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Eat or be eaten: the Darwinian system at the heart of esports

Eat or be eaten: the Darwinian system at the heart of esports

Where was Dignitas in this year’s Summer Split? A full year before Riot introduced the League Championship Series, Team Dignitas was playing League of Legends at a professional level. They were one of the original three North American teams in the league. No one can deny they’d been having a rough go of it lately, but come on—until now, Dignitas had appeared in every NA split in LCS history. So where the hell was Dignitas?

Last Spring, after a terrible series of losses that left them in 10th place, Dignitas found themselves fighting simply to come back in the Summer. They failed in that attempt, losing 3-0 to Team Dragon Knights. Just like that, Dignitas was snatched away by the bogeyman of so many esports: they were relegated.

Team Dragon Knights cross the stage after beating Dignitas. Image via Youtube
Team Dragon Knights cross the stage after beating Dignitas. Image via Youtube

What is relegation, exactly, and where does it come from? While relatively uncommon stateside, relegation is familiar to fans of soccer and rugby. Both operate on a similar system: fail to perform in the major leagues, and a team will be relegated to the minor leagues, ensuring a certain quality of play at the uppermost levels of a sport.

“In the world of traditional sports, your team doesn’t die if you relegate.”

The arguments for relegation’s existence are evident in American sports: when there’s no threat of a team losing their spot in the league, the consequences of poor performance become a lot less dire. There’s not a 76er fan alive who could forget their cringeworthy 2014 season, where the team threw match after match in an effort to improve their drafts (ironically, it’s the 76ers that recently acquired Dignitas). By preventing stunts like this, relegation succeeds—but in esports, the manner of its success is often cruel, and for team owners, utterly terrifying.

Marty Strenczewilk, team owner of Splyce, explained a key difference to me: “In the world of traditional sports, your team doesn’t die if you relegate. You still have a team, you’ve just not going to be making as much money. From an esports perspective, it’s the same thing, except for one major difference: our minor league system sucks.” In this regard, Strenczewilk is speaking game-agnostically: they all suck, one and all.

CS:GO offers a good example, thanks to the stark contrast between its major and minor leagues. While the ESL Pro League for 2016 had a collective prize pool of $750,000, the Major League offered only a $4,000 pool split across the top four teams in the tournament. It isn’t just financials that suddenly disappear following relegation, too—your team becomes almost invisible to fans and sponsors alike. While all Pro League matches are streamed live, most Major League matches are done offline, with only a few opportunities (semi-finals and finals, specifically) for fans to tune in.

The danger isn’t just for existing teams, either; the sense of uncertainty relegation creates about the future could scare away potential investors. “As you’re getting more professional organizations, you’re no longer just some dudes playing a video game—you’re an organization, with a business model,” said Strenczewilk. “And if there’s no business to be had in the minor leagues, what happens when you get relegated? How much can you put in the majors with the risk that it might all go away if you get relegated to the minors?”

It can also be difficult to hold onto talent in a system that favors relegation. “Look at our League of Legends roster,” said Strenczewilk. “If I’m Sencux, and we get relegated, do I really want to go play in Challenger and crap on a bunch of players I’m better than, just to get back up with this organization? Or do I just want to go to another organization, and continue to play at the pro level?”

“We knew it was always a risk, but it was still terrifying.”

He doesn’t mention it until I do, but this year, that was very nearly a reality for Splyce’s League of Legends team. When I ask about their brush with relegation, Strenczewilk’s breath catches, and the verbose, fast-talking New Yorker finds himself, temporarily, at a loss for words. “When we got into League of Legends, we asked what the most catastrophic thing possible was. The most catastrophic thing would be getting relegated between Spring and Summer. That would be the worst case,” he said.

That is, very nearly, exactly what happened. At the end of the Spring Split, Splyce finished in 8th place, which dropped them down to the Promotion/Relegation tournament for the European region. In a best of five game, GIANTS! Gaming pushed the team all the way to a tiebreaker match. Splyce bounced back to take the final game, narrowly escaping Dignitas’ fate.

Splyce versus Giants! Gaming, via Youtube
Splyce versus Giants! Gaming, via Youtube

“We were working with young players,” recalled Strenczewilk. “We knew it was always a risk, but it was still terrifying. Watching it go to game five was absolutely terrifying.” The stakes, for Strenczewilk and his team, were almost gladiatorial: win, or perish.

There is a long list of “if” statements that could lead to a healthy approach to relegation; if some of the fortunes being funneled into the utmost levels of play were to trickle down to minor league prize pools, that would lessen the anxiety of playing in a smaller pond. If broadcasters streamed minor events more than once or twice a year, and if the audience proved to exist for those streams, that would stop teams from vanishing into the ether once they dipped below the highest tier. Until these, or any other structural overhauls are made, relegation will remain a existential threat to any team, no matter their history or pedigree. The Sword of Damocles hangs.


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