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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