The Most Important Game of the Year: On the Retention of Circuit Points
For NA LCS, today was a day of shattered dreams and expectations. Against all odds, Cloud9 fought their way through the entire gauntlet, crushing Team Liquid 3-1 on the back of two reverse sweeps to earn their ticket to Worlds. Three hundred thousand people looked on from their homes, their phones, and some undoubtedly from their workplace, as Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin and Kim "Fenix" Jae-hun buried their heads in their hands and wept, their Worlds hopes at long last put to rest, while a starry-eyed Hai "Hai" Lam gushed about his trip to Worlds boot-camp and the need to pack. And it was on that same interview desk that Riot played back a clip from the most important game in NA LCS this year.
No, I'm not talking about Cloud9's fourth game against Team Liquid, which clinched their Worlds ticket and cemented their meteoric rise as a North American contender once again. I'm talking about their tiebreaker match against Team 8, where the two 6-12 teams fought one last best-of-1 to avoid relegations.
The importance placed on this single game is based on the way circuit points are handled in the LCS. The 2015 season official rules, section 7.3.12, reads as follows:
7.3.12 Championship Points. A team will be awarded points based upon the final placement of the team after the playoffs for each split. The points will be used as a determining factor for World Championship seeding and the regional qualifier.
. . .
If a team that accrued championship points places in the relegation positions during the Summer Split they will lose all of the points they had acquired.
For Spring Split finalists Cloud9, this ruling had severe implications for their Worlds hopes. With the 70 points earned in the Spring Split and the bracket arrangement of the Summer Split playoffs alone, Cloud9 was guaranteed a spot on the Regional Qualifier gauntlet no matter how playoffs resolved; it was only a question of where in the gauntlet they would be placed. With the provision outlined in 7.3.12 of the rules handbook, however, Cloud9's race through the gauntlet could have been tripped up at the starting line with a single loss - by a team with no Worlds hopes themselves, no less.
This individual rule had huge implications for this year's playoffs, and it will have huge implications for playoffs in the years to follow. It can be argued that the Cloud9 that played in this gauntlet was not the same Cloud9 that fumbled their Summer Split; the Cloud9 that showed up this weekend was tenacious, decisive, and confident, and, though it was through a bevy of misplays, never stopped controlling their environment and trying to find the right avenue in. By all rights, they even earned their right to prove this to be the case, using their Spring Split circuit points alone, and in the end, they did prove, through fourteen contentious games, that they were the team who deserved to go to Worlds. But none of that would have mattered if they found themselves in the Promotion Tournament.
Back Down to Earth
Not every team was so lucky. In the EU LCS, SK Gaming, who finished 1st in the Spring Split regular season with a 15-3 record and 4th in the playoffs, continued their standings freefall through the summer after losing star AD carry Konstantinos "FORG1VEN" Tzortziou-Napoleon, finishing 9th in the Summer Split regular season - and falling into the Promotion Tournament. In addition to having to play to retain their position in the LCS next Spring, SK Gaming had to forfeit the 30 championship points earned in the Spring Split, which would have been enough for them to clinch a spot in the EU Regional Qualifier with a quarterfinals loss by either ROCCAT or Giants. (Indeed, both lost in the quarterfinals, and so SK Gaming would have earned side choice against whichever team they played against.) Gambit Gaming, the other team playing in the Promotion Tournament, and Copenhagen Wolves, the team which got auto-relegated, also ceded their circuit points, though neither had enough to qualify for regionals in any case.
Now, it is not clear whether or not SK Gaming could have ever had the type of run through the gauntlet that Cloud9 had. After all, SK Gaming is not Cloud9, and had its own set of issues, likely with different solutions. But by all standards, Cloud9 was not Cloud9: the team had a 33% win rate (6-12) leading up to the tiebreaker with Team 8, and a 67% win rate (10-5) from that point on. It is possible that SK Gaming, if given the same five weeks of downtime off the radar afforded to Cloud9, could have solved some of their internal issues, spent a month in the Hyperbolic Time Chamber, and came out bearing a closer resemblance to Spring Split SK Gaming (or even just Summer Split 2014 SK Gaming, which itself made worlds with a similar roster). The way the rules are arranged, however, SK Gaming would never have that chance, and so we'll never know.
Clouding the Issue
The relegation clause of rule 7.3.12 confuses the issue of the importance of circuit points. The system, which was designed to lend some importance to the Spring Split and allow it to have some Worlds implications down the line, and to some extent, it has. However, when a Spring Split can lose their points completely due to a poor Summer Split performance, it shifts the balance too far on the importance of Summer Split once again.
The EU LCS is a good place to look for this: in the Season 5 Summer Split, three of the six Spring Split playoff teams (Gambit Gaming, SK Gaming, and Copenhagen Wolves) found themselves in the three relegation spots. On the other end of this reversal, two of the six Summer Split playoff teams (ROCCAT and Giants) competed in the Promotion Tournament in the Spring Split. Now, due to the nature of circuit points, playoff teams in the Summer Split will always earn more for scoring the same place than Spring Split playoff teams, so ROCCAT and Giants would have earned more than Gambit Gaming and Copenhagen Wolves, even if no teams lost their playoff points. In this way, balance is kept in the circuit point system, with equal performances being weighted slightly toward the most recent outcomes.
Then, there is SK Gaming. Despite all the flaws with SK Gaming, the team was able to put out a top 4 finish in a playoffs, which should, by all rights, trump any team which peaks in the quarterfinals. By this right alone, SK Gaming should have peaked at 5th in circuit points, 3rd after you remove Fnatic and H2k (who already had first and second Worlds seeds, respectively), which would have given them side choice against the winner of ROCCAT and Giants in the playoffs. Instead, SK Gaming was removed entirely from gauntlet eligibility, which led to the four Regional Qualifiers spots being held by... The four Summer Split Playoff teams who didn't already get Worlds seeds.
The discrepancy is amplified somewhat by the uneven use of relegation matches as a seeding mechanism. Two of the four teams in the Regional Qualifiers played in relegation matches and, fortunately for them, survived. Their relegation experience puts them on the same footing as both teams in the Promotion Tournament this coming week, but because only Summer Split relegation is considered, a team can do as poorly as they wish during Spring Split and - provided they don't get relegated outright - still make a better run for Worlds than a team that explodes onto the scene early in the season, but falters later.
The Silver Lining
Fortunately for Cloud9, they dodged a bullet against Team 8, breaking a close tie off a few key late-game misplays, allowing them to make their fateful run of the gauntlet and punch the last ticket to Worlds. As for future years, it's uncertain whether they'll get so lucky again. If Riot wants both splits to truly have Worlds implications, however, they should reconsider their approach to the LCS circuit: allow all teams to keep their points and sort out the gauntlet accordingly, so that all teams which make an impact in the regular season can have their fair shake in playoffs, and the most important game in the year doesn't have to be about avoiding relegation.