The annual Rift Rivals tournament was billed as a clash between titans. Europe’s G2 Esports had just taken home the Mid-Season Invitational trophy with a clean sweep over North America’s Team Liquid. Fnatic was coming off an undefeated streak in the LEC, while the competition had leveled up for the likes of TSM and Cloud9 on their home soil. It felt like fans and analysts alike would get a true gauge of strength between the two regions, with more than a few daring to believe North America had a shot at beating their counterparts from across the Atlantic.
The promised showdown between two powerhouse regions instead devolved into essentially a series of showmatches.
With the lone exception of Team Liquid, Europe ran roughshod over their North American brethren. It was clear the gap between the two regions was just as wide as it had been for years. Not only had fans been disappointed, but for players from both regions, the tournament rang hollow.
“I think it’s a pretty big waste of time. I’d rather not travel to play this tournament if it has no meaning,” Origen’s support Alfonso "Mithy" Aguirre Rodríguez told Upcomer following the final match of the event. “What’s pride, really?”
Therein lies the problem: Rift Rivals is ostensibly a tournament used to satisfy the EU vs. NA debate for good each year, but without incentive for either side, the event lacks meaning. Since the meta will likely be completely different when the World Championship rolls around, reads on team compositions each region likes to play will be obsolete by the time they matter again. Especially for the away team, the event can actually hinder their chances at doing well following Rift Rivals.
“I think this tournament is pretty much just a showmatch,” Liquid jungler Jake Kevin "Xmithie" Puchero told Upcomer. “It kind of screws over the away teams, so EU for example, they’re coming here just to play a tournament just for a showmatch, and they don’t really get any prize money or championship points for it. It kind of sucks for them, but we just make the best out of it, so we’re making it good practice.”
While the North American teams used the event to improve and play against strategies they had never seen before, for most of the European representatives, the entire event was essentially a waste of time. Having to travel in the middle of their LEC split was already bad enough, but playing games against a weaker region may have actually hurt their practice.
The meta in Europe evolves extremely quickly due to the level of play forced upon the region by the likes of G2 and Fnatic. Both teams are confident enough to pull out niche picks, like the Veigar Fnatic mid laner Tim "Nemesis" Lipovšek used to seal the win for EU against TSM. Even Origen, who sit with a middling 3-3 record, have the ability to role swap. Origen mid laner Erlend "Nukeduck" Våtevik Holm played Yasuo in the bot lane in his team’s first match against TSM, clearly catching them off guard.
Due to the ever-changing meta, Origen coach André Guilhoto would rather have had his team practice against other EU squads. Instead, Origen used the tournament as a way of testing out champion combinations they normally weren’t sure about.
“Even for practice it would obviously be better to stay in EU and practice with EU teams. At least the practice we had with NA teams, it wasn’t that helpful,” Guilhoto said. “We just use it to pull out comps that we are not sure if we can pull out on stage and just trying to get conclusions from that. For example, Pantheon-Taliyah, we didn’t practice this for one month, but one month ago it was one of our answers to Sona-Taric. We wanted to see how it would go on stage, and now we can make better conclusions if we want to invest time into it or not.”
Despite his concerns with the impact the tournament would have on his team when they returned to Europe, Guilhoto acknowledged that it was still a good opportunity for his team to begin adjusting to factors in international play, like jet lag, that they would not normally encounter. He also noted that all three European teams used the event as a bonding experience for players.
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“Even though it’s kind of a for-fun tournament, and no flame, EU is just way better than NA at least in this meta, I still think it’s a good experience for coming out and getting used to how the jet lag will affect us,” Guilhoto said. “You can come and actually use this experience to apply it to team bonding and doing some team stuff. I know Fnatic is doing the same, G2 is always doing that because they are always messing around, so I think it’s good to use the tournament like that.”
Players from both region agree the event can be improved. While Rift Rivals is mostly a tournament for the fans, Mithy believes it is possible to both encapsulate a good fan experience while also making the tournament better for participants.
“There’s the Bo5, which is pretty cool. I like that, but it’s like traveling and a whole buildup just to play a Bo5 against NA. I don’t really know if that’s worth it. It could be better, more incentive or something,” Mithy said. “I know it’s for the fans, and that’s great, but traveling, cutting your season in half, and maybe we go back to Europe now and get shit on by all the other teams that have been practicing. That feels pretty bad.”
Xmithie and Guilhoto took his idea a step further. Both suggest that the tournament could have a prize pool, thus providing at least a monetary incentive for both sides. While the stronger region would still be stuck with worse practice for the duration of the event, they would have a reason to play their best, providing a better show for fans and ostensibly helping the two sides come closer in terms of skill.
Riot could consider creating special Rift Rivals skins to add to the prize pool, similar to how Championship Kha’Zix and Ashe did at the previous two World Championships. Alternatively, a portion of the revenue generated by ticket sales to the event could be put toward a cash prize for the victorious region, allowing casual fans to support their favorite teams.
Fnatic top laner Gabriël "Bwipo" Rau has a different idea. He feels that simply adding a prize pool isn’t enough to generate interest in the tournament.
“For me personally, I know there’s a prize pool at the end of LEC and I know there’s a prize pool at the end of Worlds and MSI, but I’m not looking at the prize pool when I’m trying to win these tournaments,” Bwipo told Upcomer. “For me, yeah, I could come home with five k in my pocket or whatever the prize pool would be, and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of nice,’ but there’s still an incentive lacking outside of monetary issues. I don’t feel like any pro player that would go to this tournament has the need to earn more money immediately.”
He would rather see a separate tournament following MSI, in which the second, third, and fourth seeds from NA and EU would battle it out in a format similar to Rift Rivals. That way, more teams could get international experience, the top seeds would get a longer break following their own tournament, and there would be a “kind of bootcamp” for teams before their own split starts.
“The idea is to have more international competition, but right now, whichever team has to move is like, ‘Fuck this shit,’ and the other people are like, ‘What the hell?’” Bwipo said. “They get worried about next week’s standings. Both regions aren’t fully committed to making this a full-on stand-off.”
A final option is to have Academy teams face off instead. This would allow developing players from both regions to get international experience. During Rift Rivals, Fnatic and Cloud9 both played their substitute junglers in order to field them against stronger competition than they could find domestically. Developing up-and-coming players would drastically improve the overall strength of both regions, since starting players would also feel more pressure to get better. With the current format, the best teams in each region theoretically keep getting better at Rift Rivals while their competition stagnates, creating a perpetual gap between teams that have long histories of international competition and those that don’t that’s difficult to close.
Whatever Riot decides to do, Rift Rivals cannot continue in its current state. It’s fine for it to be a more audience-focused event, but players need to be compensated as well, whether that comes in the form of a monetary incentive or more international experience for teams that would normally never get any.