The Gap

A look at Western teams’ international performance in 2016

STAPLES LoL Finals 2016

Another year has passed, another League of Legends World Championship has concluded, and once again SKTelecom T1 hoists  the Summoner’s Cup. After a month’s worth of exhilarating competition, the final showdown between the now three times World Champion, SKTelecom T1, and the korean underdogs of Samsung Galaxy went far from what anyone would have expected.

Game 3 was underway in the STAPLES Center. I, like many other viewers, had written this series off. It clearly looked like SKT T1 was going to win yet another World Championship cleanly, a quick 3-0. But Samsung had other plans. They would not go down without a fight. At the 30 minute mark a fight broke out around Baron when SKT was looking to take it. SKT Bang was caught out and got chunked by SSG Ruler. SKT Wolf flashed in to try and defend Bang, but only lost his life in doing so. With Wolf dead and Bang retreating, Samsung Galaxy immediately turned their attention to SKT Faker and SKT Bengi. Faker dropped, then Bengi. SSG secured the Baron. The whole crowd went wild.  It was time for a comeback. Forty minutes later and SSG’s dreams were alive and well. The put a win on the board and their eyes on the reverse sweep.

You could say Game 4 was a slight handout for SSG. But for SKT it was a guarantee. Even if SKT Blank could not perform as desired, subbing him in allowed Bengi to take a short break and discuss tactics with SKT’s coach kkoma. SKT would have one final shot to win, with Bengi fresh off the bench.

Game 4 concluded and both Samsung Galaxy and SKTelecom T1 were one win away from taking home the Summoner’s Cup. Stakes were the highest they’ve ever been. No other World Championship final had gone to 5 games. Silver was being scraped at the STAPLES Center. SKT T1 was fighting to establish a dynasty. Samsung Galaxy was fighting to prove their worth. Both teams deserved to be there.

About 45 minutes into Game 5, Samsung’s base was in shambles and SKT T1 was pushing for the win. With three inhibitors down in SSG’s base, SKT T1 was simply too much to handle. Fireworks crackled as SKT T1 secured their thrid World Championship. Whilst one team was celebrating, the other one was walking out of the arena, crushed. However, for the first time since maybe the start of competitive League of Legends, the competition looked as grueling as ever. Maybe “The Gap” is closing.

The Gap: What does it mean?

When someone talks about “The Gap” in League of Legends, they are usually referring to the skill difference between players, teams and whole regions. Though it’s sometimes difficult to compare skill levels, ever since the LoL World Championship in 2012, asian regions, specifically Korea, have reigned supreme in the competitive scene. The only time a western team, european or north american, has won a World Championship was in 2011, attributed mostly to the fact that there were no asian teams participating.

Koreans now hold the expectations to eventually win everything, europeans have acquired fame for performing substantially well and north americans have almost never delivered when on the international stage. Big emphasis on  “almost”.

Lack of depth perception

After Counter Logic Gaming emerged victorious in the NA LCS Spring Split 2016, there were doubts surrounding how the team would perform at the Mid Season Invitational, a competition that only featured the winner of the Spring Split from the five premier regions and the winner of the International Wild Card Invitational.

Most predictions placed Korea’s SKT as an undeniable first, with China’s Royal Never Give Up as a close second. The third and fourth spot were often switched between the LMS’s Flash Wolves and EU’s G2 Esports. CLG was realistically expected to finish only above the IWCI winner Turkey’s SuperMassive.

It was until day two of the competition that people realised G2 was not playing with the same caliber as they did in the EU LCS, not being able to pick up a single game up to that point. Surprisingly, CLG was of to a decent start, only losing to RNG on day one and then, unfortunately, underestimating SuperMassive, dropping a game to them too. Overall SKT didn’t seem like the korean powerhouse their reputation hyped them up to be and RNG was looking like the best team at the tournament.

Once the group stage had concluded two very opportunistic conclusions were drawn. “NA is getting better” and “Korea is getting worse”. The Knockout stage would eventually dispose of these two statements but the reasoning behind them at the time appeared to be infallible. CLG found their success mainly due to the state of the meta and their skill as a team. Darshan thrived on flanking tanks like Poppy and Ekko, HuHi mastered champions like Aurelion Sol and Ryze, two S tier picks at the tournament, and Aphromoo dictated the ranged support meta. Even though they were able to excel in a Best-Of-One scenario during the group stage, CLG found it difficult to translate these individual highlights into game wins in Best-Of-Fives.  

At the finals, SKT took a convincing 3-0 series over CLG and claimed the MSI Winner title. As per usual with most of the Bo5s SKT plays, the first game seemed close but, after CLG opted into drafting the same composition for Game 2, SKT swiftly won the two remaining games. Everything returned to normality as Korea reclaimed their dominant status and NA was again seen as an alright region.

NA vs EU: The eternal struggle

Fast forward to the end of the Summer Split 2016 and it felt like MSI was forgotten. G2 used “vacation” as an excuse for their extremely poor performance and then went on to dominate the EU LCS again. Expectations were set high for this team as the World Championship was approaching.

On the other hand, after what some would call a spectacular performance at MSI, CLG could not find the same success they had in spring. They struggled through the regular season and eventually finished fourth, qualifying to the World Championship via championship points.

Both CLG and G2 were drawn into the same group (A) at the World Championship, which lead to predictions placing G2 higher due to their inherently better performance domestically. However, the world was shocked when Albus Nox Luna, an IWC team from the CIS took down CLG, G2 and, tournament favorites, ROX Tigers in the group stage. The glaring weakness of both western teams showed and they were not able to perform when it mattered. In the end, neither of them advanced to the knockout stage.

For G2, this meant another inexcusable disappointment on the international stage. Nevertheless they had moments where they showed that could compete against the best, having early leads against ROX Tigers. On the other hand, CLG met previously set expectations, finishing third even after showing some potential.

Following the group stage, the only western teams to advance to the knockout stage were Cloud 9 and H2K. They both had a favorable draw as they avoided SKT T1 and ROX Tigers in their quarter finals matches. Luckily for H2K, they also drew ANX as their first opponent, which guaranteed them a much easier road to semis. On the contrary, C9 was immediately matched against Samsung Galaxy, to whom the lost 3-0. Eventually SSG and H2K would face off in the semifinals, where SSG would crushingly defeat H2K.

Just like that, and like many times before, no western team would show up to the finals. The recurring speculation that whoever could avoid a korean team for the longest time would make it the furthest in an international tournament was showing to be true once again. However, in contrast to last year, the KR vs KR matches showed to be the closest and most competitive, with both series in the knockout brackets going to 5 games. A gap was definitely closing, but maybe not the one most people thought.

The “Real” Gap

The 2016 League of Legends World Championship was mostly regarded as a failure for western teams. Nevertheless, if you stop to analyse the preparations of some of these teams rather than their results, you’ll  notice that the west has taken a big step in the right direction. The gap that most notably closed this year was not a skill gap, it was a preparation gap.

North America’s Team SoloMid is a clear example of this. During the regular season they doubled down on scrims and practice, following schedules similar to those of korean teams. This adaptation to a new regime allowed TSM to dominate domestically, finishing second in the spring split and first in the summer. Even if their performance at Worlds was somewhat disappointing, they were one of the best looking north american teams in quite some time.

Moving forward, it would be great to see more teams opt into these types of practice schedules, as they will help elevate the skill cap for all regions. However, playing upwards of 12 hours a day can be incredibly demanding for pro players, and the gratification and reward for their efforts might not always be there.

“The Gap” as most people know isn’t going to close overnight. For the skill gap between regions to close, the preparation and infrastructure gap must close first. While some teams are taking steps in the right direction, the west still has a long way to go.