Riot needs to ditch its MSI format

The best-of-five part of the tournament was awesome. Why don't we get more of that?

Photo via Colin Young-Wolff for Riot Games

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The last few days of the 2019 Mid-Season Invitational were amazing. There were some good games before, but most of the play-in stage and the group stage of the main event played out like chalk. Favorites won and looked dominant in doing so, and it was tough to tell what we learned from that hectic handful of days.

But what questions we did have were answered emphatically once things moved into a best-of-five format. G2 Esports showed that they’re definitely on top of the world, while Liquid beat Invictus Gaming in the biggest League esports upset. MSI 2019 started with a yawn and ended with a bang.

In fact, the knockouts were so exciting, we have to ask: Why isn’t the whole tournament like that? There are reasons of course, but one thing is abundantly clear: Riot needs to change its MSI format as soon as possible.

Mini Worlds

Photo via Riot Games

When MSI got its start in 2015, Riot organized the tournament based off of precedent. And precedent in Western esports had typically been to hold an extended round-robin group stage followed by a knockout round with the knockouts typically consisting of best-of-three or best-of-five matches.

Doing something one way because that’s the way it’s always been done is terrible justification. The worst part is Riot actually changed the format in 2017 with the introduction of the play-in stage. But then play-in matches were added to Worlds that year and we went right back to MSI being a mini Worlds doppelgänger.

This format with a group stage definitely makes sense for Worlds, where there are more teams and playing multiple best-of rounds would take forever. These tournaments are expensive for Riot to run and the company is in cost-cutting mode for esports. But MSI is a different beast. Only one team from each region qualifies. The main event has just six teams. That gives the company room to be creative.

It just doesn’t make sense for Riot to hold two of the same tournament every year, one that’s the real deal and the other a “mini” version. That’s why tournaments like Rift Rivals—complaints from certain players aside—are so interesting for fans. They give a different flavor to how things are played and some color to the tournament overall.

What we’re missing

Photo via Riot Games

But that’s far from the only way to do things. For years, Starcraft, the original esport, played out bracket-style tournaments in which every round was a best-of match. Starcraft is different than League, of course—some of the fastest games can be conceded in mere minutes. A whole best-of-five might last less than an hour.

Best-of-five series are essential in games like Starcraft because different maps can really influence player strategy. And they give players and teams a chance to show how they would would adapt and evolve throughout a series. All of that’s true in League esports.

Perhaps the most prescient example is that of Team Liquid. For years, the best North American teams were stymied by the group stage at major tournaments. Many times, we never got to see what would happen if they had advanced to play in a best-of-five. Liquid’s semifinal appearance against IG was (somehow) just the second time an LCS team had ever faced an LPL squad in the bracket stage of MSI or Worlds.

Think about how crazy that is. Until last week, two of the game’s major regions had, over the span of seven competitive seasons—not counting season one—played each other once.

That’s just not good enough, and it’s exactly what we’re missing from tournaments like MSI. Best-of-one matches are notoriously luck-driven and show only one level of the game. We always thought Liquid were just chokers because they got unlucky in the group stage. But when MSI put Liquid under the brightest lights, they finally showed up.

We should have moments like that every year at MSI—regardless of result. The group stage doesn’t even accomplish that much—it eliminates just two teams. It feels like Riot’s way to rush through the tournament to get to the good part.

The solution is to skip right to the good part after the play-in stage. MSI should feature a double-elimination bracket of best-of-five series between the six main stage teams. It wouldn’t last that long and wouldn’t require tremendous resources. And it would give us more of the exciting, back-and-forth games we’ve come to love the most.