Making sense of the league structure in competitive League of Legends can be a daunting task even for seasoned LoL players. We've taken a dive into the depths of the LCS and scoured the ethers of the internet, compiling this comprehensive overview of the various leagues, their rules, and the different major events that encompass the bulk of the scene.
I've been a recreational LoL player for several years (aren’t all of us by now?) and, even for a short time, was following the League Championship Series closely. Admittedly, I wasn’t a full adherent, but I kept up with the likes of Cloud9, Dignitas, CLG, and of course, TSM. In the years since, Riot has been adding layers of structure to the LCS that, at first glance, can make understanding it on par with making sense of the income tax code. Maybe it’s not that bad, but it takes some digging.
The LoL eSports site was built to bring more participants (i.e. viewers) into the sport and to give a home to the mountains of content being produced around the LCS. Want standings, tickets, schedules, and VoDs? They’ve got you covered.
However where it’s lacking is in explaining the differences in league structure. You see, the rules vary from region to region just as do the teams. Factor in that different events with different rules occur throughout the year, and it can be daunting for even a veteran (heh) LoL player like myself, much less a complete newcomer, to sort out what’s happening from week to week.
The biggest shortcoming of the LoL eSports site is also its own greatest strength - its content. The site is so content focused that the fundamentals of the LCS are obscured or lost completely. In fairness, there are pages on the site that outline the rules within the various leagues. They’re not impossible to find, but they don’t exactly jump out or shine amongst the great content on the main page.
That’s why we’ve taken the time to scour those pages (and other sources), to bring you a comprehensive top-to-bottom understanding of the fundamental structure of the LCS, across all regions.
Buckle up, and join us as we explore each region, its rules, playoffs, Worlds, and quite a bit more.
NOTE: I’ve left the Challenger Series and relegation for an upcoming article. It’s rather complex, and warrants its own deep dive.
At the highest level, the LCS is comprised of 5 distinct regions. Those are:
- North America (NA LCS)
- Europe (EU LCS)
- Korea (LCK) - Champions Korea
- China (LPL) - Tencent LoL Pro League
- Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong (LMS) - LoL Master Series
The teams that compose each region will play in a series of matches throughout the year within their region. Collectively they are competing for an opportunity to play in the end of the year LoL World Championship event known simply as “Worlds”.
Towards the end of the season there is an international wildcard event as well which influences who participates in Worlds as well.
At key points throughout the season, the Challenger Series for NA and EU will take place which will decide who plays in the LCS the following year, and who drops down due to poor performance. This is a process known as relegation and has been the subject of controversy on more than one occasion.
That’s the LCS at a very high level. Time to do go deep.
The regions and their rules
The NA LCS consists of 10 teams that will all face each other twice during the course of the whole season. This makes for 18 matches in total.
These matches occur as part of 2 competitive periods known as “splits”. Those are simply referred to as the Spring and Summer splits.
During these splits, the teams will play in a best-of-3 (Bo3) format to earn Championship points (CPs). The CPs will play a deciding role in who competes in Worlds, and who faces relegation.
Each split wraps up with a round of playoffs in which 6 teams will play in a Bo5 format, seeded, single elimination tournament.
For visually-minded among you, check out this overview of the 2016 Spring split playoffs.
Just like in NA, the EU LCS features 10 teams playing 18 matches across 2 splits.
The major difference here is that the Spring split is a Bo1 format while the Summer split is a Bo2. I’ve included a link at the end of this article which explains why there’s a difference.
Playoffs are identical to the NA LCS, including the Bo5 format.
The EU LCS also makes use of the CP system to determine Worlds eligibility.
As with the first two regions, there are 10 teams playing 18 matches throughout Spring and Summer splits. LCK mirrors NA also in the Bo3 format for each split.
Playoffs are a Bo5 format, like with NA and EU. Only the top 4 teams will advance to the playoffs while the bottom 2 will face relegation. The 4 teams left in the middle will either continue on (Spring) or pack up for next season (Summer).
The playoff format differs further in that it’s a “winner advances” style. Simply put, this means 2 teams face off, and the winner plays the next best team and so on until they face the #1 seed.
As with our previous two regions, LCK uses the CP system for Worlds.
In China, the LPL has taken a somewhat different approach more strongly in some areas and less so in others.
In the LPL there are 12 teams in two 6-team divisions. Each team will play the others in its division twice, and each team in the other division once. All matches are Bo3 and there are Spring and Summer seasons.
Playoffs are a Bo5 format and feature cross-divisional match-ups, as they should. Then there’s relegation. I’m going to cover relegation as a whole in another article, but the LPL has it’s own flavor we’ll knock out here.
In LPL relegation, the lower ranked teams in each division will play each other in a Bo5 series. The losers of these games will be demoted and the winners will play against an up-and-coming team from the LoL Secondary Pro League (LSPL - think, Challenger Series for China). Winning this game means you remain in the LPL while losing means demotion. Of course, every loser faced a winner so the LSPL team that wins gets promoted to the big league.
It’s also worth noting that the LPL does not make use of the CP system.
LMS (Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong)
The final region in our analysis. The LMS is made up of 8 teams, each facing the others twice in a Bo3 format.
As with the other regions, there are Spring and Summer seasons, each culminating in playoffs. 4 teams advance to the playoffs which are a winner-advances style similar to the LCK (Korea). Matches are Bo5 format, as with all other regions.
According to Riot’s information page for the LMS, matches are not broadcast in English so unless your Mandarin is up to spec you may need to find a dubbed over VoD or one with subtitles.
That wraps up the regions and their various nuances. I’ve put together a simple chart to pull all of this together better if you’re more into visuals. Onward!
The International Wildcard
Now that you understand the regions, you may be wondering about the rest of the world. Five regions cover a lot of ground but this world is a big place. Not to worry, others will have a shot at Worlds too. Their path will take them through one of the 3 International Wildcard events.
Those regions are:
- Latin America North
- Latin America South
- CIS / Russia
- Southeast Asia
For the sake of this article I won’t be covering how these individual regions operate. Instead I’ll focus on their path to Worlds.
International Wildcard Qualifier (IWCQ)
The IWCQ traditionally takes place towards the end of the regular season. It’s comprised of 2 “stages”: Group and Knockout.
The Group stage is a Bo1 format during which each team plays each other once. This is also known as a single round robin. The top 4 teams will move on to the Knockout stage and the bottom 3 are done. Better luck next year.
The Knockout stage is a Bo5 single round robin with the top 2 teams automatically qualifying for Worlds.
International Wildcard Invitational (IWCI)
Roughly between the two seasonal splits falls the IWCI. So it’s earlier in the season than the aforementioned IWCQ.
The format for the IWCI is identical to the IWCQ. There’s a Group and playoffs stage (oddly called “Bracket” stage from what I gather). Formats, advancement, and style or identical.
However there are two major differences. First, there is only 1 winner as opposed to 2 in the IWCQ. And that winner will advance to the Mid-Season Invitational, not directly to Worlds.
International Wildcard All-stars (IWCA)
Aside from a mention here, I’m not going any deeper on the IWCA. It has no bearing on the overall results of the LCS as a whole.
The MSI takes place between the Spring and Summer splits (hence, mid-seasonal) and pits the 6 regional champs against each other. The 6 regions include the ones previously covered above as well as the IWCI winner.
As with the Wildcard Qualifier, the MSI has a 2-stage format. During the Group Stage, each team will face all the others twice in a Bo1 format. The top 4 teams will proceed to the Knockout Stage.
Knockout is single elimination, Bo5. Any teams making it to the Knockout Stage will earn one of the top 4 seeds for their region at Worlds.
And that brings us to Worlds. Everything else I’ve covered here has led up to this. By itself, Worlds is 5 weeks of high-level competitive LoL. 16 teams currently will make it, barring any changes to the global league structure, which are entirely possible as the game continues to grow in popularity.
NA, EU, LCK, and LPL will each field 3 teams at Worlds. LMS will field 2 while the remaining 2 will come from the Wildcard Qualifier.
The format is very similar to the MSI. There’s a Group and Knockout stage, with the Group Stage comprised of 4 groups each with 4 teams. All teams will compete against the other teams in their own group twice, for a total of 6 matches per group, or 24 matches in total. The top 2 teams from each group will move on to the Knockout Stage.
Arriving at the Knockout Stage is an accomplishment by itself, but there’s plenty of work facing those teams yet. The format here is Bo5, single elimination. The winner takes the title of World Champion for the next year. Or, if you’re SK Telecom T1, two years running.
If you’ve made it this far and you’re thinking this sounds like an awful lot of work, time, and dedication to get this far, you’re right but it’s very, very worth it.
SK T1 took home $1 million for winning the title last year. Second place brought in $250k, and everyone from 3rd through 16th won some part of the prize purse.
Riot, inspired by the competitive Dota 2 league, allowed fans to indirectly boost the prize pool through qualified in-game purchases. Before the pool was locked, fans had contributed more than half of the total, bringing the final amount to just over $5 million.
The winner of Worlds will also take home the Summoner’s Cup, a 70-pound trophy introduced by Riot for the season two World Championship event.
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