A misdiagnosis can be lethal. Treating the wrong condition can exacerbate symptoms from neglect or cause new problems. In the first week of the 2016 World Championship, teams hailing from the European League of Legends Championship Series only won one game out of a possible nine. Splyce and G2 Esports, the top two teams from the EU LCS summer playoffs, lost to every team in their group while H2k-Gaming only managed to muster up a win against Brazil's INTZ e-Sports.
There’s a problem (that much is obvious) and as with any problem to which the public is privy, a rush to find the solution occupied discussion. With two EU LCS teams very unlikely to advance and a third barely clinging to their position, European organizations and players will already be looking ahead to next year.
After a monumental 2015, where did they go wrong?
I initially didn’t want to write this article because the answer can be something as simple as a bad year — or even a bad week. It has happened before in 2014 for Europe, in 2015 for China, and nearly every year prior to this one for North America. It isn’t immediately obvious that the NA LCS is fundamentally doing something better than Europe behind the scenes because of a week's worth of best-of-one results — and if last year is any indication, a good first week can immediately come undone for NA’s hopefuls.
But the bad week wasn’t the first indication that Europe might not perform well at this year’s World Championship. Pro players and analysts on top teams suggested all summer long that Europe might be behind in their play. A group of near rookies on Splyce were, at times, heralded as the best macro team in the league — a distinction that should have produced more questions.
Evidence supported a difficult year for Europe, but that doesn’t mean that each team failed for the same root reason. Splyce dragged Team SoloMid to a long game that they arguably should have won and managed to latch onto openings against Samsung. In a less lethal group, perhaps in place of either H2K or G2, they could have clawed their way into the Top 2, but even with the spark they exhibited, they ended Week 1 without a win.
H2k-Gaming struggled with entanglements that their CEO likened to a reality show all year, and while their form exhibited high peaks, they also bottomed frequently. Their close game against ahq was winnable, and an early Level 1 misplay shut down the possibility they may have had against EDward Gaming.
G2, the most puzzling failure, had a top laner that required more lane pressure to get ahead and a mid laner who appeared less comfortable in the meta. Since arriving at Worlds, these problems have continued to bleed them. Poor pathing in a mid lane roam by Luka “Perkz” Perkovic allowed Counter-Logic Gaming to cut him off and start the snowball. A questionable Baron call allowed ROX Tigers to retake the game. They didn’t show Albus NoX Luna enough respect.
Many of Europe’s failures have come down to a single moment, and a repeated sequence of bad moments resulted in eight losses.
That's exactly why it’s important not to overreact.
Every time something appears to go wrong in the EU LCS, the limitations of the best-of-two format are raised as an explanation. I’ve yet to hear a proper explanation for why this format is inferior to a best-of-three regular season format considering it properly distributes side advantage, still enables a team to adapt and test strategies, and rewards a squad for sweeping their opponents. For a contracted regular season leading up to the playoffs, the best-of-two format seems ideal.
Even without arguing for the rigor — or lack thereof — it makes little sense to argue that best-of-twos would poorly prepare European teams for a best-of-one group stage. Samsung Galaxy’s Kang “Ambition” Chanyong argued that the team had to adjust their mindset to best-of-ones and only defeated Royal Never Give Up when they defaulted to comfort picks.
"I can’t be sure of the strongest team in the group,” Ambition said. “Since it’s only been one match against each team."
No matter which league you come from, there’s a slight awkwardness to the best-of-ones after a split of best-of-twos and best-of-threes. If G2 could play Albus NoX Luna again in one stretch, they almost certainly would have banned Brand, possibly avoided choosing Orianna into Anivia to give Perkz a more comfortable matchup and wouldn’t have fallen for the early Baron sneak. It’s almost impossible to argue that these gimmicks would work a second time around or that Europe playing best-of-twos instead of best-of-threes would somehow prepare them less for these circumstances.
That isn’t to say that having switched to best-of-twos or best-of-threes in the LCS has put teams at a disadvantage in the group stage. The adjustment seems to be a simple mentality switch — play something you like to play, something that you’re willing to surprise the enemy with and your chances will improve. I MAY seem to heavily subscribe to this strategy as they have almost foregone logical and holistic compositions completely which has stalled out their games longer than it should have.
More importantly, INTZ eSports, Flash Wolves, ahq e-Sports and Albus NoX Luna all come from regions with best-of-two or best-of-one group stages and have managed to pick up wins against more impressive teams than any of Europe’s representatives. Overreacting by immediately transitioning Europe to a best-of-three format next year would accomplish nothing except perhaps overworking teams and broadcast staff even more.
The practice ethic and the infrastructural improvement
Last year, I blamed most of China’s poor performances on their practice ethic. Heading into 2016, very little of what I said has changed in the LPL. Many teams that have scrimmed Royal Never Give Up, despite their improvements, can't testify to them taking scrims more seriously. EDward Gaming remains the shining example, and it’s hard to determine if their practice ethic is exemplar or just better than the typical Chinese team.
With that backdrop, it’s hard to blame any European team’s failures on their scrim culture. Misfits Coach Hussain Moosvi was happy to tell PvPLive about the “horror stories” from European scrims leading up to the World Championship. According to Hussain, a single best-of-five will comprise a team’s scrims for the day. Over the course of this best-of-five, games or scrims can be canceled for the remaining duration for any reason. Allegedly, the NA LCS standard is higher.
Even if the NA LCS standard is higher, it will likely only exist among top teams, and if the gap is truly insurmountable then this is a radical change that’s only occurred within the past year. If one wants to say NA scrim culture has improved rapidly in a short amount of time, one will tend more often to look at infrastructural investments motivating NA teams to advance their support staff.
There are a few problems with this argument. The first is that the NA LCS has almost always had more financial backing than the EU LCS. With streaming, better marketing and easier access to sponsorship in North America, European teams have remained behind in obtaining some of the essentials such as managers or coaches. Yet, with the exception of 2014, European teams have still tended to place further in the World Championship than NA teams.
It's also hard to argue that recent investments have completely revolutionized North American infrastructure in the span of a year when some of the NA LCS’ heaviest investment projects failed well before the finish line. Major angel investor and venture capitalist teams like Echo Fox and NRG eSports played in the relegation tournament, just like Europe’s Schalke, and Immortals didn’t even qualify for Worlds. While other established teams received an increase in sponsorship to an extent and beefed up their staff, recent funding debates suggest that these amounts might not be as large as the public perceives them to be.
I’d never argue that European infrastructure doesn’t require improvement. The fact that many top teams like G2 still have to choose between a live-in manager and a coach (and often require a single person to take both jobs) means they’ll find themselves strapped when difficulties continue to arise. Organizations tend to be more player-run. Over time, that will change, but its hard to determine its effects on this particular tournament.
The vulnerability of a powerful dynamic
“Since EU didn’t have old school teams that went to Worlds and other regions did, when you’re a veteran team, you play more together," G2 Esports’ Alfonso “mithy” Aguirre Rodriguez said just before Worlds. "Veteran teams or teams that have been playing together for long have experienced playing good teams and seeing what really good teams do in the game.”
When infrastructure is lacking, a player's self-motivation and synergy with his team becomes more paramount. The same can be said of Chinese League of Legends Pro League teams, who seem to have rallied around captains Ming “clearlove” Kai and Cho “Mata” Seyeong.
While no one can say that LPL teams lack for infrastructure and funding in the same way as EU LCS teams, the emphasis on streaming and the money that can be gained therefrom has decreased the turnover of successful pro players to support staff. Last year, ex-EDG Manager Huang “San Shao” Cheng argued that there are fewer individuals wanting to fill “less glamorous positions” in data analysis or offstage.
All of this amounts to the same result: the ability for players to get along, synergize with one another, and agree upon an independent game plan becomes paramount. The way that Origen and Fnatic worked together, both on and off stage, has been extensively praised by commentators.
After changing only one of their members, Origen continuously complained about an inability to find alignment within their roster. While Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño Martínez didn’t shotcall, his presence on the team apparently provided something of a glue that allowed the rest of the squad to operate simply.
H2k-Gaming may have the most extensive staff, but the circumstances of their year prevented them from finding permanent synergy among their members. Konstantinos “FORG1VEN” Tzortziou abruptly rejoined the team, and H2K still have difficulty consistently applying pressure to other parts of the map. A team that had the strongest opportunity to lead strategic innovation in Europe didn’t, and the region suffered from a lack of macro leadership.
If mithy and others are right, it’s inexcusable that simple, expected roster changes could easily destabilize these teams, that a team's dynamic can be so tenuously related to success that an entire region can struggle to send experienced players to an international event. So perhaps in Europe — if these struggles encapsulate some of the region’s first week difficulties at Worlds — more emphasis can be put upon scouting and emotional support staff.
The biggest takeaway one can have, however, is that it’s best not to rush into any solution and make sweeping generalizations. If EU LCS teams have an abysmal Week 2, it’s a good idea to start asking what happened and not immediately call out an agenda. If everything remains circumstantial, it’s still possible to write 2016 off as a bad year. It’s still possible that no reactive movement will be made, and 2017 will see more European teams advance to the semifinal of the World Championship anyway. Splyce's players had their rookie year, they suffered from a hard group draw and are clearly looking to continue improving at an impressive rate, no matter whether they stick together or the team splits up for next year.
It’s naïve, however, to believe that the EU LCS won’t go through some transition before the new season. The competitive year is too tunneled onto Worlds for this Week 1, even if every EU LCS team miraculously goes undefeated in Week 2 and escapes the group stage, to go unnoticed. Whatever decisions are made for the coming season, however, I implore owners, league organizers, players, and sponsors to act critically. It’s likely the same problem didn’t plague every team. It’s likely no sweeping generalization can be made for the EU LCS’ poor initial showing.
If changes are made, it’s important to ensure they’re the right ones. The EU LCS, at the moment, is a league with limited funding driven primarily by the player element. It feels young and impulsive, not just because of the players themselves, but the age of many of the organizations. For this reason, resources are scarce and must be allocated wisely. One cannot afford to simply try everything, and even if one did, there’s a risk that “everything” can make a situation worse by failing to address the actual problem and letting it fester.
The diagnosis is important. I doubt I even came close to hitting it completely in this article. That’s a task I leave to each individual organization in the years to come. Don't be afraid of change, to take risks to improve your team; just don't tunnel vision because of a bad year — a bad week. Make pains to identify the actual problem before deciding on a solution.
And no matter how bleak the outlook, Europe's run isn't over. Here's to Week 2.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.