When Riot Games announced the League Championship Series in 2012, bringing a fully professional league run by the company to North America and Europe, amongst the many other decisions made one that probably did not attract much attention at the time: the regular season would be made up of single-game best-of-one series, like every major sport in the United States.
That turned out to be very much not the norm in competitive League of Legends. Korea’s first major domestic league, Azubu The Champions, was also launched in 2012, but it did so with best-of-threes in the schedule. Every major league around the world since has operated under either a best-of-two or best-of-three regular season format.
The fallout from the LCS’s best-of-one format was massive.
North America remains the only major region to have never made a Worlds final. Europe hasn’t made it since Season 1, before South Korea and China really took to the game. And while there are many reasons that go into the gap between East and West in League of Legends (the difference in gaming culture being probably the most crucial), it’s hard to ignore the initial decision to play single-game series in the regular season and how it affected Western teams’ eventual preparation for international play.
The less games in a series, the more likely you’ll get a flukey result.
This may not sound so intuitive, but it’s actually pretty simple. The more games in a series, the more likely the winner is the better team. It’s just like when flipping a coin: the more you flip it, the more likely it is you’ll get back to a 50/50 ratio. It’s significantly easier for a team to grab an upset in one game rather than having to win two out of three against a better squad.
An excellent example this season is Echo Fox. While the team has had some high moments, it has undoubtedly performed as one of the bottom two or three teams in the region and sits in last place with a 1-11 record. But if North America was still using a best-of-one format, Echo Fox would be in the middle of the table with a 5-7 record and the league’s only win against Team SoloMid (h/t Reddit).
Best-of-ones also hurt performance in playoffs and international play.
For pro players in North America and Europe, “game day” just meant “one game, one day.” But once playoffs or the knockout stages in international play showed up, requiring players to play four or five games a day, fatigue would often enter the equation and clearly play a factor.
These problems reared their head in perhaps the most significant way yet over the past year, when 1) North America went 6-12 at Worlds, losing all three teams in the group stages after an 0-10 finish to the tournament and 2) Immortals, the strong favorite in the NA LCS Spring playoffs after a 17-1 regular season record, looked utterly hopeless in its first ever multiple-game series as a team, swept by sixth-seed TSM in the semifinals.
And while things worked out better for Europe at Worlds, sending two teams to the semifinals, both ended up swept by their Korean opponents.
The solution? A change in format before the Summer Split.
Riot held two meetings with pro players that led to the change: a conference in the summer and a panel with one representative per team right before Worlds.
“From those two meetings that we had from the pros and kind of gauging community sentiment, it was pretty clear that we were outgrowing that format,” Riot Games esports manager and NA LCS lead Bear Schmiedicker told Rift Herald. “Also, best-of-ones were just a poor format to determine who the best teams were in the regular season.”
Riot announced the moves to best-of-three in NA and best-of-two in EU in December. The decisions were generally celebrated, with the problems of best-of-ones well known by this point.
The early returns have been promising for both regions. While it’s taken time for viewers to adjust, pro players have taken to the new format and we’ve been gifted with plenty of exciting regular season series — something that wasn’t an option before.
“I think part of the emphasis there is that pro player flexibility to expand and kind of experiment through a series,” Riot Games esports Manager Chris Hopper told Rift Herald. “I think we’ve seen in all leagues globally the excitement that builds as a series continues to get better that we were largely unavailable to take advantage of in a best-of-one format. So that ability to get to those peaks of excitement more frequently within the regular season that were previously locked into a lot of the marquee matchups, the playoffs themselves, I think it’s been a win for the best-of series globally.”
It hasn’t all been roses for North America -- viewership lagged as fans adjusted to the new two-stream format.
“We switched to two new streams and I think the awareness for Week 1 kind of like suffered a little bit because of that,” Schmiedicker said. “We’ve seen it ramp up as we’ve gone through the weeks.”
One example: Friday Night League, a new tradition in North America, but one that started at 5 p.m. Pacific time. That’s prohibitively late for any fans in Europe and pushing it for those on the East Coast (especially when you get to the second series of the night). As a result, the Friday games are being bumped up two hours earlier starting this week.
And while many League fans hold allegiances to specific teams like TSM and Cloud9, others relished the opportunity to watch every single game in North American and Europe in the old format. That’s not all that easy anymore, nearly three times as many games per week and two simultaneous streams.
Schmiedicker hopes the new format will help general LCS fans find a team to root for.
“If you were a fan of the league overall, or if you just didn’t really have a favorite team, I think now it’s much harder to keep up with the league,” Schmiedicker said. “We’re working and looking at ways to make the games that you don’t watch and the series that you don’t watch more digestible and finding new ways for fans to connect with a favorite team, because I ultimately that’s what this model promotes: finding a team that you really enjoy and becoming a fan and watching their games, and just catching up on the games that you’re not watching.”
For the pros, the new format has come with many advantages.
If you remember, it was pro players who asked for these changes before the season started, and they are reaping the rewards. The level of play in both LCS regions has looked high, and many players in both regions have spoken out in favor of being able to redeem yourself after a poor Game 1.
“Because we used best-of series in postseason play, that’s where a lot of where the pro sentiment was coming from,” Schmiedicker said. “They didn’t feel adequately feel prepared for that. That was kind of like the catalyst of why we made that switch, for best-of-threes specifically.”
The Rift Herald surveyed three players on Splyce, Europe’s surprise third-place team. All three players agreed best-of-twos were preferable to best-of-ones.
“I prefer Bo2 vs Bo1, where you lose the whole ‘series’ after one lost game,” Splyce mid laner Chres “Sencux” Laursen said. “The more games, the better, and you always have a chance to come back. For a rookie team like us, the more matches we play on stage, the more practice we get.”
If you looked at the NA LCS standings two weeks ago, it was a clearcut argument for the power of best-of-threes and the clarity they can bring. The top four teams were TSM (8-0), Immortals (7-1), Cloud9 (6-2) and Team Envy (5-3). Each of those teams had only lost to teams higher in the standings and defeated teams lower in the standings. That’s ... eerily perfect, and reinforces that these standings better reflected the true hierarchy within the region.
Now, things have changed a little bit as Team Liquid and Counter Logic Gaming have improved while Cloud9 and Team Envy have faltered a bit, but the North American picture remains clear: TSM at the top, Immortals right behind and three to four teams fighting for supremacy behind them. The bottom of the table is equally clear, with NRG a step ahead of Phoenix1 and Echo Fox, and the results in North America have largely made sense.
This split has also produced arguably the best NA LCS team to-date: TSM, which has looked frankly unstoppable since adding young local prospect Vincent “Biofrost” Wang as the team’s starting support and sits comfortably at 12-0 with Worlds in its sights.
And if Europe wants to match North America with a best-of-three format, it will have the chance to do so at the end of the year.
The clarity in North America’s standings hasn’t really carried over to Europe, where we’ve seen super team G2 drop points to relegation candidates Origen and Vitality, last-place ROCCAT earning ties against H2K and Giants Gaming (widely predicted to finish 10th before the split started) taking down Fnatic and H2K. While those kind of results certainly make for unpredictable entertainment, it doesn’t bestow much confidence on the standings as an accurate indicator of teams’ strength, especially when draws are so frequently an option.
Like many other sports, League has an inherent advantage for one team — the team that starts blue side (think of it as home-field advantage) has a small edge. In a best-of-two series, each team will get one game on blue side, making draws a pretty likely scenario if the teams are at all evenly matched.
In 60 European series so far this split, 24 have ended in draws, while 36 have had a definitive win or loss. One day earlier this split was literally filled with ties. Five series, 10 teams, five ties.
5 ties and 10 tilted teams. Everyone looks so down and sad after a tie and feels like noone is winning. FeelsBadMan— Marcel Feldkamp (@MarcelFeldkamp) June 23, 2016
Players and coaches in Europe by and large seem to prefer best-of-threes, too. Splyce head coach Jakob “YamatoCannon” Mebdi told us before the split that he was excited for the format changes, but would rather EU match NA.
So, from my perspective, best of twos, I think it brings more consistency in terms of the results of every team. Best of ones can end in so many different ways. Someone just misclicks flash and dies and there are so many random reasons to lose one specific game, so I feel like best of twos show clearly who's the better team because it shows who is the more consistent one. So I'm happy overall that the best of two system is arriving. I'd even prefer a best of three system.
Some EU players have expressed their desire for best-of-threes during postgame shows, while others such as FC Schalke 04 jungler Berk “Gilius” Demir and Origen jungler Maurice “Amazing” Stückenschneider have called for the change on Twitter.
Give me bo3— Berk Demir (@GiliusLoL) June 10, 2016
A downside to bo2s I didn't think about: No chance to give subs playing time to see how they do on stage.— Maurice (@Amazing_EU) June 17, 2016
And remember those three Splyce players we surveyed earlier? They all agreed that best-of-threes would be preferable to best-of-twos.
“With best of two after the match ending in a tie, you don't know who the better team was,” jungler Jonas “Trashy” Andersen said. “I don't care if I lose in a best of three because then I know the other team was better. I want to leave the stage knowing which team was better in the series.”
“Best of three would be better for me because you don't know who the better team is after a draw in a best of two scenario,” AD Carry Kasper “Kobbe” Kobberup said. “It shows more in a best of three how good you are as a team compared to your opponent. We also would get to play more games on stage which is always better for practice.”
While Riot does not want to create “copycat leagues” by forcing a particular format globally, it does work with each league at the end of the year. If a region wants to change its format, it has the opportunity to do so.
“We do work with every region at the end of the year to sort of explore what their goals are for the following year, what sort of improvements or changes they want to make to the league, format being one of the things to explore among a variety of other features of regional play,” Hopper said. “We will work with all regions to look at what they want to do in 2017, and if that means some regions do want to change formats, that’s something we’ll work through with them.”
If the public opinions of European coaches and players are any indication, a change to the format could come at the end of this year. If both major Western League of Legends leagues move to a best-of-three format, the level of international play will continue to rise.