Last week, after Samsung crushed Cloud9 and SK Telecom T1 and the ROX Tigers each took down their Chinese opponents, I saw a variety of tweets being shared about “the gap” between Korea and the rest of the League of Legends world, mostly poking fun at the idea of anyone saying that the gap was closing. Some of these were lighthearted; some were more sincere; some were triumphant in supporting the narrative of Korea’s continued dominance.
These messages bothered me more than I expected. As a kneejerk reaction, I shared the following tweets:
It's probably worth clarifying that I'm not trying to claim the gap is "closing." But I don't think we've seen it widen.
— Tim Sevenhuysen (@TimSevenhuysen) October 16, 2016
I received a lot of different responses to these tweets. Some people agreed with me. Some… didn’t.
I welcome disagreement and discussion, and I’m not afraid of being wrong, but I realized pretty quickly that my response to this topic was becoming emotional. That made me wonder where the emotion was coming from, and why this apparently mattered to me so much.
After cooling off and doing some self-reflection, I landed on three points of explanation:
Many conversations about the gap frustrate me because they lack nuance, they are dismissive of non-Korean accomplishments, and, most importantly, they betray a defeatist attitude.
Very often, when people discuss the gap, they do so in a way that implies no need for subtleties or details. I believe the gap is a very nuanced topic, and it bothers me when the topic is heavily simplified, for example when it is discussed only in light of pure results.
This year provides an easy example: Korea has sent three teams to the semifinals, joined by Europe’s H2K. The simplified takeaway is that Korea has extended the gap, because this is the first time that has ever happened. That conclusion isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s irresponsible to arrive there by looking merely at wins and losses. In this case, you have to discuss what happened along the way, especially in the group stage. That means looking at the ROX Tigers’ underperformance in a weak group, exploring the effects of how the groups were drawn, how well their opponents performed against one another, etc.
You may still arrive at the same takeaway, or you may not. What’s important to me, though, is that we acknowledge the need for a deeper conversation. Instead, too often it appears that results alone are what influence people’s opinions. (In fairness, some of the discussions I’ve seen have taken place on Twitter, and there’s minimal space to use nuance in those conversations.)
When international events roll around, and Korean teams seem to routinely wipe out their competition (MSI 2015 and IEM 2015 excepted), it sometimes feels as if the domestic accomplishments of their opponents get swept aside as meaningless. This year, G2 Esports’ and TSM’s seasons can feel like a failure because they didn’t show up at Worlds, even though they both took home LCS championships.
Each region becomes judged by its ability to advance teams further in the tournament, or by its cumulative group stage win/loss record. When the Korean achievements are greater, that seemingly shuts down the ability of North American or European fans to compare their accomplishments to those Koreans. Instead, we’re relegated to continued comparisons between NA and EU. When the Korean comparison is implicitly out of reach, it can feel like the Korean teams aren’t even part of the same conversation: there’s Korea, and there’s everybody else, and the rest of us don’t really matter. The suggestion is that NA vs EU vs China etc. doesn’t matter, because we’re only comparing “second-tier” regions so who really cares, right?
It’s natural for domestic results to fade out of the spotlight during an international event, but it should be possible to discuss non-Korean teams without minimizing their relevance. Many people are able to do this. Some are not. The latter tend to annoy me.
Finally, when I see a fan, analyst, or other community member joke about the gap, I become frustrated easily because of the apparent lack of belief that the gap can ever be closed, or even that a Western team could ever beat a Korean team in a best-of-five.
Fans (perhaps a vocal minority of them) tend to have the worst attitude about this, and it’s made worse by the annoyances of a small subset who can’t help but be smug whenever Korea records another win.
Coaches struggle with defeatism, as well, though they naturally try to put a good face on it in the moment. Consider this quote from H2K’s head coach, Pr0lly, in an interview with Slingshot:
I think we do have a good chance against Samsung Galaxy. They’re definitely favorites, but the possibility of us winning that game is (small) — no one beats Korean teams in best-of-five games as the underdog. We have achieved the last Western team, which is really cool. But I want to beat a Korean team in a best-of-five and go to finals.
It would be helpful to dig in to this topic with Pr0lly a bit more to find out what he means by saying his team has a “good chance” in one breath, then calling the possibility of winning “small” in the next. Perhaps he’s on the same page as his jungler, Jankos, who elsewhere publicly placed H2K’s chances at 20%. How’s that for a winning attitude?
Some personal experiences have exacerbated this for me. After a different tournament, I was chatting with a member of one team’s coaching staff after a loss to a Korean team and sharing “you’ll get ’em next time” sentiments. Despite the loss, I felt that the games had been winnable, if specific mistakes were fixed. The reaction I received was incredibly disheartening, effectively boiling down to: “Screw it. We never had a chance. Korea is just too far ahead of us; we did the best we could ever have hoped to do.”
This dug very deep under my skin. The suggestion was that there was no need to try any harder or become any better, because the ceiling had been reached, and the ceiling could not be broken.
That’s not the way every team approaches the game, thank God. Think back to 2015, when CLG went into Worlds brimming with confidence and positive messaging. In one interview with PC Gamer, Darshan said this:
I realized that it was nice to win NA, but it wasn’t really my goal. 3-0ing TSM was definitely an accomplishment, but it wasn’t the accomplishment I was looking for—to win Worlds and prove that I’m the best and we’re the best. That’s what I’m shooting for, and I’m not really looking for anything less.
What kind of reaction did Darshan and CLG get to that attitude? Ridicule, mostly. And CLG flopped at Worlds that year. But carrying that attitude forward, riding that irrational confidence, CLG went on to win spring 2016, make the finals of MSI 2016 while taking a game off of SKT in the group stage, and take a game off of the ROX Tigers at Worlds 2016, shrugging off the incessant doubts of the fan community all the while. CLG did not have North America’s most talented lineup, but they over-achieved because of their hard work, their unity, and their confident mindset. Imagine what a team with that kind of internal strength could do if they paired it with a bit more raw skill!
It is fair, rationally speaking, to label Western teams as severe underdogs every time they face a Korean opponent. It may even be fair to rationally conclude that the gap has been bigger in 2016 than it was in 2015 (though I don’t think that’s the case). But what are the effects of that narrative on the competitors themselves, who see those statements and inevitably (and foolishly) internalize them?
If we, as fans, analysts, commentators, coaches, and players, continue to describe the gap as an insurmountable obstacle, if we continue to write off losses to Koreans as if we never had a chance from the start, if we continue to make lighthearted jokes about those losses on social media and deride anyone with the audacity to suggest that it’s closing, then we are doomed to repeat our failures over and over again.