For many years Riot Games has forced the idea that competitiveness and entertainment naturally contradict one another. It has made a lot of its announcements difficult to parse through and the reasoning behind its decisions murky.
Last October, Riot Games posted a format update for the All-Star tournament that began with a surprising tone.
"This December," it read, "the All-Star Event is back - and more competitive than ever."
Paired with the announcement that the North American League of Legends Championship Series will return to a single game format in 2018 only four days earlier, the All-Star format update left a very confusing message. After all, the main motivation, according to Riot, for changing the NA format was to emphasize fan entertainment over what it deems a more competitive format with best-of-threes.
The reality of the All-Star format change, however, is that it doesn't make the event more competitive -- and it shouldn't. It makes All-Stars more entertaining by trimming some of the unnecessary fat collected over the years and giving viewers more of what they want: their favorite players playing their favorite game without the fluff.
All-Star 2017 still has the same fan vote format for selecting players to represent each region. It still occurs in the awkward offseason window where players have taken the opportunity to rest and visit family or work out new opportunities. Fans will still vote in their favorite players over those who performed the best throughout the entire year. As with every year before, electees seem to have emerged to the top based on a combination of Worlds results and streaming personality.
There may be a selection of fans prompted to change votes based on the wording and the way Riot has framed the format change, but results and events leading up to the final tally suggest otherwise. For example, the Reddit "campaign" between Weldon Green and Tristan "PowerOfEvil" Schrage came down to word play and spectacle rather than an absolute notion of skill. The MVP of the entire LPL, as decided by a panel at the LPL Awards this year, Liu "xiaohu" Yuanhao, won't represent the region at All-Stars because of the greater popularity of his fellow teammates, Jian "Uzi" Zihao and Liu "Mlxg" Shiyu.
As for the old "Ice vs. Fire" theme that complicated the format, it generally made the overall event feel clunkier with players from different regions teaming up according to an arbitrary division of LMS, LPL, and EU vs LCK, NA, and IWC. But eliminating Ice vs. Fire doesn't seem to come from a place of pure competitive improvement, either.
The inclusion of additional emerging region slots (this year, GPL, TCL, and CBLoL All-Stars will all have representatives instead of just one "IWC" team) makes it harder to create Fire vs. Ice divisions, and also likely cuts into time for fluff game modes. If more teams need to play in the main group stage and bracket, continuing with King Poro Mode will needlessly stretch out a short tournament.
LoL may have also simply outgrown Fire vs. Ice. The theme first appeared when Game of Thrones and Riot started a partnership in 2014 and started in the hybrid All-Star and Mid-Season Invitational event, but didn't touch the main event of the tournament until 2015 when MSI and All-Stars split. So far, there are no mentions of George R.R. Martin in 2017 event information like there have been in previous All-Stars announcements.
The removal of these complications makes All-Stars more straightforward, and maybe in Riot's eyes, that makes it more competitive. But what it actually accomplishes is streamlining the event to make it more attractive to viewers.
According to data from Esports Charts for All-Star Barcelona in 2016, none of the "special game modes" numbered among the peak watched matches (not including Chinese viewership, which often has unreliable reported numbers). The final Fire vs. Ice match (while this still mixed players from regions onto teams, it still was the culmination of the event into a standard Summoner's Rift 5v5 best-of-five), 1v1s, and region team matches listed among the top five most watched events.
If the data is reliable, "fun" and "entertaining" modes weren't matching the viewer numbers of standard Summoner's Rift battles or the exciting 1v1 event. It would make sense, then, for Riot to stick to the kinds of matches that bring in the most viewers and do away with the rest.
Somehow, however, the notion that Riot made the format update about emphasizing competitiveness in its message. All of the changes it made make sense from an entertainment perspective to make the event more holistic and satisfying, a struggle that has plagued it since its inception. It doesn't need to confuse efficiency with competition.
While All-Stars isn't going to be about die-hard competition, and hasn't been set up as such, Riot has created a strange dialogue between competition and entertainment. It has argued that adding double elimination or introducing two game sets or best-of-three to a Group Stage format at the World Championship would lessen entertainment in favor of competition. Historically, however, the relationship hasn't been extremely concrete.
While Riot has claimed, for example, that best-of-three lowered fan engagement in the NA LCS based upon its research, adding best of five to semifinals and quarterfinals in LCS playoffs has provided for long and back-and-forth series that one could certainly call entertaining. Perhaps Riot would be better off doing away with these labels in their future announcements and stick with something more direct like "viewership" or "format rigor" to avoid contradicting themselves or creating a message that's confusing.
Because the format changes for All-Stars on paper are good for the kind of event it always promised to be: a low stress event that showcases popular players engaging in a game fans already love in the context of cross-regional rivalries. That's hopefully what everyone can expect in Los Angeles this week.