International tournaments in League of Legends have lacked a very crucial part of their experience for nearly three years now: an audience. DAMWON Kia rose to prominence with no crowds watching them. RNG toppled them in a close 5 game series inside an empty arena in Reykjavik. Edward Gaming upset them and hoisted the Summoner’s Cup in the exact same place, with the exact same lack of a crowd. MSI 2022 will finally change that, bringing back crowds and doing it in the perfect country for this kind of occasion, South Korea.
The tournament carries a lot more prestige with it than any pre-COVID MSI did, so why does it seem like Riot couldn’t care less about it?
The First Problem
As was expected by most, Riot’s comments regarding their atrocious Worlds format were just PR talk. This MSI was the perfect opportunity to experiment with changes. It isn’t a tournament as big and important as Worlds, it features a lot less teams and they could even spin it with an ushering in of a new era. “Fans are back and the format has undergone a major transformation.”
They went over the format in their MSI Take Notes article, and it is identical to MSI 2021. The Groups have already been drawn and, as you can see, the field of teams is so shallow that the only interesting matchup is EU vs NA with G2 facing Evil Geniuses. But don’t get too excited, they’re only playing Double Round Robin BO1, we won’t get a series until the month of May is almost over.
The Rumble stage, which will now take place between the 20th and 24th of May will at least provide us with the matchups people actually want to watch, but only through BO1s. After this stage is done, we finally get to the good part of the tournament with the Knockout Stage, but no Double Elimination means that we will only see a maximum of two BO5s played by the best teams in attendance. But wait, it gets worse.
The Lan versus Studio Lan argument
International tournaments have had a considerable “what if” attached to them ever since Worlds 2019. Esports has always made the distinction between online and LAN play. Games like CSGO, which had online tournaments with top tier teams even before COVID, show that a lot of teams and specific players show a difference in their performance when playing Online or Offline. But things changed when 2020 came around. Offline, or LAN, had a change in its meaning. Playing in a gigantic arena with a crowd so loud that you feel the ground trembling isn’t the same as playing in an empty studio. It isn’t as comfortable as playing from your own bedroom or team house, but it isn’t the true LAN experience.
This pseudo-lan environment is what has been used in International LoL tournaments for the past two years, and it’s safe to assume that it has had at least a bit of influence in the results we witnessed. To give you a Counter Strike example, Heroic, a top 5 team in the World, has consistently shown a considerable dip in performance between studio lan and stadium lan (with crowds) events. Other teams, like Faze, seem to have a boost in performance when playing in front of fans. Could DAMWON, with their roster of very young players, dominate Worlds 2020 like they did if they were playing in a stadium filled with people cheering for their favorite teams? How much more noticeable would the pressure be?
We’ll never know the answer to such a question, but MSI 2022 has rid us of the need to ask it all. So, no asterisks right? Wrong.
Due to a clash in schedule between MSI and the Asian Games qualifiers, the LPL representatives couldn’t attend the international tournament in person. The quarantine they’d have to undergo after returning to China would apparently prevent them from playing the qualifiers. As we all know, China is quite an important component of LoL Esports. They have been the strongest region in the game for a few years now, and they have the majority of the money and audience, by a very considerable margin.
Many would consider the tournament almost irrelevant if RNG didn’t attend, so it is understandable that Riot would find a way to include them. And they did, except they managed to negatively impact every other team attending MSI simultaneously.
The Second Problem
As mentioned previously, there is quite a clear difference between playing a Stadium or Studio Lan. There is an even bigger gap between a Lan or an Online tournament. So, allowing RNG to play the tournament from their team facility or LPL Arena, two environments with which they are very familiar, is already an advantage. This brings with it a disadvantage though: ping. Yet, this would be the most sensible middle ground. Everyone can attend the tournament, but the LPL representative plays with a unique advantage and disadvantage.
Riot disagreed. As they’ve announced in one of their latest updates, the decision that was made was to artificially apply a ping of 35ms to every single game played. Yes, that includes games in which RNG isn’t playing. To put this into perspective, MSI 2022 presents itself as a return to normalcy, the first real international tournament in almost three years, and it is played with 5 times the average South Korean Solo Queue ping.
Consider this: the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament is Faker’s T1. Even LPL experts agree with this, as Dagda himself pointed out during the last Summoning Insight podcast. Not only does the LCK representative come into the tournament with the innate disadvantage of never playing BO1 games, and having to play exactly those for 90% of MSI, now those players will have to adapt to an in-game environment in which they literally never play.
Chinese players often play on the South Korean server with a ping around the number chosen by Riot, European and North American players are used to 40+ ping during their solo queue, but South Korean players practice on a server with a fixed 7 to 9ms ping. They have played their whole lives under these circumstances, they’ve learned and mastered their champions in that environment and are now forced to play an international tournament in this completely alien situation through no fault of their own.
This situation is completely unjustifiable and will place an asterisk on the tournament bigger than the one that was put on last years’ International competitions. Not to mention the ridiculous proposition of having, for example, G2 face T1 in the Finals, with both teams playing inside the Bexco Exhibition Hall 1 in Busan in front of a live crowd, except the game has the same ping the Mid Season Cup 2020 games did — a tournament Riot gives as a previous example for this decision, except it was an online cup in which teams were playing from their own countries.
The Third Problem
(PS: Montecristo went over this issue with Thorin better than anyone else could, so go watch the latest Summoning Insight episode if you want a deeper dive into the Asian Games specifically)
The competitive integrity and overall quality of a crucial international tournament is being put on the line, and for what? The Asian Games. A sort of Olympic Games only for Asian countries, which includes a lot of esports titles and is considered quite important by Asian LoL players, especially South Korean ones.
As most of you know, South Korean players have an effective timer on their careers. Somewhere in their twenties they have to stop playing video games professionally and do their military service, which lasts for at least 18 months. Most players retire before serving their time because they know that one and a half year away from competition is too much.
The Asian Games matter to the players due to national pride, yes, but also because they become exempt from this mandatory service if they win the gold medal. So, a player like Faker, who turns 26 on the 7th of May, can play for as long as he wants without the “career timer” looming over his head. This is, understandably, a very important opportunity for these players, and the region as a whole, but it is still just an if.
This exemption only applies if the team wins the Gold medal, so the entire international year of League of Legends is being put on the sideline for a possible major victory for 6 players (the national team can field a substitute). Adding to the ridiculousness of the situation, the COVID crisis might prevent the Asian Games from even happening in September. Reuters posted an article this past week saying that the OCA is confident the games will go ahead during that month, but there still seem to be doubts looming around it.
The waste of a golden opportunity
This MSI should’ve been a slam dunk. Don’t get me wrong, it might still be a great tournament with amazing games, but it still won’t be what it should have been. This was meant to be the glorious return to a true lan setting, hosted by the most revered country in esports and with a gold mine of narratives surrounding it. G2 surpassed every expectations and are back in the competition they won in 2019 (as the only western team to ever do it); RNG won some incredibly close series and are making their return as the defending MSI Champions; Faker is back with the most exciting team he’s had in years, with an undefeated record of 20-0 in series.
Those exciting points still stand, but the massive asterisk looming over all of them just creates a “what if” that could have easily been avoided. In addition to the ever-present qualms regarding Riot’s approach to formats in their international tournaments, this just feels like a waste of a golden opportunity.
The teams deserve better. The players deserve better. The game deserves better.
If you enjoyed this piece, follow the author on Twitter at @Kaaaosh.
Images courtesy of Riot Games, Leaguepedia and Asian Games Hangzhou 2022.
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