Champion Last Year, Relegated This Year: Why It’s So Hard to Stay at the Top in Esports

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When you think of sporting champions, names like Roger Federer in tennis, Tiger Woods in golf, Manchester United and Barcelona of the 2000s. 

They have one thing in common: consistently. That is they have consistently been winning championships year in and year out at the peak of their powers.

But when it comes to esports, the reverse is true. More often than not, the champion today is unlikely to be the winners of tomorrow. In fact, often times, they end up horribly underperforming. 

Take the the Dota Pro Circuit (DPC) Winter Tour 2023, which began on January 9, as an example. Some of the best teams from last year ended up in the pits this year.  Team Secret (WEU) and NaVi (EEU), powerhouses in their regions, dropped into Division 2. As a reminder, Team Secret finished as runner up in The International 11 in October 2022.

Closer to home, Boom Esports and Fnatic now have to restart from Division 2. The drop in their performance were unexpected, given that they were among the top three in DPC SEA just a year ago. Boom Esports even made the headline last year when they stunned Team Spirit, the previous winner from TI 10.

Outside of the Dota scene, the Pubg Mobile (PUBGM) community were stunned during the PUBG Mobile Global Championship (PMGC) 2023 competition in Jakarta in January as the underdogs showed up with a bang. Despite the fact that countries from East Asia and Southeast Asia often dominate the PMGC, S2G from Turkey won this season’s competition, while teams from Brazil ended in second and third.

It is undeniable that the ups and downs that occur in the esports makes for interesting competition, as the audience eagerly looking forward to the new competitive season every half year or so. For the competing players and teams, however, this is definitely a challenge that they have to overcome.

What therefore accounts for the sudden ups and downs in performance in esports events? To learn what factors affect the team’s performance at the start of the season, we spoke with some casters and esports team coaches.

1.Team often don’t take pre-season seriously

Professional players have a demanding schedule of matches throughout the year. And weeks or months without competition means nothing more than holiday to a lot of them. Some, though, worry that the players are being too laid back to prepare for the coming season.

“I think that too many pros here are enjoying a bit too much when it comes to holiday,” said one of the coaches. “You see, games, especially MOBA like MLBB, Dota and the others, meta changes. They change so often. And I don’t think you could have too much time to prepare if you’re going on longer holidays.”

He then explained that during the break of the competitive season there is always a scrim or some kind of small competition which is carried out as pre-season training. Even though a scrim doesn’t count as official match, every pre-season match should be counted as part of training. Through a scrim, the coach and analyst can assess their players’ readiness to adapt to the new meta or against new opponents.

Unfortunately, during his time working with various pro teams in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, most of his players rarely took pre-season matches seriously. And this resulted in teams that succeeded in the previous season’s competition losing against newcomers who were trained harder for the next season.

“I watched Tundra’s scrim right before TI 11. It was great. It’s like watching some big game. Other teams, especially those playing MOBA, should take note about this. I was not surprised at all when I saw them winning the TI 11,” he said.

2. The constant change of meta

Unlike FPS or sports simulation, which focusing more on mechanics, the MOBA genre is recognised to be more complex, with micro and macro gameplay aspects usually seen in RPG and RTS games.

With a large selection of characters/heroes commonly found in MOBA games, developers are rolling in the updates every weeks/months to ensure a balanced game. This then has an impact on adjusting the elements in the game, especially the so called hero pool.

Take TI 10 for instance. Most would attribute Team Spirit’s ability to make use of Magnus as a key reason why they triumphed over PSG.LGD in the finals. But once the Magnus meta was over, Tundra took over with the Wraith Pact meta, which severely undermined their enemies’ team fights.

Obviously, these alterations will also effect the players’ play styles. It is unusual to see some players who could not able to adept to the previous meta suddenly grow stronger in the new meta, and vice versa.

In other words, unlike tennis players, who need only concentrate on their skills and physical condition, esports players have to constantly watch for new strategies. This makes it very difficult to maintain high levels of consistency.

3.Comfort zone is the enemy

Money and trophies are certainly a motivation for players around the world to continue to achieve the best results. However, a coach in the region said that the new generation players  in Indonesia and Southeast Asia tend to get too comfortable after achieving victory with big teams.

courtesy of ulti.asia

“Honestly, I see that in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, players are typically content after winning a major competition. As soon as they made the headline, they believe they are the best!”

He said that many players, who are currently regulars on top-tier teams, are beginning to lose their competitive drive after receiving large sponsorships and incomes. Several players who used to play consistently and with higher discipline have become distracted by things outside of competition.

“I think just having a head coach just don’t cut it these days. Big esports teams, especially, need someone who can also help players outside the game, such as mental, psychological aspects and stuff. If the cycle continues, there will always be that team who suddenly dropped after winning everything in the previous season.”

4.Regeneration issue

It’s no secret that esports athletes, especially in Asia, tend to start their careers at a very young age. Some examples include the pro player of the Valorant team from Boom Esports, Thomas “Cud” Alfiantino, who became the youngest Valorant pro player in SEA in 2020 and “Sanford” Marin Vinuya who became the youngest player ever in MLBB esports to win M4 with the Echo team.

Even so, it’s not uncommon for pro players in esports competitions to end their careers at a relatively young age. There are some exceptions, though, such as Dendi and Puppey in the competitive Dota scene or Karrigan in the CS GO scene.

And speaking of regeneration, one of the coaches believes that it is still one of the big problems in esports scene. He feels that the growth of new players is currently slowing down in major competitions, such as Dota and PUBGM.

“Dota, CS GO, PUBGM, and LoL are definitely huge. But, as with Dota and PUBG, I’ve seen that there are still a lot of old names there. I believe they should give more playing time to the younger ones,” said a coach we spoke to.

Furthermore, he feels that without proper regeneration of young players, players who have been in professional competition for a long time won’t be motivated to develop as there will be no challenge to overcome. And when the competition starts to stagnate, the audience will feel bored and will most likely stop watching the competition altogether when their idols call it quits.

However, he also disagrees if the team decides to replace players too quickly. He feels esports team should evaluate and think about regeneration at least once every two years.

5. Lack of creativity and burnout

Fans certainly expect their favorite team to ‘not fix what isn’t broken’ every time they found their winning formula. But changes are always going to happen. And more often than not, they are not ready to accept that it takes time to progress.

Boom Esports came under fire from their rapid fanbase following the departure of Tims, Skem, and Jacky last year. Despite the additions of Xnova, Natsumi, and Xepher, they were unable to replicate their 2022 success in DPC SEA, and instead relegated to Division 2.

It was a similar story in West Europe, as Team Secret faced criticism for selling Nisha to their biggest rival, Team Liquid. As Team Secret fell down to the Division 2 hell, Nisha and Team Liquid finished their Winter Tour 2023 with fantastic unbeatable runs.

Many esports fans then believed that big roster changes, indeed, had some impact on these teams. However, the coach we spoke to believes that the transfer window is not the main problem, but a lack of creativity is.

“Transfers will happen. But in my opinion, what is more important ahead of the new season is change and things that encourage creativity,” he said. “There should be dynamism around your team, so you don’t get bored  easily. The coach is crucial here. He or shee needs to think of something out of the box, such as toying with new tactics.”

He also believes that one of the hardest parts of coaching is levelling the playing field so that no one carry the pressure more than the other. According to him, the more often players are playing under pressure, the faster they burnout.

“If you can come up with something unique every season, then tactical rotation shouldn’t be a problem. Usually they feel a great deal of pressure because they couldn’t figure out a way against their opponent,” he explained.

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