Growing Pains: Is the gap between Korea and the West really closing?

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It was a dark October evening as I sat deflated upon the bed of my room-mate; him busy at his computer with a game of CS:GO and I watching North America’s last hopes bleed slowly down the drain on his 42″ TV. The taste of my sugar-free Monster energy drink was appropriately bitter in my mouth, and I wish I could say I was disappointed as I watched the life eke out of Cloud9 from game to game, but much like the others who came into the series with rational expectations, I had already decided the victor of the series between North America’s Cloud9 and South Korea’s Samsung Galaxy before the teams had even taken to Summoner’s Rift for their first match. Lo, and behold, not two hours later I came to find that my prediction, sadly, was on the mark, with North America’s third seed falling 3-0 to the South-East Asian Telecommunication Giant.

The Reality: Korea #1

North Americans are no strangers to adversity on the League of Legends world stage. Our teams seem doomed to run dry in quarter-final berths, having only made it as far as the semi-finals once. While a large part of this has been a run of sheer bad luck in our collective draws and a persistent habit of our best teams always facing the much touted and fearsome Korean teams, there can be no question that North America has faced significant short-comings when facing more skilled opposition. People often refer to “the gap” in regards to this competition: that being the delta between the level of competition in Korea and the West, and the apparent inability for western teams to be able to catch up to the perceived kings of league of legends.

Many would look at the results this year and say that the gap is just as wide as ever, and in many ways they aren’t wrong, at least in terms of results. Once again, North America failed to make it past the Quarter-Finals, and despite a miracle run to the semis, when challenged with serious competition, Europe’s last hope H2K also fell the the perennial gate-keepers of the Finals. Now, as we gear up for yet another round of Korea vs Korea, most of the western world lies crestfallen and defeated. Many are tired of repeating the same old narrative as the two time champions SK Telecom T1 are set to face Samsung Galaxy at the Staple’s Center in Los Angeles.

The Silver Lining

There is yet still some small hope for the west. The year may be over, but truth be told, in many ways North America has never looked better on the worlds stage, picking up two wins over Korea, and going undefeated against their European rivals. Likewise, despite an otherwise bad year for Europe, they still made the semi-finals. Consider that while North America and Europe have been largely playing catch-up to the more experienced and developed infrastructure of Korea and China, the East have been refining and cleaning up their play, such that they operate at a level that, for the moment, is unmatched in terms of map pressure and their ability to instantly react.

Watching Korea execute cross-map plays is a thing of beauty, and the margins at which they dance on their decision-making, feinting to recall and then barreling across the map to contest an objective the moment they spot someone out of place can only be called masterful. It is no small wonder why Christopher “Montecristo” Mykles has been such a rabid fan of Korea since he started casting for OGN. The way that the best in Korea play this game is nothing short of awe-inspiring to watch.

With this acknowledged, I do think that the OGN teams are rapidly approaching their skill ceiling. They are, indeed, playing the top tier league of legends, but I don’t think there are many areas that they can continue to improve at. Even the supposedly best team in Korea lost a game to a team most North American fans discounted as not even deserving the spot at worlds. What’s more, the loss was a convincing, one-sided stomp. To be completely fair though, ROX, the team that was upset by North America’s CLG, was suffering a sick top-laner who is also their best player, so take that win with a grain of salt. Even so, despite western failures, the trend does appear to at least be aiming upwards.

It is difficult to be certain of whether or not the infamous gap is indeed wider or is closing by any significant margins. In many ways I think both sides of the pacific have been steadily improving at a similar rate, with Korea starting to brush the heights of their limitations. North America and Europe are still, at least by my estimations, maybe a year or two off before they have the same clarity of in-game shot-calling and ability to play the map as Koreans do, and as always, the talent differential between any given individual from each region will continue to be a factor.

Keeping that in mind, North American investors and sports teams from abroad are finally providing western teams the means to compete with organizations like Samsung, who have resources available to them that most League of Legends organizations could only dream of.  With this influx of venture capital to provide teams the same basic amenities and access to professional coaches and support staff that Korea has had since their entry into the scene, it can only be a matter of time before the gap does, eventually, work its way shut.

It may be a year, it may be several, but I for one hold that despite the disappointment and despite the memes, the west is encroaching on the throne. It remains to be proven, but I believe that one of these days, we westerners will inevitably show that we can compete on the highest level. All that’s left is suffering through the growing pains.

The Cynical Canuck with a puck on his shoulder. Follow me on Twitter @Cryptekz for LCS and LCK related news!