With the exception of the recent disappointment of Chinese teams at the 2015 World Championship, South Korea and China have consistently produced the strongest international competitors since the end of 2012. Yet, in the past year, infrastructure and the eSports culture in both regions have been heavily altered.
Both the QG Reapers and ESC Ever have slogged their way to the Intel Extreme Masters Cologne finals under very different circumstances, and both teams have risen to prominence within the last year. Seeing new teams make the finals of an international tournament for both Korea and China is a positive change, and the significance for both regions cannot be understated.
Korea and the sponsorship craving
Prior to 2015, every major Korean League of Legends organization sponsored at least two teams. The sister team formula began with MiG, a Korean organization with two squads called Frost and Blaze that would later become Azubu, and then CJ Entus. MiG found it beneficial to house two Korean teams that could constantly practice against one another without the fear of having their strategies leaked. The attractive formula spread and became the dominant structural approach in Korean League of Legends.
At the end of 2014, KeSPA and Riot Games Korea decided to limit organizations to one team. Not to mention that Champions' tournament format changed. Since its inception, Champions had always had a tournament structure from group stage to bracket stage, but starting in 2014, it shifted to a league focus with best-of-three matches to qualify for the bracket stage. Riot Korea also agreed to pay a base salary to Korean players participating in the league, much like the salary Riot pays for League of Legends Championship Series teams in North America and Europe.
The purpose of this change was allegedly to grow the Korean eSports scene by welcoming more organizations other than the major KeSPA groups to own teams. Additionally, Riot wanted to create stability for lower tier Korean teams by providing them a salary and more games to play throughout the regular season. Prior to the change, lower tier teams were eliminated from Champions after a handful of group stage matches and were often never seen again.
As a result of the changes, Whalen "Riot Magus" Rozelle, the head of Riot Games' eSports department, said earlier this year that, "Korean LoL esports is in a much more stable state than it's ever been before."
Multiple incidents in the offseason have suggested that this is not the case. Recently, all of the NaJin e-mFire players and staff have left the team, and the team's future is uncertain. Not to mention that many new teams such as the Tigers, who have changed sponsors nearly as frequently as they've changed their on-stage outfits this year, have struggled to find consistent sponsors.
Korean eSports organization talent execution has traditionally been exceptional. As a result, smaller teams like Xenics that scout new talent often lose rising stars to team's with deeper pockets over time. This has lead to stronger top teams, and new teams that are easily picked apart before they can get off the ground. Sponsors have become more hesitant to invest in new teams, leading to upstart squads scraping to get by.
A recent streaming conflict has lead to Anarchy, a newer Korean team that competed in Champions this summer, losing KeSPA support for streaming on Afreeca. Anarchy's mid laner, Son "Mickey" Youngmin, grinded to the top of the Challenger ladder and changed his name to "Please sponsor Anarchy" without fruitful results.
Ever didn't have especially strong beginnings. They placed below the Top 4 in both Spring Korean Challenger Series. Yet after a series of roster changes, they managed to place Top 2 in the Summer Korean Challenger Series, which qualified them for the 2016 LCK Spring Promotion where they had a chance to make LCK if they could eliminate last place LCK Summer team, SBENU Sonicboom.
They didn't make the cut. Ever only took one game in the best-of-five series against SBENU and found themselves back in Challenger for 2016 Spring.
For whatever reason, a new sponsor eager to get into Korean eSports, ESC, took a liking to Ever despite their failures. ESC provided funding for Ever to acquire a coaching staff and a team house, and the rejuvenated squad attended the 2015 KeSPA Cup with a newfound confidence. There, they eliminated not only CJ Entus in the final, but reigning World Champions SK Telecom T1 to qualify for Intel Extreme Masters Cologne.
At IEM Cologne, ESC Ever have already advanced past new European hopefuls, H2K Gaming, to make the final against Chinese team, QG Reapers. With QG's shaky play throughout the tournament, Ever have made themselves favorites to take the win and staple themselves into another international event, the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship in Katowice.
The significance of ESC Ever's immediate success cannot be understated. With a long history of upstart organizations crumbling under the might of experience, ESC Ever have opened new possibilities. Avid followers of Korean League of Legends are clamoring for ESC Ever to stay together through another run of Korean Challenger Series rather than once being scrapped for parts by KeSPA teams. A win at IEM on Sunday might give ESC the ammunition to stay the course.
Riot Games' initial motivation for splitting sister teams came from the assumption that more organizations would enter. So far, that hasn't been the case. A long history of experienced organizations acquiring the best players has crushed out would-be sponsors. ESC have struck gold, and should they manage to retain their team and make it into Champions next summer, they can set an example that could actually chart the course for the growth Riot optimistically sought at the end of 2014.
Fans of Korean League of Legends eSports have more than just one team to root for during the IEM Cologne finals on Dec. 20.
The Chinese malaise
While Korean teams crave sponsorship, Chinese League of Legends organizations do not have the same problem. Streaming websites have provided an abundance of sponsors willing to pay Chinese teams to import the best players to drive viewers to their platform. As a result, Chinese teams have acquired an appetite for Korean players with a long string of accomplishments, and many Koreans accepting their offers have done so for the money and not the competition.
Chinese team owners have often treated their players more as friends than employees, sometimes uninterested in enforcing strong practice behavior or strategic understanding. Large streaming salaries have only made the problem worse, as they emphasize marketing over team performance, resulting in what Team DK described as "gross overinflation" in their disbandment statement.
"The macro esports environment is becoming increasingly deformed, with streaming platforms poaching from teams to malicious competition. To put it bluntly, if you don’t bring out more and more money don’t bother continuing. As for the produced value, that’s completely irrelevant now. It’s all about pride, that is, competing to see who has more money. If it was reasonable then whatever, but the gross overinflation of prices has made this industry more and more exaggerated. It really makes us sad. With the creation of all these streaming platforms, the value ascribed to the players exploded, to an unbelievable point."
A few have speculated that the only way for this to change is for a new organization to rise with passionate players and a business-minded owner. Because of the difference in salary between the League of Legends Pro League and the League of Legends Secondary Pro League, this new team would likely have to start in the LSPL and grow from there to find success.
When QG Reapers, known as Qiao Gu at the time, separated from Stand Point Gaming, they had limited resources to contract players. Team manager, Li "LinkO" Linke prioritized players who had a dream and a sense of maturity for his team which was, at the time, sponsor-less.
Starting with AD carry Yu "TnT" Rui, Qiao Gu built a team of players that complemented each other and prioritized team work. The QG Reapers managed to qualify for the League of Legends Pro League after one spring in the LSPL and shortly thereafter raced to the top of the standings, placing second in the league overall.
After Chinese teams gave their worst performance at an international event in recent memory at both the 2015 World Championship and Intel Extreme Masters San Jose, the QG Reapers found themselves entering Intel Extreme Masters Cologne with significantly more pressure on their shoulders. To make their situation even more intense, the QG Reapers filled in for EDward Gaming, which is considered the best team in LPL for most of the year.
Unlike LGD Gaming, who lost 0-2 to a brand new Team SoloMid roster, QG struggled to get by both Team Dignitas and Fnatic in a meta that didn't favor their traditionally slower playstyle. QG Reapers were able to call on a sense of teamwork that many analysts noticed Chinese teams lacked at the World Championship.
That's not to say that QG showed significantly more potential than LGD Gaming, Invictus Gaming, or EDward Gaming. They still exhibited the same problems in executing higher level strategy and brought forward atrocious picks and bans, but unlike LGD Gaming, QG didn't come to the international stage expecting to win.
In his initial statement, LinkO said, "Thanks to all our fans for giving QG an opportunity to go overseas to compete and learn," and in a recent interview, LinkO admitted, "We’re still some distance away from our ideal condition." QG came to IEM to learn, not to win, and that's something Chinese teams will need to do much more of in the coming year.
While QG Reapers undoubtedly have their fair share of problems, they found success without signing players with more explosive names and made their climb to the top through the LSPL. The fact that they made the final of an international event, and more established teams with accomplished Koreans like LGD Gaming and Invictus Gaming didn't, is a positive sign for Chinese League of Legends. Organizations willing to notice key differences between the QG Reapers and other prominent Chinese teams may see something worth emulating in 2016.
IEM Cologne might not mean much in the grand scheme of things for spectators after China's abysmal performance at Worlds, but even if QG don't win tomorrow, it represents a positive opportunity for Chinese League of Legends. QG's success, no matter how insignificant, is a wakeup call to larger organizations. Maybe big names aren't the answer, and if organizations really want to win, they'll pay enough attention to notice.
Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter.