The Gap hasn’t closed: Comparing the LCS and LCK at Worlds

Worlds tournament, courtesy of Riot Games
Worlds tournament, courtesy of Riot Games /

As it is every year, the early part of Worlds contained a lot of discussion around “the gap” between Korean and Western (or even Chinese) teams.

Let’s talk about “the Gap.” Every year, commentators, analysts, media and fans talk about it at Worlds. Just like last year, after North American teams had a good first week, it was all about how the gap was closing. But our Korean overlords inevitably proved that the gap hasn’t changed at all.

So what is really happening with the gap? Why does it exist, what drives it and which direction are those drivers heading? While the results remain similar, a lot has changed underneath the face of LoL Esports, and that makes this year a good time to discuss the gap in detail. For this post, we will focus on the gap between the LCK and the two LCS regions. China has its own issues, but a lot of this analysis does apply in some way to the LPL as well.

Where did the gap come from?

At first, there was no gap. There wasn’t even a professional League scene. The Season 1 World Championship was a Western LAN party at DreamHack, with Fnatic taking the crown over All authority. It’s interesting to sometimes re-watch those early games: they were like playground versions of the game we see today. Teams had strategies, sure, but they didn’t really know how they would work.

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Korean teams arrived on the scene in Season 2, but that year was dominated by Moscow 5. That team has a legitimate claim to being the best regular season team in the history of professional League. And regular seasons does matter — that’s the largest sample size we have, especially compared to the somewhat fluky nature of the early Worlds tournaments. None of the favorites (including the Koreans) ended up winning Season 3 — Taipei Assassins did. However, Korea did lay the groundwork for what professional play should look like.

What they brought with them

What did that groundwork look like? Remember, Worlds started as a LAN tournament for anyone talented enough to field a team. Andy “Reignald” Dinh’s iconic Team SoloMid team started as a website run by two brothers. That’s a far cry from what South Korean fans have come to expect from their eSports franchises:

  • Sponsor support: teams named after the sponsors, which so far has only happened with Schalke 04 in the West.
  • Team infrastructure: more than a team house, including coaching, analysts and support staff.
  • Scouting: Koreans have been scouting ladders for various games, notable Starcraft, for years; they’re good at identifying talent.
  • Culture: eSports in Korea is a profession; kids start with the same passion that they do in the West, but at a certain point, they see it as a job.

Of course, over the last few seasons, Western (and Asian) teams have embraced those aspects. But the Koreans have such a head start. The StarCraft Proleague started in 2003: that’s over a decade of experience that the Koreans have ahead of the West.

Next: Faker is pretty confident in SKT's chances of a repeat

The gap today: TSM’s story

TSM logo, courtesy of Team SoloMid
TSM logo, courtesy of Team SoloMid /

That decade is the gap. We are a decade behind in getting sponsors. In coaching, scouting, and most importantly, culture. And nothing exemplifies that more than what happened to Team SoloMid this year.

TSM did everything right. With Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng in the later stages of an eSports career (remember that Season 1 Worlds? Doublelift was there) and Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg at the height of his powers, TSM went all-in on Worlds. They put together a team perfectly suited for those guys. In came Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell and his ability to play whatever champion his team required. Dennis “Svenskeren” Johnsen is a bit of a hot-head but made up for that with mechanics and synergy. Bora “Yellowstar” Kim turned out to be a mistake, but scouting produced Vincent “Biofrost” Wang, who proved capable as Doublelift’s sidekick.

TSM is one of the most lucrative franchises in Western eSports. They had a great infrastructure when others didn’t — just look at their team store. They fought to bring in the best support staff, including heralded full-time psychologist Weldon Green to help coach Parth Naidu. As a team, the players decided to focus less on streaming (a major source of income) and more on in-house scrims, VOD review and practice, hoping to become a better team. They bootcamped in Korea. They put in more hours than anybody.

And they lost. They didn’t make it out of groups.

Was it the gap? After all, TSM did everything they possibly could to eliminate the gap. For a year, they emulated the Koreans. And they still failed. What else are we missing?

Inside and outside of their control

Team SoloMid did a great job controlling everything they could. Unfortunately, it takes a village to send a team to the Worlds finals, and the rest of the LCS wasn’t ready.

Take scrims, for instance. TSM is known for scrimming long and hard (as are many NA LCS teams, to be fair). This means that the majority of the weekly practice consists of playing games against their competition in the NA LCS. The only differences: scrims are on a private server, they are not broadcast (mostly), there’s some ping lag and there’s no crowd. But for all intents and purposes, their practice is competing against the competition, for hours at a time.

Think that for a second. They practice against the competition.

Unlike any other sport

It doesn’t make any bloody sense. No other professional sports team operates like this. Real Madrid doesn’t play three-hour practice games against Barca three times a week. NFL teams might have a couple preseason practices with opposing franchises, but never with teams they play that year. Perhaps the best example, NBA teams hardly practice during the season at all. They know how grueling the season can be for their players, expect their players to show up with certain abilities already practiced, and spend most of the season building internal chemistry and strategies.

Can you imagine those teams sharing strategies with the competition? It’s bat-crap insane — and yet that’s EXACTLY what LCS teams do! Every week, with multiple competing organizations! And beyond the dangers of sharing information, which it seems Weldon was unprepared for, there’s another tremendous hazard in scrimming against the competition: it undermines the whole purpose of the scrim.

When TSM scrim another team, I’d imagine they have specific things they want to work on. Maybe it’s the duo lane synergy in the lane phase. Or how to come back from a deficit. Whatever it is, they have a plan. Guess what? So does their scrim partners. Maybe their partners want to work on something too, and it’s completely at odds with TSM’s agenda. Or maybe they’re an immature organization and they just want to screw with Regi.

Not in Korea

This would be different if the Koreans practiced like this, but they don’t. Each team has an internal structure where practice is tightly governed and

LCK logo, courtesy of Riot Games
LCK logo, courtesy of Riot Games /

team-specific. They practice against subs (and before that, sister teams), guaranteeing the integrity of the practice sessions. Like an NFL scout team simulates whatever the coach wants, they can tell their practice partners exactly what they want to work on without fear of revealing strategies.

Western fans may scoff at that approach because the teams are practicing against inferior competition. They don’t understand the point of scrims. Korean teams expect that their five players already know how to play League individually and as a team. So they spend practice time working on specific aspects. It doesn’t matter who the competition is because practice isn’t competition — it’s practice.

"Practice isn’t competition. It’s practice."

That’s why every year when Western teams scrim the Koreans before Worlds, they come out with a house full of overconfidence; and why every year they are called out when the house crashes.

To be fair, this isn’t TSM’s fault. This is a structural issue in the entire LCS system. But things are beginning to look better.

Light on the horizon

TSM is forced to use the same scrim system as other LCS teams because that’s all they have. They may have done things right — but that’s not the point. The gap won’t really close until the worst LCS team starts behaving like TSM did. Until every team has real, dedicated in-house scrim partners, competent coaching and a culture that this isn’t a game, it’s a profession.

That’s the biggest thing missing in the TSM puzzle — the other teams.

The good news? While the gap hasn’t closed, the groundwork is beginning to be laid for a bridge. First, Riot’s announced replay system and practice mode will help. These will potentially influence how millions of League players approach the game. That’s something Riot’s resisted for a while, but it’s a fact of every sport that individual practice supersedes competition. Now, more than ever, when players ascend the ladder, they will be expected to have practiced basic skills and strategies using these tools. This trickle-up effect will eventually reach TSM.

"The gap won’t really close until the worst LCS team starts behaving like TSM did"

Second, the ongoing investment of traditional sports franchises into LoL Esports will bring stability, competency and innovation. Teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Golden State Warriors are process-driven and should see the flaws inherent in the LCS. Greater investment from seasoned entities like these will improve outcomes for everyone.

Finally, and we’ll get to this more in-depth in our TSM season recap, sometimes you just get unlucky. TSM was extremely unlucky to get in a group with Samsung Galaxy, who many think look like the best remaining team. They were a bit unlucky to even get Royal Never Give Up. They were unlucky that Royal stacked mountain drakes in their elimination game. Heck, they were even unlucky that Bjergsen got sick and lost his voice for some pivotal matches.

None of this should serve as an excuse: TSM did not deserve to go to quarters. But they also underperformed expectations, which in hindsight, seemed fairly set. We pegged them as a likely quarterfinalist with a shot at the semis. That still seems fair. Compare that to the old Royal Club, which got a bye into the quarterfinals of Season 3 via an asinine advancement system (bypassing groups altogether). That year, they won only one best-of-five before falling to SKT in the finals. The next year, they reproduced that stupendous luck by somehow avoiding every single Korean team on their way to the Season 4 final. That’s incredible luck. Sometimes the dice just don’t roll your way.

LCS fans, this has been a tough Worlds, but stick with your team(s). Root for the remaining ones. Don’t let this color your perception of players like Bjergsen who have sacrificed so much. The gap is the same as it was last year and the year before, but there are signs that it won’t remain wide forever.

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