Rebuilding China: the LPL format, Newbee's likely acquisition, and NESO

by theScore Staff Nov 4 2015
Thumbnail image courtesy of Riot eSports Flickr

When Chinese journalists at the World Championship approached me to ask me what has happened to the LPL teams, I knew something had gone terribly wrong.

While I’ve followed Chinese League of Legends for years, I’ve had limited contact with staff of all three World Championship attendees, so I can only speak imperfectly on internal problems. I also have only recently started learning Mandarin Chinese — a very interesting, albeit challenging language for me — which has definitely made acquiring contacts and obtaining information more difficult.

So when Chinese journalists approached me for comment in Europe during the World Championship, I didn’t understand what value I might add, but it says a lot more about the questions than my own value. There is a problem — in all likelihood, more than one. Chinese teams were expected to do well at the World Championship, not just by English speaking followers of the scene like myself, but also analysts on other continents with different perspectives. They didn’t. It’s important to try to understand what went wrong.

To this end, I do have a perspective as an outsider of some value. With several degrees of separation between myself and the problem as well a lot of time dedicated to following the Chinese League of Legends esports scene, I do have the ability to illuminate a few problems and key differences that have proven to be more important to the competitive quality of the game than anticipated.

This weekly column will focus on three facets: lending some color to challenges in Chinese esports outside the games, roster rumors, and upcoming Chinese tournament events from my perspective. Keep in mind it is exactly that — my perspective, with all the limitations and advantages it brings.

Weekly Hurdle: Tournament format

In this section, I’ll address a criticism that has been levied at the Chinese League of Legends scene: where it has value, where it’s been exaggerated, and possible solutions. I’ll start with the low-hanging fruit.

One of the common criticisms that reared its head during the World Championship addressed the format of the League of Legends Pro League. As the format stands, 24 games are played a week for 11 weeks before the playoffs occur, typically in the span of one week with the exception of the stand-alone final.

The most common version of the tournament format critique is that Chinese teams play too many games. Over the course of a single split, one LPL team will play 44 individual games in addition to Demacia Cup, which features a Round of 32 best-of-five bracket with as many as four series played each Monday, but typically these occur rarely. LPL then takes a break for Round of 8.

If an LPL team starts in Round of 32 and wins the event in five game series, that team could play as many as 69 games before Playoffs. The argument is that teams lose the value in preparing for specific opponents and focus less on making sure they win games to make up for the problem.

This argument loses value when you notice that the League of Legends Champions Korea participants also play a large amount of regular season games. As in the LPL, each LCK team plays each other LCK team twice, but the format is best-of-three. If all series end in two game sweeps, each team will play 36 games in total before the playoffs. If each series lasts three games, teams will play 54 games before the playoffs.

Most LPL teams prefer to focus on regular season LPL over Demacia Cup, especially since the Round of 32 and the Round of 16 often pits LPL teams against LSPL teams, requiring less preparation. The Round of 8 will provide more series practice outside the LPL and a break and format change from the Round of 2 that theoretically prepares teams for more arduous bracket stages. In Summer, we saw many teams experimenting with rosters during the event.

Outside of Demacia Cup, LPL and LCK teams play a comparable amount of games and a comparable amount of opponents each week. LCK teams will play 1-2 opponents each week. With the exception of some rescheduling as a result of WE’s Intel Extreme Masters travel, LPL teams also play 1-2 unique opponents a week. best-of two format provides the time for adaptation between games that a best-of-three allows, but takes into consideration the higher number of teams in LPL over LCK.

We’ve seen the occasional Master Yi or Irelia mid experimentation in the LCK that suggests that not every series is played with the same level of preparation or seriousness. In this case, it seems unlikely that the long LPL format encourages the poor practice ethic I’ve addressed in a previous article and that Lee “Spirit” Dayoon, WE’s jungler, mentioned. Rather, the increase in games somewhat compensates for poor scrim behavior by forcing teams to play a few more series. Certain teams have had a poor approach to scrims before the number of games played increased. In addition, teams like EDward Gaming have overcome some of these struggles even with the same format.

A few other criticisms of the format have more validity. LGD Gaming have suggested that they have poor experience with best-of-ones. They’ve traditionally performed better in Playoffs than regular season and split a lot of best-of-two series. If the LPL would choose to cater to the World Championship format, they might try to limit games more and play a best-of-one regular season, but I’d personally rather see the World Championship adapt.

Rather, LGD should focus more on how to win Game 1s, as there is a lot of value in the current LPL format for 2-0 successes as opposed to splits with three points granted. With the recent change of the Playoffs format rewarding higher seeding rather than incentivizing lower seeds to avoid EDward Gaming until the Final, this problem should resolve itself for next year.

Some have also suggested that best-of-twos offer no resolution or sense of “finality,” which frankly makes absolutely no sense to me. Perhaps I’m missing how this could be relevant. As mentioned, 2-0’s are incentivized over 1-1’s by the points system. Even if they weren’t, I’m not sure what “finality” could bring to the competitive level of LPL.

A more pertinent criticism addresses the abridged nature of the Playoffs formats. While I like having a best-of-five every night, I do agree that these series could be more rewarding to watch with more time separating each one. When an LPL tournament occurs, they’re often over in one week. While LCS teams will get a week to prepare for a single best-of-five, both Demacia Cup and LPL Playoffs will give a day for each stage.

In the LPL Summer 2015 Playoffs format, should a team like OMG or Master3 have wanted to win from seventh or eighth seed, they would have had to win five best-of-fives in the span of a single week. This doesn’t give teams a lot of time to practice rigorous preparation for a series and an opponent. Spreading Playoffs out over two or more weeks (with more than just the Final in Week 2), could be an interesting compromise to explore and would be the one improvement to the current LPL format that I could see making a positive impact.

Roster Rumblings

General whispers with more weight include the retirement of Zhu “NaMei” Jiawen and Yoon “Zero” Kyungsup, Tong “Koro1” Yang re-signing with EDward Gaming with a five year contract, several of EDward Gaming’s substitutes, including Shek “AmazingJ” Waiho and Kang “Baeme” Yanghyun, to AD Gaming the the purchase of another LSPL spot (the team was relegated from LSPL at the end of Summer). Nothing has yet been said about substitute Korean top laner, Jeon “Ray” Jiwon. The re-signing of Gu “imp” Seungbin to LGD Gaming has also been heavily speculated.

These speculations, though they have yet to be confirmed, are strong rumors pervading the forums as tips from the well-regarded Sunci, considered an "insider" among many fans. I’d be sad to see the retirement of NaMei and Zero, though Zero moreso. NaMei’s retirement came too early, as I still believe he was one of the greatest AD carry talents the game has ever seen, but with the exception of a strong international showing, NaMei has had an impressive career already.

It’s more disappointing for the death of the OMG NaMei rumor, as the only thing that could probably excite me about OMG again is the prospect of NaMei and Yu “cool” Jiajun working together. It’s clear that cool doesn’t mesh well with Jian “Uzi” Zihao.

Zero’s prospective retirement is far more disappointing. Zero stood out as a rising star who lost motivation in an organization with extremely poor management decisions after the departure of Li “eNo” Yande.

Koro1’s speculated return and AmazingJ’s suggested departure emphasizes the synergy between him and Ming “Clearlove” Kai and seems to signal a positive sign for his health concerns. I’m leary of the potential five year contract, but EDward Gaming would be the best organization with which to sign that kind of contract, and as with many Chinese contracts, should Koro1 become extremely unhappy, it may be negotiable.

The return of several substitutes shuffled over to EDG from their sister team would confirm my initial suspicions, which is that they were put on the flagship team to learn from increased competition. This decision caused some of EDward Gaming’s growth to stutter, but may have helped the AD Gaming players, creating an exciting LSPL storyline. I have concerns about Ray, as despite his champion pool limitations, he could likely excel on a strong team built around him. It would be a shame to see him sit on a bench again.

As to information outside the forums, Newbee’s purchase of Qiao Gu for 12 million RMB (~2.49 million USD) has been all but confirmed by several sources, but as with anything in China, it’s definitely happening until it’s definitely not. When the purchase is finalized, I’ll make a more official news post.

While Newbee brings a lot of money to the table, a concern often accompanies owners with limited League of Legends experience who want to meddle too much. Newbee has tried to make it into LoL before with failure, and The International victory in DotA 2 is often regarded as a fluke.

I actually am the most suspicious of imp’s posited return to LGD, as I’ve heard conflicting information, but I’m leaning more toward his re-signing. Even if he didn’t remain with LGD, imp is likely to stay in China. Regardless of imp’s decision, other changes are almost certain to come to LGD Gaming before the end of the offseason.

Invictus Gaming's Koreans are looking to stay in China, as in an interview, Lee "KaKAO" Byungkwon's future plans included learning Mandarin Chinese for easier communication next year. Song "RooKie" Euijin is known to already be relatively proficient in both speaking and typing the language.

Snake may make major moves with a large cash reserve and a new gaming house, but I’m very skeptical of the proposed Uzi and Cho “Mata” Sehyeon bottom lane. Uzi had confirmed arm pains, and OMG’s buyout is rather steep for him. I don’t think Mata will remain in China, though this last guess is more of a hunch based on information I’ve heard regarding his own lack of satisfaction.

Regarding EDward Gaming, though Kim “deft” Hyukkyu expressed an interest in returning to Korea, nothing has been gleaned. Even if he does return to Korea, it's after earning a sizeable sum. All the Koreans came to China for better income. Having earned that for a year, they can more or less play wherever they want comfortably. There’s no shame in it, whether players stay or go.

If deft does return to Korea, I will be happy to see him play there. If he stays in LPL, EDward Gaming remains the organization most committed to strong competition in China, and there are worse choices for wanting to try to win Worlds again next year, especially given the track record of the organization for playing around AD carries and upcoming changes on PBE.

Spirit’s nearly assured departure from WE deserves an article of its own, but it’s worth noting that WE may be one of the largest offenders of poor practice ethic and infrastructural reinforcement, and his words can only be broadly applied to an extent.

Upcoming Events: National Electronic Sports Open

There are five confirmed events so far this offseason that will involve major Chinese teams:

  • National Electronic Sports Open (November 5-8)
  • Demacia Cup Grand Final (November 21-22)
  • Intel Extreme Master San Jose (November 21-22)
  • National Electronic Sports Tournament Bracket (November 27-29)
  • Intel Extreme Masters Cologne (December 12-20)

As NESO approaches, I’ll focus primarily on the first event. NESO will be organized by the State Sports General Administration. The minimum participation age is 18, which theoretically excludes certain teams.

LPL teams participating include Invictus Gaming, WE, Hyper Youth Gaming (recently qualified via LSPL Summer), Snake, Energy Pacemaker All (recently qualified via LSPL Summer), Royal Never Give Up, and EDward Gaming. The tournament will also include LSPL and vying teams outside LSPL ready to participate in Tencent Games Arena. Qiao Gu was invited, but cannot participate due to a conflicting exhibition at Tencent Games Carnival. The recently relegated Unlimited Potential will participate.

NESO will have a best-of-one Round Robin Group Stage with a best-of-one quarterfinal and best-of-threes for semifinals and finals. Some games will be broadcast on the main stage. You can find the League of Legends main stage event schedule below in EST:

November 4 22:00: WE vs Invictus Gaming
November 5 04:00: EDward Gaming vs WE D
November 5 21:30: HERO vs Snake
November 6 03:00: WE Future vs Royal Never Give Up
November 7 04:30: Semifinals
November 8 04:00: Finals

All other games are on the League of Legends stream. You can find both streams here and the full League of Legends stream schedule here. Games begin at 10 p.m. EST on Nov. 4, 9 p.m. on the 5th and 6th, and at midnight on the 8th.

This tournament will feature some new and experimental rosters, including WE's NESO roster, which the team has confirmed. Since the tournament takes place so soon after the World Championship, it is expected that most rosters have yet to make major changes.

I am excited to see Chen "sukiM" Zhiyuan, who hasn't played competitively since 2014 Spring, but who had some promise. I reserve expectations, as he will be playing AD carry instead of mid, and he's likely so rusted he squeaks when he walks.

Teams are seeded into eight groups of three to five participants as follows. I've placed an asterisk beside teams I expect to win their groups and advance to the bracket stage.

Group A
VP Gaming
Invictus Gaming*
POP 187
Team WE
Sacrosanct Yataghan Gaming
Group B
WE Future
Royal Never Give Up*
LioN Gaming
ZeuS Gaming
Group C
Energy Pacemaker Future
Taoyuan Ty
Group D
WSWK Net God Internet Cafe
Hyper Youth Gaming*
Young Glory
Wandering AG
Group E
Beyond Club
Group F
Sun pink toot
Energy Pacemaker E*
The Guard
Group G
LGD Gaming
Big Jaws Gaming
Energy Pacemaker All*
Oh My Dream

Prediction revised to reflect LGD Gaming playing without their main lineup.

Group H
EDward Gaming*
Unlimited Potential

Kelsey Moser is a staff writer for theScore eSports. You can follow her on Twitter and check back for "Roundups" of NESO.