In a League of Legends climate that heavily values team play, one-on-one matches like those at the upcoming All-Star weekend satisfy the urge to compare individual skill of fan favorites.
There's no jungle to interfere in the lane. Mirror matches become common with players even occasionally coming to a gentleman's agreement beforehand regarding what they will play.
And this year, the pressure is even higher. Coaches of each regional team can only pick two players to compete in the one-on-one bracket. Some fans may already wonder what their coaches are thinking, but no doubt the new change raises the stakes and opens the opportunity for a team to contribute strategies and ideas for two players in the one-on-one stage. It makes for some of the greatest stories, builds prestige, and allows viewers to investigate more subtle details of the game like rune setups and champion interactions -- things a fan is more likely to think about.
Take, for example, the 2016 All-Star one-on-one semifinals. Huang "Maple Yi-Tang had a 1-0 on legendary top laner Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho, and five minutes into a one-on-one Kenne mirror match, Maple returned to the lane after buying Berserker's Greaves. He reset a minion wave and used Lightning Rush to attempt to zone Smeb off the minions just before Maple hit Level 6.
The ensuing duel burnt all Summoner Spells, cooldowns and item actives, but Maple kept a positional advantage in lane by securing the Health Relic nearest Smeb's turret.
Maple continued to initiate trades to keep Smeb from recouping the health difference with lifesteal. He backed off each time Smeb stacked two Mark of the Storm debuffs to reset -- and that's where Smeb's fatal error came into play. Maple continued to attack the minion wave until his Electrical Surge passive stacked enough to initiate a trade on Smeb with one Mark of the Storm. The initiation kept Maple one debuff ahead in the ensuing trade.
Smeb hovered waiting for his Thundering Shuriken to come off cooldown, but with two marks on his Kennen to one on Maple's, one Electrical Surge was enough to stun Smeb again and give Maple a 2-0 victory over the last League Champions Korea representative in the one-on-one bracket, ensuring a confrontation with League of Legends Pro League darling Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao.
The lack of an LCK representative in the final of the one-on-one wasn't a first in 2016. In 2015, Yiliang "Doublelift" Peng and Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg ushered in a new era for Team SoloMid with an all-North American faceoff in the one-on-one featuring three mirror matches in a row: Vayne vs. Vayne, Zed vs. Zed and Vel'Koz vs. Vel'Koz.
North America doesn't often shine on an international stage, but 2016's bracket final demonstrated that the North American fan favorites aren't necessarily behind in a world of micro-trades and pre-planning.
Bjergsen and Doublelift joined each other on stage amid "TSM" chants. Doublelift pushed up his glasses and ran his hand through his hair in embarrassment. James "Riot Dash" Patterson asked Doublelift why he agreed to two matches with mid lane champions.
"I don't know," Doublelift said. "He has seniority on TSM. He can tell me whatever he wants to do."
In both tournaments, the all-Ice and all-Fire finals had way more impact on which side won the rivalry than the main bracket tournament. In 2016, two one-on-one matchups were among the top three most-watched for non-Chinese viewers of the entire All-Star event, according to stream analytics site Esports Charts.
The players themselves look forward to the event, too. This year, Tong "Koro1" Yang said he wished former teammate Tian "Meiko" Ye good luck in the one-on-one event, as he has "always liked the solo matches a lot." Meiko himself said that he has champions he's prepared for the event already.
Even for casual League fans, the event can act as a learning lab. With runes and masteries completely overhauled on the preseason patches, players can gather a wealth of information and small, subtle tricks by checking how their favorite players set up for the one-on-one.
In the 2016 mirror match between Smeb and Maple's Kennen, for example, Smeb went for Attack Damage marks, and Maple focused on ramping up attack speed throughout. Smeb's approach gave him the shove early, but when it came to all-ins, Maple looked for ways to abuse Electric Surge's passive. Uzi and Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño Martínez played the other semifinal in 2016. In the third game, mirror Syndras took different mastery setups, with Uzi going into the Resolve tree. Uzi also took more mana regeneration over magic resistance in his runes, opening an option to aggressively shove the wave more with his Q ability and build a Lost Chapter early.
For a long time, fans of the one-on-one have wanted more opportunities to see this kind of faceoff. Small online tournaments like Best Riven NA have spawned from the same kind of fandom, but making a one-on-one mode a regular staple of League of Legends has its risks. League was designed as a multiplayer game to appeal to a multiplayer audience.
That said, All-Stars has had awkward growing pains throughout the years, but it consistently got the one-on-one event right. If any format can properly showcase the "star" elements of League of Legends, it's the one-on-one. Ingenuity, personality and laning ability are all on display. The tournament doesn't traditionally even suggest that one region's players are better, as planning and skill have always seemed to matter most. Once a year, the hierarchy of which region produces the best talents seems to fall apart.
The one-on-one works because no other event expresses why fans love their favorite players so well. How one small choice in the moment makes him or her stand out. The bracket falls away as each player climbs, and in the end, there's only one winner.