By most metrics, All-Star 2017 was a success.
Viewership was up from Barcelona 2016. The LPL—a team that treated the event with the seriousness Riot Games intended—was rewarded for their hard work, taking home both the 5v5 and 1v1 trophies (the later via popular AD carry Jian “Uzi” Zi-Hao). The NA LCS Battle Theater was at capacity for four straight days, filled with excited LPL supporters waving light-up Uzi and Tian “Meiko” Ye signs. Those die-hard fans got their money’s worth; China ended the event leading all teams in time on stage.
Yet one week later, I’m still asking myself the same question:
What was the point?
I’m genuinely confused. What did we just watch? Is All-Star supposed to be a competitive tournament with real stakes and a serious, try-hard atmosphere? Or is it a relaxed end-of-year celebration, replete with fan service and fun showmatches? If the former, why the dearth of real incentives to compete; if the latter, where did all the gimmickry go?
Riot has always struggled to balance All-Star between meaningfulness and memes. Its first iteration in 2013 was closer to what the Mid-Season Invitational is today; an international tournament held in May with Worlds qualification implications. Riot changed the format in 2014, splitting All-Star into two events: Invitational (where the top domestic teams from each major region would compete in a bracket tournament) and Challenge, composed of two fan-voted teams (Team Ice and Team Fire) that competed in unique game modes like URF, Hexakill and Pick 10. The Worlds incentive was gone, replaced by $50,000 in prize money.
All-Star 2015 saw another sea change. The prize pool disappeared, and more teams became eligible through a wildcard play-in tournament two week prior to the main event, which was moved to its current slot in December to make room for MSI in May. More fun modes were added (Marksman, Assassin, One for All, Tandem), and this time, the regions themselves were sorted into Ice and Fire teams competing for points across all matches. Barcelona 2016 largely retained 2015’s organization, with the small addition of a 1v1 caster showmatch between Trevor “Quickshot” Henry and Ibai “Ibai” Llanos that clearly drew inspiration from the humorous caster vs. pros 5v5 at MSI 2015.
This year, Riot veered more in the competitive direction. Gone were the Team Ice/Fire designations, fun modes, the caster 1v1, and the overall points battle from Barcelona 2016. Instead, All-Star 2017 had the feel of a winter MSI. Eight teams participated in a round-robin group stage, of which four would advance to the knockout rounds. The wildcard play-in was gone in favor of direct invites to the top three minor region teams based on Season 7’s international results.
Some players, like TCL top laner Berke “Thaldrin” Demir, relished the shift to a more competitive format.
“This format is better,” said Thaldrin. “When the event is based on random stuff, fun games and random builds, it looks much more fun. But from the professional player point of view, I feel like it makes no sense for us to play. I don’t feel any competition, so I don’t feel the motivation to play and train as well. So in my opinion, this format is way better. Maybe it can be improved, but this year’s event was the best one, for me at least.”
Not everyone agrees with him. NA mid laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg and Korean AD carry Kim “PraY” Jong-in have both been vocal on stream in their disappointment with the competitive format. Bjergsen wondered aloud if try-harding for no prize pool was worth taking time out of a player’s already narrow vacation window, while PraY lamented the loss of a festival-like atmosphere.
CBLOL support Hugo “Dioud” Padioleau shared the concerns of his major-region competitors, while highlighting the bind minor-region teams find themselves in when prepping for a competitive All-Star.
“The fact that it’s more competitive makes it even more stressful for us,” said Dioud. “We know, in terms of level, we are behind in [CBLOL]. Coming to this kind of event, we had this idea that it would be hard, even harder than we’re used to…We’re going to play with teammates that we’re not used to playing with. And we basically have to enter one week before with these players and try to find scrims, but we don’t have any scrims because we’re a Wildcard region so people are like ‘Eh, we don’t need to scrim versus them.’ We have a lot of fans behind us, that want us to represent as well as possible, but it’s very hard with the lack of training and of course the lack of experience with these kind of players and teams. We don’t want to disappoint the fans of course, but in the end we cannot manage to follow this kind of level. That’s hard.”
The Brazilian All-Stars finished 0-3, and it’s hard to imagine them doing markedly better against this caliber of opposition even with more time to prepare. But Dioud’s dilemma—the pressure to do well at an event where the level of seriousness varies by team—points to the contradiction at the heart of All-Star as it’s currently imagined: A competitive event without the rewards of one. Worlds qualification wasn’t on the line, neither was money, nor region-specific in-game benefits like XP boosts or increased drops. What’s left to play for besides the adoration of your fanbase?
Which is why it makes sense that China won: They took things seriously at a time most teams didn’t feel the need to. The LPL All-Stars knew their fans would be watching. According to Esports Charts, the Chinese audience accounted for a staggering 97.7% of All-Star 2017’s average concurrent viewership. The Battle Theater was packed with Chinese fans, all of whom managed to get tickets that sold out weeks in advance. With regional pride the only incentive on the line, China had the most to lose, and played like it.
“We were pretty much the only region that actually got all the players together a week prior to All-Stars happening and having them bootcamp,” said LPL Coach Huang “FireFox” Ting-Hsiang, “Whereas all the other players are on vacation. So I’m really thankful that all of our players were able to accommodate for that.”
All-Star 2017 had its moments: Bjergsen’s Zoe, winions, winions again, and the longest international game of the year that also left me dead inside. But I’m most interested to see what direction Riot takes All-Star in the future, and if further iterations will reveal a focused point. Right now, All-Star’s attempt to service conflicting mentalities has led to an enjoyable event that, in the greater League of Legends ecosystem, is utterly irrelevant. It doesn’t have to be.