult to make that connection if you're just watching a streamer or even a minor tournament, but this really felt like the first year video games had a Super Bowl of their very own.
Eh — and yet they made an anti-climax worse: It was hard to get excited about the third and final game in the best-of-five series as Royal Club fell apart at the seams, walking into obvious traps and making boneheaded errors unlike the elite squad they'd proven themselves to be earlier in the tournament. But as SKT T1 closed in on the enemy's base for the final time, the crowd began to roar anyway, cheering for the imminent champions. The Korean team took the victory, confetti fell from the rafters and lights flashed to crown the victors — and then it cut straight to the announcers' desk as they began to dissect the match we'd just watched. It was a sharp break in momentum and killed whatever excitement had been built up by the grand finale.
It's difficult to directly compare it to the Season 2 victory of the Taipei Assassins, as that had been the story of a crowd-favorite dark-horse underdog triumphing over a heavily favored opponent; this year everyone had expected SKT to be a strong contender to take the title from the outset. They were the heavily favored opponents, not the underdogs. But if Riot had to take a break to clean off the confetti from the stage lest players or presenters slip, maybe one should skip the confetti next year.
Professionalism is all well and good, but you need to let the winning team ride a hype wave when it finally counts.
Yay — there were graceful, lovable losers: Mineski, the second-seeded team from Southeast Asia, shouldn't have been there. They had actually in fact finished second in the Philippines' regional finals but had been sent to the Southeast Asia qualifying tournament when the first-place team couldn't make it due to travel issues. Despite beating the heavily favored Singapore Sentinels to become the region's second representative at Worlds, it was quickly obvious how outclassed Mineski — and the Wild Card representative, Lithuania's GamingGear.EU — really were on the international stage. Between the two of them, they played 16 games and won one (and that single win was because the more experienced TSM, having been conclusively locked out of moving on from group stages, opted to play around and have a silly match instead).
It didn't matter. Mineski in particular seemed thrilled to be there and was gracious and cheerful even in defeat. The final matchup between Europe's Fnatic and Mineski — after the teams had locked in first and last place in their group, respectively, regardless of the game's outcome — was one of the funniest moments in the whole tournament, as both teams chose less-than-standard team compositions and the announcers felt free to enjoy themselves more than usual.
Eh — but they played in a format that needs serious overhauling: As much as Mineski charmed the hearts of viewers and won fans, we saw them play eight times with eight foregone conclusions. In contrast, Cloud 9 and Gamania Bears, the first seeds from North America and Southeast Asia, played a total of three and two games, respectively, before being sent home. As the first seeds, they had been given automatic byes to the best-of-three quarterfinal round; Cloud 9 lost to Fnatic 2-1 and the Bears were swept 2-0 by eventual winners SKT T1.
It's understandable that Riot wants a competitor taking first place in the regional scenes to confer some sort of advantage, but it shouldn't be like this. A top-tier team shouldn't come all the way across the world to play two games and go home. And things could have gone worse: A random drawing to decide the quarterfinal matches saw Royal Club (who, as China's first seed, had been given a bye) matched up with China's second seed, OMG — their regional rival. Royal Club ended up winning, to be fair, but if they had lost they would have come to Los Angeles only to play two or three games against a team they play regularly at home.
Another common criticism was that after the group stage, the tournament bracket went to single-elimination, and that a double-elimination bracket would have ensured a better final in case a stronger team simply had a bad day. For example, a double-elimination bracket ended up resulting in the spectacular Alliance vs. Na'vi final at this year's Dota 2 Invitational tournament. I'm not entirely on board with this suggestion; I think Royal Club's earlier matches proved that the team was indeed one of the best in the world and a strong contender for second-best at the tournament — they just didn't show up to the final. Whether they were underprepared or had a fatal attack of nerves and choked, I'm not sure a double-elimination bracket would have helped any team fare better against the dominating SKT.
But the Season 4 World Championships can't have the same format in group stages, at least. Put the regional champions in groups with everyone else and lose with random draws. If Riot wants being a regional winner to be meaningful, perhaps do something like give the winners an automatic one-game advantage over the others in the group. It's hardly an inconsequential advantage, but an undeniably stronger lower-seed team would still be able to send an underqualified first-seed packing. It would also mean that we'd get to see the theoretically best teams play more games than the lower seeds.
Yay — the analyst desk was smart and funny, and Riot (largely) adapted to viewer feedback: Between matches and games, a five-man team broke down the games from beginning to end, discussing players' performance and reviewing some of the game-changing plays. Though the first two members of the analyst squad were constantly rotating in and out — the casters who weren't calling the current set of games — the other three remained consistent from beginning to end: Korean OGN Champions League shoutcaster Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykles and two pro players, Counter Logic Gaming's AD Carry Yiliang "DoubleLift" Peng and Evil Geniuses' Support Mitch "Krepo" Voorspoels.
Simply put, the analyst desk was a massive success. Mykles, Peng and Voorspoels offered tremendous insight into the game's mechanics at the highest level of play, and made the minutiae of particular matchups understandable and palatable. More than that, they had chemistry with one another and offered genuinely entertaining banter back and forth. Viewers on sites like Reddit begged Riot for more of the analyst desk between matches, and Riot obliged.
At the very beginning of the tournament, Riot's production staff didn't cut to the analysts nearly as much as it did once the producers learned how much the fans were loving them. While Riot had initially announced plans to bring other pro players to the desk for their own commentary, the love for the specific chemistry that Mykles, Peng and Voorspoels brought to the table resulted in that particular trio keeping their spots throughout the whole tournament.
Riot instead brought the pros on in another fashion, to break down each game's pick-and-ban phase, where the teams ban their opponents' strongest characters and pick their own. Since the beginning of professional League of Legends, this phase has largely been the territory of the casters; when viewers asked for analyst desk insight into this critical pre-game phase, Riot responded by adding professional players to the caster team.
It's possible that this had been part of the plan all along, but it certainly seemed as though Riot was taking feedback from fans and viewers and adapting on the fly — impressive, given how smooth and scripted everything seemed.
Eh — but it was tremendously male-dominated: The aunt who remarked that it felt like watching Wimbledon asked me a question several seconds later: "But is it all men?" She was spot-on: With one notable exception, every single major person involved in the production, from players to casters and analysts, was male.
This isn't to minimize the contributions of host and primary interviewer Eefje "Sjokz" Depoortere; she was and is a consummate professional who consistently demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the game and competitive scene in every interview. Anyone who dismisses Depoortere as a token or figurehead is massively off-base.
In all fairness, I'm not really sure how much Riot can do about this, beyond something drastic like mandating teams field female players. It would be great to see Riot encourage more women to become shoutcasters or analysts (or even teach them itself internally), but the real change must come from the competitive scene's grassroots. Female competitors like StarCraft 2's Scarlett are rare but not unheard of in professional eSports, though it's possible that the team-based nature of League of Legends provides an extra impediment to an aspiring player that a solo-based game doesn't have. (Ed. note: The machismo, exclusivity and vulgarity associated with eSports is a detriment to culture acceptance, interest and participation. A more inclusive gaming culture — and this goes beyond League of Legends — will attract people of different genders, ethnicities and sexualities.)
It's unlikely that this will be a problem solved by the time Season 4's World Championship rolls around, but we can hope for improvement at the very least. While this is an issue largely out of Riot's hands, that doesn't make it any less a disappointment. There are women who love playing League of Legends and there are women who love watching pro League of Legends, but you wouldn't know it from watching the broadcast.
Yay — there were tons of interesting behind-the-scenes videos: Riot's video production team worked around the clock not only to produce the World Championship itself but to lend context to it. Every match had pre-game interviews with the players discussing their upcoming opponents, and there were short featurettes looking at specific teams and players in depth.
The videos expounded on subjects like China's unique, isolated metagame and how players chose their in-game handles. They were informative and well-produced, and gave insight into not just the game but the players and teams we were rooting for. Plus, there was that whole animated trailer from the studio that did The Legend of Korra. That was pretty neat, too.
Yay — downtime (and technical issues) were seriously reduced from Season 2 Worlds: It's one of the most infamous moments in competitive League of Legends. It was a long, boring slog of a match between Europe's CLG EU and China's World Elite in which neither team seemed willing to make a move. The two teams finally moved to engage in what looked to be a decisive battle after 59 long minutes — and the venue lost its internet connection. It was embarrassing and frustrating for Riot and the fans, and it is surely a reason why Riot developed an offline LAN-based version of the League of Legends client for its own competitive use.
While there were still some technical hiccups this year, they were entirely due to hardware errors — a mouse not functioning properly or a computer needing to be restarted — that were easily fixed within a matter of minutes (if that) while the game was paused. Games started on time without any appreciable delays, which is unfortunately noteworthy in the realm of eSports. Technically, the tournament went off without a hitch.
When there were technical errors, the analyst desk and casters were adept at filling dead air with discussion of the current match.
Eh — but there was too much oddly empty air: Between almost every major part of a game — the pre-game analysis, the game itself and the post-match interviews — there was the bizarre decision to cut for three-minute breaks that consisted solely of panning crowd shots and the electronica and or dubstep song of the moment. It made for fine bathroom breaks every now and then, sure, but it was entirely too frequent.
It's all the stranger given how much great video content Riot was producing and how well the production crew filled dead air elsewhere. Of course, the casters, analysts and interviewers need to take breaks, but surely there could have been a better way to fill the time than just crowd shots and dubstep. Behind-the-scenes interviews wherever players hung out between matches or speaking to fans in the crowd would have at least provided content.
At one point, the camera showed the big screen at the venue, and it was playing a clip from one of Instalok's League of Legends-themed parody music videos. Couldn't Riot have played those instead during the breaks to make them at least feel less like commercial breaks minus the commercials?
Yay — games were faster and more aggressive: Without getting too much into a gameplay balance discussion, the changes made to League of Legends since the Season 2 finals encouraged a (generally) more aggressive style of play rather than the stall-until-late-game tactics that were prevalent in Season 2 (and that bred the infamous CLG EU vs. World Elite game linked above).
Eh — but comebacks were rarer and games were decided much earlier: It may be simple balance changes or it may just be teams learning how to more effectively close out a winning game, but matchups this time around seemed to be decided much earlier. Teams with not-insignificant leads at 10 minutes had a noticeably elevated win rate; teams with not-insignificant leads at 20 minutes had a drastically higher one. The first team to take an opponent's inhibitor in their base was virtually guaranteed to win the game, whether five, 10 or 15 minutes down the line.
League of Legends, like all MOBA-type games, tends to snowball. Killing the enemy gives you gold and experience, making you more powerful, making the next kill even easier — imagine if scoring a touchdown in football made the scoring team's end zone harder to reach. This is simply how the genre works, but comebacks have always been possible.
Unfortunately, teams have learned how to turn a little advantage into a big one. This isn't to say comebacks never happen, but they generally rested on the winning team making a mistake (North American squad Vulcun proved itself exceptionally skilled at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory). Against teams as good as SKT T1, those mistakes were simply not destined to happen. SKT T1 took an early lead in every game against Royal Club and methodically choked the fight from them.
To its credit, the gameplay changes Riot has been gradually revealing for the upcoming Season 4 seem to be designed to tackle this very issue, and should make it harder for a winning team to simply seize the upper hand and slowly strangle their opponents to death. While the competitive metagame is continuously evolving and the impact of these changes will not be immediately felt, one can hope that the Season 4 World Championship will be far less prone to snowballing and far more competitive; nobody wants to watch a series of stomps.
Eh — Riot desperately needs a new game client to compete with Valve: Valve's Dota 2 International tournament in August was a tremendous success, and while it didn't match Season 3 Worlds in production quality or professional glamour, it managed to keep things rolling with very little downtime (and the thrilling final matchup was so very much unlike SKT's dismantling of Royal Club). But easily the best thing about it was the ability to watch the matches from inside the Dota 2 client itself, seeing players' stats and moving the camera around the map as you wished.
League of Legends has long been in need of a new client, but this event proved it beyond a doubt. I would love more than anything for Riot and Valve to constantly try to one-up each other in terms of their major competitions, and while Riot's show beat out Valve's in many ways, they were sorely lacking in community engagement for the millions of players who don't ordinarily watch pro League.
Valve's Compendium was a brilliant idea: It got players involved, made them feel like they were contributing to the professional scene by boosting the prize pool and gave out some nifty goodies. Riot, at the moment, can't do anything like that with its current client. They need new tools to fight their biggest and inarguably most dangerous rival, or they will lose on technology alone.
Given that Worlds was played on the offline client (to prevent a repeat of the CLG EU vs WE disaster), I'm not sure a watch-game-from-your-client setup is feasible, but Riot needs new tools in its arsenal.
Eh — no soundproof booths. Really? Riot's stage design didn't incorporate any booths for the players. They were out on the stage with nothing between them and the audiences' cheers and chants but a pair of noise-canceling headphones, and even those can only do so much when facing a cheering crowd. This came dangerously close to influencing a match when the crowd began to make an uproar as hometown favorite Team SoloMid was about to be ambushed.
You can put rules and penalties in place to stop players from cheating, but what can you do to stop the crowd from doing it for them? It might have been too late to get soundproof booths (particularly given the moving parts on the Finals stage), but this must be remedied next year.
Though flawed, the World Championship really was a tremendous event and an enjoyable three weeks; Riot and its production team should be commended for delivering the closest thing to a Super Bowl professional gaming has yet seen.
Next year, let's hope Riot learns from its stumbles as well as its successes, because Valve certainly will.