published at 16:34 CEST, Tuesday June 13 2017

Zechs Files: North America and The Hyperbolic Time Chamber Problem

TSM continues to dominate the best teams in their region while struggling internationally. Their supremacy is bad for everyone, including TSM.

In League of Legends, The Gap is basically a meme at this point.  We’ve heard LCS commentators referring to it for a while now – is it closing, is it growing, is it roughly the same size it’s always been? How deep is the gap? Is there treasure at the bottom or just cold rainwater and mud? Even I wrote about it in my column a few weeks ago.

But there is a different gap that has had me worried for just as long. It’s a gap fewer people have spoken about, and which I wasn’t really able to put into words until now; now that it seems to be closing. I’m talking about the gap between first and second place in the LCS regions.
 
The strength of an entire region is roughly equal to the sum of its parts. Europe’s best team, G2, spend the majority of their time practicing with and playing against other European teams, so the region as a whole is judged on G2's results. It's the same with America and Team SoloMid. International tournaments like MSI are vital for non-Korean teams in their perennially unsuccessful game of catch-up, but it clearly isn't enough. To be blunt: if the best team you can play against regularly is H2K or Cloud 9, you’re never going to beat SKT. If anything, dominating a region in the way that G2 has in recent years is actively bad for your chances of doing well internationally (more on that later). For the best team in a region to improve, the entire region needs to improve.
 
Fortunately, we have seen signs of that happening in the early days of the Summer Split. Fnatic, European hero team of yesteryear currently sit top of their group with an undefeated record and, more importantly, a win over G2 under their belts. Yes, G2 had a pretty good excuse for their loss – a lack of practice on the patch, inflicted by MSI – but even last Split that would have probably just meant Fnatic lost by a narrower margin than they otherwise would. It’s only one game, but it’s a sign of something potentially much greater. After all, since the tail end of last split we have seen Fnatic looking like they did in the xPeke era. While a single victory might not mean much in isolation, in the context of an extended hot streak like Fnatic’s we can attach a little more significance.

G2 and Fnatic - the start of a healthy rivalry in Europe?


In Europe, then, we have at least one team who are knocking on the palace gates and demanding, if not revolution, then at least an audience with King Perkz. In America, however, things are a little less clear.
 
After four games, Team Solo Mid – lets call them the Presidents; I hear the colonies aren’t fond of royalty – are 2/2. It’s still early in the season, but in the entire Spring Split, TSM only suffered three losses. It’s a long way from here to playoffs with two defeats already. But isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t it show us that the gap between TSM and other American teams is shrinking?  Well, yes, kind of.
 
While it’s pretty clear that, in Europe, Fnatic has been getting better, in America it looks to me like TSM has been getting worse. Again, just to be clear, it is still early in Summer but TSM looked dreadful at MSI and have struggled against weaker teams domestically. Fans are quick to point out that they have beaten the better teams they have faced, but that is not a sustainable long-term system. For one thing, there are more average-to-bad teams than there are good ones, so mathematically, only beating good teams a losing prospect. Obviously, sports don’t play out as black and white as that, but in a league system you do have to beat the bad teams too.
 
The fact that TSM still seem to be able to get it up for the big local opposition is, in a weird way, a bad sign for North America. Remember when I said it’s a bit more complicated over there? On the one hand, you could say that TSM being able to rise to the big occasion, even in a slump, is a healthy sign. It’s the stuff of champions to be able to eke out wins while playing below par. But on the really big stage, at international events, TSM continue to be flaccid. Looking at it from this perspective, it seems clear that TSM’s dominance of North America is holding the entire region back.
 
Imagine that international competition is the Hyperbolic Time Chamber from Dragonball Z. If used correctly it is the fastest, most efficient way of getting stronger. Every team in North America knows this but, to get in, they have to get past TSM first. TSM isn’t even using the chamber properly, they’re just stopping anyone else from getting in. While teams like Cloud 9, CLG and Dignitas can potentially reach TSM’s level, they will struggle to surpass it as long as TSM continues to hog the Time Chamber of MSI qualification.
 
It’s a difficult spot for the other American teams. They need to practice against better opposition, but there is little incentive for better opposition to give them scrims. CLG could learn a lot from playing against, let’s say, Longzhu, on a regular basis, but what do Longzhu get from it? There is very little for them to learn from the 2nd best team in a tier three region. To throw in a more literary allusion, teams like CLG are relying on the kindness of strangers when it comes to practicing against top tier teams. It’s going to remain that way until somebody can put a stop to TSM’s dominance.

Title image courtey of TSM's Twitter.

Michael “Zechs_” Radford

Michael "Zechs" Radford is an esports veteran and has been writing about professional gaming for longer than he cares to remember. He currently lives in Leeds and is hoping his upcoming offspring will be talented enough to play esports professionally rather than just write about other people doing it.