The final match of the North American League Championship Series concluded just hours ago with current 5th-place team Vulcun facing off against the 2nd-place Curse Gaming. The last day of LCS NA was crucial in determining final rankings and seeds for the playoffs in spring and summer - and was also filled with quite a bit of drama. The last time anything of this magnitude happened was during MLG Summer back in August 2012, with Team Dignitas and Curse Gaming accused of collusion after playing an ARAM in the finals match - interestingly enough, Curse Gaming seems to find themselves stuck in a hard place for the second time, as cries of poor sportsmanship and intentional throws surrounded the denouement of the tournament.
We first need to provide some background into how the LCS works and why the playoffs are so important; without fully understanding this, it will be difficult to reach a proper verdict surrounding the Curse vs. Vulcun game. The NA LCS is divided into two seasons - Spring and Summer - with the Spring Playoffs and the Summer Promotion round separating the two. The final standings for LCS NA are as follows:
1. Team SoloMid - 21-7
2. Curse Gaming - 19-9
3. Team Dignitas - 17-11
4. Counter Logic Gaming - 13-15
5. Team Vulcun - 12-16
6. Good Game University - 11-17
7. Team MRN - 10-18
8. compLexity Gaming - 9-19
The top two (TSM and Curse) automatically receive a bye and are guaranteed a spot in the Summer season. The next four teams (ranks 3 through 6) are placed in the Spring Playoffs, with the 3rd place and 6th place teams playing a match, and the 4th place and 5th place teams also playing.
Image taken from Leaguepedia
The two teams that win are then given spots in the Summer Season, and have job security for the next few months. The two teams that lose join the 7th and 8th place teams, and are relegated to the Summer Promotion round. Filled with fierce competition, the Summer Promotion round is where four teams from the current Spring Season are fighting for their jobs and a position in the upcoming LCS. They are joined by teams from the MLG Qualifier, the IPL Qualifier, and the Ranked 5s Qualifier, all of whom have a very real shot at knocking a current team out of the LCS.
A month ago, Cloud 9 (now Quantic Gaming) and Velocity eSports won the top two spots at the MLG Winter Championship, giving them a spot at the Summer Promotion round. Earlier this month, Team Summon and 1 Trick Ponies would do the same at the IPL Qualifier, securing another two spots. Finally, four Challenger Ranked 5s teams - Nydus is Diamond One, Hedgehog Brigade, No Team Name Necessary, and Azure Cats were grabbed from the top of the Ranked 5s ladder and given the last four spots at the Summer Promotion round.
The eight teams taken from the qualifier rounds all face each other in a series of best-of-three matches that will whittle down eight teams to four. The four teams that advance will face the four teams that were relegated from the NA LCS in a best-of-five match. Finally, the four teams that advance will join Team SoloMid, Curse Gaming, and the winners of the Spring Playoffs (picture above) in the LCS Summer Season.
Image taken from Leaguepedia
This is where the controversy comes in. In the last matchup, Team Vulcun faced Curse Gaming in a relatively inconsequential game. Curse Gaming were guaranteed 2nd place, unable to pass TSM in 1st but also unable to drop down to 3rd place. Team Vulcun were guaranteed a 5th/6th place finish - if they beat Curse, they would clinch 5th, but if they lost to Curse, they would tie for 5th with GGU.
Team Vulcun vs. Curse Gaming
Champion select saw some very strange things from both teams. Curse ran some extremely unorthodox picks, including Nyjacky on AD Tristana mid, Voyboy on Nunu top, and Saint on jungle Fizz. Vulcun decided to swap roles completely, putting their top laner in the jungle, their jungler in mid lane, their mid laner on AD carry, and their AD carry in top lane. Neither team was taking the game very seriously, and at first, it seemed as if it was because of the relative unimportance of the game.
But is that really it? Were both teams just playing for fun because the game didn't matter much, or was there a deeper motive? If Vulcun wins, they're guaranteed 5th place and therefore have to face the 4th place team, CLG, in the playoffs. If Vulcun loses, they tie for 5th and GGU ends up playing CLG, while Vulcun faces Dignitas.
This is where things get tricky - Vulcun has a good chance to beat either CLG or Dignitas, so that's not the worrying part. If they face Dignitas and lose, they need to beat the winner of Team Summon vs. No Team Name Necessary in order to qualify for the LCS. NTNN is relatively unknown, and Team Summon are likely to defeat them - Team Summon itself, however, is currently relying on two substitute players, and are not a very strong team. This means that even if Vulcun loses against Dignitas, they have a very good shot at qualifying just because of their matchups.
On the other hand, if Vulcun faces CLG and loses, they need to beat the winner of 1 Trick Ponies and Azure Cats. 1TP comes from the IPL qualifier and holds names like nubbypoohbear on AP and Unstoppable playing support. Azure Cats, the current #1 Ranked 5s team, is bigfatlp's team, and features players like Cruzerthebruzer and Demunlul. Both teams are very strong, and can very possibly take a game off of Vulcun, knocking them out of the LCS. This means that Vulcun would prefer to lose against Curse, allowing them to face Dignitas (and either Team Summon or NTNN if they lose against Dig) so they have a better chance of qualifying for the LCS.
So now we have an incentive for Vulcun to lose. What about Curse? They can't possibly change rankings from this one game, right? That's absolutely right, but their motives may also hide in the Spring Playoffs. Vulcun is considered to be a stronger team than Good Game University. The former is older, and has a good track record against CLG - the latter is inconsistent, showing fluctuating performances and going from winning streaks to losing streaks. This means that Curse would prefer that Vulcun faces CLG, so there's a higher chance of CLG getting knocked out in the Playoffs stage. With Curse's horrendous scrimmage record against CLG (roughly 0-16), it is not absurd to reason that they would take any chance they can get to increase the odds of CLG not qualifying. In order to guarantee Vulcun facing CLG, Curse wants to lose against Vulcun, securing the latter team a 5th-place finish.
And now we have an issue in the behavior of both teams and their actions during champion select. It can easily be argued that neither team was trying their hardest because neither team actually wanted to win, which is a very big problem. The rules of LoL eSports clearly state that "Players must not engage, knowingly or otherwise, in any activity that could be construed as unsportsmanlike or violating the competitive integrity of the sport", and that "deliberately failing to play at one's best in a game, in any manner inconsistent with the principles of good sportsmanship, honesty, or fair play."
Viewers have cited interesting behavior from both teams as "evidence" of a violation of these rules - Curse apparently giving up free objectives, strange team comps from both sides, or Curse looking pleased when Vulcun was destroying their base. On the other side of the spectrum are the people who argue that both teams were simply playing for fun, or were legitimately trying new strategies. Curse's poor performance this entire week has been suggested as a reason for the loss, with others questioning why Vulcun would two-man Baron successfully if they wanted to lose.
Curse's Liquid112 has released a statement regarding the matches, saying that:
Curse plays to win. Our number one goal was to finish in the top two teams in order to achieve a first round bye in the LCS first season split. From our perspective, nothing is more important that preparing for the playoffs, winning North America and going on to Worlds. If you have ever watched our team interact, you would know that we are an intense group, sometimes to a fault, with a reputation for working and preparing for games exceptionally hard.
In this particular case, we had a game in the LCS that was not significant in the sense that winning or losing would not improve our standing in the league. As such, we took this opportunity to try an unusual team comp in the hopes that we would learn a thing or two about what would work at the highest levels of competition. This is no different than in other sports. In football, for example, teams who have secured their spot in the playoffs will often rest starters, try different plays and compositions in order to better prepare for the upcoming playoffs. For us, nothing is more important than winning when it counts.
Despite the unusual team composition, at NO TIME did any of our players ever not give 100% toward winning the game. There is nothing to gain for our team to produce a “troll” team and not trying our hardest. The stakes are too high and the opportunities are too great to waste a game against top talent to goof around. Curse is a professional organization and so are our players. We owe it to our sponsors, our fans and to Riot to work as hard as we can in advance of our cause; to be the top team NA.
As for the few voices we have heard that has accused Curse of not giving it our best shot, we take the high road. They are welcome to say whatever they like. We will continue to do what we do best; take down teams in North America and do our very best to win the first split playoff.
To shift our players focus from this goal to respond to cheap allegations is a waste of their time and counterproductive.
To our fans, thank you for standing with us. We hope to make you proud in the playoffs.
Curse or Die.
At the same time, users have noted an influx of tweets from Curse players that may be an attempt to show that they were taking the game seriously.
With very real consequences, a simple show-match may have left the NA LCS ending on a sour note. Whether Riot will allow Vulcun and Curse to continue without any issues or whether they will bring the hammer down on both teams will only be determined with time.
UPDATE: Riot's official response to the controversy:
It has been brought to our attention that there have been allegations of play that violates the LCS rules surrounding competitive integrity. The rule in question is Section 10.1.1.1.5:
Collusion includes, but is not limited to, acts such as….deliberately failing to play at one’s best in a game, in any manner inconsistent with the principles of good sportsmanship, honesty, or fair play.
In the judgment of the LCS, this rule was not violated during the final day of the regular season. Given the evolution of the “meta” within League of Legends, and the constant balancing changes made to champions, the LCS cannot deem an intentionally chosen lineup “unviable” before a team takes the field, which means that competitive integrity cannot be sacrificed based on picks and bans alone.
Decisions must then center on whether teams can be judged to have been competing fully in the match. LCS officials are present in each team’s competition room for every match, and are listening to each team’s audio at all times. If an official determined that a team referenced a strategy designed around losing, suggested unnecessarily and inexplicably conservative play, or performed any action that was deemed “uncompetitive,” the game would not be allowed to continue. After conferring with multiple LCS officials, including all on-site referees, no violations of competitive integrity were deemed to have occurred, and no rulings need to be made.
We encourage all Summoners to tune into the LCS Spring Split Playoffs, starting next Friday at 3pm PST.