Imagine this for a moment: You’re a professional sportsman. You’ve spent half a year fighting tooth and nail in your domestic and regional leagues for the chance to compete on the world stage to the biggest crowds, a prime opportunity to prove yourself, attract sponsors and followers, as well as potentially getting yourself a good chunk of one of the year’s largest prize pools.
Then, when the day comes, instead of competing against a far flung team, in an interesting, novel matchup, you find yourself pitted against your regional rivals, the team that has already beaten you in the qualifying rounds, a team that you’ve probably competed with a dozen times and have maybe scrimmed against countless more.
And then you lose.
This is the unfortunate fate that met NORA-Rengo at May’s Pro League Season 9 Finals in Milan. Drawn against their APAC rivals Fnatic, they lost 2-0, and aside from a short cameo by their coach Kizoku with the announcement of the next season’s finals in Japan, that was all we saw of them on stage.
Even if you’re not a fan of the team, it’s hard to deny this is a bit of a disappointing reality. We never got to see their potential against any teams except one that they literally played in their last competitive match. And whilst of course, this by no means condemned it to being a boring, predictable matchup, it’s safe to say that an element of hype and unpredictability was lost by this matchup happening. And it only happened because of the death of an old rule - the intra-regional drawing block.
In Year 2 of the Pro League, two teams from the same region had to be on the opposite sides of the Pro League Finals bracket, while this rule was relaxed for Year 3, only making it so that two teams from the same region could not face each other in the quarter-finals -- though the semi-finals were fair game. In Year 4, this rule was abolished altogether.
The block, in my opinion, is a key, if minor element of keeping an international LAN exciting -- part of the brilliance of these events is the clash of styles and metas leading to exciting matches. When teams from the same region are meeting each other, especially at the early stages of a competition, you can be pretty sure of the flow of the match, what operators will be banned, what maps will be played, and so on. There’s not so much to speculate, to discuss and to be surprised by when it’s a match you’ve already seen twice this season at least.
There’s also the matter of seeding. When the top two teams from the same region face each other, it makes the fight for first place in the division essentially meaningless, if they’re just going to face each other anyway. For sure, it’s not something the teams can ever rely on happening, but it’s another thing to add to the pile of reasons teams tend to treat seeding matchups like your average casual match on Favela.
It’s also worth considering that the effects of a single instance of a draw such as this can ripple across a whole event. If the different regions are not of a similar level of play (which is a whole other discussion I won’t get into), it could lead to one team getting a ‘free pass’ by facing a team from a much weaker region that are guaranteed to be in their semi-final. Teams in different parts of the bracket can be facing runs to the final of drastically variable difficulty, and the semi-final could potentially be a far easier match than a team’s opener depending on opposition. I don’t think this was the case in Milan, but the potential is always there, and whilst there is some inevitability of knockout runs being easier for some than others (via upsets, LAN v Online performance etc.), that’s no reason for it not to try and stop it.
Whilst a lot of this talk may seem very hypothetical and improbable -- which is true -- that doesn’t mean it’s not important, and there’s been occasions where the lack of any block has lead to some rather undesirable draws. The most infamous example of this was at the Six Major Paris in 2018, where both the 4 EU teams and 3 NA teams found themselves on the same side of the bracket respectively, ensuring that an all-EU or all-NA final was impossible, and making the knockout stage of one of the year’s premier events having an element of it’s prestige stripped away.
That’s the thing about the region block -- it stops the worst case outcomes from actually happening.
While this was by luck, as per design, this is perhaps the most extreme example in a list that includes the Season 7 Finals, where Team Liquid’s run to the grand final could have been a lot more different if they had followed the Year 2 rule, or at the Season 9 Finals, where FaZe Clan vs NORA-Rengo and Evil Geniuses vs Fnatic could have happened again as rematches from Season 8.
That’s not to say there aren’t reasons you wouldn’t want the block - though it’s not like ESL will tell you them. I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit trawling ESL’s social media and rulebook for this article, and I couldn’t even find a single mention of the drawing process - though it’s not too hard to make guesses as to why.
First and foremost, it’s probably seen as more trouble than it’s worth for the people doing the draw. Considering the draw was done on stream after the last playday, with names written on paper being plucked out of bowls, I doubt that too much thought went into the process. It’s also the simplest process to understand, there’s unlikely to be any mistakes made, and therefore by extension likely makes the best viewing experience. There’s little to explain and it’s quick.
It’s probably also the fairest way of doing it - at least feasibly. Draws in sports are always going to be contentious and require extremely good seeding systems to be ‘fair’, but making some teams unable to face others that they should be able to face for a subjective reason could easily be seen as unfair to the teams from other regions -- say G2 actually had made it to the LAN Finals, it could have effectively given the other EU team a big advantage as it would have ensured they won’t have to face the World Champions. Sure, that might not sound like much, but when the difference between 5-8th and 3/4th is $10,000, it’s easy to understand why ESL might value fairness over spectacle.
And that, at the core, is the real issue -- spectacle vs competitiveness. The option that creates the better show would clearly be the block, but it’s more artificial and arguably unfair. I think it’s a price worth paying in this case, but opinions on this sort of thing are bound to vary between pros, commentators and the community as a whole.
Personally, I think the best way of going about it would be to bypass the problem all together with a completely different knockout system; either have a double elimination bracket (meaning every team would at least get one match against a foreign rival) or a group stage system using a round robin. Granted, these solutions themselves have issues with being feasible with the current standard event schedule being held over one weekend.
I’d love to see what others thought of this issue. Whilst it may be a minor argument in the grand scheme of Pro level Siege, it’s emblematic of a number of debates surrounding the community - automatic relegation, quarantined operators, map pools. It all ties into this balance of fairness vs spectacle. And where people sit on that scale will ultimately influence where the scene eventually goes.