The moment Longzhu Gaming was eliminated by fellow League Champions Korea competitor Samsung Galaxy in the quarterfinals of the League of Legends World Championship, the LCK playoff format came under international scrutiny.
Crowned Korea’s first seed after beating SK Telecom T1 3-1 in the LCK summer final, Longzhu was a pre-tournament favorite to take the Summoner’s Cup. Longzhu had already proven that it could beat SKT, a likely opponent in the knockout stage, and Samsung was once again an unlikely representative of Korea that had also looked shaky in in the group stage. After a quick Samsung 3-0, fans lamented that Longzhu had already been eliminated before turning to the LCK gauntlet-style playoff as one reason for Longzhu’s weaknesses. Longzhu had only played one best-of-five in the entire 2017 season: the summer final against SKT.
Of all major regions, Korea and the League of Legends Master Series are the only two with gauntlet formats rather than bracketed rounds. But the LMS only has eight total teams, where the LCK has 10.
Many LCK fans and followers of Korean League of Legends have been critical of this format since its inception. When the playoff gauntlet was introduced as a part of the new LCK league format, viewers were less than enthused because it denied audiences the larger number of playoff best-of-fives that made OGN’s Champions tournaments so riveting. The initial gauntlet included only four teams — CJ Entus, the Jin Air Green Wings, SK Telecom T1, and the GE Tigers — and three best-of-fives. This was expanded in summer 2015 to the current format: five teams, three best-of-fives, and a “wildcard” best-of-three between the fourth and fifth place teams.
Unlike traditional sports, a bye in League of Legends isn’t as beneficial to the team with the better seed. With the frequency of patches, a team can have front-loaded wins and still be seeded as first in the gauntlet, much like the GE Tigers in spring 2015. Across three years of the LCK, the top-seeded team is 4-2 in the final. Longzhu became the only team to be a first seed in the LCK playoffs other than the GE/ROX Tigers and SKT.
The LCK system rewards the team that wins the summer final with Korea’s first seed to worlds due to hiccups with seeding in the past. Most famously, in 2013, the two top teams in Korea were SK Telecom T1 and the KT Rolster Bullets. Yet, due to the way teams were seeded only SKT qualified.
At that time, OGN’s Champions Winter, Spring, and Summer tournaments were all weighted equally in circuit points. NiceGameTV’s NLB tournament ran concurrently to Champions, and winners of every NLB event — as teams dropped out of Champions they were seeded into the corresponding NLB tournament — were similarly awarded circuit points. The winner of Champions received 400 points and the winner of the NLB 100. Because NaJin Black Sword won 2012-13 Champions Winter and was the NLB champion for the two subsequent seasons that year, it qualified as the first seed, despite failing to make it out of the group stage in Champions Summer. The Champions Spring winner MVP/Samsung Ozone qualified as the second seed, and both SKT and the Bullets had to go through the regional qualifier. If the Bullets had made it out, there would have been a similar pushback on why Sword was the first seed, while SKT was at home. Although Sword gave the summer champions their best series at Season 3 Worlds, the Bullets, CJ Entus Blaze, and CJ Entus Frost were all better teams than Sword in late 2013.
The problem with Korea’s gauntlet format isn’t that the summer season is weighted too heavily. Summer should count more towards worlds than spring, especially now that teams have the Mid-Season Invitational between the two splits. But the current gauntlet format combined with the way seeding works means it’s possible for the LCK summer champion to qualify as Korea’s first seed to worlds while having played only one best-of-five, like this year’s Longzhu. A bracketed playoff format, even with a bye into the semifinals, would have given Longzhu at least one more best-of-five to help prepare the team to better adapt.
At worlds, we’ve also seen some of the benefits of having to play more games going into later stages of the tournament rather than being seeded in, because it does give some of these teams more room to adapt the more games they play. Three of the four play-in winners — Fnatic, Team WE, and Cloud9 — made it out of their respective groups and into the quarterfinals. By contrast, first seeds had an abysmal showing, with all but one (Longzhu) eliminated in groups. How far a team makes it at worlds isn’t always the best metric because it still depends on group draws, but if that’s a primary measurement, then it wasn’t a good year for No. 1 seeds. Of the play-in representatives, WE is the only one that qualified for the semifinals — and all three couldn’t have qualified simultaneously because WE and C9 had to play each other — but C9 was one game away from making it to the semifinals and Fnatic lost 3-1.
Is it time to change the LCK playoff format? In light of Longzhu’s demise and the fantastic, competitive brackets that many still remember from OGN Champions, change should, at the very least, be considered. A return to the previous best-of-five round of eight would mean more games, but it would also give Korea’s first seed more time to prepare, adapt, and grow even stronger.