Excessive Optimism: My Take on North America's International Struggles
This being the first article I've ever posted on GP10, I should probably introduce myself. My name is Rob "Chachi" Stemmler and I'm one of the three company heads at Enemy, a multi-platform organization with teams in several titles, including the 2015 Summer NA LCS team currently in LoL's North American Challenger Series. I don't have plans right now to be a frequent writer on the site, but having owned and managed a team for several splits, I will sometimes bring my perspective and opinions to major LoL issues. I mostly only watch when it comes to League (I have like 25 ranked games in Season 5 and none in over four months) so you're not likely to see much in the way of in-depth micro analysis from me. However, I hope I can still provide you some food for thought at the very least.
I stepped off a plane a few days ago to find that, to my disappointment, Cloud 9 had wrapped up North America's Worlds appearance with an 0-4 day to cap an 0-10 Week 2 performance by the region as a whole. While C9 had (in my opinion) the hardest group draw for any Western team, I had still expected them to take a game on the day and complete their surprisingly strong showing with a trip to the quarterfinals. The reasoning for this expectation was slightly different from the prevailing opinions across various social media. With this post I plan to lay out what that difference was, and to offer my take on some of the lesser-discussed issues holding back NA and EU teams at Worlds. I certainly don't think I have all the answers by any means -- these are all opinions, and disagreement is welcomed. The three big obstacles to regional parity that I want to cover here are: league format (a widely debated topic), the ceiling on domestic development (a less debated topic), and most importantly, "excessive optimism" from western teams (a euphemism I will use for cockiness). I'll also provide comparisons to the east. One final point is that this won't go very in-depth with issues like Korea's more advanced economic and structural development of esports -- I'm mainly focused on issues that I think are fixable.
How Important is League Format, Really?
These first two points are ones you may have seen me discussing on various Reddit threads before, and I'm largely going to echo those sentiments here.
Just about everyone agrees that western teams are already at a large disadvantage coming into international tournaments, owing to the best-of-1 nature of their regular seasons and the tiny number of total games played. Stage performance in high-pressure situations has consistently been an issue plaguing western teams top to bottom. You can look at Enemy all the way up to CLG -- almost every one of those teams has, at some point, said "we've been crushing tons of scrims" while slumping massively in their stage matches. Until I actually helped to run an LCS team, I assumed those were just outright lies from players and coaches designed to preserve waning hype around their rosters. It's only now, having gone from projected-top-5 to relegations and right on out, that I understand exactly how severe stage performance problems can be. Anyone reading this could watch games from our NACS run compared to our LCS run and identify that the competition wasn't the only difference -- we were in fact playing worse League of Legends in LCS than we did in challenger. And we aren't the only ones; this is part of the reason you see teams such as Coast bouncing in and out of the LCS (perhaps it seems overconfident, but I honestly expect us to be swapping places with them once again in six months).
Some teams understand this issue from experience -- CLG's consistent failures in the knockout stages of LCS eventually prompted them to hire sport psychologist Weldon Green, one of the only psych trainers dedicated particularly to esports. I know of his value from a few sessions we had with him way back in the expansion tournament days, when we were the first team he used to practice his craft. In CLG's case, it appears to have worked, along with the other methods they've used, including an authoritarian coach from outside the League scene. Worlds performance aside (we'll get to that later), they won the NA LCS for the first time in their team history, which spans back to the tournament circuit era before LCS even began. Sport psychology work is both slow to take effect and also very expensive for teams with weaker financials such as the ones we had during the split.
However, the simplest treatment for the stage performance problem is raw experience, and this is where the LCS format falls flat. At 18 games per split, if we assume an average game length of 35 minutes, you are looking at a TOTAL stage match exposure of ten hours and thirty minutes. That's spread out over three months.
Ten hours and thirty minutes is less time than most professional players spend playing League every single day. And it's barely more time than C9 spent playing through the NA gauntlet over a period of three days. Three months? In my opinion, having so little actual League of Legends gameplay during a full season is completely unjustifiable if competitive integrity (not quite the right term for this situation, but I'm going to leave it) is sought. Part of the reasoning behind this format is the scheduling difficulty brought on by the fact that almost the entire 7-day week is already budgeted with professional League of Legends content, but I don't believe the two regions where the competitive scene began should be the ones suffering from that. My personal solution would be running LCS 4 days a week, but at ten games instead of five, with NA following EU each day. It's unlikely Riot will make this decision though, and as they exert more control over LPL broadcasting I fear a potential less-games format change for China in the distant future as well.
Admittedly, every LCS team barring #10 and #7 (and even #7 in NA's case this split, which is an outlier) will play at least one stage best of 5 at the regular season's conclusion. But is that really a big deal at all? I would say no. Let's compare this to the East. Korea is also an 18 match season, but THOSE matches are best of 3. They're playing at worst double, at best triple the time LCS teams are. And this doesn't even factor in the experience with series adaptation that season provides -- in LCS there's no realistic practice for it, since you play only two best of 1s against the same team and chances are those two games won't even be on the same patch. The same is true to a lesser extent with China, which is a best of 2 season of 22 matches. Well over double the LCS gametime, with extended stage visits forcing teams to adapt as well. For all of the criticism over the adaptation of LCS teams (something I'll also do a little of later), where are they supposed to practice it, exactly? Scrims? Where everyone's playing their cheesy pick ideas and testing them? No one is playing to win scrims unless it's agreed upon between the teams for playoff prep, etc. There's very little "we lost game 1, Jinx crushed us, let's ban Jinx for game 2." The most mind-boggling thing to consider is that the Challenger Series format is actually better for improving as a team than the LCS one, with the second game taking place the following day.
All in all, the LCS season provides no useful preparation for the world championship whatsoever. The playoffs provide several series for qualifying teams, but I'd call that much too little much too late. This format, and its ability for flukes to decide a team's season, should suggest that top teams have some struggles maintaining their rankings -- but in fact, we find these teams keep a tighter stranglehold on the top spots than the Eastern regions (outside EDG and SKT). This brings us to our next important question.
Why is Team Turnover So Unusual In the West?
Every region has its consistently strong finishers, its powerhouses. In America, it's TSM, Liquid, CLG, Cloud 9. Europe, you've got Fnatic, now H2K, and Origen will most likely join that crowd as well. The Chinese region offers EDG and IG for your consideration (Qiao Gu may join), and Korea brings the ever-present threat of SK Telecom, with CJ Entus often finding themselves near the top of the table too. Note that when I discuss these finishes, I'm talking about the regular season -- playoffs are generally won by one of these teams (in Korea's case it's different, as players and teams sometimes leave the league even after winning).
For perspective, I'll throw down a list of finals matchups for Korea and NA so far during the LCS era.
- OGN Spring 2013 - MVP Ozone (later Samsung White) vs. CJ Blaze
- OGN Summer 2013 - SKT vs. KTB
- OGN Spring 2014 - SSB vs. Najin
- OGN Summer 2014 - KTA vs. SSB
- LCK Spring 2015 - SKT vs. KOO
- LCK Summer 2015 - SKT vs. KT
Let's consider KT Arrows and KT as the same team. With this done, Korea has seen a total of 8 teams in the finals, with many of these teams created in the preceding year (Ozone, SKT, KOO). Now let's take a brief look at NA.
- LCS Spring 2013 - TSM vs. GGU (later Team Coast)
- LCS Summer 2013 - TSM vs. C9
- LCS Spring 2014 - TSM vs. C9
- LCS Summer 2014 - TSM vs. C9
- LCS Spring 2015 - TSM vs. C9
- LCS Summer 2015 - TSM vs. CLG
It's not too hard to spot the difference. NA has had a grand total of 4 teams reach finals, including TSM playing in all 6. Additionally, the only team that has had a comparably meteoric rise when juxtaposed with the Korean rosters is Cloud 9, a team which has always correctly been labelled an outlier for the region.
At the time of writing, there is currently a front page Reddit thread titled "NA will never win worlds unless they develop their own talent pool and use it." It's created, and supported, by a lot of people that don't understand the necessity for immediate short-term success with the LCS format and don't understand the complexities of scouting players from NA solo queue. However, it's effectively just a rewording of a fairly common topic that IS important enough to warrant discussion. Why is the League scene so stagnant in NA compared to Korea? Where is the new and upcoming talent? This is a question that's been troubling western analysts and average League fans for a long time, including myself. I have a few ideas as to its answers, including some I've picked up while trying to turn a bottom team into a top team.
The biggest cause is the talent pool of North America as compared to the other servers. The playerbase is much smaller. Just about everyone who's ever discussed this issue has acknowledged that, so I'm going to gloss over it somewhat and take a look at solo queue environment in the region.
It's been widely publicized from various foreign players that once they reach upper elo in America, they're surprised to discover what a trollfest it is. The region has no shortage of popular high elo streamers more focused on making their gameplay entertaining than winning, so all sorts of random picks pop up in the average NA challenger game -- it's pretty rare for an LCS player to be practicing a specific pick on stream, since all it does is give opponents scouting information beyond what a normal match history would. Sign onto Twitch's LoL stream page right now and click the top stream. If it's North America hours, chances are you're watching an NA high elo player -- most likely either Imaqtpie, Nightblue3, Sneaky, or Someone-With-TSM-In-His-Name. How seriously does it look like he's taking the game? Do you think he is 110% trying to improve himself for the purposes of competitive League? LCS players may play the most meta champions off-stream for more focused practice, but then the budgeting of online-offline game time becomes a factor.
The NA solo queue experience proves to be less serious than that of Korea or Europe (I confess my lack of background with the Chinese solo queue scene, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's like NA more than the others owing to the massive streaming contracts players can pull in). I don't think that makes a big difference as to the quality of practice players receive in solo queue -- I honestly think solo queue is worthless for practicing anything outside of raw mechanics or champion comfort assuming your game knowledge is already at a challenger level. What it DOES make difficult is scouting.
It isn't that NA doesn't have talented players, it's that to find them you have to sift through layers and layers of decent players that don't take the game seriously enough to display any special talent in solo queue. You also can't scout for macro very well in solo queue games, which is no huge surprise. Put simply, scouting needs to take into account many variables that solo queue in NA hides more than solo queue in the other regions. This also isn't something that can be fixed -- the problem has to be worked around instead of solved. Streamers aren't going to suddenly take the game seriously. The typical fan just needs to understand that a highly competitive solo queue environment and a highly entertaining stream environment are, in the current ecosystem, mutually exclusive. Reddit wants both to be there, but right now it's not possible. I've attempted to brainstorm a few ways both could be achieved, but that will take much more than myself to figure out, especially without being a talented solo queue player in my own right, and anything we did find would require big support from the NA solo queue community to implement.
Creating a team that can get into the LCS is still relatively easy with a knowledgeable enough staff, but my experience with the past split shows that that can't be the goal anymore. Creating a team that can PERFORM in LCS is the real objective, and that's much harder to do.
There's a big financial gap around the center of LCS that limits a bottom team's ability to fix problems that arise, but I'm aware of my own inherent bias on any issue involving my own team's performance and don't want to stick too closely to any tendency to blame the system over myself or my employees. So while I do have a gut feeling that the financial gap prevents a bottom team from reaching the top of the league, I'm not going to firmly claim that it's a factor in the talent growth problem until I've seen how we do in our next split of LCS when finances are no longer an issue.
All of those things, to some extent, form what I consider a soft ceiling on the growth of any new team in the LCS. I should point out that I think there are two exceptions to this: player- and coach-run teams, such as Unicorns of Love or Origen (players with larger roles in managing themselves are more likely to understand the situations they're in and find solutions), and teams with extreme amounts of funding from ownership, such as Gravity, Coast or Imagine. I think these teams, if run properly, should be capable of taking a shot at the top spot in their leagues.
Now, with each of these major reasons laid out, I can move on to what I consider America's -- and to a lesser extent Europe's -- biggest issue internationally and how these three points all tie together.
Can "Cockiness" Enter Into a Team's Playstyle?
This is where the discussion drifts off a little from the ability to present concrete material supporting the trends I believe we're seeing -- but unless my own team is hugely different from the majority of NA teams in style of preparation (and according to every documentary series produced on the other teams, we are not), this is the best explanation I've come up with.
Many watch the games NA have played at this year's Worlds and become infuriated at drafting decisions, in game decisions, sloppy mechanics, various things. From the outside, the game sometimes looks very simple. Cloud 9 wins three week one games with siege comps built around Tristana and strong teamfighting from Incarnation; analysts rise in unison to shout, "What happens when Tristana and Azir are banned?" Lo and behold, Cloud 9 plays four games in week two without being allowed to play that style, and loses all four. The followup question becomes, "Why did Fnatic allow them to play this way the first week?" Their strategy had already been identified by that point.
The answer I would first indicate, which seems ridiculous, is that Fnatic wants to beat the NA team at their own game in order to assert themselves as superiors to the NA region as much as possible -- anyone can watch Febiven's interview before the tiebreaker match and see the little grin he puts on while saying AHQ will win, most likely intending to make a cheeky remark about Cloud 9 much more than he wants to praise AHQ. This is one of the only ways the Yasuo top pick into Darius, widely lambasted as a horrible matchup, could be explained -- Orianna is not critical to a Yasuo composition, and various picks in the top lane would have handled the 1v1 better while still synergizing excellently with the Yasuo had it been taken into the mid lane instead (Malphite and Gnar come to mind). However, that's the FIRST potential answer. In reality, it's overwhelmingly likely this isn't the case. Fnatic was NOT sandbagging to attempt to embarrass Cloud 9 -- this kind of "styling on opponents" is generally only tried by top Korean sides, and rarely succeeds (see Samsung White at Season 4 Worlds). This is where the distinction between "excessive optimism" and "cockiness" comes into play. Western teams are making cocky and sometimes mind-boggling picks or bans in their drafts, but they're not doing so to humiliate the opposition. Rather, the picks that SEEM cocky are a symptom, and the true disease is the method by which most western teams are forced to perform their analysis.
This is what I personally believe manifests in western international appearances, and the reason is that analysis in the west tends to be more of one's own team than the opponents. It's not about what they did right in our loss -- it's about what we did wrong, because we must be the better team. Excessive optimism. Korean teams believe they're the best because they have repeatedly proven to be the best via tournament results. Western teams believe they're the best because they think every loss can be fully explained by mistakes they won't make the next time. This kind of view where preparation is concerned comes from the first two major points I've discussed.
Firstly, format: the season is based around best of 1s, and small mistakes that you wouldn't normally make can determine your entire season. I'll use my own team as an example. Both of our Team 8 games were lost on throws towards the banana side of baron while we had substantial leads. When I look at the plays myself, the first thoughts coming to my mind are generally along the lines of "Why is Flaresz there?" or "Why is our focus not on Nien in this situation?" At no point does it enter into my mind that Nien is playing a good *insert champion here.* There's no "Team 8 had proper vision set up to catch Flaresz attempting this flank" or anything like that. It's all about the mistakes WE made. Or when I watch our first game against CLG. It's not "Damn, Aphro just landed a really sick Bard ultimate here," or "That was a really nice ult by Pobelter pushing us into the Bard ultimate." It's "Innox normally wouldn't miss that Xerath Q when he could have killed the Nunu / Azir and given us a big powerplay," or "Why are we grouped up for this Bard ultimate in the first place?" Every player makes mistakes, and every team makes mistakes. There are plenty of moments like these in any loss for any team to look at.
In those games, it's easier to look at the mistakes, and any team probably should. A game that close? Certainly it was winnable, had you executed. But what about a game like CLG's first game against KOO at Worlds? When you get crushed that convincingly, is it truly about your mistakes, or does this team simply understand how to counter the style you're playing? It's clear which way CLG leans by their attempt to play the exact same way in their second game against KOO the following week -- with the same result. When you don't mix it up or play differently against a team that's just beaten you cleanly, you're putting that entire prior loss on your own team, giving no respect to the opponents' preparation for what you were going to bring, or the strengths of their own composition. And it goes further than that. This kind of self-focused analysis inevitably leads to the underestimation of opposing strengths, creating the motto of we can beat that. This is what leads to some teams (Unicorns of Love and Enemy are the chief teams for this in the two regions, in my opinion) always playing to beat the meta instead of to succeed with the meta, and often those teams don't have the experience or skill at executing compositions for those types of picks to have the impact they're meant to. Without going into excessive detail, the examples for those two teams I would choose are UOL's jungle picks with Kikis and our treatment of Azir when he was the primary mid lane champion for the entire season.
How about the lack of team turnover? How does that impact such decisions? Well, most of the western teams at worlds have a history of regional dominance. TSM has been in all 6 NA finals. Obviously they feel they belong there, and they've proven it. CLG had never even made finals before this last split, but they were always near the top of the regular season -- and their past failures were never brought on by a lack of confidence. Just to be completely frank, CLG and humility are two words (is CLG a word? I don't know. Let's say two strings of letters) that do not get along well and never have. I don't mean that in an insulting way at all, I think it's one of the endearing things about the team. Nevertheless, it comes as no surprise for the things I mention to be appearing in CLG's match preparation.
If we look at the EU side, we see a bit of a different picture. Fnatic is an extremely talented team with a pair of world-class solo laners that clearly have substantial egos -- but they also have an excellent coach capable of keeping these players in check, when he's not falling into the trap of underestimating opponents himself as he did with Cloud 9's Balls, and a veteran support that's done an excellent job keeping the team on track. The organization's history of dominance also doesn't go to their heads as much as it does within top NA organizations, because the majority of the team are relatively new players. H2K is a team with neither highly experienced veterans (barring Ryu) nor a history of regional dominance -- and thus, as expected, we find in H2K the humility that I believe is necessary to improve as a team at an international level. Unfortunately, H2K does not currently possess the individual talent to push far on the world stage, particularly when faced with the jungler matchups of most groups they could have drawn into. However, their preparation was clear, allowing the team to put forth a much better effort than many were probably expecting within Group C.
When looking at TSM, CLG, or Fnatic, it's clear what effect the western stagnation has on them. When you've been at or near the top of the league for that long, it feels like the spot is yours to lose. If you drop down the rankings, you did something wrong. This leads the self-focused, mistake-based analysis to become even more pronounced in these teams, and leads to even more confusing draft or playstyle choices. It may also be that the teams can't envision a truly new roster forming and climbing rapidly into competition with them -- note that these three organizations, alone out of western representatives, have all been in the competitive League scene since before the LCS even began. Owing to the lack of team turnover and the fact that seasons in the east can be much more volatile, that makes these the only three organizations at Worlds that have all been at the top of the LoL scene longer than the LCS format, roster changes or not. It may be a coincidence, but I would attribute that to the "cockiness" we appear to see from these teams.
The two teams I haven't mentioned thus far are Cloud 9 and Origen, the teams I believe have the greatest chance to represent their regions well at any given international event. Why is that? How do they stack up?
Cloud 9 is a team with a history of regional dominance arguably unmatched by any team in the west -- and, if so, only by TSM -- yet while TSM make videos and do interviews speaking about how much stronger they are than all their competition, Cloud 9 sit quietly in their practice room, analyzing their upcoming opponents, and deciding on the strategies they believe will maximize their chances of winning. Humility has been one of the organization's key strengths from the beginning -- founder Hai decided to build the company around a completely different image than the average "badass" look most teams (including to some degree my own) go for. "We're not badasses, we're some guys who play video games for a living." Cloud 9 have a consistent history of respecting their opponents at every level and preparing for their matches to the best of their ability. The reason I expected so much from them at this tournament (after their first week; I wasn't certain how they would stack up coming in) is that they combine this humility with one of the world's best shotcallers and a top-class carry core in Sneaky and Incarnation, and the first few games showed that carry core had definitely turned up to play. Despite my uncertainty in their performance prior to the championship, I was quite confident the Cloud 9 that arrived in Paris would be much more of a threat than the CLG and TSM that came with them.
I'm not even close to an expert predictor, though. I'll admit I believed that while Origen were strong, they wouldn't have what it took to make it out of a Group D containing LGD and KT -- the monumental collapse of LGD paved the way for Origen's all-around solid performance to shine. Origen's potential is different than Cloud 9's. Rather than being entirely humble, Origen radiates a cool confidence and belief in themselves to compete with any team they come up against -- a middle ground between H2K / Cloud 9 and Fnatic / TSM. Overconfidence issues that I would expect from any team containing Amazing and Mithy are instead tempered by frequent international competitor xPeke and talented rookie Niels. The team is also a middle-ground between Fnatic and H2K skill-wise. This balance makes them a force to be reckoned with, especially with xPeke performing to the level he usually does at the world championships. I've been writing this article in bits for a few days, and the current time of writing is a few hours before the Origen - Flash Wolves match. I'm expecting a 3-1 OG victory -- I'll leave that prediction there regardless of the outcome.
Basically, C9 and Origen are the only two western teams I see that have both the talent to go deep in tournaments and the humility to realize they need to shut down their opponents' strengths to win, not just pick on their weaknesses. I also believe they can adapt after a loss better than any other western teams. There's plenty more that could be said regarding teams with cocky playstyles, and examples to provide, but this post is already getting pretty long. If you'd like others, feel free to contact me or comment, or even watch some NA LCS games and look for examples yourself.
At this point, I've laid out basically everything I wanted to, but I'm going to close with a Thooorin-like analogy regarding the importance of proper preparation.
Consider each team at the World Championships as a train -- 16 trains, side by side, racing to a finish line on incomplete tracks. The more talented a team is, the faster their train goes -- but that's not enough. The team's coaching staff also needs to build the tracks in front of them as they push forward -- this is how I objectify proper analysis of opponents and themselves.
Let's start with the easy one -- SKT, chasing their second world title. SKT's train chugs forward at a breakneck speed with players such as Faker and MaRin. The tracks to their finish line have already been built. While the team is completely aware of their skill level, you can bet your life on them preparing very deeply for each team they come up against, looking at both their weaknesses -- like most teams -- AND their strengths -- unlike western teams. The thing that makes SKT a true favorite in my mind is that they are skilled enough as a team to make the preparation mistakes of NA teams, and display that cockiness without being heavily punished for it, because they probably ARE better than the teams they're against. The train is going so fast, they just might make it to the finish line on lingering momentum even if the tracks run out.
What are some of the other trains looking like?
- LGD had a train as fast as SKT's that derailed about five feet past the starting line.
- CLG decided to stop building their tracks as soon as KOO's train caught up to them and figured they could just will their train forward.
- TSM did decent work keeping tracks built in front of their train, but they only had one player shoveling coal while four others shouted at him to work faster, so they were never going to win that race regardless.
- FNC is rolling along plenty quick, but Deilor is running barely ten feet in front of the train, frantically building the tracks as they go -- if they derail, I believe that'll look like losing a game to EDG and then losing the following game to the exact same strategy.
- Origen is travelling at a steady rate with their tracks already stretching all the way into the semifinals -- it'll be a surprise if Flash Wolves can keep up with them.
- KT and KOO are traveling along completed tracks, racing each other to see who can catch up with SKT.
You get the idea. I hope the analogy makes sense. Anyway, that's all I have for you today. If you made it all the way down here, thanks for reading!