A Response to Mark Z: The Real Reason NA Does Not Perform Internationally
After another disappointing international showing by North America, the topic of ‘Why is NA so far behind?’ has once again cropped up . Mark Z recently threw his hat into the ring on League Weekly, giving his diagnosis for why North America has been, and continues to be, a mediocre region. He started by saying that people who only point out North America’s approach to the game being the main factor in the region’s failures is foolish. While Mark agreed that their approach is A factor, he explained that the problem is a combination of several factors, not simply one major issue. He argues bottom North American teams’ core issues lie beyond having horrible organizational structures and systems; the key issues are problems that even top teams must deal with. Mark’s rant about why NA has such poor performances internationally boiled down to three key issues. First and foremost Mark points out the NA server has a much lower ranked player base than the other major regions. The second issue is pro players in NA LCS play much less solo queue than Koreans, a problem which compounds with the first. Finally, the behavioral issues between players and staff continue to be extremely detrimental to NA teams’ practice and on-stage performance. I encourage those of you whom have not watched the video to take a look for yourselves to gain a greater understanding of what will be discussed here.
The three major issues that Mark has brought up are all truths of the NA competitive scene as a whole. However, when considering the historical examples within League of Legends, as well as diving deeper into areas Mark simply brushed over, Mark’s argument does not hold up very well. For starters, Mark begins his argument by saying that he wants to ignore the obvious flaws with many, if not all, organizations within North America. I understand why he is doing this; with complex issues, it’s almost impossible to talk about all the issues at once. By isolating just a few, it’s easier to create a framework for his discussion. Frustratingly, the two problems that Mark decided to omit from his discussion are the two problems which are largely why NA is not just worse than Korea, but all the other major regions. The awful organizational structure most teams in NA have, and the biggest factor, which Mark spends most of his time trying to disprove, is North America’s approach to the game.Mark Z believes the way North America plays the game is not the main reason why the region fails so much internationally. It has been shown time and time again through the seven seasons of this game that North America just does not have good strategies, if they can even be called that. A lot of the time NA just does not understand fundamental aspects of League of Legends itself, such as wave and vision control, the concept of tempo, making valuable trade-offs, etc. These are the main differences between top Korean teams and the top teams in NA.
The first point Mark laid out was that NA is disadvantaged by the smaller player base, and therefore the players are probably going to be worse, individually, than in Korea. This appears in practice, and in theory, to be mostly true; the more skilled players you have in a region, and the more you play with and against them, your level skill level will rise. However, this argument does not hold a great deal of weight when talking about competitive League of Legends. We have all heard how solo queue and a professional match are two entirely different games; coaches have said as much, pro players voice the same opinion, and anyone who has played one ranked game knows just how little it resembles a competitive match. The main point that Mark seems to be making is that even with the correct approach to the game, if you are mechanically worse than your opponent you will lose the match, despite superior strategy. While I do somewhat agree, this does not account for the multiple examples of teams throughout the history of the game whom have defied this line of thinking. There have been several teams throughout the history of League of Legends whom have sacrificed superior individual talent in order to become a stronger five man unit. The teams who have done so have gone on to outperform, both domestic and internationally, teams who are merely a collection of five talented players who lacked strategy and teamwork.
The most famous example of a team that mechanically was not on the level of the international opponents whom they defeated was the original Cloud 9 lineup. These players were not individually better than most of the competition they faced internationally. Yet the classic Cloud 9 lineup used to be the only NA team that could put up a fight against top Korean teams. People will remember how they nearly took Samsung Blue, the second best team in the world at the time, to five games at Season 4 Worlds. At Paris All-Stars in 2014, Cloud 9 was able to finish second in the group stage, losing only to SKT, one of, if not, the best teams in League History. Then C9 slightly lost to OMG 2–1 in the bracket stage, all while the team had a substitute mid-laner, Link, instead of their in-game leader, Hai.
In more recent history, Counter Logic Gaming was able to make it all the way to the finals of last year’s Mid-Season Invitational using the same tactic of being more team oriented, rather than a collection of greater individual talent. CLG had taken a risk by removing well known stars, such as Doublelift and Pobelter, in favor of weaker talents that they felt would work better as a team; such a risk might have cost the team a future championship. Instead, CLG went on to repeat their Summer victory, defeating the TSM “Superteam” which was designed to have a carry in every lane. These two teams epitomized the debate of whether it is more beneficial to have mechanical talent, or take a risk on a less skilled player who can perform better with the rest of the team. Like Cloud 9, CLG understood their strengths and weaknesses, and played to them better than their opponents did. On top of that, they displayed a greater understanding of the macro game than any other team in the region.
When comparing these versions of C9 and CLG with any Team SoloMid lineup, there are clear differences in the way these teams approached the game. TSM are the most domestically successful team in NA’s history, they have been featured in every NA LCS final, and have won five of the nine total championships. TSM nearly always wins NA just by being more mechanically talented than their opponents. Their most recent split in NA LCS illustrates this narrative more so than ever. TSM had a poor early game throughout the split, teams like Echo Fox were able to 2–0 TSM due to their strong early games. TSM’s plan was to wait until the late game and rely on being more mechanically talented than their opponents to win. Mark Z said it best himself on Post League Time with Scarra where he claimed something to the effect of “TSM are not strategically good enough to beat their opponents early, but aren’t mechanically bad enough to lose to them either.” Team Solomid is not the only team that fits this model either, there have been several teams like them in other regions with the same flaw.
These teams have a tremendous amount of domestic success, yet when placed on the international stage they simply do not perform anywhere close to what is expected of them. In China, EDward Gaming has won four of the seven LPL titles that they have been allowed to compete for. No other Chinese organization has more than one championship, and yet EDG have almost never performed well internationally. EDG has never made it out of the round of eight the three times it they have competed at the League of Legends World Championship, despite consistently being in the conversation for placing within the top four at the tournament. EDG has only ever performed well on an international stage at 2015’s MSI, where EDG displayed they were the best team in the world by defeating the top teams from each region. However, this one success does not explain the numerous failures of EDG, a team that, theoretically, should operate at a much higher level.
G2 have become the new kings of Europe ever since they entered the league in Spring of 2016. Despite utterly dominating the domestic competition, G2 was constantly embarrassed at every international event that they’ve attended. They failed to make it out of group stage at both MSI and Worlds, only managing to defeat the wildcard teams at each event. Domestically, G2 set a record by going almost a year without dropping a single match within EU LCS. G2’s recent success at this year’s MSI is the first time in over a year that the team has actually lived up to the expectations of experts and fans. All of these teams showed an unrivaled level of success within their own region, but when put on the international stage they completely fell apart. The reason behind this phenomenon was that these teams only knew how to defeat the other teams within their own region; whenever these teams were put on the international stage they looked lost and unable to deal with the challenges that foreign teams threw at them.
Mark might feel mechanics trump all strategy due to his experiences as a coach for Team Liquid. Every single split, a team like C9 or TSM would defeat his players, in large part, due to greater mechanical ability. Team Curse/Team Liquid always appeared to be within grasp of making it to the final, but ended fourth split after split. It appears his experiences as a coach have led him to believe that there is not much you can do against a team where the players are more mechanically talented, even though there is evidence to the contrary throughout the long history of competitive League of Legends. Flyquest are a perfect example, this was a team that many did not have on their radar because they were a collection of “wash-up” players, Flyquest ended up being one game away from taking third place in the Spring Split. Once again, a team that understood their own strengths and weaknesses, and had better knowledge of how to actually play as a team, beat out most of the league. Having laid out these examples, it becomes clear that international mediocrity among teams such as TSM is not exclusive to North America by any means. These same results happen all over the world with top teams regardless of player base. As Mark stated, it is not one issue alone, but the more research you do, the less air-tight player base seems to be as factor. Having more talented players in the server matters, there is no question about that, but is it even close to being the main factor in all of these region’s failures? Europe and China have comparable levels of talented players to that of Korea, yet NA, EU, and CN are in a close race for second best region, with that title constantly changing. Mark’s admits that these regions have their own problems holding them back; but if they have two and a half times the player base of NA then those regions should appear to have clear edge over NA, but this is not the case.
Mark’s second point dealt with how NA players play less solo queue compared to Koreans, which compounds with the first issue he brought up. Hours following the rant blowing up on the subreddit, players such as Dardoch and Cody Sun came out and said that despite Mark’s claims, they have both played as many solo queue games as their Korean counterparts, Dardoch going as far as playing 700 games across all his accounts. While Dardoch and Cody Sun did imply most NA pros play as many games as they do, there are many pros who slack off. Several of these players have been in the scene a long time, and perhaps don’t see the value in pouring all their time into the mediocre environment of NA solo queue. Now, I’m not going to pretend like I know just how much each team is scrimming compared to solo queue, though it does appear teams in NA are more focused scrims. I, for one, agree with this approach because you can actually practice compositions and work on areas that you have control over rather than the terrible environment of solo queue where so many elements of the game are beyond your control.
These concepts all stem back to the old saying “work smarter not harder.” Putting more time into solo queue does not guarantee any sort of competitive result. Players such as Moon and Keith were often number one in the NA solo queue ladder, yet were relentlessly panned by fans for their poor performances on stage. The true problem seems to be how players and teams are utilizing their practice time. CLG’s head coach Zikz recently had a very enlightening conversation with Thooorin about coaching CLG, as well as the coaching methods for teams throughout the league. Zikz said that to the best of his knowledge CLG are the only team who actually go into a scrim with specific goals or areas that they want to work on. If CLG want to work on baron control, they focus that scrim to baron control and nothing else. If they want to work on their vision control in the enemy jungle, they only focus on improving vision control in the enemy jungle. Zikz revealed that most NA teams just go into a scrim with little to no plan and try to win as though it is a solo queue match. That is a rather alarming detail when you see just how long many of these players have been playing competitively.TSM’s scrims were a topic of discussion following last year’s Worlds after former TSM coach Weldon Green made comments criticising Korean practices in scrims. People with a deeper knowledge of Korean scrim tactics, such as Monte Cristo, criticized TSM’s approach by saying that TSM only scrims to win, and mainly has no clear-cut goals or objectives on which to improve. If you want to point to a core problem with NA, then look no further.
In contrast, there are numerous teams throughout the years who slacked off for most of the early season, only to pick it up and win the championship. A classic example of this would be the Fnatic lineup with Xpeke and Soaz. This team famously would not play the game much when it did not matter early in the season, instead taking the time to recover from all the international events they had to participate in. Fnatic would barely finish with a good standing for playoffs, and then steamroll the competition to win the championship. Xpeke and Soaz continued this trend even years later when on Origen, making it to the EU LCS finals in Spring season 6 after a lackluster regular season. Fnatic repeated such behavior this Spring by having a poor showing in the regular season, only to pick it up in playoffs and finish third. Some may argue that these results are only domestic, and point out that this is a conversation about international play. Fnatic in season 3 was able to make it to the semi-finals of worlds, a feat that no North American team has reached to this date. They also participated in, and performed at, most of the smaller events they were invited to, like IEM’s, while those events were still in the League of Legends Circuit. It’s clear that slacking off did not majorly affect Fnatic’s international performances as Mark’s theory might have you believe. Not playing as much solo queue appears, in hindsight, to be an insignificant factor when you look at history.
Mark’s third major issue was the cultural attitude problems a lot of players within North America have with their coaching staff. He used Dardoch as an outlier of how bad some players can be, but to a degree implied that most players have a level of respect that they withhold from their coaching staff. When asked if he would ever coach again, Mark said that he would probably never return to a coaching position due to how frustrating it is to deal with the players. It is widely known that, when compared to Korea, other regions are not as subordinate to their coaching staff. North America has had several players in the past whom have commanded such respect from their teammates these behavioral issues were, for the most part, not detrimental to team performance. Players like Hai, Reginald, and Chauster were all leaders that the team followed almost without question. It has often been said that even if you have a worse strategy going into a match, but all five teammates are on the same page, you will perform better than your opponents who have the superior strategy, but not all the players are on board for it. This is the advantage that Korean teams have. Every single player is obedient to the staff and so well practiced that they are machine-like in game. They play what they are told to play, how they were told to play it, and they get results.
Mark is not wrong to point out that personality clashes and a culture of insubordination are very much a part of the NA scene, despite that he should take his own advice when it comes to this issue and “get creative.” since it was such a problem for him to deal with that he stepped away from coaching altogether. Let’s take Dardoch for example: Dardoch is an extremely passionate player to the point of being corrosive to the team environment. He is also still a very young player. Dardoch dropped out of high school to play for Team Liquid when he was just 17 years old. Performing at anything less than his absolute best is not even an option, and appears to lead to much frustration and rage when he doesn’t. In a team game where so many things can go wrong and are out of his control, there are bound to be strong emotions. That is not to say his attitude is fine, because it obviously is something that needs to be worked on. However, he is such a young player with enormous room to grow. Everyone who has ever played League knows how frustrating an underperforming teammate can be in a regular ranked match, so imagine how much worse it must feel on stage where the stakes are so much higher and everyone is judging you.
A troubled player like Dardoch is not even a unique situation to North America, there have been plenty of out of control players in all the major regions. Dardoch is not new, nor is his attitude a unique situation. You don’t hear much about these types of players in Korea because they are almost always benched after such incidents. Even the best player in the world, Faker, was benched for a short time in Spring of season 5 to Easyhoon, in part due to his poor attitude and how it was affecting the team’s performance. It takes a tremendous amount of balls to put the best player in the world on the bench. Something like that almost never happens in North America, in large part because it is not an option.When Team Liquid tried to demote Dardoch to their challenger team, they lost so many games on their LCS team that they had to bring him back. Unlike Korea, there is not another Dardoch waiting in the wings to take up his spot once he acts out. That is why the organization and staff on hand are so much more important for NA. The region should have staff readily available to combat player to player conflicts as soon as possible. Korea also mediates a lot of its problems, and molds troublesome players into model teammates because they invest in them. That is another major problem for NA, organizations like Team Liquid invest in the wrong aspects of their teams.
As previously stated, most of what Mark Z outlined as problems within North America are pretty true, though that does not mean they are the main factors holding NA teams back. For the most part, these problems are not even unique to North America. If every region faces these same problems, then perhaps they are not the areas you should focus your time and efforts in. Would it be easier to spend your limited time and resources trying to change massive problems every region in the world has to deal with; or instead, spend your time changing the problems you have control over within your own team? Mark Z completely brushes off the two main problems with NA, and discusses problems that are not even unique to North America, or are proven to be false through historical data. I am sending out this response to Mark Z to get his thoughts on my take, as well as an open invitation to further discuss this topic in greater detail since we both obviously care deeply about it.