It's been a season full of ups and downs, but as we approach the end of the year I want to share my wider thoughts on the most recent League of Legends ESL UK Premiership (season 2).
The reason I have written this article is not to be pompous or pretentious; UK eSports has enormous potential, but it's still growing and finding its feet. I want to highlight what it's doing well and what I think can be improved.
The structure & matches
First of all, I think the idea of having a Premiership with weekly matches - taking place on Saturday and Sunday - is fantastic. Like football, it gives you something to look forward to at the end of the week, and having a longer league table format rather than a typical tournament works incredibly well in my opinion. Eight teams is also a decent number.
I do have questions over the qualification tournament however. At the end of a season, the top four teams stay in the league, while the bottom four have to requalify in an eight-team knockout tournament, featuring four other teams from the ESL LoL Major Ladder.
The problem with the Major Ladder, as you can see from that link, is that the number of matches between teams are uneven. MnM Gaming are currently top with 261 points (16 wins and two losses), GLB Blue are second (with three wins and zero losses), Aerox are third (with two wins and zero losses), while Uncharted Insanity are fourth (with five wins and two losses).
Despite Uncharted Insanity playing more games than Aerox, they are below them in the standings. Unfortunately this current system is flawed, but from what we've heard, ESL may be changing the qualifying format in the New Year.
The other thing worth mentioning with the Premiership is when matches are pushed back and rescheduled, it can be hard to find out when the rescheduled matches are actually taking place. At one point towards the end of season 2, the date of one match was changed at the last minute, which can mean some fans will be unaware of the change - and miss out on watching it.
It's great to have a UK tournament with a £5,000 prize pool, but for me it's still not enough. This is not a criticism of ESL at all - they've done incredibly well to get a number of big-name sponsors on board. It's more a reflection of the current state of the UK eSports scene.
There are rumours this prize fund is doubling to £10,000 for season 2, and ESL UK's Peter Mather previously told us the organisation is doing its best to increase the prize pools. We understand Riot may be throwing more weight behind the UK too.
The higher the prize pot, the more incentive players and teams have to enter, the more money going into ESL to help improve its tournaments (they have a new "world-class" studio opening imminently), and the more funding that grows the scene as a whole. It's imperative that funding increases.
The rules and regulations
I think the ESL UK rulebook is incredibly extensive, professional and fair.
Take this rule for example: "When cheating is uncovered, 12 penalty points will be awarded to the player, and six minor penalty points will be awarded to the team of the player. The team will be disqualified from the current season of the ESL UK Premiership and the player will be banned from all competitions in ESL for two years."
That is a fair and decent punishment, in my eyes.
Another fair rule: "Every minor penalty point deducts 1% of the overall prize money received by the team, or player in the tournament they are given. Every major penalty point deducts 10% of the overall prize money for the tournament."
What I'm not so sure of is the enforcement of some of the other (potentially harsher) rules.
The criticism I have of some aspects here, again, is more of a reflection of the generally small size of the UK eSports scene, not ESL itself.
UK team rosters can change quicker than Usain Bolt in a dressing room on speed, which can often leave teams in hairy situations.
Take Team Paria and the NUEL: they had some roster issues during season 2 and failed to field their teams on matchdays on a couple of occasions. This netted them with penalty points, meaning they are apparently "currently banned from all leagues because of too many penalty points". This technically means they won't be allowed to take part in the qualification tournament.
As it stands, exceL technically can't requalify either, after withdrawing halfway through the season.
But with a lack of serious, organised League of Legends teams in the UK, are these punishments fair? It would be a shame not to see them get the opportunity to fight for their space in the next season. This comes back to the whole Major Ladder thing - it may be that ESL tweaks this system come the New Year.
The other point I want to raise is that of banned skins. Choke Gaming's support The Hadow fielded a banned skin (Ghost Bride Morgana) a couple of times this season.
The rules state: "If a banned skin is selected, the match should be restarted with the same picks and bans before a notable point of record (before vision on the opposing team has been established from either party, or before three minutes has been reached on the in-game clock). If a team refuses to restart, three penalty points will be issued to the offending team."
However, while I understand The Hadow had penalty points deducted, the teams weren't forced to restart the match. Should this have been better enforced, or doesn't it matter?
The teams & players
"I think the UK scene is probably stronger than people make it out to be. The teams themselves aren't that strong but we have some very, very talented individuals," he said.
"If they want to promote the scene, they need to bring in more cash prizes, bigger incentives for the European players and the top UK to come out of hiding and actually do it.
"Nobody really wants to just be in a UK team and that's it. It's what I tried to do over the last two years and it's just not worth it."
Because of this, the team rosters change all the time. Players come and go. They are poached. They don't have contracts. They fall out with management. Some leave to play in European teams. Others quit the scene entirely.
It creates an unsustainable, volatile eSports scene that isn't healthy for the teams, the players or growing eSports in the UK as a whole.
"Being handicapped in a sense for having to have three UK players as part of a line-up [of five] restricts you a lot in terms of roster control as well. Because it also means if someone is under-performing or doesn't put the effort in, you can't replace them if it's a UK player," Tundra added.
"If they want to promote the talent within the UK, you cap it at 5/5 team members from the UK. The teams overall won't be as good, but what you'll find is that other UK players will be brought up because they have to be - each team is required to have two more UK players."
In my personal opinion, ESL should remove the cap and follow something more akin to the football Premier League.
Premier League clubs are allowed up to 25 footballers in their squad. Eight of these must be "homegrown" (aka coming through an English academy) but they DON'T need to be British.
Why not go easier on the teams that have foreign players who are based in the UK?
The LAN finals
It was brilliant to have a live event featuring the greatest UK League of Legends teams.
It was just a shame no one turned up to watch.
The ticket sales were left to the last minute, meaning only a handful of fans turned up, and many of the 60 or so seats were empty.
What I'd personally love to see is larger seating capacities. The CSGO ESL UK Premiership final took place at London's ExCeL as part of the MCM London Comic Con, and the atmosphere was excellent. There were hundreds of seats in the eSports area and the room was probably around half-full, which made for a better atmosphere.
Elsewhere, it was a shame that there was no 4Nations tournament this year - hopefully Riot will bring that one back.
The other thing I want to mention is accommodation (this is a general point and not specific to ESL). It can be expensive for players and teams to find and pay for accommodation - not to mention the difficulty of different players travelling different lengths.
Also, during the ESL UK LoL finals, one semi-final took place on the Saturday, and the other semi-final took place on the Sunday (with the final getting underway straight afterwards). It would have been fairer on the players to have both the semis taking place on the Saturday, leaving the players with more time to travel home on the Sunday evening.
Finally, in terms of the ESL UK staff, I have nothing but good things to say about the lot of them. They put a lot of hard work in, are incredibly passionate and obviously care greatly about the UK eSports scene.
I also think the standard of casters is fantastic and we've got some great talent here. On one particular Saturday, both matches were cancelled (due to a few teams not having enough players online), leaving the casters with nothing to do. Or so it seemed.
Instead, they asked the Twitch viewers online who wanted to play a game of League and cast themselves in the game. Brilliant.
I honestly feel that UK eSports will go from strength to strength. The only way is up - prize pools will increase, the standard of play will improve and so will the recognition.
ESL will probably form Premierships for other games (it's already done some sterling work with UK SMITE and Halo tournaments), which will help on the recognition front.
I also want to mention Riot, who helped promote the ESL UK Premiership further towards the end of the season - let's hope they continue to back it.
It's not going to be easy, there's a long way to go but I think in five years' time the UK will have a solid eSports scene and structure that we'll be proud to call our own.