Exit the Dragon: On Competitive Integrity and Aurelion Sol

by theScore Staff Aug 22 2016
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot Games/lolesports / NA LCS Summer playoffs / Riot Games

"Competitive integrity" is a term that has been part of the Riot lexicon for some time, and has been used in a myriad of ways without definition. Obviously, Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street doesn’t speak for all Rioters, but I think this answer gives a good, broad overview of what the words competitive integrity mean to Riot Games.

“It means that we have a contract with players. They have expectations about game balance (both champion balance and things like matchmaking). Players understandably want for their skill (which includes mechanical clicking skills and knowledge of the game) to be the primary factor for whether they won or lost."

The reason I like this definition is because players should expect that the game they are playing will give them the opportunity to showcase their skills to the best of their abilities. When teams compete at a professional level, players should take pride in displaying their strengths in a win and recognize that they were bested when they lose. In a perfect world, in-game bugs should never disrupt a competition and skill alone should be the primary factor in why a team wins or loses.

RELATED: ​Game 1 of TSM's NA LCS semifinal match against CLG remade due to Aurelion Sol bug

However, bugs will happen. It’s the job of all parties involved to ensure that they happen as infrequently as possible and, most importantly, that they do not affect the competitive integrity of a match. Even if a remake is necessary.

In the 2016 North American League Championship Series semifinal match between Team SoloMid and Counter Logic Gaming, that contract was broken.

By extension, competitive integrity means a contract between me, a viewer, and the esport itself. When I watch a professional League of Legends match, my expectation is that I’ll watch both teams compete to the absolute best of their abilities. I carry this outlook with me into every match, regardless of how lopsided of an outcome is predicted. This expectation is what makes Cinderella stories and unpredictable upsets such rich narratives — two teams play at their best and one manages to best the other by either reaching an unforeseen level of play or creating an inventive strategy aimed at their strengths and their opponents’ weaknesses.

A bug that caused Aurelion Sol's orbs to appear in places where he wasn't, led TSM to make erroneous decisions due to misinformation. Naturally the game was paused, and eventually the draft remade with Aurelion Sol off of the table. Having watched CLG’s semifinal series against TSM, it’s difficult to imagine that keeping Aurelion Sol enabled would have affected the outcome. The fact of the matter is that TSM were the better team Sunday, regardless of Aurelion Sol's absence.

With that said, it’s also difficult to imagine that CLG hadn’t specifically prepared Aurelion Sol for this series, and by extension a situation that would potentially make TSM ban it away, ensuring a known ban and forcing TSM to make specific choices around their Champion Select strategy.

Aurelion Sol's role on CLG, specifically for much-maligned CLG mid laner Choi “Huhi” Jae-hyun, is unique in the NA LCS. Disabling Aurelion Sol isn’t even comparable to the Gragas disable that took place at the 2015 World Championship. At that time, Gragas was a high priority jungle pick — one of the 12 most popular champions prior to being disabled after a bug with his Q affected the quarterfinal series between Fnatic and Edward Gaming. His absence shifted jungle champion priority, which until then had focused on the trinity of Rek’Sai, Gragas, and Elise. Later games featured SK Telecom T1’s Bae “bengi” Seong-woong on his classic Jarvan IV, and Origen’s Maurice “Amazing” Stückenschneider on Evelynn. Most famously, the KOO Tigers’ Lee “Hojin” Ho-jin spent two games on Zac in the Tigers’ 3-0 semifinal sweep of Fnatic. But in all of these cases, teams had more time to adjust and prepare than the few minutes that were given to CLG.

Unlike Gragas, Aurelion Sol isn’t a popular champion. Introduced to the international stage by Huhi at the 2016 Mid-Season Invitational, the Star Forger was quickly forgotten by most teams with two notable exceptions: KT Rolster and CLG. In Korea, Aurelion Sol became one of mid laner Song “Fly” Yong-jun’s best champions as it allowed him to provide KT with side lane pressure and serve almost like a second jungler. His presence on Aurelion Sol and mastery of the champion often soaked up bans from KT’s opponents, allowing them to create different advantageous compositions.

When Huhi debuted Aurelion Sol at MSI, the pick seemed perfect for CLG. His waveclear allowed Huhi to push up the mid lane and roam elsewhere, affecting CLG’s side lanes and making the most of his oft-poor laning phase. Huhi hasn’t played Aurelion Sol as much as Fly, but he recently saw success with the champion in CLG's quarterfinal match against Team Liquid and was using him to apply pressure around the map prior to the Game 1 remake. While TSM mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg can certainly play Aurelion Sol, it is not a known strategy integral to TSM in the same way that it is for CLG. Aurelion Sol has a different role, importance, and relationship to each of their respective team identities. Because of this, TSM was not nearly as affected by the bug as CLG.

An ability to adapt to shifting metas and prepare a myriad of strategies for different opponents is something that is required in order to be the best. Without Aurelion Sol, CLG and Huhi didn't seem to have many options — Huhi’s Taliyah was wholly underwhelming and his Kassadin pick was questionable. This burden rests solely on CLG.

Looking at the rest of their games against TSM, top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha was even more underwhelming than Huhi despite being given resources and favorable laning matchups (not to mention that CLG found themselves quickly outclassed by TSM in the mid game). Still, this bug casts a shadow over the series, not because of the outcome, but because CLG were deprived of one of their strategies without the ability to leverage it in their favor. Had CLG managed to win — not at all a certainty given that TSM were trading fairly well in the initial Game 1 — perhaps TSM would have banned Aurelion Sol and exhausted CLG’s winning strategies. The outcome of the series wouldn’t have been affected, but we would have seen two teams at their best, trying their utmost to win the series with everything they had in their arsenal. Disabling Aurelion Sol meant that one of CLG’s important strategies — important enough that they specifically picked it in the first game — was off the table through no fault of their own, and they weren’t even able to leverage Aurelion Sol’s absence like they would have had TSM been forced to ban him.

The bug itself was a known bug that had affected Aurelion Sol since his time on the PBE prior to release. Aurelion Sol was an important part of KT Rolster’s approach to Champion Select throughout the LoL Champions Korea Summer 2016 playoffs and finals, with Fly playing the Star Forger in their Game 5 match against the ROX Tigers less than two days prior. No bugs were reported in any of KT’s games, yet a large amount of the player base was aware of the bug before it disrupted CLG's series. Bugs can be notoriously tricky to replicate, and this puts Riot in the awkward position of disabling multiple champions per patch or simply hoping that the bug will not reappear. Otherwise, they might face a Season 4 Shen situation — where the rising joke was that Shen became such a powerful ninja that he made himself disappear from the game entirely due to the lengthy amount of time he was disabled.

RELATED: Reginald on how Riot’s major patch changes hurt LoL’s competitive scene

Alternatively, Riot could have postponed the semifinals entirely and given CLG a few days to prepare an alternative strategy. Recently, Fnatic and H2K’s quarterfinal series was delayed by two days due to a persistent audio issue, but this too is not optimal. It adversely affects nearly everyone involved, including the teams, the fans, and the people who work at the venue to make these events possible. There isn’t even an analogue to traditional sports from which Riot could be advised on a potential course of action. In-game bugs are esports specific, and the frequency of patches in LoL contributes to their more frequent appearances in professional play. This is something that Riot needs to address before something similar actually affects the outcome of a competitive match.

A violation of competitive integrity isn’t always something as obvious as the high-profile matchfixing convictions across multiple iterations of StarCraft or sneaking a peek at the minimap during a pause at a World Championship. In this case, the outcome of the series wasn’t affected — TSM proved on the Rift that they were the better team and I have no doubt that they would have won regardless of whether Huhi played Aurelion Sol in Game 1 or not.

Yet, there is a palpable loss. The series that was promised — a clash between two longstanding rivals in a best-of-five series, TSM wresting the momentum back in the playoffs after CLG bested them in consecutive Grand Finals — was not played. This doesn’t create an asterisk next to TSM’s victory, but there’s an air of lingering sadness around this semifinal, that a better series could have been played, but wasn’t.

Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.