The Importance of Stories in Sports

I’ve had more than my fair share of disagreements with other League of Legends players and analysts, but I find myself coming back to one in particular again and again. In general, I think people are much too beholden to short-term trends, and fail to observe long-term stories.

In esports, memories seem very short, and biases seem very strong. In at least one sense, this is quite fair. After all, given that esports is in its infancy, there are much stronger dynasties for one simple reason: money. A team which has the funding to practice 12-16 hours a day will outplay a team of players who are still in school or working jobs. That’s why it’s so satisfying when these guys:

The “Average Joes”

beat the slick karate-machine of these guys (yes, I’m saying that Dodgeball is just a thinly veiled Karate Kid allegory):

I mean, come on, the Purple Cobras have gym sponsorship! It’s unfair!

Dynasties have been less dominant in some traditional sports due to salary caps. However, there are still dynastic issues in League of Legends. To give one example, when Bjergsen decided to join a NA team, he went to TSM, an already existent and dominant team. And why not? Joining TSM assures he will have funding, a solid team around him, and public recognition. Sure, he could have joined EG instead, but he might have found himself up for relegation in a few months! But by attaching himself to an established team, he assures his part in a greater narrative.


What is narrative? Narrative is the job of casters and bloggers and history. Sure, analysts may like an intense best of 5 because it showcases the flexibility and strengths of the two teams involved.

But fans? They like that best of 5 because of the anticipation, the tension in the air, the “will my team hold on to this win or will they drop the ball”. The “will the underrated player/team show that they have what it takes?”

Why did the semi-finals receive as much hype as the finals? Because CLG vs TSM is a matchup between dynasties. TSM has been dominant for 2 seasons, and then CLG took game 1, throwing the narrative of the dynasty to the winds. That is what made games 2 and 3 so tense, and that is what made it so heartbreaking for Link to get caught out of position and throw the game.

And that’s what narrative is: it’s history. It’s the establishing of history. Without narrative, most games are unimportant and boring. Nobody cares that XDG is playing TSM because, at the end of the day, XDG will be in last and TSM will be in first. But note that XDG has beaten every other team in the league despite being in last place, and all of a sudden, this game becomes more important, more meaningful, and most of all, more satisfying to watch.

Why does this all matter? Because we hype narrative. This is fully natural in a sport. And yet narrative cannot define analysis. Let me give you a few examples:

Cloud 9 vs Dignitas

In Week 1 of the NA LCS 2014 Spring Split, Dignitas upset Cloud 9 on their path to a 5-2 start. And the hype train began. Dignitas became “the #3 team”, and the narrative shifted away from “can Cloud 9 defend their #1 spot” to “can Cloud 9 regain their #1 spot”. But as Cloud 9’s 3-1 season performance and 3-0 playoffs performance vs TSM showed, TSM never took the #1 spot away from Cloud 9. They were just keeping it warm for them.

And Dignitas? Well, they avoided relegation by taking the #5 spot away from Coast, but they certainly didn’t come close to being the #3 team. In fact, while they were 9-3 vs the bottom 3 teams in North America, they were only 3-13 vs the top 4 teams.


SKT T1 K might as well mean winning streak in League of Legends history. They took back-to-back championships (Summer OGN 2013 and World Championships 2013), then went undefeated in OGN Winter 2013/2014, and established them as the winningest team in League of Legends. And then they lost to their sister team, SKT T1 S, and have been slumping since, failing to even reach top 3 in HOT6iX Champions Spring 2014.

Their top laner, Impact, is known for his play on bruisers, so obviously the opening of top lane to other champions will hurt them somewhat. Their support, PoohManDu, has also been ill, and their sub, Casper, has been filling in.

But these factors are important. As the meta shifts, yes, their performance will fall. As well, they were bound to lose eventually, if only through randomness. However, I think it’s a bit too early to immediately drop them down too many places.


Randomness is an oft-misunderstood factor in the world. We flip a coin 10 times and we expect HTHTHTHTHT to be the results, not realizing that HHTHTTTHHT is just as likely, as is HHHHHTTTTT, and oddly enough, so is TTTTTTTTTT.

So when Fnatic starts 7-0, we say “they’re unstoppable”, but when they then go 0-8, we say “they’ve lost control of the game!” This means that when they go 10-3 after those sprees, we have too many ways of interpreting what has just happened. We can say that the 7-0 represents Fnatic’s actual play, and that once they got back in the swing of things, they dominated. We can say that they experimented for 8 games and it hurt them in the short term.

But what’s most likely? That the 0-8 spree was (largely) meaningless. If we look at Fnatic’s history, they always show up for the playoffs. Consider the Summer 2013 Split, where they went 15-13, only to push for first place in the playoffs! But they are not gods. They are simply good under pressure. This means that they’re going to lose some games during the regular season, and this means that — because of the way probability works — some of those games are going to be clumped together.


Really, what I’m saying is that narratives don’t develop overnight, and that we have to exercise patience and judgement before we jump to conclusions. Small stories like xPeke, Shiphtur, and most recently Meteos backdooring nexuses to win the games for their team obviously do wonders for a team’s reputation and their momentum, but we should be careful how we judge them affecting a team’s skill. The same goes for streaks.

A team that goes 7-0 and then goes 0-8 and we ask what happened, when really we’re looking at a small sample size (28 games), and expecting results over those 28 games to also be observed over a specifically chosen subset of that sample size (15 games) and then being surprised when further smaller sample sizes of those games (7 and 8 respectively) deviate from our norm.

Instead, it’s important to look at other factors and take your time. This is why I hesitated to ever move Cloud 9 from my #1 spot in America: they simply look dominant of every other team. You might not see this in data, or in their occasional flubbed games, but if you actually watch every game, you can see it in their rotations, their mechanics, and their composure and trust in one another.

This is why I also hesitated to move Fnatic down despite their losing spree: they are a team that always shows up when it counts. And it’s why I remain hesitant to lower SKT T1 TK too far. Yes, they have underperformed recently. But they have also dominated League of Legends for two splits, and to discount that in the face of a few losses seems premature.

With that being said, I’ll be doing a brief piece on the narrative for the NA LCS soon (and perhaps EU as well), extending from the PreSeason to All Stars.

3 Comments on “The Importance of Stories in Sports

  1. Great article, my two cents is it’s also important to not let a preconceived narrative overwrite the actual events, which happened a bit with the XDG mess earlier this split.


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