If gambling odds and prediction articles are the best measurements we have of public opinion, then the League of Legends Master Series’ Flash Wolves have been one of the Mid-Season Invitational’s most pleasant surprises. Despite a dominant 3-0 victory against regional favorites ahq e-Sports Club, the Flash Wolves went into MSI with the traditional underdog status the scene gives each Taiwanese team that seeks to prove itself on the international stage. Fans who watched last year’s world championships retained vague memories of an aggressive, playmaking jungler and a top laner with incredible hair, and the latter doesn’t even play for the team anymore.
Yet despite the lack of hype surrounding the Wolves’ appearance at MSI, they’ve fought their way through the group stage, ending with a 6-4 record as the only team to beat SK Telecom T1twice. In a previous season, fans would already be making excuses as to why other teams had failed rather than looking at how the LMS has succeeded. But with strong performances at last year’s MSI and worlds, the Flash Wolves cannot be written off so easily. With a semifinal match against Counter Logic Gaming on Saturday, the spotlight is shining brightly on the LMS region, as fans from around the world are finally forced to take notice. It left me, a long-time fan of Taiwanese League of Legends, wondering why it’s taken so long for the LMS to get the acclaim it deserves.
The story of Taiwanese League of Legends can be traced back to 2012. After the game’s first world championships consisted almost entirely of North American and European teams, theSeason 2 World Championship was the first to feature powerhouses from across the Asian scene. Heading into the tournament, the storylines were clear: Azubu Frost and NaJin Sword, the Korean newcomers, would face off against the European powerhouses Moscow Five and CLG EU for a chance at the title. The Taipei Assassins, however, had other plans. The team barreled its way through the bracket stage off the backs of Kurtis “Toyz” Lau’s brilliant mid lane play and a smooth team fighting play style that caught the rest of the world entirely off guard. TPA was an underdog story playing with the confidence of a team that had been there before, and the result was incredibly fun to watch (as long as you weren’t a Moscow Five fan). As the players hoisted the World Championship trophy in the air, Taiwan had its first taste of a spotlight that would so elusively evade its grasp in the following years.
In another era, Riot Games likely would have used TPA’s success as a jumping off point to drive up fan interest in the region with an English cast. But the timing of TPA’s win wasn’t particularly kind to those hoping the Taiwanese infrastructure would get a badly-needed boost. In 2013, Riot was focused on creating and maintaining the League Championship Series. At the time, these leagues were far from the guaranteed successes they are today. It was hard to know just how much interest there would be for weekly League of Legends outside of the tournament format that had been so instrumental to the mystique that still surrounds Season 2. The LCS’ success is a testament to Riot’s efforts to make a product worth watching each week, but every decision has a cost. With Western fans focused on the weekly European and North American action, the brief window in which Taiwan could have become a focal point for the League of Legends scene faded away. The Season 3 World Championshipdidn’t help, either. A terrible format decision ensured the Gamania Bears didn’t play a single game until they were faced off against Korean powerhouse SK Telecom T1, which would go on to win the tournament handily. Taiwan had gone from championship region to a footnote in the story of Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s ascension, and the window in which Taiwan was seen as a region worth investment closed far too soon.
It’s easy to say that it’s not Riot’s responsibility to prop up a power region in that manner, and it certainly wasn’t the company’s philosophy at the time. Upon looking at the esports landscape in 2013, it’s easy to understand why: the Asian regions were seen as more than capable of taking care of themselves. Korea’s system was run by OnGameNet, which had long since established itself as the home of eSports in Korea going back to the Brood War days. KeSPA’s presence ensured the region would be taken care of with little to no oversight required on Riot’s end. China had Tencent, which was a majority shareholder of Riot Games by that time. It’s easy to focus on other tasks when your parent company offers to take care of a power region with an excess of players and wealth at its disposal.
Taiwan, on the other hand, was left with Garena to manage their system. Garena is easily the most controversial of these regional bodies, but looking past its various missteps with the player base, its production flaws are more easily understood by long time experts within the scene.
“I think what’s often overlooked is that Garena is a multi-game organization, and they’re actively incentivized against investing too fully into one title over another,” esports writer and LMS expert James “Obscurica” Chen said. “League is their main breadwinner, but their incentives are underlined by concerns about what’d happen if League stopped being big in Taiwan. Their production crew and casters are often heavily overworked, simultaneously balancing two or three titles at a time. The budget and physical resources for League esports broadcasting is shared with multiple titles.”
Even if Garena wanted to provide groundbreaking growth to the Taiwanese League of Legends scene, the risk of putting all of its proverbial eggs into one basket makes it nearly impossible. Without an influx of money from outside sources, there’s no way to justify that kind of investment unless you could guarantee a return in both the short and long term. The Gamania Bears’ unceremonious exit in the Season 3 World Championship showed just how risky that venture could be, and the distilled versions of the Taipei Assassins that repeatedly disappointed on the international stage throughout 2014 and early 2015 hammered the point home. The LMS was a region that had just enough resources for Riot to justify leaving it in Garena’s hands while not being nearly solid enough to allow for any further growth. Despite the hopes of the region’s most dedicated fans, stagnation was a clear and visible threat.
The easiest way to stave off stagnation is to get outside investors to pump the much needed money back into the scene. For Taiwan, however, this proved to be easier said than done. While Taiwan and China have a complicated relationship that is better served for a much different article, it’s easy to understand why local investors tended to appeal to the much larger and lucrative Chinese audience. This is where an English cast could have had the largest effect, as local tech companies would be much more inclined to invest if they were could also reach Western audiences. Sadly, this became a “chicken or the egg” debate within the region. There wasn’t enough of an audience to justify Garena prioritizing resources for an English cast, but the cost of not doing so kept anyone who wasn’t fluent in Mandarin from getting interested in the first place. As Chen noted, “We saw the consequences of that just this year: ESL bypassed us entirely, even as it was happy enough to set up IEM Taipei for Counter Strike: Global Offensive.” Given League’s success of IEM Katowice without a single Taiwanese representative, it’s possible that this trend will continue.
Strong tournament performances like the Flash Wolves’ showing at this year’s MSI undoubtedly help bring some attention to the region, but it is a poor showing of the actual state of the Taiwanese scene. Despite ahq e-Sports Club and the Flash Wolves reaching the world quarterfinals last year, Taiwan continues to produce teams like Dream, Reality and COUGAR, which are absolute messes from start to finish and would likely struggle to hang on to their spot in wild card regions, let alone the LMS. Once again, it comes down to the same funding issue that has been a thorn in Taiwanese region’s side time and time again.
“Without the funding to ensure that teams and players operate on similar playing fields, externalities outside the game like jobs, school, and military conscription make it so that only the orgs with pre-existing commitment to eSports, like ahq, Flash Wolves and Taipei Assassins will really bother giving the teams what they need to succeed,” Chen said.
Jay Chou’s recent purchase of TPA might finally be enough to secure funding for a triumvirate of talented teams at the top of the standings, but the lack of funds for the scene as a whole ensure the middle and bottom tiers do not improve at the same rate we’re seeing in the rest of the power regions.
This puts Taiwan in a far more precarious position than most people realize. While strong performances from the Flash Wolves make for a great story, it’s tough to imagine the region continuing to grow without any outside help for the lower tier of teams. Without strong competition to force teams to grow week after week, stagnation at the top is a massive threat. While English writers covering the LMS scene are finally starting to make some headway, the lack of an English cast makes it incredibly difficult for fans who might come across their work to actually connect to the games and storylines at play. Most worryingly, this lack of resources ensures that the region is only one crisis away from collapsing in on itself. With Garena’s attention being divided across multiple titles and Riot Taiwan’s esports department having a staff on one person, it’s hard to imagine the scene recovering from a major scandal or a team like ahq dropping out of the League of Legends scene. The region needs help, and Garena won’t be able to do it alone. Without significant assistance from Riot, Taiwan might not hang on as a power region for much longer.
Despite all of this, the Flash Wolves keep moving forward. Young talents like Yau “MMD” Li-Hung have grown substantially over the past split, and the team’s veterans have used their experiences at last year’s worlds to take their game to the next level. Huang “Maple” Yi-Tang,Hung “Karsa” Hau-Hsuan, and Hu “SwordArt” Shuo-Jie have all earned respect in the international scene throughout MSI with consistent high-level play that would fit in any power region. The Flash Wolves do not play like a team scared of what will happen to their region in the coming years; instead, they play with an energy and excitement that is plastered across their faces after every victory. The team has earned every ounce of acclaim it’s received, and Clement Chu’s appearance on the analyst desk is a further sign that the LMS powerhouses are starting to get the respect they deserve.
None of the acclaim fixes the intrinsic issues present within the scene, but it does give Riot the opportunity to push the region forward where it failed to do so in 2012. Chen’s path to fixing the LMS is actually quite simple: use the team’s success against major rivals in Korea and China in recent international play as motivation to plug the current holes.
“At the very least, there needs to be an English casting crew working alongside Clement and the Mandarin casters,” Chen said. “On top of that, we need three more policies: subsidized team funding on par with the North American LCS, since funding for Taiwanese premier teams is the worst of all regions — this alone would make it a lot more feasible to go pro in Taiwan; expansion of the LMS to include either Vietnam or more of Southern China to counteract the player base issue, and assistance in attracting non-endemic sponsors, which would require an English broadcast to justify”.
Riot has made those kinds of changes before with great success. It properly recognized the growing Western interest in the Chinese scene after repeated strong international performances and prioritized their English cast in 2015. The funding and sponsors that are now commonplace in the LCS prove that Riot knows how to market and sustain a league of this magnitude if it wants to do so. With the spotlight shining brightly on the Taiwanese scene Saturday, Riot has the opportunity to fix the LMS before it breaks under its own weight. The Flash Wolves and ahq e-Sports Club’s recent performances on the International stage have given Riot a second chance to do right by the region. For the sake of all those who enjoy the high quality League of Legends performances the LMS’ top teams have delivered, we can only hope Riot makes the most of it.
Photos courtesy of Riot Games.