Tom Bramwell, December 28, 2016

Looking Ahead to LoL Esports in 2017

We all know 2016 was a crazy year for League of Legends, but now that the ghost of dynamic queue has been laid to rest and the grown-ups have confiscated Marc Merrill's Reddit password, we can all start getting excited about LoL esports in 2017 instead. Riot can get back to making League "a global sport that lasts for generations", pros can get back to "looking good in scrims" before failing catastrophically, and the rest of us can go back to kill-stealing and failing to ward properly. So what else might happen in LoL esports in 2017?

Riot will continue to clash with teams

Following Marc Merrill's unfortunate Reddit post targeting TSM owner Andy Dinh and the self-inflicted LCS team mutiny that followed, Riot announced a raft of changes to its beloved esports showpiece that would improve remuneration, reduce the risk of relegation, and allow teams to work with independent arbitrators to dispute any of Riot's famous "competitive rulings" in the event that teams felt they were psychotically unfair.

Marc Merrill

We would love to say this will lead to peace and harmony in competitive League of Legends in 2017, but to be honest that seems unlikely for one simple reason: money. Esports is growing at an insane rate at the moment, and investors and big brands are excited by the gigantic millennial audience that follows esports and doesn't watch traditional TV, leading to all sorts of eye-catching acquisitions: traditional sports teams buying up orgs and rosters, mainstream brands hurling advertising dollars anywhere they will stick, and game makers like Valve (stickers) and Riot (that BAMTech deal) pushing to monetise their previously loss-leading esports businesses.

So the pressure on the actual esports teams to remain competitive will be bigger than ever, leading to even more inflated salaries, and even louder concerns about disruptive changes to game balance and remuneration. In fact, we wouldn't be surprised if many of the headlines about this stuff in late 2017 look remarkably similar to the ones we've been reading in the last few months. Who knows, maybe we'll be proved wrong, but as Biggie famously noted, an influx of cash sows additional disharmony. Something like that, anyway.

The meta will shift back to individual skill

OK, so this one is more of a hope than a prediction. Everyone knows League of Legends is a team game and teamplay is incredibly important to the outcome of a match. But League has really doubled down on that theme of late, especially at the highest tiers of professional play, where incredible mechanical skill decides moments but intelligent macro play usually decides matches. And sometimes this feels like a shame for the viewer.

SKT mid-laner Faker

Now, we're not suggesting League of Legends isn't fun to watch, and we know some people love this evolution of the game and we wouldn't take that away from them if we could. But we've also watched a lot of Counter-Strike this year, and something that game has, which League sometimes feels like it lacks, is those astonishing hero moments when an individual player overcomes the odds and takes down an entire enemy team to secure victory. Imagine SKT were losing at Worlds (seriously, use your imagination) and Faker was the last surviving member of the team, holed up behind his towers as five enemy champions advanced on the base, his team-mates' death timers stuck somewhere in the 50s. Right now, that game is over. But Faker is the best player in the world, with mechanics beyond compare. Wouldn't it be amazing if he could somehow prevail? Even to have that chance?

Maybe that's too extreme, and to be honest we're not sure exactly what we're asking for here. Maybe it's all fine and we should just calm down. But we also wouldn't mind if, somewhere in amongst all those myriad 2017 changes Riot is no doubt plotting even now, someone was standing up for the idea of individual skill being allowed to shine a bit more. To draw on the sports analogies that these games increasingly deserve, we'd love to see Worlds decided by a moment like Zinedine Zidane's Champions League-winning volley.

PSG will make it to Worlds

Right! Here we go! Enough about commercialisation, enough about game balance; let's talk about the inherently unpredictable outcomes of professional sport. There are lots of obvious things to predict in 2017 - see further down the page for the most prominent example - so let's start with something leftfield: we think PSG eSports will make it to Worlds.

PSG Yellowstar

The recently formed organisation, overseen by retired Fnatic support Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim, has a Challenger Series slot for spring 2017, so that might seem far-fetched. But rather like Origen in 2015, this is a roster full of talent and experience. Top-laner Etienne "Steve" Michels, jungler Thomas "Kirei" Yuen and support Hampus "sprattel" Abrahamsson, are all experienced in the EU LCS, but the glamour carry combo of mid-laner Jin "Blanc" Sung-min and ADC Na "Pilot" Woo-Hyung should give this team a real edge. These South Korean imports played together on Jin Air Green Wings, cutting their teeth against the best League of Legends players in the world, so they should eat Challenger for breakfast.

Paris Saint-Germain - the French football team supported by Qatari billions - is making a long-term commitment to esports, setting the team up in Berlin so they can scrim with the best the region has to offer and prepare for their inevitable ascent to the EU LCS. Once there, which should happen in the summer, PSG will enter a division full of revised rosters still finding their feet after massive upheaval at the end of 2016, and their momentum should propel them into playoffs. Any roster issues they have should be easily solved using PSG's vast financial support, allowing them their pick of local and even international talent.

From there, PSG will probably have to win the summer split outright to make it to make it to Worlds, but is that really so hard to imagine? We wouldn't be surprised to see it.

A Korean team will win Worlds again

We've put our neck out a little, so let's wind it all the way back in with one of the easiest predictions in esports: a Korean team to win Worlds. Korean teams have now won the last four League of Legends World Championships, including three for SK Telecom T1 alone; the last two finals were all-Korean affairs; and this year three out of four semifinalist teams were Korean. Meanwhile, the notion that the competitive gap between regions is closing has become a community meme - as most wags put it, the only competitive gap that is closing is the one between Korean teams. Judging by the failure of Chinese, European and North American teams to offer more than token resistance to the Korean juggernaut in 2016, not to mention the massive roster upheaval in most of those regions, 2017 will be no different.

But who will it be? The smart money is (always) on SK Telecom T1, seeking their third consecutive World Championship, with Faker, Bang and Wolf still in place, a potential upgrade in the jungle with Peanut and a wildcard in top lane with Huni. But the rest of the LCK will have something to say about that. The new-look KT Rolster line-up has amazing potential, while the Samsung Galaxy roster that only narrowly lost to SKT in the 2016 final has stayed together through the offseason. As various prodigal sons return home from other regions, the quality of play across the region could very well increase again.

If we had to put money on it, though, we'd still go with SKT. Faker stayed. The drive is still there. If League really is to be a sport that lasts for generations, as Riot hopes, then this surely is a team that will be remembered for generations.

Tom Bramwell

Tom is a British writer who used to work for Eurogamer and Riot Games. Increasingly obsessed with esports.