Why the League of Legends Challenger Series needs work

The League of Legends Challenger scene is a strange place because there are so many different types of players and teams. One of the most striking things about it is that players can be loaned out to League Championship Series teams. Teams that qualify for the LCS can also be bought out, effectively replacing multiple members of that Challenger team.

The scene seems to be at an impasse, with differing philosophies emerging about just how exactly to use the Challenger Series. Riot Games itself has even been mum on that. So it’s worth taking a look at what the Challenger scene used to be and where it’s going.

How it worked before the Challenger Series

The early players (back in Season 1) adopted their mindset from Dota. Someone might be a good solo player, but real worth was measured by how well they could play in a team environment. During pre-Season 1, because the game was so new, the top players — who had come over from Dota or Heroes of Newerth — mostly played among themselves because the player base was so small (similar to Challenger of today, but to a much greater extent). Most of them formed teams to compete in the small early tournaments. Some would later evolve into powerhouse gaming teams like Counter Logic Gaming and Team SoloMid.

When solo queue ranked play came out, a player’s worth was measured by the solo queue rating, and making a name for yourself as a five-person unit, unless you were already known (like CLG, TSM, Epik Gamer, etc), was dying slowly. There was a 5-v-5 ladder early on as well, but there was no real incentive to climb the latter (an oft-discussed topic former pros like George “HotshotGG” Georgallidis would complain about).

Most teams during Seasons 1 and 2 mostly got together to play small tournaments like online Go4LoLs, or attempt to qualify to bigger tournaments like the IEM series. There was no league or something similar to a league where a player could attempt to become a top player. Networking solely worked by playing with people online, in game, either in solo queue or through random third party tournaments. Edward “Edward” Abgaryan stated that when he joined Team Empire, the team that would become the dominant Moscow 5, he was a roughly mid-1300s Elo player, which was roughly equivalent to mid gold in today’s ranking. Edward met Alexey “Alex Ich” Ichetovkin (who was around 2000 Elo, roughly equivalent to Diamond) by playing against each other in a tournament hosted by a Russian-speaking community website.

Going into Season 3, when Riot formed the League Championship Series, the 5-v-5 latter finally meant something. The top teams competed with each other for a chance to get into the LCS. Teams such as Moscow 5 or TSM were automatically included into the LCS, but the rest would have to rise through the 5-v-5 latter. Hence, at amateur, now dubbed “Challenger” scene was created, and it had an implied purpose: rise the ranks and get promoted, as a team, to play in the LCS. At that time, the top teams had players who all had very high solo queue rankings. Solo queue rating had then become the sole measurement of player skill.

How it works now

Since then, Riot has made many changes to the Challenger scene. Now called the Challenger Series (CS), the 5-v-5 latter has been disbanded and replaced by open qualifier tournaments where you have to create a team on Riot’s League of Legends Battlegrounds website (which you can learn more about here, as it is pretty elaborate).

Once a team qualifies, it compete in the Challenger Series. The Challenger Series has sort of become the minor leagues for League of Legends, which works on a relegation and promotion system, similar to the system used in English soccer. The top teams from the Challenger go up to the LCS, and the bottom LCS teams drop down to the Challenger Series. At least in theory.

What is the Purpose?

Riot defines the Challenger Series on its official website as: “the birthplace of future esports champions in North America and Europe. As the only path for players to join the premier LCS, competition in the CS is fierce.”

There really isn’t anything else explicitly stated, and it is hard to understand what the CS is meant to be for. It seems like there is two potentially different purposes for the existence of the CS.

  1. A place for teams to make the LCS.
  2. A place for players to grow so they can potentially replace players already in the LCS that are either being dropped by a team or retiring.

The first is just frosting on the cake. Yes, a team can win the CS promotional tournament and become an LCS team, but we need to take closer look at this. Teams can change rosters after getting in the LCS and rebrand entirely as another team, which has happened more and more in the last year with NRG and Immortals in North America and Team Vitality in Europe.

Another divergent path has emerged, though, in the Challenger scene: established teams fielding “B” teams in it. Team Liquid started Team Liquid Academy, a North American Challenger Series team that has produced Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett and Matt “Matt” Elento for the main roster. European powerhouse Fnatic recently announced it will field a team in the European Challenger Series.

A community that once had a clear purpose now contains differing philosophies and a lot of uncertainty.

Challenge boosters

The odd nature of the Challenger Series was showcased in a recent trade swapping Alex Itchand Shin “Seraph” Wu-Yeong, two players who are all too familiar with the song and dance by now.

Seraph subbed for multiple LCS teams this split before the trade. It caused some undeserved controversy, especially after a tweet by Team Dignitas’ managing director. At first glance, this might seem strange, but the system is engineered to help lower-tier LCS teams along with higher-tier Challenger players. Challenger players to get experience on the LCS stage as well as leave open opportunities for both the team and the players to maximise their benefits.

Alex Ich’s situation is even stranger than Seraph’s. He’s substituted for TDK on multiple occasions and also played for Renegades during its Challenger Series rise last summer split. Now he’s back for another stint in the Challenger Series.

Alex seems to slowly becoming a player like Cristian “Cris” Rosales. Cris was a part of Team Coast, which won an LCS spot, only to be bought out by NRG, replacing Cris and the rest of Coast with an entirely new roster. The worst part of it all is that  Alex played for TDK right when things heated up: during the promotion tournament. See anything wrong with this?

It seems like there is a new type of professional League of Legends player: Challenger booster. I really don’t have a problem with any of this, but it’s just confusing trying to figure out the Challenger Series’ purpose. Is it supposed to be a place where highly-skilled players compete to fight for a spot at becoming a LCS squad? Is it a place where players who are highly skilled at the game, compete just to get paid, knowing they will be replaced inevitably by more experienced players sometimes even from other regions?

Where to go?

Solo queue players wanting to become pros have a couple options. They can get lucky and catch someone’s eye who might be scouting for a CS or LCS team, or they can form or join a team looking to  go through the open bracket qualifying for the CS. Now, Let’s say they do form or join a team. Besides the risks and sacrifices involved in trying to become a pro player, at the end of the day they can simply be replaced with someone like Alex Ich, or their entire team can be bought out after qualifying for the LCS.

I know there are benefits involved with this current system, such as higher-quality players and teams actually playing in the LCS, but the amateur scene needs some work.

First, Riot needs to determine what the Challenger Series is and be more clear with the rules.

Second, if there aren’t any changes to the current amateur scene, I would like changes to be put in place where amateur players can compete and grow, similar to how minor leagues exist in professional baseball. There needs to be a place where amateurs play against each other to be potentially picked up, not necessarily worrying if their team is the best team in the league or not.

If we want local talent to grow in weaker regions like North America, there needs to be a place where scouts for professional LCS teams can scout players much more effectively, and professional coaches prepare those players more efficiently for a professional setting.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games.