Format Wars: Online vs. LAN

A look into the pros and cons of LAN and Online tournaments amidst the cancellation of almost every esport LAN event this year. By Michael Oliver.

Let’s take it back to the old days: you get in from school, you boot up the system to play with your mates, be it on Xbox Live or PSN, or even the old school DotA or QUAKE. Then, during the following school week, your mate comes in with the permission of the gods: he can have people over for the weekend. Not only is he considered a deity for the week, but your mate becomes judge jury, and executioner when it comes to the group debates over what to bring. I’m assigned to bring all the CoD zombie games, Jim’s got his plethora of controllers, and Joe is bringing his own damn Game Cube and TV so he can play Smash Melee no matter what.

Fact of the matter is that it’s a LAN party of sorts, which splits the group straight down the middle. One half is protesting that Joe’s controllers are garbage (they’re not), or that the hosts’ Xbox isn’t running properly (it is). The other half is dominating their games as there’s no lag, and loving every single moment of it. Some of them excel on LAN, whereas the rest are struggling under the pressure; a scenario that can be translated into every single esport. In the midst of the current situation where LAN is basically non-existent, it’s worth having a dive into the two esport formats and highlighting why they are both important.

Online

One of the wonders of the modern world is ease of access to internet. Being able to connect with anyone in under a second is mind boggling to those that had to deal with the stress of their crush’s parents picking up the home phone. But, as we all know, being able to style on scrubs in video games is likely the peak internet superiority. As soon as modem was available to the masses, QUAKE came a few years after to establish the online platform as an alternative to the initially LAN only esports. With this advancement came a new wave of players that would otherwise be unable to travel or partake in tournaments. The relationship between the internet and gaming became symbiotic.

Alongside ease of access, online play enables those that cannot deal with the pressure of LAN events to excel in their environment. There are many inconveniences involved in LAN tournaments; from travelling long distances to using different hardware. It is impossible to mirror your optimal setup at home, and some would argue that it’s impossible to mirror your performance because of it. There is also the issue of a home advantage at a LAN tournament, where the team that has to travel the least distance has more time to practise, familiarise themselves with the venue and so on. Ultimately, in situations where LAN play is impossible, such as the current global pandemic or a small-scale tournament between some international buddies, online play will always be there to fill the gap.

LAN — Local Area Network

Before there was online, LAN was all there was. You had to sit next to your opponents and that was that. Nowadays, LAN is reserved for the best of the best at large tournaments. Most tournaments have an online stage, and it’s rare for an entire tournament to be held around LAN outside of QuakeCon. You can’t beat a LAN main event whether you’re watching it from home or are there in the stands. The true atmosphere and emotions of esports are embodied in a LAN event, where you can see the players either celebrating or flaming the hell out of their opponents from across the room.

The hype surrounding LAN events is one of the reasons that it can be considered subjectively superior to online. Where some players find it difficult to deal with the pressure of a crowd, some take that energy onboard in their gameplay. The hype surrounding the event hypes up players, and you see teams excel at LAN when they were mediocre in the online group stage. Saving strategies for the main event, capitalising on other teams’ performance anxiety, and harnessing the crowd’s energy all play into the layers of mind games that are often overlooked in professional esports. Alongside this, and probably the strongest argument for LAN, is absolutely no latency. I doubt many competitive gamers today have properly played a match of their respective game with no lag or ping whatsoever. It changes the game dramatically. It alters the performance of abilities and weapons entirely when you don’t have to work around delay, and the snap reactions of professional players are allowed to thrive in their truest form. This is why LAN is almost always reserved for the later part of an event; the best can only truly be the best when there is 0 chance it can be blamed on lag.

A Conflicting Relationship?

The ironic part of this piece is that there is no real competition between online and LAN, and instead there is a strong relationship of conflicting elements. One type of setup has its benefits and flaws, but the other has a parallel that fills the gaps of the other. When used together in the right situation, both online and LAN create a perfect esports event. The convenience of online allows for efficient qualifiers and low scale events, making it easy for any team to have an opportunity to take home the glory. The raw skill involved in LAN is kept for the main event or final events; having no latency and the real pressure of a crowd helps prove that a winning team are truly champions.

LAN vs. Online IRL

As a consequence of the current pandemic, every tournament has had to make the shift to online only, a change that has inspired mixed emotions. There are teams and players that are definitely feeling the loss of LAN tournaments. An example of this is the League of Legends team TCA Esports, who commented on the advantages of LAN in relation to their home run through the ESL UK LOL Premiership which ended in an anticlimactic knock out in the semi-finals. Support player Raizins said, “our team gets an insane epic LAN buff… When you’re online, it’s so much harder to speak to your teammates one-on-one.” The team went 0/16 in their scrims when online, but managed to demolish in their LAN games to showcase the effect it has. Raizins’ words reinforce the importance of the physical presence of LAN, and how sitting next to your teammates around a real crowd of people can change your perception of the game alongside the reception.

On the other hand, DotA 2 player and two time TI winner, N0tail, commented on the recent changes by saying “I miss the LAN tournaments, but it’s been a great chance to spend time getting into things… working out regularly, a lot of home cooking and a stable sleeping schedule.” He goes on to say, “I’m trying hard to maintain a good routine and it’s actually going very well.” N0tail highlights the point that being able to stay at home in a comfortable environment has benefits that exceed the individual games, and in turn come full circle to improving performance at professional level. Moreover, N0tail also commented, “I much prefer to play on LAN, but online tournaments are definitely giving me a bit of a nostalgic feeling… its [sic.] not often you sit at home to play and get this immense feeling ‘this game is important, I’ve got to do my best plus some.”

There is an endless list of pros and cons for both online and LAN. Ultimately, it’s safe to say esports wouldn’t be the way it is without either of these formats, and it’s important to understand the impact that the loss of LAN this year has on up and coming teams with a thirst for victory. Hopefully we will see LAN tournaments soon enough, but until then, just blame lag. Or Joe, because his controllers are garbage.

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