Giant Killing: Schadenfreude and the Appeal of Watching Esports
Written by: Jon Yee
Insurmountable odds. David versus Goliath. The rich and poor divide. Quality gulfs.
A huge appeal of both sports and esports as a spectacle is predicated on the fact that upsets can, and do happen. Sure, there is a sense of strength emanating from a team absolutely crushing the competition and dominating the field, with no one on the same level, but some observers may agree that it is infinitely more interesting to watch two or more teams on even footing, as it makes the scene more unpredictable and thus, more exciting.
An extreme version of rival teams never getting the better of each other for more than a few matches is the upset. This phenomenon does not happen all that often in LoL esports, but perhaps because of that there is a curious fascination that comes with watching an unfancied team beat the odds and take down the larger, more established, and richer side.
Soccer has this narrative in spades, with the FA Cup which has a reputation of being a giant-killing competition due to its knockout format and more impressively, little-fancied Leicester City winning the English Premier League in the 2015/2016 season. The latter is a feat that will never be repeated, as a combination of factors congregated to ensure that every other top team internally blew up their own chances at success.
Leicester chugged to the finish line with a workmanlike mentality to take the title in the crucial final weeks, as others dropped points when they mattered, overawed by expectations. Leicester will not repeat their achievement because of their unique circumstances; having fought with their lives just to stay up in the top flight the season before, they were not burdened with the beliefs that comes with past success; they did not come in thinking that they had won it before, so the mood was cautiously optimistic throughout their title-winning run. Manager Claudio Ranieri refused to proclaim themselves champions until they were officially crowned.
Perhaps the most famous equivalent of Leicester’s success in League of Legends is the Taipei Assassins’ ascendancy to champions at Season 2 Worlds; one made possible by several factors coming together to produce the biggest upset on the international stage thus far: the Taiwanese and one Hong Kong-er banding together to defeat Azubu Frost, favourites to take the Summoners’ Cup. A team rated 12th out of 12 teams by ggChronicle, their achievement was nothing short of a miracle.
Original source - ggChronicle
Such an occurrence is highly unlikely to repeat itself since the emergence of SK Telecom T1 in Season 3; they have done what no other has done and created a dynasty that has led them to two World Championships and four domestic titles.
They’ve won everything there is to win, and while the squad led by Faker are for once not favourites heading into 2016 Worlds, their record has already spoken for itself. Whether they’ll take the title again for the third time is a matter of breaking the record they’ve already set.
However, ESC Ever briefly defied expectations and did what 15 others couldn’t do in Europe at Worlds 2015 just a month ago: they beat SK Telecom T1 in a best-of series during the inaugural KeSPA Cup, albeit without Faker in one of the games. If that wasn’t incongruous enough, they then went on to take the Cup and qualify for the IEM World Championship, which would not seem weird if not for the fact that they were but a mere Challenger side at the time, never having even tasted top-flight competition in their native Korea.
Worlds in 2014 was surprisingly full of such upset stories; we saw the likes of KaBuM ruining the hopes of Alliance getting out of the group stage, Star Horn Royal Club besting the favoured OMG with plain insane picks like Pantheon and Fiddlesticks, and Samsung White eliminating their sister team after spending two seasons in OGN losing to them in more than one Best of Five series.
All of these stories were more appealing to me because they were frankly unexpected. Okay, maybe SSW beating SSB wasn’t as unexpected given SSW were playing much better, but the narrative did not point to SSW being the better sister team heading into Worlds based on results.
Meanwhile, Seasons 3 and 5 Worlds were far more predictable in comparison, as SKT T1 never really looked like losing at any point, even despite their flaws.
From a technical perspective it’s exhilarating to watch a truly great team win, but the feeling of watching them fail is so abstract that there is no English word to describe it. Thankfully, the Germans have a perfect word for this occasion: schadenfreude, the joy at watching someone else suffer or experience misfortune.
Soccer fans will be intimately familiar with this word whenever they watch Manchester United lose, and to a lesser extent LoL fans from all over felt it when Phoenix1 took down TSM in the 2016 LCS Summer season. Even TSM fans had to laugh at the result.
PHOTO: LolEsports Flickr
The stage has been set for a giddy session of schadenfreude, as outside of the perennial favourites there are many teams on the periphery looking for their one shot at glory:
Will the likes of Albus Nox Luna, INTZ and Counter Logic Gaming (heh) defy expectations and get out of their respective groups when Wildcards have never done so? Can LMS representatives, ahq and Flash Wolves prove their long-standing doubters over their quality wrong and show that Taiwan can hang with the best on the world stage? Will this year be the year that TSM’s Manifest Destiny is finally achieved? Can I May, a team who were in the LSPL just a year ago and snuck into Worlds through their unorthodox playstyle upset the proverbial apple cart?
2016 Worlds has all of these questions and these stories are to me just as, if not more interesting than seeing whether favourites like ROX Tigers – huge underdogs in their own right, but with the quality of a top team – and Edward Gaming, as well as SKT T1 can handle the pressures that comes with being favourites. Those expectations may well be the downfall of giants, and while others will lament that upsets prevent the best teams from playing in the final, I’ll be the first one to pop the champagne if a plucky underdog takes down one of the favourites.
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