Why it’s time for Riot to change the League of Legends Worlds format

Image of DWG KIA winning Worlds 2020Riot Games

After 11 years, Worlds needs to revamp its format. It’s time for the League of Legends’ premier tournament to embrace a double-elimination bracket and a bigger tournament.

Worlds has changed significantly since its inception in 2011. An eight-team tournament held over a single weekend in June has become a sprawling month-long tournament with triple the participants.

While Riot has progressively expanded the scope of the tournament, the format has largely remained the same — a round-robin group stage followed by single-elimination playoffs.

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But the world is not the same as it was in 2011. With League of Legends’ esports scene growing exponentially, it’s time Riot made some changes to their biggest tournament.

Image of the Worlds trophy, the Summoner's CupAfter 11 years, it’s time for Riot to change the Worlds format

Expand the tournament and abolish Play-Ins

Let’s talk about soccer for a moment. The World Cup, the biggest international tournament in the sport, has been contested by 32 teams since its 1998 edition. That number is due to rise to 48 for the 2026 World Cup.

For comparison, Worlds has had 24 teams since 2017. That was a rise from 16 in 2016 due to the introduction of Play-Ins.

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Fenerbache 1907 at Worlds 2017Riot Games
Turkish team Fenerbache 1907 were one of the first Play-Ins teams at Worlds when Play-Ins were introduced in 2017

It’s time that number rose. At Worlds 2021, we saw Japan’s DFM win a Play-In group over Cloud9, one of the most recognizable names in the sport. At MSI 2021, Turkey’s Instanbul Wildcats were able to win a game against the best team in Europe, MAD Lions.

League of Legends is a game that is expanding exponentially and we can no longer pretend that its esport is still limited to just Europe, North America, China, and Korea.

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Worlds should reflect how the game’s esport scene has expanded in recent years.

If the tournament wanted to rise to 32 teams, the next logical tournament size, it could be done with the following additions:

  • 1 team from MENA (A region thriving despite a lack of dedicated servers)
  • 4th seeds from the LEC and LCS
  • The highest-placed non-academy team from EU Masters
  • An additional seed from the region of the previous year’s champions
  • 3 teams from a pre-tournament qualifier for wildcard regions already with teams at Worlds (Russia, Brazil, Latin America, Oceania, etc)

With this new 32-team tournament, it’s time to abolish Play-Ins.

Play-Ins were introduced in 2017 as a way to allow smaller regions, known officially as wildcard regions, a chance to compete at Worlds. However, the addition has only seen mixed success, with just six wildcard region teams making it out of Play-Ins from a potential 20 qualifying places.

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While there are occasionally upsets and shocks, the lower seeds from the major regions (Europe, North America, Korea, and China) typically dominate the Play-Ins stage. This arguably defeats the point of Play-Ins entirely.

Riot themselves also don’t appear to hold Play Ins in too high regard, as evidenced by accidentally published placeholder text for Worlds Pick’Ems that called Play Ins a “fiesta” that Riot, or at least Pick’Ems “didn’t support”.

LNG at Worlds 2021Riot Games
China’s LNG dominated their Play-Ins group

With a larger 32-team tournament, or even with the existing 24-team format, it makes more sense to abolish Play-Ins and place all attending teams in an expanded group stage. This gives all teams a theoretical chance of success.

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At 24 teams, that’s six groups of four or four groups of six. At 32 teams, that’s eight groups of four.

There is nothing wrong with the best-of-one, double round-robin. It allows the group stage to move along at a reasonable pace while also giving everyone the best chance of success.

While some would rather see a best-of-three format in the group stage, that sort of change would only serve to cement the dominance of the major regions.

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But once the group stage ends, it’s time for Riot to implement the biggest change to Worlds.

RNG at Worlds 2021Riot Games
Does the Worlds playoffs format need to change?

Worlds needs double-elimination playoffs

If you’ve been on Reddit during Worlds, you will have seen posts calling for double elimination at Worlds. One post showing a theoretical double-elimination bracket at Worlds 2021 received nearly 5,000 upvotes. League stars such as Amazing and Munchables were on the record calling for double elimination as early as Worlds 2020.

With the best teams in the world only getting better, single-elimination playoffs become less viable. If you draw a team like DWG KIA, you should probably start packing your bags. Double-elimination gives teams that promise of at least one more series.

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DWG KIA and MAD Lions at Worlds 2021Riot Games
MAD Lions would still be at Worlds despite their 3-0 loss to DWG KIA if the tournament was double-elimination

But double-elimination in a 24-team tournament holds limited promise. It would rely on third-placed teams being sent through to the playoffs and not every Worlds will be as competitive as this year’s.

While it does not use double-elimination, soccer’s Euro 2020 is a great example of why allowing third-placed teams into the knockouts is risky. None of the third-place teams that appeared in the Euro 2020 playoffs secured a winning record during the group stage. Allowing third-place teams into the knockout stage often dilutes the quality of the knockout stage itself.

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Double elimination comes into its own with a 32-team group stage. The top two teams from each group go into the playoffs, giving you a mouth-watering 16-team bracket.

Faker poses at Worlds 2021Riot Games
Matches such as the DWG KIA v T1 semifinal at Worlds 2021 wouldn’t spell the end for either team in a double-elimination bracket

There are then two ways to run the bracket.

Either the eight first-seeds battle it out in the upper bracket while the eight second-seeds initially fill out the lower bracket.

Or, in the more intriguing format, the 16 playoff teams are seeded one to 16. There is an initial Round of 16 (#1 v #16, #2 v #15, etc) before the winners and losers are sent to their respective brackets.

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This allows for both the possibility of smaller teams upsetting the tournament giants, but also accounts for the very existence of tournament favorites. If DWG KIA suffer a shock loss in their opening match, they still have the chance to fight their way through the lower bracket.

As opposed to the do-or-die nature of single-elimination, there is the promise of a second chance when it comes to double-elimination.

Cloud9 at Worlds 2021Riot Games
How much further could Cloud9 could have gone given another chance?

Can a new format ‘fix’ Worlds?

The question remains, how much does a new format achieve?

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Every Worlds since 2013 has been won by a team from either the LCK or LPL. Seventeen of the 20 players still competing at Worlds 2021 are Korean. The hierarchy of professional League of Legends is dominated by China and Korea, and their supremacy doesn’t look to be ending soon.

Cloud9 head coach Alfonso ‘mithy’ Aguirre Rodríguez slammed the entire pro League format after Cloud9’s exit from Worlds 2021, saying the current format was “unfair” to Western teams.

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If the competitive talent gap is so wide, how much does changing the format of the year-end competition help?

DWG KIA at Worlds 2021Riot Games
With teams as competitive as DWG KIA in the mix, does Worlds’ format matter?

Change has to start somewhere. And making changes to Worlds to make it more competitive, and more encompassing of the global scene, is an easy first step. It’s foolish to try and tackle the very structure of the esport head-on as the first port of call for change. But Worlds is malleable. It has changed in the past and it will likely be changed again.

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Burning down the competitive structure of League to rebuild a fairer system, a more competitive system, can come over time. But these changes to Worlds can be made sooner and have a definite impact on the esport.

It’s unclear what, if any, steps Riot intends to take in regards to their end-of-year tournament. However, one thing is clear — fans are growing increasingly vocal about the desire for a new format.

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