Sports are all about storytelling, whether we’re discussing the arc of a single game, a tournament or league, or a player’s career. Both narrative and analytical sports writing involve storytelling, though from different approaches.
In the lead-up to the 2016 League of Legends World Championships, I’m keeping my eye on a lot of different storylines as they develop. Here are a few of the big angles that I, personally, find most compelling.
Legacy of the Greats
The World Championships are the playground of the world’s greatest players.
Now, there are great players, and there are great players. The main thing that sets those two groups apart is the results they achieve on the biggest stages. For example, it was hard, or at least debatable, to call Doublelift one of the best players in North America’s history before he had won any domestic titles. Now that he’s a two-time champion, it’s basically a moot point.
This is what is so compelling about players like Faker, Mata, and Clearlove, and arguably now Smeb. They don’t just play at the highest level; they win at the highest level. And when they come up against each other on the biggest stages, as Mata and Clearlove recently did in the LPL finals, we get the opportunity to tell the grandest stories about their legacies, both past and future.
There’s a very rich crop of legacies at Worlds this year, for both players and organizations. The winners of the last three World Championships are here, in the form of the SK Telecom and Samsung organizations and many of the winning players, including Faker, Bengi, Bang, Wolf, Mata, Looper, Impact, and Pawn (assuming his body allows him to play). We also have many former world finalists, including four of the five ROX Tigers starts and others like RNG’s Uzi.
Each year at Worlds, we have a chance to build more success onto the legacies of former winners and finalists, or set up another group of players to join that pantheon. Titles and trophies are the ultimate storyline, and in the end that’s what makes Worlds so special.
On the other side of that storyline, it’s always exciting to follow the first-time faces attending international events, both for the sake of learning more about young players and teams, and to follow and cheer for the continual development of the global level of play.
International events are the best way to give young players high-stakes, high-quality stage experience. They get to take the lessons they’ve learned and go home motivated and equipped to lead the way in their own regions.
This year, that applies most clearly to teams like Splyce in Europe, IMay in China, and INTZ and Albus NoX Luna for Brazil and the CIS region. It’s also relevant for individual players like TSM’s Biofrost, Cloud9’s Smoothie, Samsung’s Ruler, and ROX’s Peanut.
In the past, we’ve seen great things from Worlds newcomers like Zven, Mithy, Huni, and Reignover. We loved watching KaBuM win games they weren’t supposed to win. I’m looking forward to seeing which players and teams will be next to pull off those kinds of accomplishments.
Every year, we talk about “the gap” between South Korean LoL and the rest of the world. I’ve written about it more than once, myself. Sometimes we think the gap is shrinking; sometimes we think it’s growing. Measuring the gap and its fluctuations isn’t really the point, though; the point is that the way we perceive the gap influences our expectations and the way we spin our narratives.
I will not be disappointed or offended if Korea dominates Worlds yet again. Academically, though, I’m always eager to see more evidence of how well the rest of the world stacks up.
Some things about the current meta imply that the playing field will be evened out a bit this year. With patch 6.15+ cementing the standard lanes meta, there’s more room for individual player skill to be expressed, at least in the laning phase. Individual laning skill and mechanics are areas where the best players from other regions can match the best Koreans — think about Febiven solo killing Faker, etc. — so I’m curious whether this will affect the “gap” at all by reducing the room for teams to control the early game with pure macro play.
I suspect we’ll see some moments where, for example, Zven and Mithy will win an exciting 2v2 duel against a Korean bot lane, or a Western mid laner will earn another high-profile solo kill, but overall it’s not likely to change much. After all, at Worlds 2015 the Koreans were actually a bit less experienced and polished in their lane swapping compared to some of the best NA and EU teams, and that didn’t end up affecting many results. The teams with better overall macro and decision-making will always find ways to express those advantages, even if the game has changed a little bit to limit the obvious opportunities.
In fact, in some ways the enforcement of standard lanes gives even more advantage to teams with strong macro. You have to be more creative to find early-game macro wins in this meta, instead of just taking a lane swap and executing it better than the other guys. We’ve already seen some macro evolving with first-recall lane swaps where the duo lane goes top and gets a tower shove, and we’ve seen it both succeed and fail depending on how the other team reacts.
More of those small tweaks will likely show up over the coming weeks. Some will work; some won’t. The Korean teams may or may not be the ones leading the innovations, but history suggests that even when their adaptations come more slowly, they are usually more refined. You can surprise the best Korean teams once, or maybe twice, but by the third time around they will have your puzzle solved and can either counter you or simply out-execute you.
The Korean ability to adapt and iterate within a short time span is one of the areas where the gap can be seen most clearly. This year at Worlds, I’m hoping we see the rest of the world match that problem-solving ability. A lot of that will come down to coaching. I’m more confident in the coaching staff of the Western teams than I have ever been before, so I’m cautiously optimistic on their side, and I suspect similar things can be said for the LPL and LMS.