Welcome to Season 5, folks! Rankings have reset, the LCS is back up, and elsewhere in the world the competition's already underway. We've also learned a great deal—yet again—about the reliability and predictive value of preseason results.
That is, we've (re)learned that they are about as trustworthy as a con artist. CJ Entus undefeated in the Korean circuit? Space actually playing like a legitimate AD carry? What strange parallel dimension did we accidentally cross into with the changing of the calendar? Did we somehow slide down the wrong leg of what the great Pratchett would call the Trousers of Time? To be fair, we go into every preseason expecting the competitions therein to matter, and this isn't the first year I've had to throw out my expectations come the first few weeks of spring. It turns out that, when only money is on the line, teams feel free to screw around and experiment.
Or maybe it isn't entirely their fault. Visa issues are a chronic plague to the scene, as even back in 2012 we were having trouble getting players to international events, but the massive Korean exodus is wreaking havoc in one particular scene. Seems like half of the American lineup won't be available in the first week of the LCS, thanks to visa delays—or, in CLG's continued decline into ignobility, because their managers and players can't be bothered to keep out of trouble (or at least minimize the evidence trail). Poor Russia-based Gambit Gaming suffered many indignities in particular in the last couple years, thanks to immigration issues, though they tenaciously held onto their reputation as among the continent's best for a respectable long while.
Hopefully, it'll all work out soon enough – and, hopefully, with the knowledge that Worlds will be in Europe this year, everybody's already planning out their attack on the Schengen Area bureaucracy. Everybody including myself: I only need the visa on one passport, but with a Taiwanese-American dual citizenship with both sets of passports due to expire this year, I gotta hock up the cash and schedule appointments in a few months time if I want to get off this island at all.
And I certainly do. There's a lot happening this year, whether in or out of the game. Plenty to look forward to.
Around the world in eight months
To reiterate: Worlds is in the EU this year, and it isn't going to be restricted to any one city or region. Riot has decided to continue with the precedent set by the 2014 World Championship by taking the show on the road, with plans to visit multiple countries and play in multiple arenas. Already, the jokes are flying ("can't they just rent out Liechtenstein? All of Liechtenstein."), but that doesn't take away from the hype around their decision. The EU has been an integral part of League of Legends' five years' worth of competitive history: the innovator of what is now commonly deemed the "correct" way to play, and the home of some of its best-respected players.
Will there be a return to Paris? The French were famously welcoming the last time Riot's tour buses pulled into their storied capital. And, selfishly, I'd like an excuse to hog out on French cuisine straight from the source (though, alas, given the value of the Euro, not for any cheaper). However, the likely end-point might not be within the Schengen Area at all. There's some demands to host possibly the Grand Finals at Wembley Stadium, where the 90,000 seats would go a long ways towards securing supply commensurate to demand.
I had the privilege of attending the 2014 grand finals at Seoul's Sangam Stadium, boasting a capacity of roughly 67,000. An entire side of it was cordoned off to install the stage and platforms—I'd heard that the initial plans were to have it in the center of the stadium itself and utilize all available seats, but they were ultimately nixed due to concerns of the damage it might cause to the field. Which is a shame, since all those seats were definitely needed, as the stadium easily filled to capacity otherwise.
Note that Sangam Stadium's irregularly used for a reason: I am told that even Korea's most popular music groups find it difficult to get a large enough audience in one place to justify the expenditure. And while Riot's directors are claiming that they're not deliberately trying to one-up themselves every year (eventually, they'll simply run out of large-enough stadiums), they might nonetheless be driven to snap up world-class settings by the sheer necessity of the logistics and demand.
We'll just have to hope that China puts up more of a fight this year, as it'd be disappointing to host 90,000+ crowds for a mere three one-sided games. And nobody would feel the disappointment harder than China would if Korea wins yet again, given how heavily they've invested their efforts to strip the region dry of their best and finest.
While I'm excited for the Europe tour, and hope to swing some way to embed myself for the full run, what I'm really getting hyped about has more to do with what's coming up for the game, and what impact it will have on skills development.
I hold, maybe controversially, that the current state of League of Legends is still far short of its strategic potential. And this is across the board, whether we're discussing Korean or North American players. Due to the limitations of the tools available to us, from account level one newbie to South Korean pro player, there's a skill ceiling to reach that we're still, five years in, only dimly aware of.
The problem is in practice: solo queue encourages you to be a generalist, playing to the needs of the group and requiring you to have a minimum number of "viable" champions in every role and position. Even in Korea, where the midnight queuers will actively demand that a known pro player stick to his role, you're necessarily going to have to play off-roles about a third of the time. But while a generalist approach helps develop an overall sense of the game, it isn't without issue: you only get good at the one or two champions you designated "safe" for that role, and inevitably end up struggling when the metagame shifts away from them. See, of course, Dade circa 2013, when Season 3's assassins summer took a backseat to utility mid laners. Those whiffed Explosive Casks will haunt his nightmares forevermore.
Even at the level of professional play, this can be a problem. Much as I fanboy over AHQ E-Sports Club's Westdoor, he's known to suffer off assassins (which makes the news of the upcoming Fizz nerfs particularly saddening for his prospects). And it's not yet proven that Unicorns of Love's PowerofEvil is as stellar without Syndra (his Orianna certainly isn't). Do they practice other champions? Absolutely. But being required to practice in the current state of solo queue does them no favors in grinding out the practices and experiences needed for their specific and professional role.
Thus why I'm happy to hear that Ranked Team Builder is in development. In theory, it's the best possible bridge between the current state of ranked solo queue and actual ranked 5's team play. It still preserves the random matchups and situations of normal solo queue, which is necessary for a player to maintain their individual skill, but the ability to grind endless straight games on single champions and roles is a much better way to tease out every possible nuance out of a wider range of champions. There are no "wasted" games anymore, where a pro player's forced to practice on champions and roles he won't ever see in a LAN situation.
There is, instead, the possibility of iterative and scientific approaches to getting good. And that's exciting for the game's competitive future.
Now, if only we had native replay.