What group play says about the future of the LCS

As the LCS heads to its final weeks, we look at how group play has impacted competition in Europe.
An image of a screen after a team wins on stage at the EU LCS
The EU LCS has been a guinea pig © Riot Games
By Mike Stubbsy

The EU LCS has been in a strange position over the last year or so. When Riot announced that it was doing away with best of ones in the LCS, it was Europe that got the short end of the stick. While North America prospered under the new best of three format, Europe was stuck with the strange best of two format that resulted in a high amount of draws and left a lot of fans unhappy. Riot’s explanation that Europe is used to draws thanks to football – OK, fine, soccer – didn’t help matters either.

Then this year, Riot gave EU its own shot at making best of threes work, but with the slight caveat that the ten teams of the LCS would be split into two groups of five – itself a rather North American approach. Each team plays all the teams in their group twice, but will only play the teams in the other group once each split. It’s a format that’s divided opinion, but only now are we starting to get a picture of how well it’s worked.

This week saw the final inter-group matches take place, and the first day of matches was lovingly named the relegation bowl, as the bottom two teams from each group ended up playing each other. With only four more matches for each team in the Spring Split we have a pretty good idea how the end of split tournaments will look, and we can finally start to see if the group system has worked, or if it’ll go the same way as the best of twos.

What does this mean for the rest of the split?

First off, let’s get up to speed on what’s actually happened. So far each of the teams has played each team in their group once, and each team in the opposite group once. Thanks to the way things have worked out in both groups, this has given us a very good idea of the teams that will be playing in the playoffs come the end of the split, and makes some of the group matches more of a formality than anything. G2 and Misfits from Group A and H2k and the Unicorns of Love from Group B are all guaranteed a place in the playoffs, while Fnatic and Splyce would have to mess up in order to not take the final places.

Things get a little more interesting as we look at those trying to avoid the relegation tournament. In Group A, Roccat and Giants both sit at two wins and seven losses, while Team Vitality have the same score over in Group B, where they are above Origen who have a dismal zero wins and nine losses. This is where the most exciting action will be for the rest of the split. Any of the teams could technically end up in the relegation tournament, while only two will be safe in fourth place.

Unfortunately this does mean there are fewer must-watch games over the coming weeks. While the last four weeks of inter-group play have featured crucial matches daily, these last few weeks will be a little slower, with matches such as G2 vs Roccat being less important unless a major upset happens. Of course, this would still be the case if the old system was in place.

Has the format worked?

© LoL Esports

There is an argument to be made that this has put something of a dampener on the end of the season. With the top teams in each group basically locked in, only the bottom of the table provides any real entertainment along with the battle between H2k and UoL for first in Group B. But if this were the old system, we would have three teams on 7-2 which would be battling for that all-important second place that guarantees a semi-final berth. A little more hype, but not a killer difference.

What’s key here is that the top teams seem to be winning constantly, and that’s what best of threes were always meant to produce. Back in the wild days of best of ones, a struggling team could pull out a vital win against a top team by using some kind of unexpected cheese strategy. Sure, it might have been fun to watch, but it made the league a little too unpredictable, and sometimes meant the best teams missed out on Worlds as a result.

The big advantage is that all the matches have been on one stream. While NA is split over two streams, making fans choose which match they want to watch and which they have to skip, Europe has allowed super fans to watch every single game live, and this is quite the achievement. This should make things a lot more sustainable for teams, as they are always guaranteed to be playing on the most popular stream, which will please sponsors.

Yes is the simple answer to this question. It’s worked and it’s been much better than previous splits, but there are some issues that we have been lucky to avoid, and could crop up if the format returns for summer.

© LoLeventVODs - LoL Esports VODs

Will other regions end up adopting this format?

Now, this is the difficult part, and the simple answer is we aren’t sure right now. NA seems pretty set on its current format where everyone plays everyone twice in best of threes. It creates more games so two streams run simultaneously. It works, but is obviously not ideal and makes it impossible to watch everything.

Interestingly, Europe’s system is actually quite similar to American sports, such as the NFL, so the change would probably fit well into the NA LCS. But only seeing matches such as TSM vs Cloud9 or CLG once a split would certainly be disappointing.

You also have the potential issue that the NA LCS teams seem to be a lot closer in skill level compared to Europe, and there have been quite a few surprise teams this year. If the snake draft of deciding who goes into each group was done in NA, you could easily have a situation where the two worst teams ended up in the same group, meaning one of them is safe from relegation, while a team that narrowly misses out on playoffs could potentially be in that perilous promotion tournament. As we all know, if there is one thing NA teams hate, it’s going into the promotion tournament from the LCS.

If other regions were to adopt this format then there would probably need to be some changes to the way groups are drawn, and the broadcast schedules, as having some weeks with three days of games and others with four is a little confusing. There would also probably be even more overlap between EU and NA brodcast days, which could cause even more conflicts.

Chances are we won't see too much change in Europe for the Summer Split, and it’d certainly be a surprise to see NA adopt this group based structure this season. But anything could happen next year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a similar format used on both sides of the Atlantic, especially if more teams end up coming into the league.

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