The Tragedy of Team MRN - The State of the North American Challenger Circuit



Sat 1st Jun 2013 - 5:44pm

This article represents the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of Team Dignitas.

I'd like to start this article by saying that the following article is not an indictment on Marn or his organization and their dissolution. This article is only meant to explain the situation that led to MRN's dissolving and discuss how the Challenger Circuit, or the lack there of, contributed to this event.

As such, while I may make specific statements about players on MRN, they are not intended to be offensive, rather I am simply trying to explain situation in full. This is also not an article that is intending to undermine the victory by Velocity eSports, nor blame them for the dissolution of MRN. Basically, this is an attempt to disarm anyone in the comments from misinterpreting what I'm writing.

The rise and fall of Team MRN explains the problems with the NA LCS and Challenger Circuit.

Team MRN has always been a team that's been heralded by a fluid roster and a great deal of drama involving the team's owner, Martin "Marn" Phan. The team had gone through numerous rosters, and Marn had a flair for the dramatic, which sometimes resulted in such catastrophes such as the aborted MRN roster that was to go to IPL5. However, one thing that has never been questioned is Marn's passion for eSports, which makes it so much sadder that his team had dissolved after they failed to qualify for the Summer Split of the North American LCS.

MRN said in his statement that "the dream is dead" and that while they were improving at the end of the season it didn't matter. It's horrible to see someone that put his heart and soul into his team get crushed, and thats what the dissolution of MRN did. And the reason that MRN dissolved is that we shouldn't be calling the North American LCS Promotion/Relegation Tournament a "relegation tournament". There is nothing to relegate to, no strong Challenger scene and no way to even attempt to make a semi-professional team work for an extended period of time for amateur teams.

The Challenger Scene Internationally

The "Challenger Scene" is the semi-pro scene that occurs under the professional level, and exists throughout the world. Each region has these two scenes, the "professional" and the "semi-pro" or "amateur" aka "challenger". The professional circuits of these regions are ones that have direct support from Riot Games and the players make an ensured salary, allowing it to be their full time job.

The League Championship Series of NA and Europe, OGN's The Champions in Korea, the Garena ProLeague in Southeast Asia, and the Tecent ProLeague in China make up this highest level of competitive play. The teams of the challenger circuit are those teams trying to break into this career. The NLB of Korea, the Challenger Circuits of NA and Europe, the national leagues of SEA (Like Singapore's The Legend's Circuit), and the constantly shifting national tournaments of China provide the opportunity for these teams to make the break.

This is not to say that the competitive scenes of these regions is homogenous, however. Where as North America and Europe have clearly delineated lines between the challenger and professional leagues, Southeast Asia has these teams playing for spots in the Regional finals against GPL squads in their national leagues.

Korea has quite a solid profesional league, but the teams aren't isolated from each other, as many of the teams need to requalify for The Champions each year, either through relegation through the NLB or the OGN Qualifiers. (Teams that fall short in The Champions are demoted to the current season of NLB, a similar process to the demotions of players in Starcraft's GSL Code A/Code S.)  And as such, the challenger circuits of each of these regions have different levels of success.

Amateur teams in Korea have a brutal path up to the top, having to fight their way through the twenty-four team NLB or the massive qualifiers to get a shot into the top level. Once they reach that top level, however, they're normally greeted by an eager KeSPA (Korean eSports Association) or eSF (eSports Federation) organization looking to put a team into the tournament. These teams have massive infrastructures built upon the success of Brood War and can give the players stability, organization, and job security they need to succeed at the top level.

With eight teams that were in the Champions demoted into the NLB bracket, there is actual contact between professional teams and challenger squads in a competitive environment, which also leads to less shell-shock on stage. (This isn't necessarily always true, as seen by MVP Blue during Champions Winter.) Turnover tends to be high, however, as the fates of AHQ Korea and MVP Blue can show, but challenger teams can make their mark in the Champions, like SK Telecom T1, which was a motly group of amateurs and semi-pros that has shocked the Korean scene. 

The Legends Circuit of Singapore has placed semi-pro teams against the professionals, and has been very entertaining.

In Southeast Asia, the chasm betwen the professional teams and the challenger teams varies so very greatly depending upon the region. Regions like Singapore have the Sentinels standing above teams, with experienced squads like Absolute Legends behind them, and the amateur teams collapsing under them. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, while the Saigon Jokers are above their league, the other GPL squad, Saigon Fantastic Five, is squarely in the middle of the pack. And personally, I cannot make heads or tails of what to take from the TeSL Draft League, where four drafted teams were picked up by organizations to face the Taipei Snipers and AHQ Gaming. 

In Europe, the Challenger Circuit is mainly dominated by established organizations, mainly national ones, that pick up promising organizations or cobble together teams from former challenger squads. The teams also cross-polinate with professional teams during the qualifiers for IEM and during the events themselves. One such challenger squad, Anexis eSports, knocked out three professional teams during the IEM World Championships (SK Telecom T1, SK Gaming, and MeetYourMakers), and came out of the tournament in 5th. Similarly, Millenium (which dissolved after failing to qualify for LCS) took on Fnatic and LG - Incredible Miracle to end up tied for 5th in the same tournament. The European Challenger Circuit also has had a great deal of events to keep the Challenger teams playing each other and active.

The State of the North American Challenger Circuit

However, the North American Challenger Circuit is in a much less comfortable position, for two reasons. The first is the overall lack of large competitive organizations in the NA Circuit. Currently, there are only a few premier organizations which have teams in the Challenger Circuit: compLexity has two, while FXOpen and Curse each have a single team. There are other established organizations in the Challenger Circuit, like Azure Gaming, but they don't bring the clout or infrastructure that these major organizations do. Instead, the landscape is mostly populated by smaller amateur squads or semi-pro squads. 

Now this does not necessarily lead to a poor Challenger Circuit, as teams like Samurai in Jeans, GSG, Cutest of Cats, and Sinners Never Sleep have shown that a strong organization isn't necessary for a team to have competitive success. Heck, even in the case of Team MRN, they were mainly an amateur team getting to the top level of the game through their spunk. This wouldn't be a problem at all if there was an active challenger scene in North America. But alas, there isn't. The MLG RisingStars Invitation, a tournament that called four of the best challenger teams in each week for a thousand dollars in prize money died after only six weeks, despite some of the games being the most entertaining League of Legends I have ever watched.

The huge tournament that was supposed to draw the eyes of the nation (and even world) to North America's amateur teams, IPL6, never happened due to it being sold to Blizzard, and things got so desperate that several challenger team managers organized a "We'll Do It Ourselves Cup" in an attempt to do something to cultivate a North American Challenger Circuit. Finally, ESL's ESL Pro Series has seen dropping viewer counts despite their organization of the eight best challenger teams into an actual league format. And this cripples the Challenger Circuit teams in more ways than one.

When your tournament names have become this self-aware, there is a problem with your competitive scene.

The Plight of Amateur Teams - Dropped into the Deep End

Amateur teams that make it to the big stage in LA for their chance at a career in competitive League of Legends have been wronged by the lack of an actual Challenger Circuit as it hasn't prepared them for the live event. As much as one might argue that the Live Qualifiers at MLG Dallas and Los Angeles should have readied them for what was coming, I only ask one to look at Team MRN at the start of the LCS. MRN came into the LCS as the Cindarella Story; the little team that shouldn't have made it, but they sure earned their spot. But during Week 2, when they went face to face with Team SoloMid, the perennial North American Champions, and Team Dignitas, the second strongest team in NA for much of the Spring Split, they looked like deer in the headlights and were slaughtered. 

This isn't just because of a lack of any competitive experience on Team MRN, though. While ecco was new to the stage, and Heartbeatt had only played collegiate tournaments before joining MRN, ClakeyD had played fighting games at the competitive level, MegaZero played Bloodline Champions at the highest level, and AtomicN had played on (long-suffering) Lzuruha Gaming before joining up with MRN. Team MRN had never gotten the chance to play any of the longstanding professional teams and were dissected for their first appearance. And while they recovered for Weeks 3 and 4, they suffered the fate that many amateur teams do and lacked that killer instinct that is only gained though numerous iterations of late-game professional play.

It's unfortunate we won't see these guys back on the stage this summer.

The lack of interaction between the professionals and challengers except for when the challengers are either fighting for their promotion or when they just qualified and were thrown into the deep end of the pool without any time to adapt. For teams that are experienced and have a great deal of synergy, such as Quantic Cloud 9, this will not be as much of an issue. Even with a gutted roster, Quantic Cloud 9 still is full of players that have (at this point) years of experience, whether it be on Monomaniac, Orbit, or even the old Ordinance. They have played against the TSM, dignitas, CLG before, and they will be able to play on that experience to succeed in the long-run. But for a team like MRN, the only experience they have against these teams was ClakeyD's appearance for Epik at IPL4, which was quite a long time ago. 

One can argue that the amateur team has an advantage by the massive amount of tape they should have on their professional opponents, and while thats true, focusing on that diminishes the fact that experience is a much better teacher than tape. While tape might tell you the intricacies of a team's strategy or their predilection to certain team compositions, it isn't going to stop a team from freezing up at a LAN, nor is it going to give them the instinct to rip a recoiling team's throat out. You can see this growth in MRN, which coincided with their acquisition of Nientonsoh, longtime Orbit/Quantic AD Carry who was playing on the amateur Azure Cats.

As the season moved on, they moved with more purpose, with their team rotating and applying pressure when they had teams on the ropes, taking objectives when they saw four of the others. The level of play that MRN showed during the second half of the season was so much more refined than their play during the first half of the season, and this not only because they gained the experience that led to them learning to execute late game, but they also were pushed by the level of competition to new heights. 

It isn't just the the competitive side that is thrown into the deep-end, though. The amateur organization is also forced to deal with situations that it had never had to deal with before - a gaming house. If you listened to scarra's stream as the Spring LCS approached, you saw how much trouble an established organization had to deal with to get their gaming house together, whether it be transportation, internet access (especially the internet access), or simply living space. An amateur organization has to deal with this without access to the reserves or manpower that one of these top teams have, not to mention the lack of experience. However, despite them being thrown into the deep end, this isn't the worst part of the current LCS/Challenger set-up.

The LCS is a Zero-Sum Game

During the build up to the Promotion/Relegation tournament, we were hearing statements from Counter Logic Gaming, one of the oldest LoL organizations, that they would dissolve if they ended up out of the LCS. Similarly, Dignitas noted there would be "changes" if the unfortunate happened. And the reason behind this is that the LCS has become a zero-sum game, and each team in it means another team is being denied any chance to play at the highest level. Now, let me state really quickly here that I'm not saying that the LCS shouldn't be the highest level of professional LoL in North America, nor am I saying that there should be subsidies from Riot to those guys who don't make the cut. Its a competition, and there should be something to compete for. Relegation/Promotion should mean something, but it shouldn't mean the death of the team.

Relegation for a major organization doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to dissolve, as the organization can regroup and at least provide for the players while they attempt to get back in. However, with these amateur teams, relegation is a death sentence for two reasons. The first is that there is very little monetary support for the Challenger circuit that they've been demoted to. Go4LoL is the only tournament played regularly, and other Challenger tournaments, such as the Rising Stars Invitational, have stopped occurring due to either lack of interest or lack of funding. For a team that was recently getting its funding straight from Riot to play, it means that they're going to experience an absolute lack of material support all of a sudden, and only a few of the players will be able to garner up the strong numbers of viewers and subscribers to make a living off of streaming.

This lack of material support means players will look to make the jump back into the LCS, even if it means not being a part of their team anymore. Now, there should be no bad blood for Wildturtle or Nientonsoh joining blue-chip teams in TSM or CLG, but for each super-star player to leave an amateur-level team, it means that those teams are probably not a threat to jump back into the LCS. The primary example of this is Azure Cats, which loss Nientonsoh to MRN in the middle of the season, and never really looked the same afterward. Although they fought through the other amateur teams, they were slaughtered by CLG during the Promotion/Relegation tournament. Players might also be unwilling to rejoin the Challenger Circuit at all, like MegaZero, who stated he'd rather sub on a LCS team than play in the amateur circuit. And that's for the players that have the individual skill to be picked up. MegaZero is unlikely to stay out as a free agent long, and Nientonsoh has already been picked up by CLG, but for ecco, Heartbeat, and ClakeyD, they're probably lost their one chance to play at the very top of the North American circuit. 

So What Can Be Done?

This zero-sum game has aided in the dissolution of one and a half (looking at you, DragonBorns) LCS teams, as players are unable to stick onto an amateur team after it falls out of the LCS. Three things, in my mind, can be done to change this. The first is the establishment or encouragement of a true Challenger League. Now, there is already the groundwork on this has already been done by ESL, with their EPS, but the problem is that there isn't a consistent schedule nor is their an established audience for the event, unlike the one in Europe.

I think that Riot should work with ESL to build up an audience for the EPS or whatever league gets started, much like it has done in the past to encourage people to watch Intel Extreme Masters or Dreamhack. Similarly, it should give visibility to Challenger tournaments, like the upcoming WellPlayed Cup, which will encourage organizers to hold them in the first place.  There is a need to make the Challenger scene a viable, but not preferable, way for a team that leaves the LCS to survive. 

The second thing that needs to be done is knocking down the wall that stands between NA professional and amateur teams. Understanding that a professional product needs to be put on display during the LCS regular season, but some of the best North American play we have seen was during the IPL 5 Qualifiers, where big name teams brawled with amateurs, and we saw teams like Meat Playground beat big name teams, including China's Invictus Gaming.

There are complaints by professional players about the quality of scrimmage partners in the North American scene, but one cannot expect a competitive amateur team to pop up out of nowhere, and the cross-pollination between pro and amateur might lead to the next APictureofaGoose/Meat Playground/BLACK appearing. I'm not saying that professional teams need to show up and ruin every Challenger tournament by stomping everyone, which might stymie the growth of the scene by taking away the material support for these teams. But encouraging LCS teams to compete for IEM invites or participate in Pro/Ams would help the scene develop.

The last thing that needs to be done is to break the attitude in North America that nothing can be done to change the professional gaming infrastructure. Whenever a professional has an AMA, we hear a fatalistic view on how Korea's infrastructure is so much better than ours and that's why they're so far out of our reach. But there are organizations in North America that can establish that infrastructure, and us lacking KeSPA/OGN doesn't mean that we're eternally doomed to trail behind Korea. As fans, there's little we can do outside encouraging local eSports organizations like TeSPA and UBCeSPA and domestic organizers like MLG. Give your support to the organizations you love and their sponsors.

If you buy from a sponsor, make it known you bought from them because of their sponsorship. Make it clear that there is a market and a want for the infrastructure, and businesses will make a move to establish it. For any organizers or sponsors that might be reading this, if you show that you're committed to eSports, you'll be rewarded by the fans of the teams you support. Remember that any infrastructure for eSports that we put in place is going to be much different from Korea's, if only because of the size and scope of our nation. Don't burn up like Icarus by trying to fly too high/too fast, but develop it slowly.

The NA Challenger Circuit is right now at a point where if it stays as is -- nonexistent -- we will see more teams bite the dust after being pushed out of the LCS, as they will not be able to survive without the subsidies that they get from Riot to participate, as the only real other way to make ends meet is through streaming. A full fledged Challenger Circuit would allow for the development of true semi-professional teams in North America, and allow there to be good scrimmage partners for the LCS teams, encouraging the growth of the NA scene as a whole. In the end, an established Challenger Circuit isn't just necessary for amateur teams, but for the entire region.