The Impact of Tech Issues on Esports
Where is the line drawn for tech issues vs player satisfaction? This is a debate that has stoked raging fires in the aftermath of a controversial opening day at the Halo World Championship.
An arm wrestle of a contest between eUnited and Acend, the European champions, that was headed to a blockbuster finish was decided via a competitive ruling that was described by Acend as “unacceptable.”
The competitive ruling had to be brought in because one of the Acend players reported his audio wasn’t working, and that he experienced multiple instances of in-game screen freezing.
As per the organizer’s official statement, only the audio issue – which is widely believed to be a case of a headset being disconnected, albeit unintentionally – was brought to the referee’s notice. Because this was, however accidental, player-caused, a restart wasn’t deemed necessary, and the players were asked to carry on.
It’s at this point that the Ascend player stopped playing and subsequently lost the match, even as eUnited continued. The organizer claims the malfunctioning PC, which is believed to have led to several screen freezes, was brought to the referee’s notice only closer towards the match’s conclusion. However, Ascend player Brandon “Respectful” Stones claims both issues were brought up at the start.
This incident raises a few questions.
Can we be 100% reliant on technology? If yes, is it 100% foolproof?
Can systems and rules be less rigid and involve a little more human element than what we’re currently witnessing?
Is there a case for referees to be a little more proactive and establish smoother and simpler communication channels in-game with teams, players and officials to minimize such issues, if not entirely prevent them?
The bottom line is clear. It is that important solutions are found, and not just debated. Because, far too often, there’s so much at stake for teams and players. A win or a loss can dictate someone’s future. In a suffocating high-stakes world of competition where teams are spoilt for choices, such glaring errors could prove costly.
It could be the difference between winning a title and finishing runners-up. Or between scraping into the playoffs and living the ignominy of a group stage exit. Or the difference between qualifying for a world final as compared to settling for lesser. Or securing a direct entry through the upper brackets instead of going through the lower bracket. Or merely avoiding relegation.
Take for example the very game that has elicited this debate. The loss to eUnited had massive ramifications for Acend. They were left to battle through the elimination bracket rather than getting to play the winner’s bracket like they could have had they won. There’s a reason why they are upset.
The other thing of significance is these issues aren’t restricted to just Halo. It’s been omnipresent across spheres, in high-competitive World Cup environments in cricket and football. The fusion between technology, its interpretation and the human element have all added a fascinating subplot to live (e)sport, but it’s also added a layer of complexity to proceedings.
Recently, Riot, the company behind League of Legends and VALORANT, faced similar issues. But as an organisation, they believed they were taking proactive measures when they used artificial latency for the Mid-Season Invitational 2022, one of the biggest League events, at a time when the competitive integrity of the tournament had become a raging debate.
This gained steam in the aftermath of Riot announcing Royal Never Give Up, the Chinese outfit, would participate remotely due to Covid-19 restrictions. The ruling meant all teams on LAN were forced to compete on artificially hiked latency of 35ms to match latency in Shanghai, where RNG were competing from.
Things came to a head when Riot revealed latency discrepancies, which hurt teams competing at the LAN in Korea. As a result, RNG were forced to replay their first three games to ensure fairness and uphold the competitive integrity of the tournament.
Now, Riot claims all systems were go at the pre-event testing, and such discrepancies were found out only after the tournament began. A huge under cable that runs between Busan and Shanghai, which is believed to be approximately 850 km long, was at the heart of this bug. Riot later said they considered a ceiling of 40ms, but eventually had to rule for RNG alone playing on 35ms, as it wouldn’t be fair to the other teams.
The other option, midway through the tournament, was to put the servers halfway between China and Korea to have 17.5ms, but that would’ve meant costly relocation of servers to the middle of the ocean. Since this wasn’t a feasible solution, they introduced artificial latency.
Now, as an organisation, they may believe it was the right thing to do. Which it may well be. However, questions of bias were inevitable when they did that. Nick “LS” De Cesare, the former Cloud9 head coach and prominent League of Legends personality, posed this question bluntly, when he asked why rules were tweaked to ensure Chinese participation when in the past, similar Covid-19 restrictions led to teams from elsewhere, prominently Vietnam and the VCS series, being asked to forfeit their MSI slots altogether in 2021.
LS touched upon how most of the Chinese players who play on the Korean server for Solo Queue practice and scrim are already used to this ping, and that there was no need to make the change.
LS further claimed how these rule tweaks could mean a permanent disadvantage to the Korean teams, since Korea’s Solo Queue also offers 7 ms, andplayers aren’t used to playing on high pings as a result. He called back to MSI 2020, where Riot manually changed the ms between Korea and China to underline this regional bias.
He went to great lengths to explain the ping difference is a massive dealbreaker in professional games, comparing a 9ms ping vs 35ms ping in a real League of Legends gameplay with simple click-based actions, like moving to a different position on the map and using summoner spells Flash and Heal.
Among the points he’s keenly contesting is that a notice period for teams getting to practice on 35ms before tournaments won’t offer an advantage. It’s fair that, given in the heat of battle, a player’s muscle memory, something that would’ve possibly been in the making for many years, is unlikely to force them to make such massive tweaks.
It’s like an infant who is learning to walk for months is suddenly asked to participate in a 100-metre dash. No matter how many instructions you may give them, it’s likely they’ll never be able to do that at such short notice. Habits once formed are hard to undo anyway.
It’s keeping issues like these in mind that organisers need to be a bit more balanced and proactive around player issues. It’s also equally imperative for the playing fraternity to unite as one, transcend borders and have a voice, whether in the form of a formal association or a body that represents them with persistent issues.
These issues can range from tech problems such as latency and ping issues to rules, qualification, player payments, and more. There’s also a bigger need to form a dispute resolution panel on a global scale – for each esport, of course – to ensure incidents such as these don’t raise their heads during big tournaments.
Players and organisers may also benefit from timely conferences and sit-downs to hash out issues there may be. As a community, they owe this much to the fans and stakeholders at large. A clean sport will make it thrive that much more, beyond just the regions they’re known to be popular in.
Many of the issues across sporting federations are down to lack of communication between the governing body and players, the people who make the game what it is. These have resulted in a mass exodus of players, migration to rival leagues, in some cases even premature retirements to pursue something more “lucrative” elsewhere.
A solid, strong body, consisting of players and equally good administrative professionals with an expertise in dispute resolution and organisational behaviour is the need of the hour. Equally helpful will be having a set of educators who can then sit down to draw proper frameworks and ensure rules aren’t made on the fly and there’s uniformity during big tournaments.
Such additions to an existing league or sport may also mean additional investment on the organisational front, but it’s an investment that players and stakeholders will benefit from. There may be added expenses on the cash flow front to form such a body, given you’re employing paid professionals, but the upside to this is a cleaner league, smoother tournaments, transparent rules, clearer hierarchies, simpler problem-solving and fewer controversies.
And if all of these fall into sync, you’ve got the ingredients of a great league/tournament that can become an example for others to emulate. And that isn’t a bad thing.