5 Reasons Why the League of Legends 2017 World Championships Changes Better Achieve "Competitive Balance"

Last Tuesday, Riot hosted and livestreamed the 2017 Worlds Group Draw Pulls for its monstrously popular video game League of Legends to fill in the tournament bracket and see who will be playing who in China from September 24 to November 4. The League Championship Series (LCS) is comprised of 13 regions - based geographically - so that teams from all regions compete in Worlds across the stages. Here are the LCS regions:

  1. Brazil (BR)
  2. China (CN)
  3. Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)
  4. Europe (EU)
  5. Japan (JPN)
  6. Korea (KR)
  7. Latin America - North (LAN)
  8. Latin America - South (LAS)
  9. North America (NA)
  10. Oceana (OCE)
  11. Southeast Asia (SEA)
  12. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau (LMS)
  13. Turkey (TUR)

This season's draw results show was a little different, though, because Riot changed the overall structure of tournament play and added a whole new stage to the picture - the Play-In Group Stage. This change, among others described below, will most definitely affect competitive balance in the LCS and will likely increase the prospect of attaining that competitive sweet spot that makes actors on all sides happy. Moreover, I believe it is for the betterment of the game!

POP QUIZ: How do you define "competitive balance"?

  • (a) By how many teams won a title
  • (b) By how many teams reached a certain advance stage in the season or post-season
  • (c) By how many teams have a winning season, i.e., a winning record of .500+
  • (d) By how closely teams finish with a record around .500
  • (e) By how much correlation teams have year-to-year
  • (f) By the chance each team has to win each of its games
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ANSWER: There is no correct answer! "Competitive balance" theories essentially revolve around the idea that the optimum (i.e., "perfect") game involves a kind of symbiotic contest between equal opponents. Measuring it itself is outright difficult, though there are some really cool math and econometric equations to explain what factors you can use to measure competitive balance and to what degree!

So, under many definitions, a team like the Detroit Pistons would have the same chance to win as the Golden State Warriors with a pure (i.e., 100%) competitive balance ideal model. Yes, I can hear you chuckling. We know this is not true in reality, and we also can acknowledge that whether you love the Warriors or paint these Super Teams as villains, it is fun to have different story lines and dynamics sometimes. Maybe when talking about competitive balance, then, it is best to strive for something that is less than pure competitive balance that also gives higher priority to profit-maximization and fan preference to some extent. Does that sound not only more reasonable but also more accurate?

So, pick your poison. I would love to elaborate on this more in conversations outside of my blog - hit me up on Twitter if you want to chat about this! Seriously. Anyway, regardless of how you define the idea, here are five (5) reasons why 2017 Worlds achieves what we regard as better competitive balance than previous World Championships:

1. By expanding the number of qualifying teams from 16 to 24, competitive balance is better achieved because increasing the number of players that can advance gives the expanding population of talent worldwide an opportunity to play AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL.

In theory, when the underlying population of talent is larger, wins have a better shot at being more evenly distributed, and right now in the world of League of Legends, the population pool is the largest its ever been, and the professional players are stronger than they have ever been. The Korean teams have been undeniably dominant since the beginning. Many would say that the EU, NA, and LMS teams are gaining some momentum largely because the game is growing in popularity not simply as a game but as a profession for young adults. The teams pull members from that expanding talent population because the professional gaming net can be cast into a larger pool of potential pros. When that talent has a higher likelihood of playing other talent internationally as a lower seed in Worlds that it may not have had otherwise in Worlds, the teams are going to be in similar positions (e.g., lack of experience playing each other directly) and that much better at the video game itself. The variables start to favor a particular side less and less, and teams will increasingly know what to expect and learn to combat that unfamiliarity more effectively when they have a greater chance to play these other teams.

2. Since a Play-In Format makes lower seeds compete against each other before advancing to the next stage where the highest seeds await them, competitive balance is better achieved because every match in Worlds is more likely to have equal opponents.

 Source: http://www.lolesports.com/en_US/articles/worlds-2017-procedural-guide-group-draw

Source: http://www.lolesports.com/en_US/articles/worlds-2017-procedural-guide-group-draw

 Source: http://www.lolesports.com/en_US/articles/2017-world-championship-update

Source: http://www.lolesports.com/en_US/articles/2017-world-championship-update

During the Play-In Stage, the lower qualifying seeds face off against each other & are separated into groups so that a team from each reason faces off against another team from a different region in both Rounds 1 and 2. They are on the same page as going in blind in the Draw, they are all fighting for survival, and they are all more evenly matched, in theory. Even if one region's lower seed may be just as strong as another's first seed, that strong team will probably survive the two rounds and make it into one of the four open positions in the Group Stage as it deserves to be there as being "one of the best." The "better" second and third seeds will face off against the first seeds and the KOR teams, creating a more balanced board with higher stakes all the way through and a more balanced competition to excite fans, participants, and the like.

3. Giving the Korean qualifiers an automatic bid into the Worlds Group Stage, competitive balance is better achieved because it rewards a region for its blatant dedication and success in the sport.

If Riot did it once after seven years, maybe it would give a similar reward to another region or have it rotate between particularly strong regions in the future, too? Riot announced that LMS is receiving a third seed qualifier this year for a similar reason as well. LMS began as a division from GPL when the region divided into two and as a "consistently strong region," Riot believes it deserves the same number of seeds as CN, EU, KOR, and NA. Give them the opportunity, reward those who grow quickly, they will learn, they will grow, and the product will see long-term growth and better competition.

4. By seeding based on previous results of the past two years (rather than the past one year) focuses on longevity and places greater emphasis on events throughout each season, competitive balance is better achieved because a larger sample size should be able to produce more accurate seeding.

2016 Worlds was the first time the Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) impacted Worlds seeding, and 2017 Worlds is carrying on the idea in a slightly different manner. Seeding this year was based on the previous two years of MSI and Worlds, which makes the entire span of matches have more significance relative to the old seeding base that focused on matches right before Worlds. Teams will continue to put their best feet forward throughout the seasons & not choose to merely focus on those few competitions that conclude the regular season at the end of each season. The larger sample size of two years instead of one - especially steering away focus from the final season matches to distribute value more evenly and more widespread - minimizes variance in competitive results because it rewards the teams who do win spring and summer splits while also rewarding teams who may have one bad tournament but are unquestionably deserving of a high seed based on consistency (e.g., this year in the NA LCS, TSM and Immortals earned the highest two seeds while Cloud9, which was the only NA team to make it out of the Group Stage in 2016 Worlds, won the NA LCS Regional Qualifier and managed to sneak into 2017 Worlds as the third seed).

5. Tweaking the actual game software to fine tune gameplay at Worlds and beyond better achieves competitive balance because slightly altering numerous champions (i.e., characters in the game) diversifies the playing field, brings the obnoxiously strong champions back down to Earth, and adds a bit more power to the champions who are almost in the desired sweet spot.

As a tech game, League of Legends naturally has to keep its software up-to-date and quickly make changes to improve gameplay quality and interest. Each update is called a "patch" because, well, it does exactly that - it patches up spots in the code to update the characters and features without substantially changing the overall product. Sometimes the changes are minor while other times the changes result in complete strategy gamechangers. Champions tend to go though fads depending on the position in which they are best suited to perform, the skills available in an update, and the popularity based on professional gamers' comfort or, alternatively, crystal clear abstinence. One thing is for certain - updates are intended to shake up the balance to place participants in a more competitive position.

This year, Worlds will be played on Patch 7.18, which just became available last week pretty much in tandem with the Worlds Draw. Tristana is one example of a champion who got some major adjustments. Why? She was fabulously dominant in gameplay and had a 20% play rate! So, Riot's software people got on that and took her abilities that everyone liked down a notch to make other champions be able to stand a chance against her power. This constant revision, especially before the professionals get into the nitty gritty international postseason play, keeps every player on their toes, gives gameplay a breath of fresh air, and tends to sweep away some of the outliers that may influence competitive balance one way or the other so that it settles around that somewhere-just-less-than-perfect spot that I believe is truly ideal. Maybe you believe it now as well!