Since following competitive League of Legends, I've always been informed of this term called the "gap." And I've never really understood it. So I've tried to dive into the topic and hopefully explain it.
Defining the History of the Gap
The "gap" is the difference in play between the region of Korea and other regions in terms of play. This is a very broad statement. From a personal perspective, however, I take the meaning of the "gap" a lot deeper. Let's start from its origin.
The origin of the "gap," for me personally, started in 2014 when there was a clear difference in the level of play between the region of Korea. This is slightly controversial--a lot of people consider the end of 2013, where SK Telecom T1 won the Season 3 League of Legends World Championship as the time the gap formed, or even earlier during the area of Azubu. While there were few outliers, the regions were still somewhat close. Keyword: Region.
But 2014 was where we clearly saw the distinction form. 2014 was the era in which Champions Korea had become dominated by the sister teams. The likes of KT Rolster, CJ Entus, SK Telecom, Samsung, crowded the top of the standings and put together some of the greatest competitive series to this date.
This was where the gap formed. The gap formed primarily because of 3 reasons.
The first was mechanical talent. Which is quite interesting because I've been against the belief that the regions are mechanically different. To play competitive League of Legends, you are considered to be at the highest percentile. The best of the best. This is across the board with regions.
However for the first time, this wasn't the case. Because of the first and only time so far since his rise on the scene in Season 3, Faker was not the best player in the world. Who was the best player in the world at the time? Well, thats a different story for a different time. During this time however, you have players who were simply better, teams that were simply better. Their ability to play the video of League of Legends was superior. And god damn it, Faker wasn't even the best one.
Going back on the topic of mechanical ability, the bigger discussion was that China was declining, or weren't performing up to standards. In the past, China was, and somewhat still is, considered to be the closest or better than Korea. The biggest case for this was during Team WE's peak play in Season 2, when the likes of Caomei, WeiXiao were at their peaks, Misaya was still playing competitively. Since then, the region as a whole never reached that peak. We also witnessed at Season 4 the fall of NaMei, one of the greatest marksman ever, however his tale has already been said of.
Season 4 had a China vs Korea finals but we already knew that we had witnessed the true finals during the Samsung vs Samsung battle, which was an explosion of high strategy and mechanical ability. The two went relatively uncontested through the tournament, only holding losses after pushing boundaries on their play or lack of respect for their opponent. Sorry Team Solo Mid fans.
The second reason for the gap is something we don't really talk about. The regions of North America and Europe had attempted to adapt to Korea's standards of play--which at the time, was simply impossible to do and succeed. Part of the reason stemmed from the Season 4 Team Solo Mid line-up, lead by coach Locodoco. The coaching style of Locodoco attempted to mimic the style of play in Korea and "western-ize" it. And he did to some domestic success. The team finally overtook a Cloud 9 roster that had been dominate in the region since arriving. Teams, in return to see how Team Solo Mid began to succeed, "followed the leader" so to speak, and began replacing in-house discussions on strengths and instead copied Champions Korea.
And it never paid off internationally.
The interesting thing, and why I consider this a main reason as to why the gap formed, actually comes from LMQ's arrival to North America. LMQ tc had a very Chinese based play style [No shit, they are from China], that worked extremely well in the Fake-Korea region because it was unique and meta breaking. While LMQ wasn't as strong on the international stage, because mechanical ability of Samsung, OMG took the top two spots, also adding that Samsung was strategically better than anything that LMQ faced. LMQ wasn't necessarily a great time, however because what they brought was different, it lead to success in North America.
Number three on the reasons why the gap formed, or why I believed it to be formed, was the practice.
This is extremely easy to understand: Korea had the better work ethic, the better solo queue and the previously mentioned better players. We understand now, with more western insight on Korean solo queue through boot-camping and players respect for coaching that this point doesn't need to be attacked more. The infrastructure in Korea was just simply better.
So lets summarize the points I've tried to make: the gap started in Season 4 as a result of the high level Korean player, fall of Chinese play and western regions attempting to adopt Korean play styles. As a result of this, and the lack of the same infrastructure as Korean organizations, a gap formed leading to the dominant three year period by Korea in international events.
The Misconception of the Gap Era
While I have somewhat defined the origin of the gap, from my view, people aren't understanding what the gap is. The gap is a difference in the play of the region. Easy topic yet it has a lot of depth.
What a like to think about playing League of Legends is that to be good, you have to be efficient and effective, similar to how a business runs. During Season 4, Korea had both of these areas down, where the western regions were only efficient, and the case could be made that China was effective however not really efficient.
Because of this, this is why that at the formation of a gap, it was also the peak level of the gap. The gap was at its highest level at this point because of the three explain regions and how both the west and China were attempting to bounce back. There was also a really strong point mentioned by Locodoco a video series with Duncan Shields, which is linked bellow, where he sees the gaps as always resetting at the start of the season and Korea seems to be gaining a head-start however towards the end, other regions get close.
I want to take this point and put my own spin on it.
There isn't a reset in the gap--where everyone starts or returns to Step 0 every change of season due to meta shifts or changes in the game. There is a return, but it isn't to a clean slate with everyone else. I've inserted a cool diagram to give a visual interpretation of this.
The area in black represents the infrastructure of a team--which includes coaching, management and player ability. This different for everyone. Korea has always been relatively high in this area. This is where an organization starts every year, every change in meta.
The area in green represents a teams growth that happens over time and at different levels. Again, this is different for everyone.
The blue is something not accounted for in any theory. The blue represents the area that is lost or gained through change. You would think this represents the green however there is a failure to recognize that loss or gain. For example, Unicorns of Love had a very mediocre summer split. However, due to a meta shift in the season where standard lanes were prominent and the lane-swap went away, they gained massive advantage against other teams--despite not improving because of growth. This is sort of "unsystematic risk" where it individually effected the team in a different manner. The green sort of represents "systematic risk" or what is unavoidable.
From this standpoint, the gap is close because the black area for the west is growing. With the addition of coaching staff, analyst, scouting systems, they are able to have a foundation for what to grow on.
This also explains how Season 5 and Season 6 happened.
Going into the Season 5 and 6 World Championship, western regions were believed to be "stronger than ever." But, there were two massive patches that lead to Korea being a step-up, creating a bigger blue area for Korean teams.
So in reality, the black and blue areas should be the focus of the "gap question."
Will The Gap Ever Close?
What I mean by this is that there will forever be a gap between regions.
Because there will always be uncertainty, there will never be a time that everyone is equal.
However, the gap shouldn't be considered between regions but between teams.
Video Series between Duncan and Loco: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ExykAiwd6M