Whether fans, teams, and commentators like it or not, the World Championship is everything in League of Legends.
Success or failure will decide the fates of every team that mounts the stage in Wuhan, China, as play-in and group stages commence. With the best teams from each region attending, winning doesn't just mean personal pride, but not letting your team down or region down. For the whole year leading up to the next World Championship, winners will be exalted, losers condemned and mocked. With the new historical rating system, a loss could even mean the shrinking of a region from elite status.
For many teams, because of the history of dominance of South Korean LoL, the goal for success is merely escaping the group stage. That ultimately makes best-of-ones, the least rigorous and competitive of all formats, the single most important format in League of Legends.
With South Korea dominating for the last three years since the four group structure began, only one South Korean team has failed to escape group stage in the first position (KOO Tigers in 2015). Beyond that, a South Korean team has only lost a best-of-five to a non-South Korean team once. That means, outside the luck of the draw, the second team out may have a 33 to 100 percent chance of dropping out in the quarterfinal. As a result, making it out of groups -- just making it to the quarterfinal -- could be the peak of success to which a team aspires. It's a safe minimum goal "making it out of groups" seems feasible, it proves that you can make top 8, and you can stake some claim to the second best region.
Let's say a team can defy the odds and defeat a South Korean team in a best-of-five. None of that even matters if the shocking and sudden best-of-one group stage cannot be circumvented.
For North American and European LCS teams whose champions Team SoloMid and G2 Esports have evolved by taking advantage of the ability to adapt across series, that sounds absurd.
In 2017 Spring Split, it became almost a running joke. Team SoloMid always loses the first game of a series. Even TSM acknowledged it.
"One of the reasons that we lose the first game more often is that the assumptions I go into the first game are risky or I don't respond well to something they do that's unexpected," Team SoloMid Head Coach Parth "Parth" Naidu Anand said in an AMA, "but adaptations are usually straightforward."
G2 Esports players and coaches have expressed similar sentiments. Against the Splyce series, for example, Joey "YoungBuck" Steltenpool mentioned that G2 didn't necessarily have experience playing against the Jarvan IV-Galio combination their opponents used in the first game, but could quickly identify the issue of having a weak jungle matchup for Game 2.
Halfway through 2016, the EU and NA LCS changed from best-of-one to best-of-two and best-of-three in the regular season, respectively. That eliminated best-of-ones from every Riot Games event except the Mid Season Invitational and World Championship group stages. Of course, regular season games are the least important sets of the year in terms of overall impact on whether a team succeeds or fails. In some cases, regular season losses are even borderline encouraged for a team to work on its flaws, as arguably, EU LCS team Misfits would not have made the final this split had it not actively worked its own weaknesses onstage and lost games as a result.
This change also rewarded the ability to adapt, and G2 and Team SoloMid have become exceptional series teams to top their respective leagues. But they do so by identifying weaknesses and altering the approach. They don't come out of the gate swinging because, outside of Worlds and MSI, they haven't had to.
"Honestly, my goal is to get out of groups," G2 Esports mid laner Luka "Perkz" Perkovic said, "because if we get out of groups, I am really confident still that we can win against any team (even [South] Korean teams) if we prepare hard enough. I am really confident that, in best-of-fives, we are really, really strong."
The disconnect comes from the power of understanding strong picks early. Anyone who gets an advantage in scouting or research can find a surprising strategy or champion and dominate a game, but when teams can eliminate this advantage through bans or come up with an answer quickly, then the teams with the best overall execution triumph.
"When we played against Gravity's Ryze," Alex "Xpecial" Chu said in 2015, "that was a game where we felt like 'Well, we just lost picks and bans. If we played again, we'd ban Ryze, or we'd first pick it, and then it's just a completely different game... We could have lost to any team in picks and bans in that situation because we just didn't value Ryze as highly as they did."
In August of 2015, Gamespot conducted a poll of NA LCS players, and eight out of 10 encouraged a move to best-of series. Eugene "Pobelter" Park said he believed that it would help LCS teams improve for international events.
It feels somewhat like the opposite happened. G2 and TSM honed skills in adaptation. They have been praised for this feature, but on the contrary, that isn't what is rewarded at international events unless a western team lucks into a quarterfinal against a non-South Korean team. It's no coincidence that, historically, G2 and TSM have had some of the worst group stage performances of any western teams despite domestic success, and this can be traced back to their domestic records. TSM's best-of-one losses nearly became a meme in Spring. G2 lost Game 1s to teams like Vitality or Ninjas in Pyjamas even after it started its upward trajectory in the second half of the Summer Split.
"Honestly, my goal is to get out of groups because if we get out of groups, I am really confident still that we can win against any team (even [South] Korean teams) if we prepare hard enough. I am really confident that, in best-of-fives, we are really, really strong." G2 Esports mid laner Luka "Perkz" Perkovic
Perkz said that, just before the group stage in 2016, G2 changed its champion priorities during groups because it feared it had a poor read on the meta. Team SoloMid's drafts were heavily criticized because it didn't seem to have the right mid pool prepared for the event, and it struggled to play hyper carry AD compositions. Perhaps part of the Game 1 pains can be relieved by TSM and G2 watching Play-in before the main event and with only small tweaks on Patch 7.18, but both teams had Game On struggles in regular season even without significant patch changes.
Even World Championship finalist Samsung Galaxy struggled with best-of-ones when it first encountered them at Worlds in 2016. Captain Kang "Ambition" Chanyong advocated playing comfort picks, even if they didn't completely suit the meta.
"You can't compensate for a mistake," he told theScore esports. "A lost match is a lost match. In that sense, the best-of-one is the best to prepare for strategically, since you can surprise other teams."
The approach to best-of-ones differs from best-of-threes or best-of-fives, and when even the most insignificant domestic matches give room to adapt, it doesn't make sense that the most important games of the season for non-South Korean teams should come down to best-of-ones. While Worlds is already long, making the regular season more arduous and grueling with best-of-threes came from a push by LCS teams to make them more competitive for international events. When these events reward more of a coin flip format before even reaching quarterfinals, where the likes of G2 and TSM may have the best chances to excel, it feels like a waste.
Teams that are best at adapting are considered the best overall. But chances to prove that are instead given to teams that spend their prep time before Worlds on one-off cheese tactics, and they immediately nosedive against South Korean giants in quarterfinals.
South Korean teams excel at both, of course, so it might just feel like whining to even address the topic, but should the rest of the world ever catch up, everything gets that much more competitive. That's the point when we have to ask -- what should we reward: one good tactic or the ability to adapt and execute? At the moment, western glory only seems to come down to one of them.