Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Defence of Regular Roster Changes

Update: Some of the images I tried to hotlink have been giving me trouble so I've added superior versions of each of them in order to preserve your viewing pleasure. Sorry, I'm really bad at formatting stuff. Still quite new to blogging.

There is a very long-standing sentiment in the Esports community and especially, I think, in the Dota community that regular roster changes are a bad thing. By 'regular', I'm talking about 1-3 times a year. Obviously teams changing their rosters on a weekly basis is problematic, so I won't be defending that at all here. Why do people not like it when teams make roster changes? Well, it's unprofessional, we are told. It appears to show instability in the given team and, accordingly, in the given scene. Lastly, perhaps the strongest sentiment around this issue is that it shows a lack of commitment of players to their teams. Surely these teams have not worked hard enough at being a team if they want to make changes to their roster after only being together a few months - they are just taking the easy way out and this is deplorable. These complaints are clearly all related and I think they are all generally misguided. By the end of this post I hope to have presented a strong case for why regular roster changes are a good thing in the professional Esports scene.

1. Regular roster changes are a sign of professionalism, not a lack thereof

One need look only as far as Professional Sports to realize that player transfers are a necessary part of a properly functioning professional scene. If you look at the English Premier League, for example, you'd be hard pressed to find a season where any team doesn't add or remove at least a few players.

The fact is that players moving between teams is an indication of a competitive focus as opposed to a casual one. Why do people leave their teams for other teams? Well, because they think they'll have a better chance of winning, or more opportunity to improve on their game. Of course there are cases of individuals who are fickle or uncommitted and make rash decisions about switching between teams but it's hard to find any kind of evidence supporting this being the general case. Meanwhile, the only reasons I can see as to why a team might maintain the same line-up indefinitely are either that their focus simply isn't competitive [read: friendship] or that their focus is competitive but they just keep winning. The reality is that the latter case is historically unprecedented in both sports and esports. Even dominant teams often have to make changes in order to maintain dominance - in fact later I will argue that dominant teams have special reasons for making changes precisely because they are dominant.

If a Dota team truly has a competitive focus, they will have to ask themselves at least every few months whether or not they might benefit from making changes to their roster. In reality, the question is hardly ever whether or not to make any changes but rather how many changes are needed, how soon they are needed, and which players should be replaced or added. One concern resulting from this kind of reasoning might be that players seem quite unprotected in an industry where finding a stable income is very challenging. This is absolutely true and definitely a serious concern but it's one which should be addressed by sponsors and organizations. The Chinese are way ahead in this regard when it comes to Dota 2. Again, if we look at the professional sports world, we see that the way players protect themselves is by signing extended contracts. This way they are financially secure even if they stop being asked to play or their team decides to go another direction in their development. Of course, in order for this to be possible, the industry does need to reach a point where organizations can sustainably sign these kinds of contracts and what this means is that sponsors and teams need to start finding more ways to make a safe return on their investments. Again, as the Chinese have already begun to do, one way to ensure this is to actually enforce the contracts that do exist. When player transfers do occur, if a player being transferred is under contract, the team they are joining must pay a fee for their transfer.

All of this leads nicely to the issue of 'stability' and how players who move teams a lot are perceived as making the scene unstable. Again, here, I believe that once the scene is fully established, the importance of stability will be mostly in the main teams/organizations being stable. No sport gets ruined if some player in some team decides to throw his or her toys out of the cot. Provided the important institutions are stable, the industry can survive problems caused by individual players largely unscathed. What's more, the type of contracts described above include these risks. If an organization signs a contract with a player, they are agreeing to take on various risks involving the conduct and performance of that said player in return for the player agreeing to various obligations. So, a lot of what I'm saying here does depend on our industry growing beyond where it is and developing infrastructure to support enforceable contracts for all professional teams and a set of regulations governing the administration of players. That said, even though the industry might not be quite there yet, it is a mistake to think that this means it all becomes the obligation of the players. As discussed above, there are always good reasons for truly competitive players to want to change to another team and if an under-developed scene restricts the ability of players to focus just on competing, then this is a fact we should acknowledge but regret, not one we should take for granted.

2. Why the best teams might have special need for roster changes

A lot of the above analysis can be summarized into the basic notion that competitive players who know their team isn't the best team should probably do whatever it takes to make their team the best team. One of the things they can do is change the players in their team and thus we should expect roster changes in a competitive environment, rather than bemoaning them. What might be less obvious is why players who know their teams are the best teams should consider roster changes. Here I have arguments both for the general case and for Dota 2 in particular.

One of the main ways that anybody who works in a competitive environment improves is by competing against their superiors. It's a lot harder to learn how to get better without constantly exposing yourself to something that is better. This presents a problem for those who are already the best - because, being the best, their is necessarily nobody who is better from whom to learn. Of course it's not always that cut and dry and often there are many teams which are close enough to one another's level such that they can all learn valuable things from playing against and studying one another. Further, it is obviously possible to learn things even from teams that are significantly worse than one's own and also possible to learn valuable lessons purely in the abstract upon reflection or by work. It's just a lot harder and a much slower process sifting through mountains of sand to try find hidden gems. That said, in an environment where everyone is continually working hard to improve, it is a serious disadvantage to the top teams that one of the main methods of improvement is limited for them.

Moreover, whenever any team is established as the best team in a given environment, that team becomes the de facto 'team to beat'. What this means is that most other teams are spending a disproportionate amount of time studying the best team and working out ways to beat them. This is one of the reasons that a lot of players prefer to be underdogs going into tournaments. When you're the favourites, everybody knows you're the favourites. The spotlight is on you and instead of just having to work out ways to win, you have to work out ways to win against people who are prioritizing beating you in particular over winning in general. So, because the best teams are at a significant disadvantage in at least these two ways when it comes to maintaining their status as best, it should be completely unsurprising when a top team decides to reinforce by adding a new player or two. This both strengthens their team and blocks potential competitors from doing so.

Focusing on Dota 2 in particular, I think there are even more reasons that roster changes eventually become a necessity for the top teams. Here, again, I will present two such reasons. First, Dota 2 has a very healthy metagame. By 'healthy' here I mean that it changes a lot. This is partially because a lot of Dota's metagame is what I've previously described as soft metagame - and is thus subject to severe unpredictability - and partially because even those parts of it which are hard metagame, the parts dictated by the game itself, are changing fairly regularly. Because the game changes and because people try new things, the way people excel at the game is also constantly changing. How this relates to roster changes is in the sense that a player could very easily excel more in one metagame than another. Where this is the case, it is not strange to expect that player to be replaced after a series of metagame changes occur.

Secondly, one of the things that is so awesome about Dota 2 is its complexity. People have spent years trying to find ways to pull meaningful statistics out of the game - things which could be predictively relevant - and have largely failed to do so. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of quantitative analysis [I just do less of it because I'm not very qualified at it]. The reality, however, is that we're still far from even knowing which things are the important things to measure, never mind how to measure them. Why does the complexity of the game affect the need for roster changes? Well, one of the consequences of a game being so complex is that it is never really clear how close the best actual teams are to what the best possible teams might look like.

To illustrate, consider Lionel Messi - presumably the best Football player in the world at the moment. If one were to analyze Messi in order to find out just how good he is and how much he can still improve and in what ways he could improve, it probably wouldn't be that hard. We might say he's nearly perfect, he could score 100% of the chances he gets in front of goal instead of 90% and he might get to that point by practising more shots at goal in training or spending more time studying opposing teams' defences. Now obviously this is over-simplified. But the fact remains that we've produced an at least plausible over-simplification. For Dota, it's hard to know where to even start. How good is s4 relative to the best he could possibly be? How does one even answer that question? Dota players are constantly finding new ways to be good at Dota and thus we don't even know what a perfect Dota player would look like at any given point in time. Again, returning to the topic at hand, what this means is that there is always room for justification in changing players in a team, even if it's the best team around. Sometimes a team will just know that they've stopped being able to improve in one particular way they want to improve in and will have to acknowledge that the only way to proceed is by swapping someone out.

3. Case Study: TI3 and post-TI3 reshuffles

Alliance: Loda, Akke, s4, EGM, AdmiralBulldog
Following from the above, I thought it might be appropriate to give some examples of my arguments in practice. The top 3 teams at TI3 had a minimum of 2 new players acquired since TI2. Alliance was a completely new team, Na'Vi had added Kuroky and Funn1k, and Orange had added Kyxy, Ohaiyo and Net. Meanwhile, while Chuan bragged in an early TI3 interview that iG and LGD were the only two teams not to change their rosters since TI2, iG ended in tied 5th and LGD didn't even make top 8. Granted, both of these teams could have done better at the competition and both lost out to some bad luck and some big plays, not only to their own deficiencies. That said, it's also easy enough to understand why their TI3 was worse than their TI2 precisely in terms of their lack of roster changes. This leads me to what will be a brief analysis of some of the Chinese teams post-reshuffle and why I think they are better off now than before.

It's no secret that iG were having internal problems for most of 2013. Their results began to decline near the beginning of the Super League and never really quite recovered. But over and above results, the lack of team unity was clear in any tournament footage of them over the year, as well as various interviews with and posts made by Chuan. I remember observing a few months before TI3 [when I had planned to do a write-up about the fall of iG] that since TI2 they had won every series where they took the first game and lost every series where they lost the first game. To me, this is a clear indication of a team running purely on individual ability + confidence. The players aren't happy in the team they're in but as long as they keep winning, they're happy enough to . . . keep winning. The problem comes when they don't win things and this leads to them not winning even more things - and so on. In a team with such experienced players, it's simply difficult to accept that every loss would tilt them so hard if they weren't already unhappy within their team. Anyway, as we all know, iG changed 2 of their players after TI3 and since then have lost only one match vs DK, who I'm sure we can all forgive any team for losing against right now.

DARK SYLAR, formerly of LGD
Meanwhile, LGD is a totally different story. Here, the issue doesn't seem to have been personal. Rather, LGD, who have for a long time been seen as the quintessential Chinese style Dota team, spent much of 2013 trying to remove themselves from that stereotype, recognizing that their competition were improving quickly and that in order to stay near the top, they would have to learn to adapt and play aggressive style Dota too. After losing out against Alliance in the G-1 League Grand Finals, LGD moved things up a gear and were able to take 4 games [over 2 matches] off of Na'Vi during the Alienware Cup, despite ultimately losing out in the finals. More and more we began to see variety in LGD's picks and more and more we began to see them dabbling in aggressive picks. However, a by-product of this was that the backbone of LGD's old gameplan began to become less and less of an asset and more and more of a cost. I think this is really tragic, to be honest, because it's clear to me that Sylar was LGD's best player for a very very long time and perhaps even their best player at the time he left the team. In fact, if not for Akke's amazing Blinding Light vs LGD at TI3, Sylar might be an LGD hero right now instead of an ex-LGD player. That said, being the best player isn't worth anything if you can't play the way your team wants to play and it appears that this is exactly what happened with LGD. With the addition of Xiaotuji, LGD have immediately begun playing much much more aggressively and though their results have been mixed so far, it is very clear to any observers that they are at least one team with one plan right now, determined to develop in a very particular new way. Even if things don't work out immediately, this is a far healthier setup for a competitive team.

DARK DK: Dai, Burning, iceiceice, lanm, Mushi
Perhaps a brief mention of DK is also called for at this point. What did roster changes do for DK? Well we're currently experiencing the most incredible all-star team of all time - an enterprise which people are often skeptical about, but one which so far seems to be working really well for DK. More than that, though, Burning didn't retire from Dota 2. And you know what, if the choice was between staying in the same DK team or retiring, the evidence suggests that he probably would have retired. While this comes from a completely different angle, it is hopefully not controversial that keeping B-God active in Dota 2 is great for the industry.

Now you might think I've been quite selective here. Well, I have. You might think it's inappropriate because there are also teams who ended up worse off from the Chinese reshuffle. Well, to that I say firstly that roster changes being a good thing in the interest of competitive play does not require everyone to be able to end up better after a change. All I need to show is that it makes sense for each team to want to get better and one way for them to do so is by changing their rosters. It's absurd, in fact, to expect every one of them to be able to become the best at the same time. That said, I believe that every Chinese team, with the exception of perhaps [my beloved] Rattlesnake, has actually improved in one way or another after the reshuffle. I won't defend this position here though as this post is already ridiculously long. Relatedly, it's not clear that player transfers is a zero-sum game. It is possible for teams to exchange one player for another and both end up better for it.

Concluding remarks

I suspect that many readers will think that many of my points are not new or surprising. I actually hope this is the case. That said, while the sentiment that roster changes are a healthy part of a growing environment does seem to be on the rise, it is one which is not voiced often enough and one which I think is very important to acknowledge. Over and above all the arguments I've made in favour of roster changes in this post, I also just think people should be allowed to change their minds.

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