The Brackets We’ve Lost

Chris Sutphen 2021-12-10 04:23:23
  Sports and esports history is highly influenced by the magic numbers. How many titles did the team win? How many individual awards did the player get? As years go by it becomes hard to remember the great performance from the finalist that barely lost the last game of the tournament, the nerve-wracking semi-final that was arguably a better game than the Finals. In a game like League of Legends, leaving your mark in the history often comes down to winning Worlds. So, how different would our history books look with a simple change in format for the most important tournament of the year? Travel back with us through the years and reimagine LoL’s most iconic tournaments with Double Elimination Playoffs. A problematic format Consider this: your entire year, sometimes your entire career, is decided in a tournament that takes place in little more than a month. Not only that, your destiny in groups is decided through BO1 games and, if you do make it to the Knockout Stage, playoffs are single elimination BO5s. What if you draw the eventual world champion in the Quarter-Finals and give them their hardest game of the tournament? Well, you’re still only a quarter-finalist. Congrats on getting top eight, I guess.  Format changes have been asked for by fans and experts alike for nearly a decade now. Everyone wants to see a tournament have its best possible format, and this desire just grows when the tournaments that everyone wants to see are so scarce. We have two international tournaments per year and MSI has such a small pool of teams that it feels like a warm-up to Worlds. So if Riot’s only true international competition is one tournament per year, why isn’t it the one with the best format possible?  What could’ve been? A lot of changes have been suggested, and those suggestions have been repeated nearly every year. It isn’t rocket science to make a good format for a tournament, the good ones have been around long prior to League’s inception. Thankfully, Riot has finally seemed more open to these kinds of changes, and has addressed the issue publicly. John Needham, the President of Sports at Riot Games, specifically mentioned the LPL format in the following quote: “We’re very aware of the LPL format and how well it works in China. It’s something we’ll definitely consider moving forward.” Although this is still very vague wording, it is a sign that something we’ll eventually change. Since we don’t know when that change will happen, we decided to reimagine previous tournaments with the most requested format alteration: Double Elimination. The format we’re using in this article isn’t the LPL one because it just doesn’t translate to a tournament with Groups. We based ourselves on the more traditional Double Elimination format which is used, for example, in Overwatch League playoffs. It essentially adds a lower bracket to the already existing playoff format and creates a second finals. This is what it looks like:

Format Explainer

The tournaments chosen were the following: Worlds 2014, MSI 2015, Worlds 2016, Worlds 2018, Worlds 2019. The Double Elimination bracket would improve the quality of every single international tournament played, but we decided to focus on the tournaments in which we felt like impactful results would occur due to the format change. This is obviously a subjective decision since the games didn’t actually happen, but these are usually the tournaments with more debates surrounding them.    Year of the sister teams

Worlds 2014

2014 was the first Worlds with BO5s in all playoff games. It was probably the most dominant year South Korea ever had in the history of the game, with the two top teams of the region standing head and shoulders above everyone else. Those two teams even shared a name, Samsung White and Samsung Blue. The sister teams from the Org that today goes by the name Gen.G dominated their opposition and only really found a challenge when they met each other in the Semi-Finals. The winner of this game went on to comfortably win the tournament, but those who followed Champions Korea didn’t expect the 3-0 which unfolded.  Samsung Blue had White’s number throughout the season, but things had changed heading into Worlds. Their drafts became better, their early games were very dominant, and Dandy had asserted himself as the best jungle in the world by quite some distance. With that said, the desk predicted a close win, not a landslide victory. A lot of factors influenced this result, and it’s fair to assume that a rematch might’ve brought a much different game. Creating the lower bracket for this convincingly places Samsung Blue in the Finals for a rematch against White in the most important game of the tournament. I intentionally left my expected result out, because I think a second BO5 between teams that played each other so often would’ve been very unpredictable. White did look incredibly dominant during the tournament, but what could Blue have done having the first 3 drafts in mind? Would the players show up with a renewed will after clearing the lower bracket? What would SSG Blue’s Deft be today if he had won Worlds so early in his career? Would Dandy have been forgotten? We can only wonder.   Can a draft masterclass work twice?

MSI 2015

2015 is the only MSI included in the article and, coincidentally, is the first MSI ever. The tournament went down in history as the first time the Gods truly bled. As we just saw, SKT weren’t even present in Worlds 2014, but we now know that year was the exception that proves the rule. So how did EDG steal a BO5 win from the Kings before they even sat on the throne? EDG were an LPL team, but their players were more than familiar with SKT. Mid and bot lane was PawN and Deft, who had played in the Samsung sister teams who dominated the world the year prior. Faker and PawN had developed a rivalry and the newly crowned World Champion had been studying the Unkillable Demon King since 2013. The hard work had earned him a World Championship and, when game 5 of the MSI 2015 Final came around, earned him that title too.  The drafts in this series have been remembered for one crucial detail: Faker’s Leblanc. The Finals matchup placed the best two teams face to face and 5 whole games were the only way to truly gauge who was the superior roster. When it came to the game to decide it all, EDG checkmated SKT with a draft plan that was saved for the right moment. Their plan seemed to also exploit the fact that SKT was using Easyhoon instead of Faker for the beginning of most series. The Azir prodigy played the first 3 games before the Unkillable Demon King jumped into the rift.  Faker’s Leblanc had been dominating every opponent since 2013 without netting a single loss. SKT banned it for the first four games of the series, seemingly saving it for the last crucial moment. Game 5 blue side neither team bans it and SKT picks it as their third choice. PawN immediately answers with Morgana mid, a pick that no one else played. The suffocating mage paired with Evelynn’s invisibility and the sheer amount of CC coming from Maokai and Alistar made the game unplayable for Faker, no matter how good he was at the pick.  This stroke of genius in the draft was instrumental in EDG’s win, but would they’ve been able to win a rematch after already showing their cards? Alternatively, would they have shown their hand knowing that the winners' finals wasn’t the last game in the tournament? The MSI 2015 Finals had one of the most interesting games to watch between two great teams, both in and outside the rift with so much shadow-boxing during the drafts. A rematch between these two titans would’ve been a joy to behold and, who knows, it might’ve added yet another trophy to SKT’s cabinet.  The revenge of the Tigers

Worlds 2016

2016 was an interesting year for Lol Esports. We were deep into the era of uncontested South Korean dominance and SKT were solidifying their status as the best organisation ever. Faker was back to playing every game and the only substitutions that would happen were between the two junglers: Bengi and Blank. The team convincingly won MSI 2016 but their reign in the LCK was hard fought. SKT didn’t win either of the regular splits and got surpassed by two different squads. KT beat them directly in the Summer Playoffs and Rox Tigers, who never managed to win a BO5 vs SKT managed to win both regular splits.  SKT were still the overwhelming favourites to win the tournament when Worlds came around, but the competition was fierce. KT didn’t manage to reach the biggest stage but Samsung Galaxy did — with a very similar roster to the one who became the 2017 Worlds Champions— and the LPL brought the previous MSI champions in EDG and a stacked RNG lineup (Xiaou, Uzi, Mata).  The playoff draw gave Samsung a highway to the finals and SKT the Trial by Fire. Faker and co took down RNG while ROX took care of EDG. With the second strongest region out of the tournament, it was time for the best of the LCK to fight for their own lives.  ROX have lived on to become a sort of Fairy Tale story without the happy ending. The much weaker roster on paper, the almost non-existent funding in the org against the best player of all time in the biggest South Korean organisation. We know now that in the end, the Goliath won anyways, but would a lower bracket have brought the Fairy Tale ending? SKT were pushed to 5 games against Rox and yet again versus Samsung. The extra information and the crucial experience of fighting the SKT lineup in a BO5 — which Rox hadn’t done in the playoffs due to KT being the ones eliminating Faker and co— might’ve been enough to push Rox over the edge and give David the win in the grand finals. Regardless of the result, we would’ve gotten a rematch of one of the best series in LoL’s history, so for the audience it would’ve always been a win.  The real final

Worlds 2018

Worlds 2018 is by far the best argument anyone can use in favour of double elimination. It was a crucial turning point in LoL esports history but the tournament itself ended up being incredibly mediocre due to the brackets. After Samsung toppled SKT in Worlds 2017 it felt like the South Korean dominance was wavering. The infamous “gap” seemed to be closing between the LCK and every other region, and LPL was more than ready to pounce.  Gen.G, the reigning World Champions got eliminated during the Group Stage, leaving the LCK with only two representatives heading into the playoffs, which were effectively decided through BO1 tiebreakers. Consider this, if iG had won their tiebreaker versus Fnatic (which was the expected result) KT would’ve been placed in the opposite side of the bracket, leading to a much better tournament overall. Alas, it wasn’t in the cards and what we ended up with was the downside of the format and of upset wins. C9 swept Afreeca, G2 (the Hjarnan/Wadid roster) took down RNG and we ended up with 3-0 sweeps for the rest of the tournament. The Summoner’s Cup winner ended up being decided in the last Quarterfinal matchup: iG vs KT.  iG did look unbeatable in 2018. The ridiculous playstyle accompanied by their entire roster seemingly hitting their all time peaks was something to which no one had an answer, except KT. The legendary organisation had one of the most experienced super-teams one could build in 2018, and their much more controlled style seemed like the only one able to handle iG’s aggression and individual ability. KT pushed iG to their absolute limits in a very close 5 game series but in the end, it wasn’t enough. A massive play from Jackeylove decided the game and the entire tournament in a matter of seconds. Ucal had a very underwhelming game on Urgot mid and Deft was pretty much invisible.  Perhaps the story would’ve been the same in the end with KT going through the entire lower bracket, but I think the fact that these teams met in such an early stage in the tournament gave iG an advantage that they wouldn’t have had in a finals. Rookie was already a veteran player, but every other member in the roster was playing their first international tournament. They lacked precisely what KT had in spades: experience.  The pressure that a Finals brings and the memory of how close the first series between the two had been might’ve been enough to give KT the necessary edge to turn a Game 5 loss into a win. iG were at such a peak that they might still have won, likely with Rookie dominating Ucal, but KT might’ve changed the course of history.  The G2 Grand Slam

Worlds 2019

Lol Esports in 2019 was a landscape nearly unrecognisable from previous years. The LPL had a team dominating Worlds 2018 and the MSI 2019 Finals were played between two western teams. The more time passes, the more it feels like G2 2019 was the West’s only chance at a Summoner’s Cup. The Super Team was already considered the best team the west had ever seen, but today, with two extra years of history gone by, it does seem that what G2 created will never be achieved again.  This bracket was another weird one. Although the games were much more competitive than the previous Worlds, FPX had a much easier bracket than G2 did. The eventual World Champions faced FNC and iG, reaching the finals without ever facing an LCK team. On the other side, G2 had to defeat the two top LCK seeds back to back. Their comfortable trek through the hardest side of the bracket had them as the favourites to take the entire tournament. This thought alone was inconceivable to any fan who had been watching the game for a few years, yet it was true. G2 were the favourites, but we know what happened in the finals. The team seemed to crumble in the Finals while FPX came into the series with a clear plan which worked wonderfully. Regardless of how well FPX prepared for the Finals, G2 had been playing too well before it to have such a disappointing end to their run. The pressure of being in a Worlds Finals while being the favourites likely got to the team and was a key component in their loss. This might’ve happened too in a second Grand Finals, but the tournament would’ve been better nonetheless.  The lower bracket would’ve given us a true chance to gauge regional strength with more matches between the LPL and the LCK, and would provide G2 with a second chance to prove their worth. If they had indeed crumbled by that stage of the tournament, a better prepared team would’ve gone through to put FPX to the test. Possibly, the fact that their matchup versus FPX wouldn’t have been the true grand final might’ve changed G2’s composure heading into it and, consequently, changed the entire course of Worlds 2019.  Branching Points Every League of Legends World Championship has been a branching point in the game’s esports history. The road might’ve been heading right for the entire year, if it takes a left turn when the Summoner’s Cup comes into play, no one remembers the path that came before it. The optimist in me hopes that Riot will begin making improvements to the Format and get it to the best possible point it can reach, because these branching points need to be crafted with as much precision as a railway switch.  This voyage we made through the many alternate dimensions created by these points of no return was just a peek at the reality that awaits us if Riot finally begins improving Worlds. Games, especially in such a big stage, are decided by much more than just pure skill from the teams, so results can vary from expectations, even if you craft the theoretical perfect format. In any case, the better the format is, the more likely it is that the best team will win.  The World Championship is the most prestigious tournament for the biggest esports on the planet. It should be the hardest, most exciting competition of the year and, most importantly, winning it should never come with caveats. “What if they’d been on the other side of the bracket? Would they have performed better if they hadn’t faced a team from their own regions?”. Leave no questions unanswered. The team who grabs the Summoner’s Cup has to be the best team who stepped onto that stage.  So, Riot, where are we headed from this branching point? Are we rising to a new level of League of Legends, or will we forever remain plagued by questions which this format never answers? Your choice. 
  If you enjoyed this piece, follow the author on Twitter at @Kaaaosh. Check out our LoL section for more coverage. Feature image courtesy of Riot Games. Tournament brackets made in BracketHQ.

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