Dreamweaving: The Expansion Tournament Was a Mistake

by James Bates

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(Photo: lolesports)

The Expansion Tournament was the first major event of 2015 and marked the first major change that Riot instituted in the LCS era. Initially each major league had 8 teams in it, from China's LPL to the EU LCS. The Expansion tournament changed all of that and increased the cap of teams that could be in each league, supposedly in the interest of allowing more teams that could compete into the mix. The NA and EU LCS and LCK both added two teams to their leagues, bringing them each up to ten teams total. The LPL, due to their greater server population, added four new teams, taking the league from eight teams to the twelve teams that it now enjoys.

As the title indicates, I believe that this move was a mistake, and is the underlying cause of two major problems in the current competitive environment. Riot, in their haste to promote League of Legends as the world's premiere esport, overreached and created issues that wouldn't have been anywhere near as severe had they just done nothing. 

The first and most obvious issue is that it generates some truly awful spectator experiences, as no region has the talent pool to field ten teams that are on roughly even footing -- not even China's LPL, which has a server population higher than many of the other regions combined, can seem to fill their entire league with teams that have any chance. If there's anything that can be learned by Coast's constant trip through the rotating door between the NACS and NALCS it's that there's a very marked difference between a team that's ready to play on the big stage and one that is not, and the reality is that the bottom two teams of pretty much every region look more like challenger teams than they do professional ones. Comparing Roccat and Origen to any other team in their league is a sick joke, even the eternally anemic Giants look like tactical masterminds compared to Origen and their utter inability to win a game.

It's telling that most people who watched Origen face off against Roccat only did so in order to make fun of how tragically terrible the two teams are. The same can be said of Kongdoo Monster or the Jin Air Green Wings over in the LCK, Team Liquid and Team EnVyUs in the NA LCS, or Newbee and LGD in the LPL. Some of these teams have enough big names that they still draw some measure of attention -- Team Liquid, in particular, stands out here --but no one pulls up a VoD from one of these teams and expects a good game on any consistent basis. Meanwhile, the top 8 teams in every region are surprisingly competitive with each other. Europe, in particular, boasts a good 4 teams that can all be considered competitors for the championship, with a second tier of another four teams that can occasionally challenge the top teams while being roughly competitive with each other. H2k might struggle to take down Fnatic, but they won't even break strike when it comes to bowling over Origen.

The second major failing and, in my opinion, the more grievous one, is that the ten-team system lowers the level of competitiveness of the game on a whole. The reality is that each region can only field a very finite number of top tier players. Most players are divided into one of three tiers: the stars, the filler, and the benchwarmers. A star player such as Doublelift are the cream of the crop in the region, and are well-known by everyone as one of the top threats. Filler players are what they sound like, players that rarely will stand out, but are solid role-players that can fill in the gaps in a team and be expected to perform well, but not exceptionally, at their role. A player like Wildturtle would fit very solidly into this category, along with players like Huhi or Pobelter, neither of which was every the focus of their team's attention. Finally, the benchwarmers are players like Goldenglue, who proved to be less effective in his main role than his own ADC. These are the players that are clearly outclassed on the big stage and are usually only recruited as a speculative pickup or in a time of great distress.

Adding a ninth and tenth team ensured that each region's pool of star players was just that much more diluted, as nothing can stop a terrible team with deep pockets from buying out star players, only to let them rot at the bottom of the standings. Perhaps the most classic example of this is Incredible Miracle, or Longzhu Gaming as they are now known, who famously bought out an incredibly amount of top-tier talent at the beginning of 2016 and proceeded to make no impact whatsoever on the competitive landscape with them. Perhaps even more topically, one can point to CJ Entus as a major offender, as few can question how skilled Madlife is, and Haru has proven to be one of the best junglers in the LCK now that he has players in his solo lanes, not cardboard cutouts. Adding two more teams just added two more teams that can hold legitimately talented players hostage. Imagine how much better Doublelift looked on TSM than he does on Liquid. That's the power a simple roster move has to change how well a player performs, and adding more teams to the league just made it easier for players to end up on the wrong team. More importantly, it makes it so the right team might be robbed of the one key piece they needed to look like a good team, and so you often end up with two bad teams instead of one good and one bad, simply because the players were distributed poorly.

If the objective of the Expansion Tournament was to enhance the viewer experience, I think it's safe to say that Riot failed, and failed hard. More teams all but assures that all of the teams in the league will end up being worse, if only because it's that much harder to attract all the talent you want when there are more buyers on the market. Riot may want to look back at scaling back the size of their leagues, especially now that the bo3 format has ensured that it's all but impossible for even the most hardcore viewers to watch every game of League in a week. You'd think the fact that both LCS regions had to be split into parallel streams was a good enough indicator that something had to give, but here we are.

Should bad teams be allowed to exist? Yes. Just get them out of the premiere leagues, where they do nothing but shame the image of League of Legends' esports side.

By James Bates

A wanna-be novelist turned coach turned journalist, James is living proof that you never know where you'll end up. He's in love with narrative-heavy games, which he proves by spending his days writing about a game with less lore than Doom. His greatest regret in life is not having his name in the credits of Life is Strange, and it's galvanized him to truly pursue developing games that don't begin in packed taverns and use D20s.