It’s twilight in Sanxia, Taiwan about three years ago. The small metro, half an hour by bus from Taipei, is bisected by a river that roars across concrete banks during typhoon season and barely trickles over the silvery glint of small fish and stone the rest of the year. The night’s air is warm and humid, and the chatter around me is all in Mandarin.
I am not fluent in the language by any stretch of the imagination. But I didn’t get stuck in my ancestral homeland for a handful of years without scraping some of that rust off. When the college guys at the convenience store (always immaculately stocked with bentos and three dozen varieties of tea) are talking about “san dien lan” (Flash Wolves), or when the mechanics in the dingy scooter repair shop below my apartment are talking about running “shi tou ren” (Malphite) in the top lane, it’s kind of hard to miss the fact that they’re talking League, even as functionally illiterate as I was.
League of Legends is (or was) huge in Taiwan for almost half a decade at that point. It was inevitable when the Taipei Assassins hoisted the trophy back in 2012, marking the last time that a non-Korean team would claim the title of World Champions until 2018. And here it is perhaps a good idea to talk about what “huge” means in this context: on an island with less than 24 million people, dwarfed perpetually in the shadows of China, a bunch of young 20-something kids sweeping the championships of a video game back in 2012 dominated every single major newspaper on the island. Player bios accompanied full-length articles; the players were household names and faces overnight, as were their iconic red-and-white uniforms and the cartoony gray punk mascot raising its stubby arms in defiance.
It was, for a while, a pretty good time to be into Taiwanese esports. And then every subsequent year happened.
To have your hometown heroes fall short on the big stage isn’t exactly a tale unique to Taiwanese esports, of course, though the sheer distance it’s fallen, from kings to paupers as the year turned to 2013, is perhaps more drastic than most. Turkey, Brazil, Oceania, and Vietnam have their own stories to tell and regrets to gripe about – the moments fought over in the play-in preliminaries at Worlds, or in the wildcard seeding tournaments prior to the current format. Even the city-state of Singapore remembers how their Sentinels, once co-dominant with the Assassins in the Garena Premier League, were just a few wins away from making their own international reputation — only to choke when it mattered most.
But what really gets a veteran esports fan bitter is the slowly dawning realization that even these stories of missed chances and crushed hopes are beginning to go extinct as well.
In truth, we sort of saw it coming. Up until 2012, there was no functional difference between competitive League of Legends and the likes of Counter-Strike or Dota 2, where the major tournaments on the calendar were determined by third-party tournament organizers — ESL, StarLadder, and the legendary IPL4 among others. The creation of the League of Legends Championship Series and their counterparts in the Chinese LoL Pro League and Korean Championship in 2013 was an almost blasphemous change to the established dynamics of international esports competition — tying world championship seeds to regional circuits is one thing, but locking teams into those same regions was a drastic change from the norm at the time.
We focused, at the time, on the fact that it’d mean the World Championship would no longer necessarily feature only the best players of the game at the time – it is really hard to say with a straight face, for example, that Korea’s fourth and fifth place teams were less worthy than the North American third seeds between 2013 and 2017, not when even their struggling rosters would come to an Mid-Season Invitational and sweep everybody and make it look effortless. But it’s now increasingly apparent that there were other factors than competitive purity and integrity to consider.
Region-locking meant putting a ceiling on a region’s performance that had little to do with their individual skills and everything to do with their relative economic performance and infrastructural developments. It’s not a coincidence that the four regions anybody cares about in professional League of Legends are also the four regions with the best overall global economic indexes — China, US, the EU, and of course hypermodern South Korea with its chaebol, the megacorporations and industrial conglomerates underlining the fortunes of its top teams.
The logic behind it is deceptively simple: if you are only as good as the competition you face, it helps a lot if the competition you face is just as committed and able as you are. Regions where most if not all of their competitive teams are able to play and practice full-time as their main profession have an inherent advantage over teams of part-timers, or those that have their esports careers interrupted without exception at ages 18-20 by mandatory military conscription as it is with Singapore. Regions where most teams can afford coaching and analysts tend to perform significantly better than those without. Regions with universal health care likely do better, too, than those without, simply for the fact that an injury or illness won’t necessarily bankrupt the team or player.
All these tend to be factors for esports with open circuits too — European Counter-Strike has historically been dominant for similar reasons. But the open circuit/open borders approach has undeniably been a boon to individual talents, and even individual teams. Whether it be the rise of Brazilian FPS stars or Pakistani Tekken aces, the permeability in other esports has undeniably been a boon for regions that would have otherwise gone ignored.
The same cannot be said for what remains of the Flash Wolves squad back in Taiwan, now that the likes of Karsa, Maple, and SwordArt — the three princes of the region’s second generation of international contenders – have left for the riches of China. The same was never expected for Oceania, or for Turkey – even as a rare few stars make their presences felt once a year at Worlds, as Levi did with Vietnam’s GIGABYTE Marines in 2017, they disappear just as quickly and their regions slip back into obscurity just as rapidly.
Yet we cheer for them anyhow, even as the crowds dwindle and our friends move on to other games and other scenes that aren’t so relentlessly heartbreaking. And maybe we’ll move on too, eventually. We know that there is no future here, and it was not betrayal we felt when the Flash Wolves’ star players moved across the Strait, not resentment or even resignation. We were excited that, after so many years, and so many games won against Korean aces, they were finally getting the recognition and opportunities they’ve long deserved.
But it’s also no surprise why players like AHQ top laner Ziv stick around, despite his own proven talents and the rumored lucrative offers from LPL squads. The homegrown intimacy of a local circuit and the long histories and relationships they’ve established won’t be found in the more internationally renowned competitions. The stories they’ve made here could have only been made among the peers they grew up with.