The Thorin Treatment: More International Competition Will Yield More Western Success
The disappointing eliminations of the top Western seeds at this year's World Championship has seen discussion again turn to the lack of international competition in professional League of Legends. While the lone team to reach the semifinals can boast wins over China's top ranked team, even they have nothing in their deep run to suggest it would have been possible in a world in which they had Korean teams lying in their path at some point. The real question is what the effects of more international tournaments would be upon both the Western and Eastern teams.
Hopes and fears
Aficionados of high level play desire additional international tournaments so as to see the best teams competing on a higher rung of competitive pressure, outside of the comfort zone of their home region, where most have played the vast majority of their careers and become at ease. Those who enjoy diversity of matchups hope to see more occasions on which teams from different regions are matched up and battle to adapt or overcome one another.
Still, concerns run deep with many Westerners that increased levels of international competition would bring negatives which will crush the scene and perhaps the game's interest value within their regions. Some fear that the end result would be Worlds but played out over a dozen times and with even less upsets, due to the increasing sample size, and thus all hope eliminated of Western teams competing against Korea's best.
Others cite the gradual demise of StarCraft2 as a premier esports title and draw the conclusion, as many Westerners within that game have been known to, that a mass of Koreans dominating Westerners in tournaments led to diminishing viewing figures.
More opportunities for the elite Western teams, those who dominate their regions and display high level play in many facets - including individually, would provide such teams a better basis to show the world their "true" or day-to-day level. Instead of seeing what could have been legendary teams written off as failures due to a single tournament, TSM standing as a good example of such, or good but not great sides pushed too far into the realm of hyperbole thanks to a single good run, as fellow NA side CLG at MSI seems fairly categorised, spectators would have a better sense of how good teams actually were on the international level.
Of course, there would still be teams who simply could not adapt, in terms of playing style or mentality, to the high pressure environment of international play, just as there would be those who only seemed to turn their level up to maximum upon that stage, in contrast to domestically, but these instances would be far fewer, relative to the amount of matches played. No longer would a great player's career be effectively crippled by failing to perform in a lone tournament or one at which he can only compete at perhaps two or three times within an entire LoL career. Nor would those who manage only an inspired but one-off run see their pasts rewritten so they were always destined to be greats of the Western scene. Let those who are excellent show us it is a habit, to allude to Aristotle's famous quote. Let those who can only manage a flawless couple of days also show us that is the case.
Fear of the unknown has always been a concern for humans and international competition comes around so rarely that it is understandable why otherwise talented players can find themselves paralysed by the pressure and unable to perform at their usual level, putting aside increased competition in the case of facing top Korean opponents. Competing internationally more often would, and in other games does, act as a form of exposure therapy, allowing such players to become more comfortable and less anxious in tournament matches. Even losing at an international competition can put the player at ease that the worst case scenario is no longer unknown, so his focus can return to showing his best rather than worrying about being humiliated in front of millions.
Facing the Koreans more often and practicing to do so would give Western teams more meaningful experience of such situations from which to learn, more difficult games from which to begin the process of adapting their play to suit and more opportunities to refine how to prepare for such high level opponents.
In short: while a team like H2k or last year's Origen may well not have produced similar results given two or three more tournaments of a similar calibre, this year's TSM and last year's Fnatic could reasonably be expected to show themselves as the best teams in the West and deliver at least a couple of high level finishes, all things considered.
The nuances of Asian dominance
It is certainly a very likely and reasonable conclusion that the best Korean teams would continue to win the majority of the competitions and thus increase their aura of dominance, by virtue of winning say five tournaments as opposed to two or three. This is no negative, as it would showcase some of the greatest teams of all-time displaying with consistency what makes them the best at the game and the exact manner in which they are strongest.
A consideration many may not have considered, due to focusing upon Koreans against the West, is that increased competition would provide China with more deep finishes and likely the occasional outright victory. As much amusement has been sourced from China's failures in the last two World Championships, they have sent some teams - OMG in Seasons 3 and 4 come to mind, who had the style and match-up to be primed to cause an upset against even the best Korean teams, given enough opportunities. Likewise, teams like EDG may have failed over and over, despite dominating domestically, but it seems unreasonable to imagine they would never show even a single strong run, as the 2015 MSI highlighted, to a win.
It's also both well known and proven that the top Western teams can compete with the top Chinese teams, so China's victory itself would help break the fear of Koreans being unbeatable and thus any chance of that turning fans off wanting to watch international competition. Imagine the rare tournament in which the top Korean seed is eliminated in bracket play by a Chinese squad and the best Western teams can display a very entertaining and competitive battle against said squad, thanks to how they match-up in terms of player strength or style.
Turn off the TV, I know how this one ends
The notion that Koreans winning so many Western StarCraft2 competitions is what killed off viewer interest in that game is far from some proven theory and much more within the realm of a relatively accepted hypothesis which has become a community consensus. The rise of League of Legends as a premier esport coincides startlingly closely with SC2 being unable to maintain pace in viewership numbers and eventually being left in the dust. There is also the life-cycle of fads to be considered, as things which are popular die away after the novelty and initial thrill wears off. Was it reasonable to expect so many casual viewers to keep tuning into SC2 in a world in which more suited games such as LoL and CS:GO grew in stature and exposure on a near daily basis?
For your author's money, it was never that Western SC2 fans simply wanted to see Westerners winning or placing highly, but that they most desired to see the best Western players playing great games against the top Koreans and in doing so beating them. More international competitions in LoL will allow for such a possibility with much greater frequency than is currently the case. Such thrilling runs and epic matches will only increase viewer interest and appeal for that level of competition. The key lies not just in how often international competitions are played, but also the format and structure of them.
The history of competitive StarCraft2, spanning six years, provides us with massive amounts of data on international play against Koreans and experiments with formats have effectively been run to an extent that we can draw some fairly strong conclusions from the outcomes, collectively. The trend which emerged in StarCraft2 was that at long form Korean competitions, which saw time-frames more comparable to the LoL World Championship, Koreans would always emerge victorious, win the title and on practically every occasion occupy all the top four spots. Take the same dominant and imperious Koreans, though, and put them into a Western StarCraft2 tournament, which took place over a time-frame comparable to an IEM in LoL, and there were Westerners both winning far more series against the best Koreans and even winning the title outright.
No Western SC2 player ever won a top competition on Korean soil where the time between big play-off series was more than around four days. The only non-Korean SC2 player to ever reach the top four of a GSL, Korea's most prestigious competition, was the Swede JinrO and he did so twice within the first four seasons and then never again. Back then, the gap between the quarter-final matches he won and the semifinals he lost were three and four days, respectively.
After JinrO, there were a few instances of Western players making it as far as the quarter-finals, as HuK managed that feat once in GSL 2011 Code S August and NaNiwa accomplished it back-to-back in the second and third seasons of 2012. HuK had seven days to wait for his quarter-final match and NaNiwa had 14 and eight days, respectively, before competing again. Neither won any of those three series and no foreigner ever made it to that stage from that point on in the game's history.
Western competitions - MLGs, IPLs, IEMs and Dreamhacks, though, saw the entire tournament played out over less time than there was between those failed opportunities for the Westerners. Those tournaments would be held in their entirety over three or four days of play. Players like Stephano, Nerchio, ThorZaIN and MaNa, all considered top Westerners, were all able to win such competitions and NaNiwa was able to amass a resume of deep runs which far exceeded his success in GSL.
Some Koreans even had more success outside of the GSL time-frame than within, as the legendary TaeJa won 11 Western events, but never made it further than the semi-final of GSL. Lesser Koreans, who were never close to deep runs in GSL, also had occasional deep finishes or triumphs in Western competitions.
The same trend of Western success can be seen in League of Legends competitions over the years. Many will acknowledge that Western success in international competitions back in 2012 and the early LCS era of 2013 can be chalked up to the scene being more open and not having become region-locked yet, but also Koreans having only been heavily invested into the game for around a year. Yet that only partially accounts for the Western success stories, as at IEMs and MSI we saw Westerners compete admirably in every single year of LoL.
Gambit beat Frost and then Blaze in an IEM where the next matches were taking place only the next day. The same Gambit played well against KT Bullets a year later at the 2014 IEM World Championship. At the 2015 MSI, there was only a day from the end of the group stage to the start of the FNATIC vs. SKT semi-final and the Western team filled with rookies took SKT to a fifth and final game. This year's CLG cannot compare to this year's SKT in terms of individual strength, yet with only a single day between the semi-final of this year's MSI and the final, CLG at least gave SKT some moments of pause in their Bo5 final.
In contrast, looking at this World Championship and the previous three, Western teams have only accomplished deep finishes when they did not face a Korean team in the bracket and have never beaten a Korean team in bracket play, or even taken them to five games, following the four or five day lay-off between the rounds of those competitions.
Creating a chance
The simple but solid conclusion that can be drawn from these different results coming from different tournament schedules is that the more time to prepare given to the elite Korean players, in the case of StarCraft2, or teams, in LoL, the better their likelihood of winning the series in question and the tournament as a whole becomes. More international competition like the World Championship will result in all of what was outlined in the first sections, allowing Westerners to adapt, gain experience, show their average level and improve. More international competitions with short time-frames, a week or less, will allow Western teams to beat Koreans in series more often and, in rare instances, even win the tournament itself.
In lieu of Westerners successfully creating their own process of preparation which could neutralise Korea's advantage in that realm, which would be the esports equivalent of cracking the atom, simply having tournaments in which the same Korean teams play without said advantage is a quick-fire solution to create closer, more competitive matches and matchups. Western teams and fans have little to fear from more international competition and much to gain.
Photo credit: lolesports, Jan Vehrenkamp