In the wake of the World Championship Semifinals, where Korean teams earned back-to-back 3-0 series victories over their European challengers, an old and ugly storyline has once again reared its head. The gap between Korean teams and the rest of the world, some are saying—or at least between Korea and Europe/North America—is as big as ever.
How foolish, we’re told, to claim that the gap has ever gotten any smaller. The West is still inferior. Let’s stop pretending we’ve made any progress. Our delusions are holding us back from real change.
I comprehensively disagree.
Claiming that the gap hasn’t gotten any smaller is an insult to everything accomplished by non-Korean teams this year. There has been very real growth in the League of Legends infrastructure in Europe, North America, and Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macao. We’ve seen the introduction of formally recognized coaches, improvements in strategic play, and stronger results on the international stage.
Have we already forgotten that a North American team won the IEM World Championship? That European and Taiwanese teams stood up to Korea at the Mid-Season Invitational and played them hard and close? That there were two European Semifinalists and two Taiwanese Quarterfinalists at Worlds?
I won’t pretend the gap is gone. I don’t think anyone is pretending that. Korea is still the strongest region in the world. The best teams in Korea are stronger than the best teams in other regions, and the second-tier Korean teams are better than other regions’ second tiers. But the gap is much smaller than it once was. The best teams from Europe, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are a much closer match for Korea’s second tier than they were in the past (though we unfortunately can’t say the same for North America this year, not yet). This is a huge difference from what we’ve seen in the past.
The reality is that in 2013 and 2014, the average Korean team was vastly superior to the average Western team. Now they are just “much better”, perhaps. The gap is still real, but it has absolutely gotten smaller.
It’s entirely fair to ask why the gap has shrunk, and blame it on the Korean exodus and the death of the “sister team” structure. Korea was weaker this year than it was before. But saying the Koreans have only gotten weaker while the others have not improved is a disservice to the other regions’ accomplishments. Korean weakening and the rest of the world’s growth are not mutually exclusive.
There is a long journey still to travel for the European LCS, the LMS, and especially the North American LCS, but the road is slightly shorter than it was a year ago. We have a mountain still to climb, but we are no longer standing at its base.
The Western LoL scene is not being stunted by self-delusion. If anything, it’s being suppressed by fatalism or futilitarianism. Let’s celebrate the successes we see, not minimize them, even if there’s still a long way to go.