By Rob Zacny - Mon 10/13 of lolesports.com
In an era when League of Legends sells out NBA arenas and soccer stadiums, and streams and broadcasts carry it live to an audience of millions, it's easy to forget where this road began, back at the Season 1 World Championship in June of 2011.
That summer, League of Legends was just one game among many, fighting for space at DreamHack in Jonkoping, Sweden.
"Not everyone knew what League was," says Jonathan "Westrice" Nguyen, who competed on Epik Gamer, one of North America's strongest contenders that year. "The crowd was a lot smaller. I only saw like three or four hundred people in the crowd. ...They weren't as into it. ...They watched the game and it was like, 'Meh, alright. I'm going to go play some LAN and watch other games.'"
As the crowd ebbed and flowed around them, the players sometimes found themselves fighting for space even as they fought each other for the first world title in League of Legends.
"It was the most intimate fan interaction we had. Because fans would literally be behind us. People could mess with our chairs while we play, touch our hair. It was actually really annoying," Alex "Xpecial" Chu recalls. "[Andy "Reginald" Dinh"] kept complaining that someone was touching his chair. He's the sort of player that gets really annoyed by that, and it was really funny listening to him complain on teamchat."
There was no special treatment for any of the players competing at that first Worlds. They were guests at a LAN party, not the star attractions.
"I had no idea League of Legends would become a global phenomenon," recalls Steve "Chauster" Chau. "At the time, I was only playing in a few international tournaments as well as a few offline tournaments. Nothing really indicated that League of Legends would ever become one of the most played games in the world."
Fans of today's LCS would find the Season 1 championship to be the Bizarro Universe version of modern League. A lot of the same teams and even the same players were helping define the game that would make them famous, but everything was just a little bitoff from what we know today.
North America's most iconic teams and lineups were already in the process of being set. Counter Logic Gaming was near its pinnacle, with Hotshot, Saintvicious, bigfatlp, Chauster, and Elementz all sharing a lineup. Team SoloMid had TheOddOne, Reginald, Chaox, and Xpecial. Meanwhile, Epik Gamer had three players who defined their roles for early League of Legends: Westrice, Dyrus, and Doublelift.
While these players all went on to build great legacies together, they were still in the process of getting acquainted back in Season 1.
"I hardly knew the other guys at all," Xpecial says. "All I knew was the voices they had over Ventrilo. The first time I saw OddOne, I thought he was going to be this tough-looking chain-smoker because his voice was really deep. But when I met him, he was so short. I walked to his hotel room, and I was like, 'Am I in the wrong room? Who is this little kid?'"
The European scene was largely defined by the rivalry between the two teams that would face each other in the S1 Final: Fnatic and Against All Authority.
"The rivalry was quite big. [Maciej "Shushei" Ratuszniak] was the 'star' of Fnatic, but he used to be in Against All Authority before Worlds," Paul "sOAZ" Boyer recalls. "It was interesting to meet them in Finals. I didn't have much interaction with their members since I was quite young and was speaking French most of the time, but we often met them in online tournaments before Worlds."
Ironically, most of Fnatic's present-day lineup played in that Final… just on opposite teams. Fnatic claimed xPeke and Cyanide, while aAa had sOAZ and YellOwStaR.
Bora "YellOwStaR" Kim was one of the first to realize that there was a potential dream team to be had.
"As far as being in a team with the best Season 1 players goes, I was thinking about it for a while," he admits. "But it wasn't possible even though I happened to ask both [xPeke and Cyanide]. I remember asking them what would they think of being in a team together… but it couldn't happen since we had been on different teams for such a long time."
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Back in Season 1, big roster moves and contentious team politics were rare. Few players took it that seriously. Most of Season 1's top players had approached the game almost casually. Nobody thought it would be a life-changing experience.
"[It was] definitely not a career," Xpecial recalls. "I was still in school at that time, and I had no idea where things were going to go. ...Back then, I definitely wouldn't say I was a professional gamer just because there was a lot more stigma behind it, and there was really no substance to back it up. ...It was just a side-hobby."
sOAZ still misses that aspect of early League. He regards Season 1 Worlds with more fondness and nostalgia than he does for any other era in his competitive career. Season 1 was probably the last time most of these players got to enjoy a tournament as a bunch of kids playing a game they loved.
"The game was much more fun because no one was really 'professional,'" sOAZ says. "It wasn't that stressful being a pro player, compared to right now. ... We felt pressured but it was different. I think every single pro player feels more pressure right now."
Chauster remembers that the NA scene was more social back in those days, simply because the stakes were lower and the number of players was much smaller.
"In S1 and S2, competitive League of Legends was relatively small. I got the chance to talk to pretty much all of the competitive NA players at any LAN event," he says. Later, however, "Teams became more close-knit and time became scarce."
Yet Xpecial cautions against remembering Season 1 as an era where every team was The Three Musketeers. Lack of options was as responsible as personal chemistry for keeping squads together.
"It was definitely more laid-back, but a big part of it was there weren't enough players to go around," he says. "It was really hard to find replacements. There weren't enough free agents. It was really hard to find quality players that not only worked hard, but were actually good at the game. And that's why, for the longest time, most teams just didn't make roster changes in NA. It's not because everyone gets along, or everyone is good. It's that there weren't good replacements at the time. So you have to keep 'em.
"But nowadays," he continues, "you have a lot more options. There's also more money, more sponsors, more people who are involved. You're pressured to perform well, and to get replacements when things don't go well."
It wasn't just that the scene was less professionalized. It was also that League was too young, too immature to demand a professional approach. There were profound disagreements about the right way to play the game. As Xpecial puts it today, the players of Season 1 didn't even have "objective" in their vocabulary. There were few core strategies that teams could refine and polish. League as we know it today was still in the process of being developed.
"Prior to Season 1 Worlds, there was a lot of debate about what the meta should be," Chauster explains. "Europeans adopted the standard that we see today, with duo lane bottom (ADC + support) and two solo laners. NA still played double utility bot lane, with two solo lanes."
For Westrice, Season 1 Worlds decisively laid that question to rest. EU had found a smarter way to play League, and that gave them a strategic advantage throughout that first championship.
"EU was way ahead of everyone else," he says. "The EU meta was AD / Support bottom, and NA people looked at it weird. Then they used that strategy against us, and everyonestarted doing it. People never saw that as a viable strategy until EU did it first. ...That's why EU was way ahead of everybody. They adapted quicker, and we adapted slower."
Yet several players expressed nostalgia for those early days, because the game was so open to interpretation. Once teams started adopting the EU-meta, players had to focus more on refining their play within that framework. The days of flip-flopping between roles and throwing oddball ideas at the wall were coming to an end, at least for people competing at the highest level.
Even sOAZ, who was a part of that EU scene that helped define the current meta, felt like he had more freedom in Season 1. On his team, Against All Authority, most everyone could play a couple roles in the game, which made them very difficult to pin down. He cites aAa's Semifinals series against TSM as one of his all-time favorite competitive experiences, and thinks it was his team's unpredictable, switch-hitting nature that gave them the edge over the infant Team SoloMid in the wild Best of 3.
"We all could play different positions, which is not really possible right now, and we had a large champion pool that could help us during drafting," he says. "[Since then], everyone has gotten better and better at each role, and it was harder to keep up being really good at every single role. Plus, the lane mechanisms are different right now."
"Back then, it was purely mechanics," Westrice agrees. "Whoever won their lane, it meant that they had better mechanics. But now it means their team had a better strategy. Back then, I liked the meta more. When you were able to outplay the opponent, and things were a lot more forgiving."
Overall, though, it was just an exciting era of experimentation that we're unlikely to see repeated with the high stakes of the modern competitive landscape. "Everyone was doing random things, and right now every single little mistake can get punished due to a lot of factors," sOAZ says.
On the other hand, Season 1 Worlds also revealed some shortcomings that came with being a wild new frontier. For one thing, a lot of League's competitive features had yet to be implemented, like pause and game resume.
"I remember one time I [disconnected]. I think it was our last match, I was playing Alistar, and we were pretty far ahead and we ended up winning the game," Xpecial says. "But I remember having to get up from my chair and bring my mouse and my keyboard, plug it into another computer, launch the game, and get back in. It was very messy. Season 1 Worlds was often very messy."
He'll get no argument from Westrice, who feels like Epik Gamer's tournament came apart due to a PC crash. They had gone 3-0 in the Group Stage and were riding high into their Semifinal match against Fnatic. They were on roll, and Westrice's Vayne was running roughshod over the Europeans -- and then Westrice's computer crashed. Hard.
"[It crashed] for five minutes," Westrice says. "And back then, there was no pause option. It was literally 4v5 against us for five minutes while we were in the lead, and when I came back, they were in the lead. That really tilted us."
It was a fateful misfortune for Epik Gamer, who started fixating on what they saw as an unfair outcome while their opponents, Fnatic and then TSM, simply focused on playing the game in front of them. It also set Fnatic on course to win the entire tournament.
It's a scenario that's unthinkable in the modern LCS, where there are procedures to cover just about every eventuality. Just as the scene grew and professionalized after Season 1, so did the game itself.
"I think each year, Riot's done better with production, with stabilization," Xpecial says. "It comes with experience. It would've been nice to have that at the beginning, but as you put in more money, you're going to have to do this. You have to learn from your mistakes. And it's good that we haven't really had a repeat of any of these instances. [Competition quality] has just grown along with the game."