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Get Good: Worlds patching and the myth of meta-resistance

by theScore Staff Aug 24 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of theScore eSports

The best teams know how to adapt.

As a League of Legends esports spectator and consumer, I’ve heard this phrase uttered by members of the community both in and outside Riot Games. Spectators have said it. Players have said it. It’s entirely possible I’ve even said it. But a quick glance at the game’s history makes one realize that it has absolutely no basis in fact.

The conflict between Rioters and team owners that has been brewing on Twitter and come to a head with the clash between President Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill and Team SoloMid owner Andy “Reginald” Dinh involves a lot of factors I don’t have enough information to discuss. I don’t have the experience to determine how much an LCS team makes compared to other esports in sponsorship, stipends or merchandising. I can’t say how much revenue Riot receives from streaming LCS or indirect game revenue from using it as a marketing tool. The only observation I can make is that this conflict very likely came about because of an inequity of information on one side or the other, but that’s an observation almost anyone can make.

What I can discuss is the comment Reginald made in his interview with theScore esports. Reginald claimed that patch changes hurt the stability of the competitive League of Legends scene. Tryndamere outright dismissed this comment in his Reddit response chain, claiming “patch timing is not correlated with this concern.” By this concern, he’s referring to the “long term well-being of the scene.”

While most of the discussions have revolved around what money is or isn’t to be made from the LCS, this comment has only been briefly addressed as a shorter aside in a meatier argument about financing. Its core leads back to the commonly accepted phrase, “The best teams know how to adapt.” If one accepts this phrase as a true reflection of reality, then it’s true that this comment doesn’t need a great deal of additional treatment. Because of this phrase, players and teams will hesitate to dispute Tryndamere’s claim — it’s like admitting that if they struggle to adapt to a new patch they aren’t one of the best teams.

In this manner, the phrase has been used as a somewhat unfair weapon, especially since I struggle to name a single team that has always just adapted to changes simply and remained dominant. SK Telecom T1 around Lee “Faker” Sanghyeok stand out as the most likely example given multiple international titles, including two World Championships — except there are now two distinct time periods where, at least domestically, they’ve lost hold of their power. Their fall in 2014 and more recently in 2016 summer correlate with the perceived importance of strong, creative junglers in the meta.

SKT have never been a team that appears to understand the concept of playing around a carry jungler, and the desire to make a roster change to compensate for the limited champion pool of Bae "bengi" Seongwoong hasn’t yielded results. Stylistically, they haven’t adapted to the idea of mid laner as a backup resource to their jungler because, frankly speaking, why should Faker have to babysit a jungler?

SKT have made countless adaptations, adjusting to a resource-heavy top laner in Jang "MaRin" Gyeonghwan, swapping out players when necessary, but they’ve mostly remained on top. There are now repeated instances, however, of the team, either because of coaching or Faker himself, struggling to adapt to a jungler-centric playstyle. It’s possible they just haven’t found the right jungler, but with Kang "Blank" Sungu’s style echoing bengi’s more and more over time, my initial prediction is that a jungler swap in and of itself wouldn’t necessarily aid SKT, and instead a carry jungler will slowly adapt to fall in line with the way their junglers have played before.

This is a topic that can be unpacked on its own, so you don’t have to take what I say at face value, but SKT are far from the only example of patching coinciding with the crowning of kings. By now, many know the story of 2014's Samsung White and Samsung Blue. In both of their Champions clashes, pundits pitted Samsung White as the better team, but both in Spring and Summer, Blue triumphed. It took the 2014 World Championship for White to finally overcome their sister team.

One explanation put forth by experts, including Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykles at the time, was that Blue was the better team to adapt to patch changes, including champion priority and lane control. The first best of five encounter between White (then Ozone) and Blue after Bae "dade" Eojin joined Blue, cementing both rosters, was on April 30, 2014, with the 4.5 patch coming out in North America on April 3, meaning that the 2-3 week lag before it hit Korea's competitive scene only gave teams a short time to breathe before semifinals.

The Samsung teams' second encounter in Champions Summer on Aug. 1, 2014 meant they had to face newly buffed dragon gold and other small snowball changes that put more emphasis on bottom side dragon fights. Blue had smarter use of Teleport, wave control, and setups in conjunction that demonstrated a faster reaction to patching.

But at the World Championship, teams played on Patch 4.14, rolled out on Aug. 13, 2014. When the Samsung sister teams had their final showdown, it was on Oct. 11, almost two months after the patch change. White decimated Samsung Blue, and many still remember them as the greater team as a result, dismissing their domestic losses to Blue because of meta instability.

If the best teams know how to adapt, why is White remembered as the better team?

More dramatically, for most of 2014 summer, Star Horn Royal Club, the second place team at the 2014 World Chamionship, hovered around fourth in their domestic League of Legends Pro League in China. Team WE, a team more skilled at lane swapping and accustomed to sending AD carry Gao “WeiXiao” Xuecheng to the top lane to freeze farm for late game, sat in the Top 3, slated for a Worlds birth. The surge of Star Horn Royal Club, a team with more skill in the bottom side 2v2 than any team in the league, and the fall of WE, a team used to playing a more patient game, coincided with Lucian buffs, dragon gold increases and other snowball changes.

Due to an average game time difference with LGD, WE didn’t even make playoffs (then only reserved for the Top 4 in the LPL) that split. Royal’s truly impressive run past their domestic opponents to make the World Championship final on China’s side of the bracket stands out in history far more than WE’s more consistent form earlier that summer.

I’m not saying that White and Royal don’t deserve their coveted spots in history, or that it was all on patches. These were teams of fantastic players. Their stories, perhaps not best remembered by the English-speaking esports community, highlight two important realities. Patching has at least a correlation with successes and triumphs, and the World Championship is the single most important event in the competitive year.

All five Samsung White members immediately found lucrative streaming contracts with LPL teams following the 2014 World Championship, but Samsung Blue's Lee "Heart" Gwanhyung went to an LSPL team, and Lee "Spirit" Dayoon joined an LPL team without another ex-Samsung teammate. Jian “Uzi” Zihao had an impressive buyout when Oh My God made the play to change their roster. Having lost to Royal two years running at Worlds, they made a change that’s still regarded as one of the largest blockbuster roster trades in LoL as well as perhaps the single most disappointing when both OMG and Royal’s results tanked for the 2015 competitive season. WeiXiao retired immediately after WE failed to make playoffs.

How a player performs at Worlds can heavily impact his entire career. MaRin, the 2015 World Championship MVP, was one of the only two major Korean players to join a Chinese team in 2016, the other being Lee "Easyhoon" Jihoon, another member of his team. In 2014, the disappointing results for Europe resulted in a large reshuffling, including the famous story of the scouting and rebuilding of 2015's Fnatic. Then, a year later, three of five Fnatic members — at least — were offered major opportunities to join North American teams after they made the semifinal at the World Championship.

Kim “deft” Hyukkyu allegedly went to ex-EDward Gaming co-owner and manager Huang “San Shao” Cheng’s office in tears, begging to return to Korea if he couldn’t win Worlds. deft is still regarded as one of the best AD carries in the world. He has won the Mid-Season Invitational, a major international event. He undoubtedly makes a handsome salary with EDward Gaming, but Worlds matters. Worlds is marketed as the career-making tournament, and the fallout, both monetarily and otherwise reflects that. The entire long year of the league system, a system Riot promotes as important because it’s allegedly more stable for the bottom teams, can be forgotten at the top end by how you play in the month of October.

If we look at 2015, the Juggernaut patch, described as having “sub-optimal” patch timing by Tryndamere, heavily emphasized the power of top lane carries. The teams that succeeded were praised for adapting quickly to lane swap changes, but three of the four teams that made semifinals were already playing around their top laner before the juggernaut patch hit. Adaptations required of Fnatic, SKT and KOO were less dramatic than those required by the two first seed teams that failed to escape Groups — Counter-Logic Gaming and LGD Gaming.

Adaptation should be rewarded, it is part of what makes a team strong, and there's no way one can argue that 2015's results can be laid entirely at the feet of patch timing. But when the qualifier for an event takes place on a drastically different patch than the event, it’s absurd to pretend that the resulting fallout happened entirely because teams that weren’t the best were exposed for a lack of adaptation.

For the purpose of clarity, here are the lane swap rates, differences in gold leads at ten minutes in lane swaps and out of lane swaps, the regular season rank, and the round in which each team finished in playoffs. Non-LPL data are pulled from League of Analytics.

Region Team Swap rate(%) G@10 Swap G@10 No swap Regular season rank Last playoff round
EU GIA 63.9 -33.4 -9.3 3 QF
EU G2 58.3 333.9 198.6 1 F
EU H2K 58.3 364.8 437.1 4 SF
EU FNC 52.8 535.5 -467.5 5 QF
EU UOL 47.2 -403.8 -246 6 SF
EU SPY 44.4 -200.3 266.3 2 F
LCK KT 47.7 210.8 212.4 3 F
LCK SSG 45 619.6 -23.4 4 QF
LCK AFs 44.2 210.8 212.4 5 R1
LCK ROX 37.5 186.6 -20 1 F
LCK SKT 36.6 -379.8 356 2 SF
LMS JT 54.2 423 755.1 1 F
LMS FW 37.5 327 23.4 2 F
LMS HKE 29.2 -41.4 -201.7 4 QF
LMS ahq 25 498.2 148.2 3 SF
LPL GT 51 -68.4 -177.8 3 R1
LPL IM 46 635.3 235 3 SF
LPL VG 46 335 -425 4 QF
LPL RNG 43 547.1 887 1 F
LPL SS 34 538.5 624 2 QF
LPL WE 33 -292.9 432.1 2 SF
LPL EDG 30 545.5 400 1 F
LPL iG 17 -857.1 -120.6 4 R1
NA CLG 60.9 78 -269 4 SF
NA NV 50 -153.6 -112.9 6 QF
NA IMT 48.8 547 509 2 SF
NA C9 47.7 324.1 19.5 3 F
NA TL 46.5 62.9 -10.9 5 QF
NA TSM 34.1 717.4 699.1 1 F

Most of the data doesn’t provide evidence that the removal of lane swaps could have had a massive impact on placing, but a few examples stand out. In particular, Fnatic’s over 1,000 gold spread in leads in lane swap games vs. non-lane swap games makes the 6.15 patch changes look like a death sentence.

Perhaps what Tryndamere said about teams hiding weak players in lane swaps rings true here, but how many people actually believe the majority of Fnatic’s roster is comprised of weak players? Players not necessarily known for their laning phase? Yes. Players clearly disconnected in quarterfinals? Yes. But almost no one would dare to flat out call them weak players.

Fnatic likely have other problems, but they were a Top 3 EU LCS team for much of the split. They made the semifinals last split. At the moment, it feels like that doesn’t matter because the tool they were really good at, the lane swaps, has been taken off the table. Barring other issues with the organization, there’s no way this won’t have ramifications for these players’ futures. Perhaps some of the damage could have been softened if the changes were reserved for the offseason.

Tryndamere’s comment about prioritizing viewer experiences isn’t shocking. Digging through the jargon like “default start” or “non-interactive,” that I’ve discussed more in depth in another article, it was clear Riot made these changes because they thought they were best for the viewers. Of course viewers might be tantalized by a major patch change before Worlds. They want to see how their favorite pros react for the first time on the biggest stage of the year.

But Tryndamere’s more surprising message is, “Coaches/owners are complaining about [the patch] because it makes it harder for them to hide a certain line up/skill deficits they may have on their rosters. In my opinion…they need to continue to develop talent and pay them.”

Lane swapping is a skill. It isn’t even a debate anymore, and I'm tired of hearing people insist upon the contrary. No professional player or coach has come forward and referred to lane swapping as simple. Most responses have been similar to that of Splyce top laner, Martin "Wunder" Hansen, who, despite acknowledging that Splyce perform better in standard lanes (and the above data supports that as well), said, “I think lane swaps are a really skilled thing about the game, even if you don't think that from a spectator point of view. But if you are really good at lane swap, you have some sort of advantage that you can use and win the games against teams that is not only based on mechanics.”

Tryndamere’s Reddit response to Reginald, free of all the other points that have been addressed more thoroughly by others, essentially boils down to “get good,” but apparently he gets to decide what constitutes “good.” What has been good for the majority of the 2016 competitive season, what has made or broken seeding into playoffs, has been the ability to lane swap in just less than 50 percent of total games played.

Further, if Tryndamere believes more five-game series are what happens when we're seeing strong teams succeed, I'm having trouble following his logic. There has been an alarming blue side win rate plaguing the LPL and LCK, with 81 percent blue side win rate in LPL and 73 percent in the LCK. This doesn't necessarily condemn the patch, as it's still early, but I don't see how close five game series means the losing team just has worse players.

Then, beyond just lane swaps, what Riot promised would be competitive-focused tweaks in subsequent patches, turned out to be much more substantial. Patch 6.17, the last patch before the World Championship patch, has 27 champion sub-sections. It includes significant buffs to champions like Vi and Poppy that don’t seem competitive-focused or necessary.

Riot should change their game. That’s expected and healthy. Huge midseason and offseason updates are exciting for both the player and spectator base. It helps teams decide on roster changes for the coming season. Alterations for balance throughout the splits following these major changes are also expected.

But patches have come out consistently twice every month for years, and the lists of changes that occur every time only seem to get larger. In 2014, Riot slowed down for Worlds and froze the competitive patch at the start of August. Last year, the final patch before Worlds was released on Sept. 16, 2014, and the major Juggernaut change was released on Aug. 20. Even with some of the impact that 2014’s changes may have had on competitors, I think the 2014 approach was reasonable. At least this year is somewhere between there and last year.

Making statements like “the best teams adapt” or “get better players” to justify major game alterations and divest responsibility for potentially career-changing moves before the single most important event of the season doesn’t hold up. Meta-resistant teams in League of Legends are a myth. They’re a noble goal everyone aims for, probably because frequent patching makes it so they have to, but there hasn't actually ever been one before.

If Tryndamere honestly thinks “patch timing is not correlated” with the careers of the players he’s accusing Reginald of not protecting, he’s either ignoring the body of evidence I’ve amassed or he’s already performed the rigorous testing I haven’t to destabilize my claims as mere coincidences. To truly do everything Riot can to help create the stability they crave, there either needs to be a way to put less emphasis on Worlds or better steps taken to ensure the best competitive conditions so that teams that are actually good on the Worlds patch make it through qualification to attend. The efforts made so far have been sub-optimal.

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter for more rants about the myth of meta-resistance.

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