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Thorin's crucible: When the players don't care about LCS spring, something is wrong with the Spring split

This column takes a look at the sentiment that the LCS Spring split doesn't matter to the pro players and why that might be.

Thorin's crucible is a regular column in which I address topical or more general matters of concern to myself and the esports community at large.

"Spring split is just a stepping stone. It's used as a practice round to get better by next split, to get into Worlds."

-Reginald, owner of Team SoloMid

LCS Spring doesn't matter, they say

There is a sentiment circling around the Western League of Legends esports community that the LCS Spring split doesn't matter to, or isn't considered particularly important by, the professional players competing in it. I've seen similar things said before in other games, often by perhaps overzealous or misguided fans, that a team or player didn't care about a smaller tournament in the circuit, particularly if the entity in question lost out or didn't place as highly as expected, since they were focused on a bigger tournament.

What I've never heard even suggested, though, was the notion that players at the top of their region don't particularly care about the biggest tournament in their region over a six month span. What makes that notion particularly disturbing is that I think to a degree the sentiment is accurate. In the case I gave before, of a player in another game competing in a small tournament in the run-up to a bigger event, it probably is sometimes the case that the player doesn't care as much. They do care, since most of them make their living primarily off prize money and the structure of individual tournaments means that in the moment of competing then the player will be engaged in trying to win the tournament.

Even if a player says he does care, it doesn't necessarily mean that registers on a deeper level with him. If it is a smaller tournament, with less prestige or prize money or scale, then, sure, it's understandable why during the course of a long tournament circuit he might take a breath out and not be able to focus to his maximum. Players are only human and simply wishing something to be the case on a conscious level is not enough to cause it to be fundamentally the case at the core of our being.

That's why those all-time great competitors in professional sports, the guys who get just as angry about losing a single regular season game as losing the championship game in the final, are so rare and special. For the rest of us there is often motivation needed to remain engaged with a competition. That motivation could be a structure which encourages winning next week to better your position in the long-run, it might be significant enough money that it is worth your time to invest heavily into taking the steps to get closer to that money or it might be the prestige of becoming a champion in a specific tournament.

Right now the League Championship Series (LCS) is failing to provide that motivation for some of its players and a lot of that comes down a mixture of how the competition is structured, the way the players are salaried and the way the tournament leads into the World Championship. I'll go into specific changes that could be considered or made in a future column, for now it's enough to identify some of the problems and look at how they impact the mindsets of the professional players competing in the league.

The regular season doesn't matter to the top teams

It's not just that the Spring split doesn't matter, or that the professionals share that sentiment, but also that the regular season itself is often cited as not being that important. Of course, there are vague reasons that should motivate the professionals to want to win the regular season, the biggest being to get a guaranteed spot in the next split and direct advancement to the semi-finals of the playoffs for this split.

The problem there is that, first of all, both of the top two teams get those exact benefits, meaning that that only really works as motivation for those teams who are around 3rd-4th. If a team is clearly top two then it's not necessarily worth investing every waking hour to decide if they finish in first or second.

Beyond the top two spots, there is the problem of positions third through to sixth all making the playoffs, in a split that only contained eight teams to begin with. That means that a team finishing in third place doesn't gain anything extra, except matching up against the sixth placed team instead of the fourth or fifth. There's no extra prize money for finishing third instead of sixth.

The regular season doesn't matter to the bottom teams

Consider the situation for the team who does in fact finish in sixth place: they aren't particularly punished for being the worst team to make the playoffs. If they can win two out of three maps against the third best team in the league that split, then they secure themselves a spot in the next split and a top four finish. So, no matter how they perform during the season, as long as they grab that sixth spot then they are only ever two games from qualifying for the next season outright, ignoring that they still have a chance to qualify even if they lose in that playoff series.

In sports like the NBA or NHL, the team who finishes in the final playoff spot in a conference is in big trouble, since they are paired with the number one ranked team. That makes their chances of reaching the next round of the playoffs incredibly slim. #8 seeds beat #1 seeds so rarely that the statistic is frequently cited during match-ups of such teams, since it is incredibly one-sided in how often the #1 team wins.

That means that even the eighth best team in a conference in the NBA or NHL is fighting tooth and nail to grind their way to up to even the seventh spot. The effect on how their season might end could be significantly different based on winning a couple of extra regular season games. In that scenario, one can see that those professional sports have an inbuilt way of motivating teams, without even having to offer prize money, which is an alternative motivational method.

Now, let's think of those last two teams in the league, places seventh and eighth. Because the league only has eight places, it's pretty rare from the splits we've had so far that those teams are ever truly out of the running for a playoff spot until the very last weeks, since even sixth place makes the playoffs. This means a team like XDG can freely experiment with their roster, since they know that all they have to do is fix things in time to put together enough wins to steal that sixth spot. As things stand right now, after all the problems XDG has faced this season, they are only two games behind being tied for fifth place.

Only the most diligent of players can, on a fundamental and deep level, remain motivated under such a structure. Of course they try to focus and win each game they play in, but whether they are truly engaged and truly sense the urgency of needing to put another win on their record and move up a spot is another matter entirely. As long as they get that late split streak put together, a good two days of play perhaps, everything may well be alright, since that can then lead to a single Bo3 series win and then who knows what else?

Does the regular season matter to anyone?

The team who is placed seventh can potentially make a late surge, grab the sixth spot, find themselves facing the third place team, who they might match-up well with, and upset them for a victory and then some guaranteed prize money. All that is possible because they finished in sixth place at the end of the season. Meanwhile, a team busts a gut to claw and grind their way into the third spot, could find themselves with a bad match-up against the sixth place team, who only snuck into that spot in the last two weeks, and after losing two games they are out of contention for prize money and now fighting to even retain their LCS spot for the next split.

Even the teams who do finish first or second, not only do they not get any extra prize money, but they themselves are two game losses from finishing third or fourth overall for the split.

Does the Spring split matter?

As the Reginald quote to open this column suggested, the Spring split is effectively a form of practice simply to ensure that you get into the Summer split and then there perform at a level high enough to reach the World Championship. It's not just that that's a goal of the teams, it's effectively their only true goal.

Winning the $40,000 for the Summer split doesn't really mean much when you consider it takes a few months of play, during which time you can't compete in other tournaments, by and large, and breaks down to only $8,000 each, for that entire stretch of time. Finish in fourth, perhaps winning significantly less games over the regular season, and you're only down $6,000 in actual prize money, yet you received the same Riot salary for your poorer performance.

Riot bankrolls them all

Which brings up to the topic of the Riot salary. This has been lauded as one of the best parts of LCS, since it is guaranteed and ensures that all eight of the teams competing in each LCS region are at the status of full-time professional players. Certainly, if your goal is to have the entire league be at professional status then this is a direct step in that direction. The problem is that not enough thought has been put into building into the league motivation for the players to keep competing week in and week out to win those games.

When players had no Riot salary, then that $20,000 or $25,000 first place prize at an MLG or IPL event looked mighty tasty, with a couple of those tournaments over each three or four month span of time. The LCS regular season is basically just a qualifier for the playoff portion, where the top six teams all qualify, but with the top two skipping a playoff round. Sure, the top two guarantee themselves some prize money, but they don't know whether that is $2,000 a head or $8,000, so trying to break the record for wins in the regular doesn't matter as much as simply placing top two.

As I pointed out with the NBA/NHL analogy, the structure of their playoffs means that even without prize money players are motivated to want to win regular season games, to ensure a better chance at a run which doesn't end immediately. This LCS structure actually ensures the weakest teams are protected from the best teams in the opening playoff round.

The problem with the Riot salary is that only the absolute worst teams, which doesn't even apply for this particular split of LCS NA, for example, will be living solely off that amount of money. Most pro players now also make streaming income, their own salary from their team and the Riot salary. All of that goes into their pot and the amount they earn means that going balls deep on a split for the sake of $6,000 difference in extra prize money, individually, is a harder sell for players already seeing their time as potential dollar signs from streaming, fan interaction to increase their brand exposure and even relaxation, since they earn a healthy amount as it is.

The positive of the Riot salary, that all the teams earn the same amount in terms of the base level of money from the company, is also a negative, since the last placed team could, in theory, put in minimal effort, make that late run, win a series and be getting some prize money. Even worse, what if they simply bomb out of the league entirely? They earned the same solid baseline of money as the team who finished first place in the regular season. Not only should excellence be rewarded, but failure should be punished.

That team who loses nearly all of their games, all while earning the same amount as the #1 team in the region, still knows they are a single Bo5 series win over an amateur team, who have not earned a Riot salary to practice over the past few months, from getting back into the next split and some more guaranteed salary.

The extremes of the Spring split not mattering

Not only do we hear comments of teams willing to experiment and potentially waste the Spring split, as long as they can still qualify for or retain a spot for the Summer split, when the real games begin, but there are even teams talking about being in the Spring split not mattering at all, or to any significant degree. When the "superteam" rumours began at the end of the S3 World Championship, one factor being thrown around was that the team might not even bother playing in the Spring split, since what EG would do about their EU spot was still unclear.

This was explained as being a potential opportunity to earn a lot of money from streaming, for their star names at least; clean up on the amateur tournaments with solid prize money for first place, reminiscent of the MLGs and IPLs of yesteryear, yet with significantly weaker opposition; and then being able to peak in practice to reach the Summer split, where they could then qualify for the World Championship. It says a lot that most people who suggested such a scenario to others were not met with shock or outrage, most recipients of the information simply replied that it had a logic to it and they could see why players might go down that path.

Do you really care?

When the flashing lights are on and the hosts have their nice formal wear making them look dapper and dashing, it's easy to momentarily forget all of these concerns, sitting back and watching this week's LCS, to see who will rise and fall over the span of a few games. A quick look at the table and a story of sorts plays out, as this team retains their spot this high up, that team falls down two and a team at the bottom tries to grab a couple of wins and not fall too far behind. It seems just like any other spot, yet when one considers some of the context outlined in this column, it really is a lot of smoke and mirrors. What seems to matter a lot now can be easily forgotten two weeks from now. What happens in the regular season ends up meaning nothing to anyone else even a week later, in most cases, and ultimately, even if we care now, do we care in the long run?

The biggest tournament in a region, taking months to play out and televised, to an extent, to hundreds of thousands of fans, should really matter a whole lot to the best players in that region. If most aspects of the structure of their lives, from the tournament to the salaries to the consequences of winning and losing, aren't set out to engender serious investment of emotions and effort, though, then can we blame them if they don't care? Would that all were driven competitors who lived or died over every loss, like a Kobe Bryant or a Michael Jordan, but it's better to outline a system which would make even the worst player in the league care, rather than simply pray for such competitors.

In a future column I'll take a look at some of the problems of the LCS structure and analyse some potential fixes to address the problems mentioned here.

Photo credit: lolesports

Edited by Dalze

May I ask why you used the analogies for NHL/NBA and not, for example, NFL? The NFL grants their #1 and #2 Seed on each conference a bye week. So, the 6th place plays against the 3rd plays (Hey, just like in League huh?). I'm assuming you overlooked the NFL because it did not fit on your criticism of the LCS format, am I right? The same can be said about the MLS, with a slightly different format, but similar to the NFL and League.

Anyways, I'm not saying your analysis is incorrect, but I do believe the problem is not the format of the league (Play-Offs/Regular Season wise) but on the incentives for winning each split.

Posted by Ajido

I don't think the NFL is a good example because there are significantly more teams competing for playoff spots in the NFL compared to league. The line of good teams and bad teams is more clear in the NFL. Whereas in League, on any given day, a last place team could beat a first place team (TSM/Coast). 75% of the teams in the LCS are in the playoffs, that percentage is much lower in other sports.

Posted by Dalze

I can understand this point of view, but as I said above, he did compared the formats to NBA/NHL, now, I don't know that much about those too, but I'm pretty sure they have a similar amount of teams as the NFL, or maybe more, which is why I asked that question. Why compare the format to NHL/NBA (which have different formats than League of the NFL) and not to the NFL or MLS?

Posted by Contagioned

NFL has 4 divisions to each conference, which makes it weird, anyway. It's not simply the top records going to the Playoffs, it's the top of each division going, then the wildcards. The wildcards then face the two that are not the two best records in the conference. In this case, it doesn't even mean 3rd place is against 6th place, it just means the ones that have the best records not on top of their divisions. So, in essense, 3rd and 4th best teams can play, and 5th and 6th might play. It's really not the same as LCS at all. This postseason had the Saints and the 49ers both get in due to the wildcard spots, both of which had better records than their respective opponents in the first round. The LCS isn't big enough to do something like 'wildcard,' so it doesn't really work out. I guess just having top 6 go into playoffs is a way to do it, but that makes 75% of teams go into playoffs, which makes little sense.

I think Riot could just add something like their Challenger Series points to do the regional finals. The spring split gives certain amounts of points, and so does the summer split. Top spots each split could have a direct spot into the regional finals or something. The only problem in this would be people not in one of the splits would have a disadvantage, but that'd just make people want to stay, obviously.

Posted by Dalze

I did not say it was 100% equal, I said similar. And again, he made the comparison to NHL/NBA, it's the same thing, they have more conferences, they are divided in different ways, they have more teams (the same problems as comparing the LCS to the NFL), so my question remains.

I do like the idea of using points, but mostly as incentives to place higher on each split, the play-offs, in my opinion, are awesome and add adrenaline and excitement to the matches.

Posted by egregion

I think the major difference between NFL and league, and the reasons why first and second seed are so hotly contested in NFL are twofold: first, the NFL playoffs are best of one--lose one and you're out. Flukes and upsets are very likely, and consequently, minimizing the number of games you have to play significantly reduces a chance of an upset. In the league playoffs, the matches are best of 5. It's more difficult to be upset in a best of 5 than a best of one, so playing more rounds isn't as dangerous as in the NFL. Secondly, the NFL is incredibly physical. Having that extra week of rest is highly valued especially if a team is looking to make a run deep into the playoffs when fatigue can become a factor. While extended hours of league at a time can be exhausting, I don't think it takes the same toll on players as NFL football does on its players. I can't speak for thoorin, but this is my guess as to why he looked at the NBA/NHL series and compared it to league.

Posted by pedrothesmith

I think its funny that he uses the NBA as a comparison. You think the Miami Heat care how they do in the regular season? NO! They care about the playoffs.

Spring split is regular season. Worlds is playoffs. If i was a serious team I wouldnt care about this either.

Thats how league like the NBA and NHL and MLB think the yankees are happy to do well in the regular season? No. They only care about playoffs.

Welcome to sports. The regular season is less important than the playoffs. Thats how it is.

Posted by TakeOutTacos

I think what is trying to get at though is that there really isn't a reward for doing well in this split, let alone even being in this split if you still get that chance to qualify for the World Championship.

If you were to change it so that you needed to be in both splits, or the playoffs of both splits it would be unfair to Challenger teams, or teams that could possibly be relegated out of Summer 2xxx and then re-qualify for Summer 2xxx+1

I know his next article will bring up solutions to this problem but right now I am commenting regarding both. If maybe the relegation was handled by regular season standings and not playoff standings then maybe that would help. Force players to play well over a long period of time and not just a Bo5 against a team they may matchup well aghainst.

But as far as this initial article is concerned it really does make it tough for teams to care too much when there aren't any consequences for failure or rewards for excellence. In the other sports you have a contract but it can always be bought out or you can be traded or cut in the NFL. In League this is almost team suicide because team coordination is more important than individual skill when all top players are concerned.

In the NHL or NBA one hot goalie or point guard / center can almost carry a team to victory, but in League this is literally impossible and extreme coordination is involved. If a player isn't worried about being cut and a team knows they are relatively safe they honestly don't have an incentive to play any better than required not to lose their jobs, a la Office Space.

I am interested to read what everybody else has to say in this matter.

Posted by EnkiduV3

I'm not a fan of how wildly misinterpreted Regi's words were. Saying that the Spring Split is just practice is correct, it's much more closer to a pre-season than part of the regular season; but to say that he implied that Spring Split doesn't matter, or that players don't care about it... that's just yellow journalism.

No team wants to be relegated and this split is mainly used to gauge your competition. If that bothers you, maybe you should only watch the Summer Split and Worlds. I see guys go out on stage and play to their best every week. Whether the benefit of being the best in spring appears to matter to you is irrelevant. These guys don't seem to be slacking off, or picking wildly outrageous champions every week. They are all trying to win every game, and look disheartened by almost every loss.

Don't care about Spring Split... go take a journalism class and mark future columns like this as "editorial". There are very few facts in this entire thing, and zero quotes from a pro player saying that they don't care.

Posted by Illyes_Attila

Only I find it funny that the comments are practicly nitpicking NFL/NBA/whatever league formats, when the article is about the problems of the current league format of LCS?

Btw great article Thorin, as allways

Posted by Ballistic

In defense of Spring split.

There is tons of motivation for the teams. For all teams doing well in spring is important. sponsors and fan are gathered by good play. The better you play the more lucrative the sponsors and the more your players get their recognition. The higher the recognition the more people follow their streaming and therefore more money. This is heavily important for the less renown teams. Teams like coast, XDG, and C9 will be placing their A games to gather these people. If that wasn't enough incentive there is another thing that gathers players to play their best, the All Star game. Getting to the all star game is important for your reputation. You gain international appeal for each individual player and again improves their recognition and stream fans and sponsors. Being on the best team usually helps with the selection process.

I think you also discredit the incentive to stay out of relegation. The bottom 3 teams will be jockeying for position. This means they will always play their very best no matter the opponent in order to stay out of the bottom.You propose that the top teams will slack off which maybe true but their effort will always be higher than the lowest team' best effort on average otherwise they will find themselves in relegation possibility. Relegation isn't something you ho hum about. Ask NIP. They believed that KTM was going to be easy. They immediately find out that KTM is much better and is the top team in EU. You do not underestimate relegation. You are one bad day from getting out of the LCS. Also getting out of LCS has spelled the doom of many Teams Complexity, Marn, and Velocity to name a few.

3rd place vs 6th makes sense it is NFL style. 1st and second get bye and ensured survival and money. An incentive to get 1st is that you choose side and pick. thinking of it like home court advantage. Saying that 3rd vs 6th is a minimal difference actually helps the fact that teams will be trying harder. that means the gulf between teams is minimal and so team will be trying their very best. if the gulf is wide between 3rd and 6th then the punishment for being worse is harder and you are one series away from getting relegated.

4th-5th and 1st-2nd having barely any difference is an acceptable move. there is some motivation to be top dog. Giving them a slight edge in selecting side and pick will warrant enough. Prize pool could be larger to give more incentive...

A slightly different argument for spring split:

Before Spring split is the time frame where people do their moves. rosters change and meta change heavily. Giving a less stressful period where players can acclimate to the new meta and new players is in the long run a good thing. They can naturally find the new meta and new strats and new FOTM champs. Teams can experiment and try out thing that would be too risky to try in a high stakes game. Would C9 have used teemo if the game was very important? Would teams roleswap or do roster swaps if dropping a game had wide ramifications? I personally like this split there has been alot of different champs use this split among NA LCS and EU LCS. It makes games intriguing and you hope to see more innovation. Mid Lulu, top warwick, jungle panth. This series is a great preseason and summer split to world is the real season when the stress level are high and the meta is more fully formed. You can say you want it more meaningful but as it is pretty close to full effort already and still entertaining and a needed ramp up for the summer. I am also a proponent of final placement. I want the best teams at the end of the season to represent worlds. not like in korea where is a team that won early but is not as good later makes it when the second best team in the world sits at home.

Posted by oPlaiD

The main difference between the NFL/NHL/NBA and the Spring Split is that each of those leagues always end with the ultimate tournament. The goal of every player in those leagues is to win the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, or NBA Championship. For these League players, the ultimate competition is Worlds, so that's the main goal that drives the most competitive players. As such, Spring Split will always take a back seat because it has no bearing on the ultimate goal of most of the best players.

The only reason Reginald is able to say that is because TSM really is one of the top two teams, and world class. They, along with Cloud9, are most likely only looking towards Worlds.

I'd wager that most of the other teams in the league feel a bit differently. The example Thorinn uses, that XDG could win two games and enter a playoff spot, goes both ways. EG could lose two games in that last week and all of a sudden they are fighting for their lives and knocked out of LCS, losing all the security they had because maybe they dropped some match in the middle of the season.

I don't believe there's an issue with the LCS playoff format. It'd be nice to have maybe a few more teams and more split between the playoffs and the last few spots, but in general the format in each split is okay. The big issue is that the Worlds are the primary goal for these teams, so if the Spring Split has no bearing on qualifying for it, the very top teams like TSM who are secure in their LCS status will have their eyes on the big prize.

If there were two Worlds spots up for grabs, one for each split, it'd probably motivate those top teams a bit more. But then the winner of Spring Split would lose their motivation for Summer, so there's no great solution.

Edited by Moirarchos

Here's a quick question, $62,500 per team, per split, right? That divides into $12,500 per player (assuming they receive it all) but I doubt the players receive all of it.

Last season, Team Coast (Then Good Game University) pulled of a great streak to finish 2nd in the spring playoffs, but to what end? They finished 7th in the Summer split and dropped into relegation.

Meanwhile, Cloud9 actually benefited from not even participating in the Spring split, by being able to have such high amount of film study on their opponents, rampaging through the the Summer split and winning out, even earning a first round bye for Worlds. We have seen through only 6 weeks of play in Season 4, Cloud9 has already lost as many games as they did all of last split, because teams have adapted, and in all fairness most of the rosters have improved their overall skill.

The sheer fact that we have 2 playoff series, combined with the added complication of the relegation aspect, means that there is no way to realistically compare the LCS to any of the major sports in NA. The closest match is the English Premiere League (Soccer to you non-sports fans). They have a similar relegation element to their season, however they only relegate their teams once per year.

I personally don't see a problem with the 1st round bye that the top 2 seeds receive. However, just in case Thorin didn't do a fact check, over the last 10 years in the NBA, the 8 seed has won 13% of the time vs the 6 seed which won at a 20% clip. In the LCS, the 6 seed has won 25% of the series. The complications of match-ups vs seeding is prevalent in all sports. Just because you have a higher seed, does not translate into a favorable match-up.

However, the problem isn't with the format for how the playoffs are seeded, or even the prize money vs. normal riot salary. The problem, simply put, is the fact that there is a Summer split, whose results directly effect Worlds and the Spring split has no lasting repercussions beyond the bottom two teams (possibly) being relegated out of the LCS.

Posted by Ghost_Halo

One case that Thorin makes throughout this post that I do not find to be an effective point is that the bottom LCS teams are just a Bo5 win away from being back in the LCS. While that may be true, leaving your team's fate to a single Bo5 series is a huge gamble.

So I do think the bottom LCS teams have a huge reason to try, because it's very risky to slack off for the majority of the split and then rely on a late-season winning streak to stay out of relegations. If that winning streak never happens, then that team could very easily find themselves playing in a Bo5 against LMQ in relegations.

Posted by SixSixTrample

Ultimately, this really all stems from the lack of a real structure for teams. I've said since LCS season 1 that we need to have defined teams, like the NFL/NBA/etc. to make this a meaningful long term investment for both players and sponsors.

I don't think we should have 'Cloud 9' or 'TSM', I think we need Riot to define the teams, managers can buy in, coaches and managers can recruit, and you operate it very much like a normal professional sport.

With no consistency across splits or seasons, if the team I like gets relegated, I'm just out as a fan. If we had teams like:

Chicago Feeders
Freeport Facecheckers

...or whatever, you have the opportunity to build consistent loyalty, and the players have reason to do well because if you don't you will get cut from the team. It gives coaches/managers(which every team should have) a better way to have a pool of candidates, makes money for Riot and teams with much easier merchandising, and allows sponsors to support the league, not just a team.

Anyway, a man can dream.