In the global family of League of Legends, it's clear that the major regions -- North America, Europe, China, Taiwan and South Korea -- get the most attention and marketing from developer Riot. But the family doesn't end there. The peripheral areas for LoL esports, called the Wildcard regions -- Brazil, Latin America North, Latin America South, Japan, CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), Oceania, Turkey, and Southeast Asia -- have their own professional teams, organized seasons and representatives at prestigious events like the Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) and World Championship. However, they have collectively been the textbook middle child: the neglected one, overshadowed by its brethren.
Each year, Riot places a Wildcard team on a pedestal to showcase the ethnic diversity of the community, but that doesn't mean the team has an easier road to the big tournaments. While each major region gets a guaranteed spot, Wildcard teams not only have to conquer their own regions, they have to fight the other top teams of other Wildcard regions just to qualify for either MSI or Worlds.
The process in Wildcard team selection has been far from perfect even as competitive standards in major regions continue to improve. In both the 2015 and 2016 International Wildcard Invitationals (IWCI), which is where Wildcard teams compete to qualify for MSI, there have been many problems that major regions don't run into anymore. Both the 2015 and 2016 IWCIs showcased different problems and raised important issues. The good news is Riot is amending mistakes and get the IWCI competitive standards up to code. However, the pace of improvement and its two-steps-forward-one-step-back process leave something to be desired.
Wildcard Head Coaches Alexander "Abaxial" Haibel from INTZ and Josh "Jish" Carr-Hummerston from The Chiefs, and a player who spoke on condition of anonymity, wish to dispel some myths and discuss the real issues regarding the process of setting up the International Wildcard Invitational.
The scheduling squeeze
A major issue that popped up during the 2015 MSI was the lack of consistency in available preparation time between regions. Every region had a different length of time between the moment they qualified for MSI and the start of the tournament, ranging from five to 25 days. For Wildcard regions, this issue was even more complex. This is because qualifying teams from these regions had to first prepare for and win the IWCI tournament, another international event, before they could attend MSI.
While some Wildcard regions like Japan and Turkey had longer stretches of time to prepare for the IWCI tournament at 23 and 17 days respectively, others ranged from about a nine to 12-day preparation period. Brazil had three days, less, if you include the actual travel time and jet lag accumulated by the travel.
"We managed to do some superficial research while on the plane, but only really what champions people played, not their team playstyle, which takes a lot more time, or key players. We also didn't have much time to think about and fix our mistakes from the [Circuito Brasileiro de League of Legends] final," said Coach Abaxial of INTZ, a Brazilian League of Legends team that won a slot in the 2015 IWCI event.
Three days is not enough time to prepare for a second tournament on top of practicing and winning the finals of your own region. Even regions who had more time said that they were not properly able to prepare. Australia's The Chiefs from the Oceanic Pro League (OPL) had 12 and 11 days to prepare for the MSI qualifiers in 2015 and 2016 respectively. While this was much more generous than INTZ's three, 12 days can still be a struggle when preparing to face seven other regions' teams.
"While our end goal during our domestic split is always beyond local teams, it's hard to prepare for teams that aren't the ones stopping you from making it internationally. So we used practically all of our energy to prepare for Legacy, our opponents in the [OPL] finals, and then [had] under 10 days to travel and prepare for seven other teams, from seven other regions," says Chiefs Coach Jish.
The voices of the IWCI participants make it clear that they want more time, but most of all, the amount of time should be consistent across regions; this would make the tournament fair for all involved.
Happily, conditions are getting better. In the 2016 season, the top team of each of the five major regions and the winner of the 2016 IWCI all had 11 to 17 days to prepare for MSI itself after qualifying. This is a great change, as it gave regions the same amount of time to prepare, boot camp, and travel to an international tournament.
Some feel there is still room for improvement, however. "I feel as though there should be a little longer delay between local and international events though, because we don't necessarily get the chance to prepare and improve on our previous issues. It becomes a series of band-aids and working out any simple fixes and tricks you can properly apply in 10 days before [playing] international teams," says Jish.
It seems like a good goal would be to have a buffer of 22 to 28 days from each region's finals to the IWCI qualifier. At the same time, this ideal runs into issues of scheduling for each region's regular season. If each Wildcard region had 22 days to prepare for the IWCI, then their regular season would have to start a lot earlier. Otherwise, MSI and Worlds would need to be pushed back and it would be disruptive to the major regions.
In any case, so long as every region has the same amount of time to prepare for the IWCI, then Riot can at least ensure fairness. This year for the 2016 season, most Wildcard regions were given around two weeks except for Japan, Latin America North, and the GPL who each received six through eight days of preparation time. Clearly there has been improvement, but there is still a ways to go before this standard is universally achieved.
A tale of two cities
An important aspect for international competitions is making sure that the teams who fly out to compete have an adequate place to practice while preparing for the tournament. The general opinion was that the 2015 IWCI tournament in Istanbul had sufficiently good practice conditions while the 2016 IWCI tournament in Mexico City was far from ideal. Although Riot was responsive to the 2016 teams' concerns, it was worrying that this year's event was a step backward from 2015 in this respect.
"For IWCI 2015, they rented out a hotel basement and built temporary rooms, which worked out reasonably well. It wasn't perfect, but the chair and desk height, computers, and monitors were all fine. The rooms were also accessible 24/7 which is something you might not normally think about but was very helpful," says Abaxial.
"[In 2016,] Mexico at first was very bad, and we played in a condition at LAN cafes that I have never experienced before. Very hot, small, and dusty. Halfway through the tournament they fixed these [issues] and let us play in the Riot offices," says the anonymous IWCI player. In a reddit post from Adrian "hatchý" Widera, the Head Coach for Turkish team SuperMassive Esports, he commented on similar problems while dispelling some of the more exaggerated rumors, such as hearing gunshots in the area.
"I think the largest oversight for the practice conditions were that they weren't sustainable to use over a long period of time. The heat and fans weren't problematic when we first got there, but we were trying to put in 10+ hours each day prior to the event, which is where it started taking a toll on players/teams. The equipment in our facilities [was] completely fine, and if we had issues or concerns, like the initial 60hz monitors [whose refresh rate was too low], we could get things fixed through speaking to the cafe staff or Riot," says Jish.
The problem of hosting
The teams' practice conditions in Mexico were mitigated relatively quickly. However, given the small amount of time allotted to teams to prepare, it is a waste of two to three days for teams to have to recognize existing problems so that they can ask for a fix.
"I think Riot has definitely made large steps towards improving the conditions and events for Wildcard regions, although the expectation/standard of a premier region [like North America and Europe] isn't realistic. Outside of Brazil, no Wildcard office seems to have anywhere near the staff, resources, knowledge or ability to replicate that of the 'major leagues,'" says Jish.
If conditions and facilities are not up to par in most Wildcard regions, what's the alternative? A possibility would be hosting the IWCI tournament in one of the major regions such as NA or EU, since expert staff and good environment conditions are readily available. However, to do so would present more challenges, and not just around scheduling.
"Generally, we're always re-evaluating our process around our inter-regional events, and have considered a variety of options for IWC events," said Riot Games Communications Lead for Esports Nicola Piggot. "We don't really want to artificially place them in the NA or EU studios, given that those regions don't have any teams competing in the event, and the local fans aren't incentivized to attend without a hometown team, but we are considering a variety of other options to further develop those events."
Standing united for a better future
As of now, Riot cannot guarantee proper practice conditions for IWCI teams or standardized preparation time before IWCI. These issues are difficult to handle because of scheduling challenges with regards to when regular seasons would be held across regions, and as Jish mentioned, because only Brazil seems realistically able to meet the practice environment standards requested by coaches and players across the IWCI scene.
The good news is that Riot is explicitly investigating this issue. With some more attention to detail, there's no reason that they can't help create dramatic improvements to the infrastructure of these international events; they can work towards ensuring and building upon the more favorable conditions of the 2015 IWCI and the fairer scheduling of the 2016 IWCI for the future. Hopefully, growth can be consistent moving forward and the Wildcard regions won't feel like they are subject to second-tier competitive conditions.
Sure, the Wildcard regions aren't the premier markets for Riot's monetary investment compared to the major regions. However, having constantly prided themselves on LoL's cultural diversity across the globe -- including implementing culture-specific skins into the game -- and championing theirs as a worldwide esport, Riot needs to back those ideals with continued support for a fair competitive standard for these regions. Doing so will promote a stronger future for the whole ecosystem, not just smaller markets.