All Star Vacation

A review of the ASE 2017 and the venue problem

ASE 2017 Review.jpg
Image taken from the LoL Esports Photos flickr Album.

The All Star Event (ASE) is supposed to be a celebration of League esports, a once a year tournament where popular pros from all around the world face off for regional pride and glory. The first iterations of this competition had a more relaxed focus,  fun was placed over seriousness and this allowed the event to have a unique identity. However, the most recent ASE restructured the format completely in favor of a more competitive one. This change received notable backlash from the community as it altered the event’s distinctive focus. Whether the format change was really for the better is up to personal preference, but as a fan who attended the live event, it’s difficult not to point out some of the notable flaws that came with this version of the All Star Event.

With the announcement that the All Stars 2018 will return to North America for a third time and thanks to a recent Travis Talks video that portrayed the problems of small venues for big League events, I’ve set out to write a very late review of the ASE 2017 to share some of my opinions and the experience I had as a live attendee.

The timing

Riot Games isn’t a company known for announcing their esports events with a lot of time left to spare, and the 2017 All Stars wasn’t the exception. The tournament’s reveal came a few days before the start of the World Championship Group Stage on October 3rd, leaving fans with only two months to plan accordingly if they wanted to attend the live event. Furthermore, tickets when on sale a short month before the competition, on November 10th, and the event’s schedule was published mere weeks in advance.  

The tickets

Ticket sales were handled reasonably well, even if these became available very close to the event’s date. Riot used Eventbrite as their ticketing platform implementing a first come, first serve system. If you had good internet, fast fingers and free time, you were good to go. I personally didn’t have any troubles acquiring tickets for the entirety of the event. Still, they were sold out in less than 10 minutes due to limited availability. This left thousands of fans out of the event and was mostly because of the small venue size. However, when comparing this situation to more recent ticket fiascos (NA LCS Spring Finals 2018), the All Stars ticketing system was effective, efficient and easy to use.

The venue

It’s impossible to not draw a comparison between the venues chosen for the All Stars 2016 and the All Stars 2017. Two years ago, the ASE took place in the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, Spain. The 17,000 seat arena was transformed for the event and the spanish fans made it a delight to watch from home. So, when it was announced that the 2017 ASE was going to be held in the NA LCS Studio, I was sincerely disappointed and a huge red flag came up. Whether this was because Riot lacked the time or the resources to plan the event elsewhere is still unknown, but the justification they give in their LoL Esports article doesn’t go beyond saying it was easier for them to have it in the studio. While I do recognize that the NA LCS Studio has top notch infrastructure, it has a extremely limited capacity for attendees. I can’t help but feel that this decision relegates the All Star event to irrelevant tournament status, similar to Rift Rivals.

Furthermore, the venue choice and size complicated things for the fans attending. Games had to be split between the Battle Arena and the Battle Theater in order to accommodate more people. This meant that you could only watch half the games with the players on stage. In addition to that, the schedule didn’t specify which games would take place in which arena, so if fans wanted to watch a team in particular, they couldn’t know where said team was playing until after they’d already purchased their tickets. I was lucky enough attend all 4 days, so I got to see all the teams regardless if they were playing in the Arena or the Theater. But fans who could only attend a single day weren’t able to guarantee seeing their favorite team live on stage.

The format

Probably the most surprising change of all to hit the ASE was the decision to move away from silly game modes and focus solely on serious competition. This left the event with a bit of an identity crisis, as it couldn’t be expected for teams to try hard nor play at their best when they’d only been together for a couple of weeks. Furthermore, individual preparation for the event was lacking, due to the fact that  most pro players take the downtime after Worlds to vacation. In an interview with Travis Gafford, Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg explained how he prefered to visit his family and loved ones over playing Solo Queue to prepare for All Stars.

Nonetheless, the most significant problems came as a side effect to this change. First up, the Wild Card All Star Event was scrapped. No emerging regions could participate in the event unless their name was Brazil, Turkey or Southeast Asia. The choice to include these regions specifically was justified in their all time international results across multiple tournaments. However, as a Latin American player and fan, this felt like a low blow and it truly invisibilized a huge chunk of emerging regions. Their votes meant less and they wouldn’t be able to see their favorite regional pros at the tournament.

In addition to that, a group system was implemented in order to accommodate all the teams. This meant that we had no games between NA and EU, one of the iconic international clashes, as they were in different groups and neither of them advanced to the knockout stage. The group system took away a lot of featured matchups in favor of including more wildcard teams from the get go, while making the game schedule complicated and dragged out. After two days, half the teams weren’t even playing as they’d already been eliminated. If the ASE is meant to be a celebration, it’s sad to see that so few regions were invited to the party.

The All Star 1v1 was the only part from previous versions of the event to remain. Yet, the ASE 2016 in Barcelona set the bar too high, leaving this year’s iteration of the 1v1 looking unimpressive at best. This time around, All Star coaches would select two players from their respective team to participate in the tournament, which lead to the brackets being significantly smaller. Additionally, there were no over top player introductions, no crazy hairdos and no cheeky overlays. Just standard, 1v1, League of Legends.

I can’t say that the format changes to the All Stars were beneficial or necessary. It felt like Riot wanted to innovate for the sake of innovating and radically modified an event that, in my eyes, had a very special feel to it. With Worlds and MSI (and Rift Rivals to a certain extent) being serious tournaments, why not keep All Stars as the fun tournament of the year? Change can sometimes be really good, but throwing out the core of an event without any real explanation doesn’t seem the best course of action. I would’ve liked to see subtle changes done to the format to make it more enjoyable for fans and viewers alike, not a complete restructuring.

The prize pool

If the All Star Event is to remain a serious competition, which I honestly hope it doesn’t, Riot should strongly consider implementing a prize pool, or another type of incentive. I know it’s not their style to give players any sort of compensation when they participate in smaller competitions, but it’s ludicrous that after eight seasons of esports dominance, the prize pools for League events are dwarfed or nonexistent. If the ASE transformed back to being a fun event, the lack of a prize pool, while still a problem, would be mildly justified. Fire and Ice skins from previous iterations of the ASE could return as way to make the victorious team feel like their participation was meaningful.

The onsite activities

Apart from the Battle Arena/Battle Theater debacle I explained previously, the live event was handled pretty well. Riot set up 1v1 stations outside the studio where fans could play against each other while they waited for the games to start. They also handed out a couple of neat goodies every day, including collectible trading cards with information on the pros. In addition to that, fans could meet players and personalities, take pictures with them and, in some cases, 1v1 them. I had the opportunity of 1v1ing William “scarra” Li and actually beat him. Moments like these made attending the event a fantastic and one of a kind experience.

However, fans had to sometimes choose between watching the games inside the studio or participating in the activities going on outside. Also, and if you were unlucky enough, you’d never find out what was going on in the parking lot, as the meet and greets and fan 1v1s were poorly publicized. There wasn’t a lot of on site communication between fans and event organizers for these matters, which in my opinion were the most important and gratifying part of the live event.

As a final and more personal note, the food available at the NA LCS Studio, while very tasty (specially the nachos), is not diverse at all, with only a couple options for food: hots dog and nachos. It would be nice to see Riot set up a more varied menu.

Concluding thoughts

The All Star Event returned to the US after what was a superb show in Barcelona. The bar was set incredibly high after 2016 and it was very probable that the 2017 ASE would disappoint in comparison to its direct predecessor. The choice of venue didn’t do Riot any favors and while the event was not bad, I expected more. And it seems like Riot will continue the trend of having big international events in small venues. This year’s Mid Season Invitational (MSI) will take place almost completely in their EU LCS Studio in Berlin, Germany.

I get it, holding competitions in Riot’s own studios is easier, cheaper and more accessible for them. Yet, it takes a lot away from the experience that the fans and the pros will have at the event. It’s not the same when a couple hundred people are cheering for their favorite team in a venue that they’ve been to time and time again than when thousands are doing the same in a huge arena. I also don’t mean that I want every single international competition to be in a humongous venue, it’s just that laughably small venues make the tournaments feel ordinary and unimportant.

What’s more is that the changes to the ASE 2017 were completely pointless.  It never truly felt like it was a serious competition or that the absolutely best team was winning. Even the players went out and stated that they didn’t practice that much to prepare. Removing the fun and relaxed aspect of the tournament also removed the only quality that made All Stars different from other League events.

In his Travis Talks video, Travis Gafford shares his brutal thoughts on All Stars 2017:  “Again, we went back to the NA LCS Studio for All Stars for what might be the worst event Riot ever put on. They made no effort to change the arena, make it feel special. The whole thing was just kind of a bummer.”  While I did enjoy my time at the ASE 2017 as a fan, Travis definitely has a point. Whether it was because of the venue, the format or both, last year’s All Star didn’t feel special or unique as a whole. The event felt rushed and poorly thought through. With League of Legends continuing to grow as an esport, I honestly hope Riot goes back to the drawing board with All Stars and takes note of what made the event memorable in the first place, but also that they avoid making the same mistakes they made at the ASE in other international competitions.

Emerging Talent

Levi’s move to NA could be the first of many emerging region imports

Levi 2
Image taken from the LoL Esports Photos flickr Album.

At first, I was skeptical of the effectiveness of the Play In stage when it was introduced back in the Mid Season invitational (MSI) of 2017. It gave the impression of a watered down version of the International Wild Card events, that prioritized being succinct over quality competition. When comparing the Play Ins to their predecessors, they fell short in the number of games played and the amount of teams that participated in Bo5 series. Nevertheless, it then became clear that the Play Ins had a much more significant objective to fulfill, exposure.

What the IWC tournaments lacked in coverage, the Play Ins made up for tenfold. Seamlessly incorporating wild card teams into Worlds and MSI brought them before a new, broader audience. Shining the spotlight on emerging regions proved extremely rewarding for the more talented ones, in addition to causing two reactions among the LoL Esports community; the recognition of up and coming regional teams and the desire of importing  wild card players to NA and EU.

One of these players was Đỗ Duy “Levi” Khánh, who had a low-key debut on the international stage during the All Star 2016. It was until MSI 2017 that his play really started turning heads. His mastery of champions like Lee Sin and Kha’Zix left spectators in awe. As a part of GIGABYTE Marines (GAM), a team hailing from South East Asia (SEA), he was able to take North America’s Team SoloMid to five games and eventually qualify for the group stage.

As a result of their favorable performance at MSI, the GIGABYTE Marines were able to automatically qualify for the 2017 World Championship. They again showed their prowess on the international stage, coming up with innovative strategies and  trading blow for blow with their opponents. Ultimately, they failed to advance past the group stage, but unlike many teams from emerging regions, they didn’t go unnoticed. GAM established themselves and their region as a force to be reckoned with and as a true contender at international competitions.

Thanks to Levi’s popularity, not only domestically but also abroad, he was voted in to make an appearance at the 2017 All Star Event.  Once again, South East Asia proved to be the bane of NA, eliminating them from the group stage and moving forwards to the knockout stage. Levi closed out his season with yet another impressive performance and with his future as bright as ever.

After approximately a year multiple stellar performances at a plethora of tournaments, Levi finally found his way to NA and onto the academy team of 100 Thieves, one of four new organizations joining the NA LCS for the 2018 season. 100 Thieves was heavily lauded for this acquisition, even if it was, to the surprise of many, for an academy roster. Yet Levi’s move to NA wasn’t as improvable or bizarre as it seemed, it wasn’t a matter of How? or Why? but rather When?

Levi
Image taken from @100Thieves‘ Twitter.

It’s clear that as emerging regions develop and grow, their level of play and skill increases. Thanks to the introduction of the Play In stage, these more talented regions were given a chance to be recognized internationally. The GIGABYTE Marines were one of the few teams that consistently performed well during the Play Ins at MSI and they carried that momentum into Worlds. With them showing that they were on the same level as top NA teams, it was only a matter of time for North American organizations to start looking for talent beyond Korea and Europe. In some situations, importing a star player from an emerging region can be more valuable than acquiring an unproven one from KR or EU.

Furthermore, moving from an emerging region to a premier region can be incredibly beneficial for players on an individual level. Premier regions are known to have superior team and league infrastructure, better salaries, bigger audiences, and all in all give players more career safety and more opportunities for their future. The sheer influx of money coming into the NA LCS is enough to make any player want to join.

However, even though it’s unlikely, importing talent from emerging regions could become problematic if it turns into a trend. In regions where talent is scarce, the departure of multiple of their star players could mean a decline in that region’s skill, leading it’s development and growth to stagnate. Nevertheless, it could also serve as motivation for other players within the region to elevate their game and show off internationally, with the hopes of being picked up by an NA org.

The Play In stage opened a door for top teams of emerging regions to make waves at international events. Levi’s move to NA could be the first of many originating from an outstanding performance in this stage. Regardless of whether this becomes a trend or not, the acquisition of Levi shows that NA organizations are beginning to recognize the capabilities of emerging regions and are willing to invest in their players, in addition to proving the usefulness of the Play Ins.