The League of Legends World Series, which technically “started” two weeks back with the runners-up facing off for the chance to join the finals proper, has officially kicked off this week, with teams from around the world coming together and facing off for fame, acclaim, and of course, a giant pool of money. For the past three-some seasons, Korea has been walking away as the dominant force, typically with the finalist being a best-of-five match between two Korean teams or a Korean and a Chinese team.
Now, I’m the very definition of a fair-weather eSports fan: I might like the idea in theory, but in practice, these are the only matches I watch. There are seasons full of eSports goodness that I just sort of phase out, but when it comes time for Worlds, you bet your butt I pay attention and at least keep each match open in my tabs at work. Part of it is just the prestige of the finals; it’s more “fun” watching the best in the world throw down, more so than watching regional pros compete to see who deserves the honor of the worldwide spot. But more specifically, I tune in each year to root for North America and hope and pray that finally, finally this will be the time we beat the Asian teams and claim that top spot.
As you can imagine, the past few years have been… disappointing.
The only time in League of Legends history a non-Asian team won the World finals was back in season one, when the game was very undeveloped and its professional scene less so. Back then, Korean and Chinese eSports were still far more focused on Starcraft, and League of Legends wasn’t often played in either region. That left the eastern teams without much footing, which meant the European Fanatic were able to secure that number one spot.
But starting in season two, when Riot Games was able to afford actual stadiums and draw the numbers to fill them, Asia took off. And the question some people ask, especially when this time of year rolls around, is “Why?" Why is it that most eSports, including League of Legends, seems utterly dominated by Asian teams and Asian personalities?
Thankfully, the answer isn’t just “racism”. Rather, it seems culture plays a much more essential role in crafting these champions.
For one, these are already countries that place a higher emphasis on hard work. Asking someone to sit in front of a computer and play games all day might seem like fun, but asking someone to play the same game, every single day, would get pretty damn tiring pretty fast. The Koreans and Chinese tend to have better mental fortitude for that sort of grind, leading to more rigorous training schedules. Made all the stronger by the fact that while eSports isn’t exactly known for its mainstream appeal, in those countries, where personal success and respectable careers play such a heavy role in how you’re perceived, it would be considered a huge waste to spend your time on a game and not come out as number one.
You might think that’s a bit of an exaggeration born from stereotypes, but there’s truth to it. Despite making six figures and oftentimes having huge followings of both genders, it’s fairly uncommon for eSports athletes to have significant others: largely because they act as a distraction and can worsen play. While it’s sort of frowned upon in North America, in Korea, even being too friendly with female fans can become a controversy, causing some Overwatch players to actually apologize for trying to talk to them. Granted, it later was learned one of them was trying to solicit his fans for pictures, which, you know, is gross, which lead to a ban from the league, but still. It shows how much more serious the Korean players are about this than their western kin.
Speaking of, another big reason eastern teams do so much better is that the sport is taken far more seriously in the east than in the west, from a professional standpoint. Asian teams were not only the first teams to adopt dedicated coaches (a practice that’s now common through the entire league), but their deals with sponsors allow them the freedom and the financial stability to focus all of their time and their effort on winning. In fact, their sponsorship deals depend on it.
The expectations of sponsors play a huge role in the success of the east. In the west, when you get a sponsor, you’re expected to keep some product placement at your computer, wear their logo on your jacket, and all that. But you’re also expected to have the brand visible when you stream the game, which players in the west do all the time - not only because they need to fulfill contractual obligations to show off the brand as much as possible, but also because streaming is a huge source of income for these players. And while streaming might not actively hurt your ability to compete, it’s certainly a far less efficient way to train.
So, in effect, in the west what matters is the quantity of exposure. But in the east, the quality of the exposure is what matters. They still have product placement and wear logos on their jackets, but instead of forcing players to stream, they’re concerned with making sure they win. After all, a brand sponsoring a winning team looks far better than a brand sponsoring the losers, so they are far less concerned with how much publicity their brand gets, and more that the publicity they do get is the best it can possibly be. That means having a team of winners, which means that they pay the players enough to not have to stream and instead focus all their time on becoming unbeatable juggernauts.
And on top of that, there’s a third, final reason why these Asian teams are so unstoppable: they have better competition. The two reasons listed above means that the Asian eSports leagues already produce better eSports athletes, which means that when these teams are facing off against each other, they’re facing off against better-skilled opponents than people in the west. Stronger competition helps you grow and learn and improve, and in the US and Europe, the level of competition just isn’t where it’s at in Asia. That’s why it’s so common for players to go to “training camp” in Korea, so they can face off against better opponents to help them improve their game. But while these camps can last a few days or weeks for these professional western players, in China and Korea, they experience that level of competition all the time.
Does this mean that there’s no hope for Europe, North America, or the Wildcard teams? Of course not, that’s silly, and it means it wouldn’t be worth watching. It just means that their upward climb is far steeper, and filled with more plight, especially given that this year they’ll be facing off in China, which means they won’t be surrounded by the supportive fans that oftentimes helps improve performance.
But there are other ways America and Europe can close the gap. Most cynically, they’ve taken to “importing” players from the east, stealing from that particular talent pool to bolster their own chances. Talent also plays a huge role, and a player with a natural-born talent for eSports can give someone an advantage over even the most dedicated training. The aforementioned training camps give players in the west the exposure they need to the competitive scene in the east and the dominant strategies they employ. And, perhaps most importantly, all this training can help improve your mechanical play, but in a game like League of Legends, good shot calling, team play, and coordination can oftentimes carry a game where you’re outmatched in almost every way. I think anyone who’s played the game can remember a time your team was able to kill the enemy in every team fight, yet still lost due to map rotations and objective control.
It’s only the most frustrating feeling in the goddamn world.
By the time this article goes up, we should have seen some preliminary clashes between the eastern and western teams. And while our chances still don’t look very good this time around, I can at least say that despite everything, I’ll still be watching and rooting for my favorite Western teams in the hope we finally get a chance at the prestigious summoner’s cup. And no matter who winds up at the final, you’d better believe I’ll be watching that too… if only for the spectacle around it.
I mean, they always have a big show before and after the actual matches. Season 2 had a live orchestra with some unforgettable music. The years to follow were… alright, I guess. Season 4 had Imagine Dragons, which was pretty neat. Oh and they had a giant cosplay show before Season 3’s finale, I think. That was cool. Kind of sad because they were all clearly actors and couldn’t care less about being there, but the costumes were nice.