Last Thursday kicked off the challenger playoff tournament. I had the opportunity to travel with Denial eSports and catch a small glimpse behind-the-scenes of the Challenger scene in North America. The scene has grown considerably in the last season and the teams have risen in skill and competitive legitimacy, enough to at least pose a threat to the LCS teams currently in the relegation tournament. Riot is slowly increasing their support of the challenger scene to reflect the resources available to the professional league, but there are still initiatives that the teams and Riot can pursue to improve upon the status quo.
A Day in the Life
Players arrive in Los Angeles and proceed to their hotel rooms to meet up with fellow teammates, the transportation and accommodations provided by Riot. All challenger teams have the opportunity to visit the studio and take advantage of the practice rooms normally used by LCS teams, depicted in many "Chasing the Cup" segments. Day of their match, a small breakfast awaits them in the player's lounge around the corner, an ideal spot for players to mingle with other team members and staff. The players begin by using a quick game of solo queue to warm up, before finalizing their strategy for the pick/ban phase and addressing contingencies. Logging onto the tournament realm, they can practice early game, lane matchups, and prepare their runes and masteries. In the background, Challenger Series casters Phreak and Zirene run through their pre-production rehearsal, firing off jokes and puns at the non-existent audience. Afterwards, they walk through the team rooms and chat with players, engaging in some light-hearted conversation before heading back to the studio. A referee enters the room with a checklist of items for players to go through before the start of the game, reiterating certain rules and ensuring the players' clients are in order. All auxiliary team members are then asked to leave the room and join the others in the players' lounge, as the referee closes the door to the room in preparation for the start of the match.
The players' lounge consists of a smattering of couches and tables around a large wall-mounted television with the current broadcast. Groups of players and staff amble in and out of the room watching the games, discussing picks and strategies, or simply relaxing before or after their matches. A few analysts or support staff take notes in their notebooks or computers to help their team adapt and prepare for their next game by jotting enemy patterns, success of certain champion combinations, etc. Snacks and drinks are consistently replenished in the corner of the room by the building staff or catering company. On days where the challenger series follows the LCS or playoffs, prominent players, community members, Rioters constantly flow in and out of the room. For five minutes between the team's games, their support staff can rejoin the room and help the team break down the game, help adapt for the next game, or simply provide reassurance and encouragement. After the games, some teams discuss their play, while others prefer to relax and spend time with other players and teams to watch the next set of games. Overall, the challenger players seem like a very tight-knit community; despite being critical of each other's play, they seem to get along fairly well and even spend time outside of studio together.
Focusing next on the deeper issues, the following sections are primarily based on my impressions during my time conversing with the players and other relevant members of the challenger community. While the sample size of my data is limited to the past weekend, I believe that most of these issues are pretty universal.
Unlike teams with established organizations and experience like Team Coast and Curse Academy, new teams are still formed much the same way that professional teams began in the early seasons; a group of friends who play together search for members to fill the remaining slots in their team. While they possess unquestionable mechanical prowess, they often only understand the game within the confines of their own ability and role and play to maximize their impact, implicitly diluting the effectiveness of the remaining players. The biggest struggle a challenger team faces is identifying how to allocate resources in support of their other members, and mastering the basic principles of teamwork, communication and decision-making. Both of these factors are essential in not only improving their chances in the challenger series, but also understanding the landscape of competitive play the teams are trying to breach into.
Challenger teams are filled with players that have diverging or even opposing views with regards to their level of participation. Professional players in the LCS generally have streaming viewership, organizational support, and Riot's marketing to incentivize their dedication and work. However, the dedication Challenger teams seem to fall to fall in a wide spectrum, from those looking determined to break into the LCS, to those with no expectations other than doing their best. This mostly reflects the aggregate of the individual team member's motivations. The pool of available high tier players, especially with experience, is limited and teams prefer to opt for strong players regardless of their level of commitment as long as they are able to play the relevant matches. With such a disparity in player devotion, it is straightforward to see how conflict can naturally arise when players are unwilling to attend team practices, leading to a lack of emotional synergy and affecting game performance or recovering between losses.
Every team needs practice in order to try strategies, improve communication, and gain confidence in their ability. However, some challenger teams lack the coordination to get their own members to practice together, let alone setting up scrimmages against other challenger/professional teams. Another major factor is the effectiveness of practice, a concept that is even more critical for challenger teams due to the limited time available for them to practice. Some teams lack the experience to understand how to approach practice, how to gain the maximum utility from their time, and how to analyze the information to improve. Finally, the availability of good scrimmage partners plays a massive role in how fast a team can improve. But there is an inverse relationship between how much a team needs practice and how often they can secure scrimmage opportunities against other relevant teams, because better teams gain very little from playing against worse opponents.
How can it be improved?
Riot has steadily improved their support and has been dedicating more resources towards improving the competitive integrity of the challenger series. The current scene is a dramatic improvement over the one that began in Season 3 by paying for transportation and lodging for the teams as well as acclimating them to the LCS landscape with practice rooms, referees, broadcasts and advertising.
However, there are unique challenges with the scene that need more creative solutions. The first problem is addressing the high turnover rate of players on the challenger teams. A large part of this is the perception players have that they receive very little in return for the effort they're expending. Riot can go one step further in their marketing of the scene and focus on creating features for specific players in teams, giving them individual exposure and helping their visibility for both streaming and being seen as potential candidates for professional teams.
Next, the tournament structure for the entrance into the challenger scene includes some Bo1 games, a fact that has been heavily criticized. One approach to rectifying this would be to create a group stage or round robin with seeding for some of the top teams and broadcasting main highlights/interviews with teams. Some more creative solutions could include reaching out to sponsors in order to host small tournaments for challenger teams to participate in. This would allow Riot to experiment with different formats, create small investment opportunities for sponsors to assess commercial viability in the scene and hopefully get them more involved, and also give challenger teams and players more experience into the world of professional gaming.
In many ways, the challenger scene is comparable to the League of Legends competitive scene during the earlier seasons. Riot can leverage the information from the progression of the competitive scene, creative approaches in e-sports from established regions like Korea, and the increasing mainstream interest in the potential of e-sports to build a strong challenger series that caters to the needs of a wide range of players and spectators.
There is a wide range of challenger teams that currently exist, each with different expectations and skill level, but all determined to win a shot at the LCS. The biggest hurdle for these teams seems to be time, whether it's the amount of time players are willing to put in, short or long term, the time they can practice with other teams, or the time they have to scout and adapt against other teams in tournaments. Professional teams don't have this issue due to stability of roster, organizational resources, and familiarity with the structure and opponents in the long term.
A lot of these issues can be resolved with the inclusion of additional auxiliary members, analyst, coach, or even a strong authority figure to help them. Analysts can scout teams and gather data on teamplay to aid in developing a strategic vision for the team. Coaches can support the team by resolving internal issues and helping to foster better teamwork and communication. Even a strong authority figure has the ability to lead the team in times of crisis and handle a lot of extraneous work for the team like marketing, paperwork etc. Complementary to the amateur status of some challenger teams, these figures don't necessarily have to be highly qualified or paid, but League of Legends has a large enough fanbase that plenty of people would be willing and excited to be part of a challenger team. Even short term investment into a range of possible support staff can make a difference.
Let's consider Team 8. They were considered underdogs going into the tournament, with Curse Academy and Team Coast being the heavy favorites. I was quite unfamiliar with their team, but after the first day, their camaraderie and dedication was extremely apparent. After chatting with their analyst, I was surprised by the depth of their strategic thinking and adaptability. They balanced the current meta game and the strengths of their team members to maximize the utility of their compositions, with a grace that put even some LCS team to shame. It was a pleasure to see them succeed and serve as an example for other teams to follow.
The games in the challenger series are exciting because they are full of brilliant players and teams determined to break into the competitive scene. Their stories are often compelling and many of them handle themselves with humility and grace. With the proper resources and support, they undoubtedly have the raw skill to flourish in the current competitive landscape and usher in the next generation. There is a misconception in the community that North America lacks talent, often overlooking the importance of developing and adapting that raw skill. Personally, I believe that good players with adequate determination and willingness to adapt are equally valuable as those that demonstrate instances of flashy mechanical play. While Riot and the challenger teams can steadily improve the structure of the competition, it is the support of the fans for the players that will ultimately determine the future of the challenger scene.