November 24, 2016

The Importance of Replays and Sandbox Mode

by Aui_2000

This will be a long article so I will put the tl;dr right here:

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    The reason why weaker scenes can eventually become successful in Dota 2, SC2 and CSGO but not League of Legends is because of the existence of replays and sandbox mode. In my opinion, without these tools the skill gap between scenes will continue to increase.

Table of Contents

  1. Purpose and Bias
  2. Credibility
  3. Function of Replays
  4. Function of Sandbox
  5. Result of a Lack of Tools
  6. How Tools Affect Each Game
    1. Dota 2
    2. CSGO
    3. SC2
    4. League
  7. Why Tools Always Favour Weaker Teams More
  8. Conclusion

Purpose and Bias Disclaimer (you don’t really have to read this)

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    The purpose of this article is not to flame Riot or to claim that my theory is even absolutely correct, but to promote discussion around what allows competitive teams to improve and catch up to better teams. I do not think the problems surrounding weaker teams are simple enough to fully explain them through just a lack of replays and sandbox, but I do think it’s a good start. I also want to state my bias in that I personally think that Dota 2 is a better game than League, but also note that I had a lot of fun in my limited experience playing League and that they are obviously doing something right with their massive player base. Part of my impetus for writing this article is that I believe that the esports scene is not a 0 sum game; I know plenty of people who started by watching one esport, and then slowly branched out, thereby growing the fan pool. The inspiration for this article was originally Cloud 9’s CSGO win at ESL Pro League Season 4 - Finals as well as SKT’s third Worlds championship in League of Legends. Also the fact that I strongly believe that I would not be a professional player without replays and sandbox mode. I am also not trying to say that players do not work hard enough or are not skilled enough to succeed, but rather arguing that they have not been giving the appropriate tools or position to do so. Also I hope to promote discussion about what could eventually happen in the future as Riot hopefully finally implements replays.

Credibility – my relation to the four games I will be discussing

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    In this article I will be discussing the impact of replays and sandbox on four games: Dota 2, CSGO, League of Legends, and Starcraft 2. I am currently a professional Dota 2 player who has qualified for the current major and my previous achievements include winning Dota 2’s version of Worlds in 2015 (TI5). I played SC2 (WoL) and hit Grandmasters with all three races, but I was too bad to play real competitive SC2. I got carried to LEM in CSGO while ranks were inflated and I’m actually awful at the game, but I really like talking to people who know more than me about the game and the scene. I am Silver at heart. And finally, I have played around 3 games of League of Legends. One of which I was one shot by the broken ass imba Annie bot.

What is the function of replays?

I’m going to start by discussing replays. There are many functions of replays but for the purpose of the competitive scene they are generally used to do three things: study opponents, learn from better teams, and to improve your own play. The second point is particularly important because as a general rule, it is very hard to create your own new ideas as opposed to watching a replay and taking someone else’s idea and either trying to mimic or improve it. Generally you also want to try to improve the newly learned idea, otherwise the original makers will have a better understanding of the idea so you’ll always be behind. This is how metagames generally get created–teams copying and learning from each other and then building up on shared information. In my opinion, with replays the metagame tends to cycle faster as people try to build up on old ideas and then other people try to build upon their new ideas. Simplified, replays allows pros to both better catch up and develop new ideas faster. Replays also increase pollination between regions. While different regions will still have their own variants on the metagame, replays allow teams to take ideas from other regions–albeit the understanding might come slower as they don’t play the originators–as well as adapt and learn from other regions quicker at international tournaments. A personal example of this was at TI5, where my coach Bulba studied our eventual grand final opponents CDEC a lot. Due to his studying of CDEC replays, he learned a lot about how to play each side of the map and then taught us this information, which was hugely influential to our TI5 victory. In my opinion, Bulba’s impact, via replays, single handedly changed the results of TI5.

What is the function of sandbox?

Now what does sandbox mode do? I guess sandbox mode has a little less of an impact than replays, but they’re still important to a lot of players. The biggest things that sandbox allows for is the ability to have more targeted practice and being better able to incorporate pre-planned strategies. Theoretically, sandbox mode should increase the individual play of every pro player as targeted practice is more effective for learning than spamming general practice. That’s not to say that spamming games isn’t also important for improvement, but it simply adds another option for learning and teaching. Moreover, sandbox mode allows for some extremely cool strategies to happen. For example, in Dota 2, Alliance had some extremely cool level 1 Roshan strategies with TP scrolls and killing Roshan before the enemy team could even get there. And in CSGO, I know that Luminosity Gaming (now SK) had some sick strats that were clearly practiced in sandbox. Another example of sandbox mode being influential in the competitive scene was when PPD’s (my captain at TI5) brother helped me develop Techies as a hero–a hero that was influential in our finals win. On a personal note, after TI3, I switched from the carry role to the support role, and the only reason I could function as a support on any level was because I practiced my jungle efficiency and other things in sandbox mode. Literally the only good things about me as a player at the time was my micro and efficiency, which were both born out of sandbox mode (micro from SC2 sandbox). I was talking to Thorin recently, and he even mentioned how there was a Korean CS1.6 team that did not have any practice partners, so they just threw flash grenades and practiced aim in private lobbies. Apparently they had some success pretty much solely off sandbox mode which is super cool to me. Meanwhile, I was talking to an ex League pro a while ago and he was trying to explain to me how flashing (LoL ability) over walls worked. I think he said something about having to flash a certain distance into the wall in order to go over. Something he mentioned was that the only way to practice these flashes was to use your flash, then tab out and wait for the ridiculously long cooldown. He also mentioned that there was some event with 14 cooldowns and he was super excited because he could practice these flashes. And here’s my Riot flame for this article.

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    Riots argument that sandbox mode increases the burden on new players was complete idiocy. There might be an argument that tools increase the average skill level of a playerbase, which a dev may not want for various reasons, but there's no way it increases the skill floor requirements. Anyways that's sort of outside the scope of this article and Riot has stated that they messed up and will implement sandbox mode eventually as a non priority but that statement by Riot really made me mad in the past so I had to say it. Also in my opinion it's pretty unacceptable that they still say it's not a priority as every other game since Brood War has basically had sandbox mode in some form, so how hard could it be. I think that if they wanted a sandbox mode they'd put one in quickly instead of typing some words. But again, sort of irrelevant to this article.

So essentially, sandbox mode allows every pro to have an additional avenue for improvement and allows for some extremely cool strategies to form.

What happens with a lack of tools?

So now that we’ve discussed the function of replays and sandbox, I’d like to talk about what happens when there are no tools in the first place. This is a bit tricky to talk about for me, but I’d like to start by saying that the scope of this article does not cover why or how certain regions get ahead in the first place–there are a myriad of reasons for that–but rather how tools help weaker teams and regions catch up. This is also a gross oversimplification as there are many other factors, but the basic premise is that without tools, a region that gets behind will stay behind or even fall further behind, while a region that is ahead will stay ahead and even build their lead. As previously discussed, both replays and sandbox help players to get better or catch up with better teams. Without these tools, teams from an entire region will fall behind. These teams that fall behind will then play each other in lower quality scrims. On the flipside, the strong region has strong practice partners, which results in higher quality scrims. This perpetuates a cycle of the strong region pulling further and further ahead. In addition, people who are hopeful to join the competitive scene have more learning tools with sandbox and replays. This allows the solo queue of a region to improve faster. I know that a lot of people of every game hate their solo Q region, and while the quality might not be good enough, solo queue in Dota 2 is good enough that there aren’t really any inhouse leagues anymore. There are multiple examples of pros finding people in pubs and bringing them into the competitive scene–I guess the most notable example is Dendi finding AdmiralBulldog (TI3 champion). Overall, a lack of tools causes a cyclical nature of weak teams staying weak and strong teams getting stronger while also hampering solo Q quality.

How Tools Affect Each Game

I’m not going to lie, I honestly don’t know all four of the games well enough to make this section comprehensive, but I’ll give it my best shot. Tools have led to a multitude of success from the “weaker regions” in Dota 2 and CSGO and to a more limited extent, SC2. They have also, in my opinion, contributed to the lack of success from the weak regions in League.

Dota 2

I’m going to start with Dota 2 because it is the scene that I am most familiar with. Every year The International has had a winner flipped between China (east) and the West (everyone else). TI1 Navi (West), TI2 IG (China), TI3 Alliance (West), TI4 Newbee (China), TI5 Evil Geniuses (West), and most recently TI6 Wings (China). No player or team has ever won two TIs although Team OG has won two of the three majors in the 2015-2016 season. The fact that no team or player has won two Internationals suggests that the game is growing at a fast rate. Anyways, I remember learning a lot from replays and sandbox mode in Dota 2 and I continue to do so to this day. My first real big exposure was through my Team Dignitas captain at TI3, Waytosexy. He watched some Navi replays before the tournament and then taught our team some things like wrapping on towers when pushing them so you can jump the enemy team before they outspam at the tower or set up a coordinated defense. It was actually really cool learning this stuff from him. I remember watching this Meracle guy from the SEA region and him absolutely annihilating my team with Naga Siren. He effectively broke the game by introducing skipping creep waves with illusions and Radiance. And of course, as previously mentioned, my TI5 coach Bulba using replays to teach us how to learn from CDEC and abuse their style and eventually defeat them. More recently I’ve been watching some Wings.Shadow games and learning a lot and some AdFinem games and learning some cool things (sorry too recent to include details). As mentioned above, I would not be able to be a pro player without replays and sandbox–these tools have simply contributed too much to my development as a player. The impact of these tools is amplified in Dota 2 as the game also has, in my opinion, the most vibrant international scene, and the tools help smooth learning between the different regions. It’s also worth noting that although historically NA and SEA are the weaker regions in Dota 2, TI5 was won by a pure NA team, and there were two top 5 SEA teams at TI6. Also China’s skill level terrifies me right now, but that’s less relevant to this article. Sandbox mode has also had an incredible impact on Dota 2. Some of the easier examples to notice include: Alliance level 1 Roshan, my Kotl jungle at the Summit, some unique wards and camp blocking strats, couriers to block neutrals by Kaipi, Clockwerks using rocket to block Neutral spawns, and well to be honest there are just too many.


As previously mentioned, I am bad at CSGO, but a lot of my understanding comes from talking to people much smarter and better than me about the game. I am going to use three examples that are hopefully accurate: Summer 2015 Cloud 9, Luminosity Gaming (now SK), and Cloud 9’s recent LAN victory at ESL Pro League Season 4. I guess chronologically, Cloud 9’s summer of 2015 run came first. My understanding is that the captain at the time, Seangares, essentially anti-strated teams via preparation through replays into a triple 2nd place finish at major tournaments. Unrelated but what’s with Cloud 9 and second place–I had like double digit second place finishes in my time on C9 Dota2. I do not think anyone would really make an argument that Cloud 9 was strictly better mechanically than all the teams they beat at those three LANs. I mean not to take anything away from that Cloud 9 team–they obviously were very good and deserved their strong run, but I didn’t see them that high on top team rankings before or during their run. Luminosity Gaming is the most interesting one for me in CSGO. To my knowledge how LG’s ascent worked is like this:

Step 1. Poor training conditions in Brazil (less tournaments, exposure, and practice partners)

Step 2. Move to NA to a scene that hadn’t won an international tournament in CS for 9 or 10 years, where you might have more exposure but still not that good practice partners

Step 3. Become the uncontested best team in the world for an extended period of time

Step 4. ???????????????????

Step 5. Too confused to profit

Yes, there was a roster change somewhere in there, but my understanding is basically that Fallen is a god who figured some stuff out and then taught his team mates and after the roster change they rapidly improved into the best team in the world. I’m willing to bet that replays had a big hand in that. Also they has some pretty cool sandbox practiced strategies. And even when LG was starting to win, I did not see many arguments that they were better individually than say Fnatic or even Envy. Although LG was probably criminally underrated individual skill wise compared to their NA and EU counterparts, they still probably greatly benefitted from use of tools (Step 4 was probably “Use dank tools to help with your hard work, dedication and practice”).

While LG is probably the coolest example of how tools allowed a team in an otherwise weak scene to progress, to be honest I’m a fan of C9’s CSGO team and their LAN win is the most exciting to me. While there are a myriad of blahblahblah reasons why their win probably isn’t 100% a top tier LAN win, blahblah no NaVi VP blahblah Dignitas star player sick etc, their win is still super deserved and very cool in my opinion. The most exciting part of their win to me, is that it demonstrates how a team that got very good off using tools to their advantage (LG) was able to help lift the NA scene up by providing a good practice partner. Clearly C9 was able to benefit (also TL in their runs with simple) from this and improve a lot and win an international lan. This makes me hopeful for the future of NA CSGO which is always nice. Although C9’s current success might be better explained by autimatic and n0thing holding hands while watching replays and their gym synergy, they are still a prime example of how teams improving from tools allows the entire scene to improve.

My one additional point about CSGO is that in my opinion, replays and sandbox will allow the Asian scene to eventually catch up and compete in CSGO. From a Dota 2 perspective, I laughed as Zephyr easily mowed over the Korean scene. And then suddenly there were two Korean teams at TI5, and then one in the top 5 at TI6, and now Team Secret even imported two Koreans as an EU team. Pretty crazy and sudden progression. So beware of the Asian CSGO players. It has already started with the C9 twins.

Starcraft 2

Starcraft is pretty interesting because the game has some of the best tools out there and essentially developed the best sandbox mode custom games, but the scene was completely dominated by Koreans. Yes the West had some limited and fleeting success with players like Idra, Jinro, Naniwa, and Stephano, but I don’t think anyone would ever argue that the West was ever even or ahead of Korea. Another thing is that in addition to amazing tools, in my opinion, SC2 also had by far the best teachers of any esport that I’ve ever seen with casters like Artosis playing at a relatively high level and dailies from Day9 that effectively got me into esports in the first place. It also had relatively high levels of cross pollination between scenes. Theoretically, these teaching tools in conjunction with replays and sandbox should have helped the western scene compete a lot better. However, there are four factors that limited the impact of tools in SC2: Lack of access to high level tournament replays, lack of a real team environment for learning, the fact that SC2 is more of a game of limited information than its counterparts, and the fact that while SC2 has a pretty easy skill floor in my opinion, the mechanical demands at the top level are insane. Also I think that the tools did help the western scene otherwise I don’t think a western player would have been able to take a single non cheese game off a top Korean.

The most relevant point I want to talk about in SC2 is the lack of available replays. For me as an SC2 ladder player, it was incredibly hard to find replay files from players like MVP, MC, or Nestea. Compared to Dota 2, where replays are all server side and readily available (some behind an easily access paywall based on the tournament) this made it harder for replays to have a big impact. The fact that SC2 was an individual game also made it harder to learn from tools too, because in team games, teammates can find stuff and teach each other and help each other learn. It’s simply not the same with practice partners in a 1v1 game, even with coaches and being under the same sponsor. Starcraft 2, by design, is also much more of a game of limited information, which means that you can not plan as much ahead as you can in other games. Maybe you can plan some builds for some maps or some cheese strats, but on a lot of maps you don’t even know your opponents spawn position or what build they’re going for. This also limits the impact of tools. Finally, SC2 is just a ridiculously hard game mechanically at the top level. While there are players who had lower APM or were more strat-focused, those players were largely weeded out. And while the monsters in SC2 are pretty much always amazing mechanically and strategically, I think it’s too hard to focus purely on learning from replays and strategy when you have to multitask and micro and macro and play the information game. Especially compared to games like Dota 2 and LoL where you’re essentially only focusing on one thing in a game.

Edit: WTF some 18 year old called Neeb from New York won a Korean SC2 tournament. I’m too lazy to rewrite this section. I’m going to call him an outlier because he owns, but as far as I know, he is owning alone and the scenes are still far apart due to the lack of availability with tools.

Impact of Lack of Tools in League

First and foremost, my apologies for how inaccurate I will be about League. I die to Annie bots. Since EU’s last win at Worlds, the Korean scene has been completely dominant (maybe some argument for Chinese teams with Korean imports). Faker and Bengi have won 3 Worlds and Faker is universally accepted as the best player in the world since forever. The Western scene has greatly stagnated and relies on using imports to the weaker regions (i.e. Bjergsen to TSM and Rush to C9). That is not to say that there are not great homegrown talents and hard worker players, but that there just arent enough to compete. In Dota 2 there are regions with much worse solo Q, but I’ve read pros saying that it’s worth going to Korea just to play their solo Q, which seems pretty extreme. In this interview that Thorin was kind enough to find for me (, there’s even mention that the scrims in Korea and the West are so different that they have different mentalities around them. These points demonstrate the cyclical nature of weaker regions staying weak and Korean teams continuing to grow farther and farther away. I also don’t mean to harp on individuals and I don’t really know many League pros, so I feel sort of feel bad using this example, but I read that the Korean import C9 Rush came to NA and absolutely slaughtered everyone. However, due to the poor practice environment, his skill level sort of stagnated and he did not perform as well against top teams. Essentially, no matter how good you are–Rush clearly had the talent and work ethic to reach the top before–if you go to a region with bad practice you will eventually stagnate and fall behind. Basically I’m saying I hope Faker never leaves Korea so he continues to dominate because he has a pretty cool storyline. These problems with a lack of tools in League are also exacerbated by the fact that League barely has any international tournaments or cross pollination. Bootcamps and international tourneys help western teams learn and catch up and bring that knowledge and improvement back to their region to help it improve, but these things simply don’t occur enough in LoL.

Won’t the superior koreans also use these tools and work harder and stomp everyone even more?!?

Yes, they will use the tools and yes, they will even further improve, and yes, tools won’t magically instantly close the gap–TSM isn’t instantly winning Worlds with replays guys. Tools will make everyone better and as mentioned before, it is much easier to learn from other teams and bridge the gap as the weaker team, than it is to change the meta and produce new strategies and learning. Furthermore, even if tools help the scenes by the exact same amount, that actually helps the worse scene catch up. For example, let’s arbitrarily rate NA as 4 and Korea as 8. If tools give each scene 2 points then NA is now a 6 and Korea is a 10. That is actually better for NA. Extrapolated to a Dota or League scenario, a 5k gold lead means a lot more at 10k vs 15k than at 40k vs 45k. Pros also have limited time to train and learn. I don’t think there are many teams that can out work the Asian teams. They have insane work ethics and better cultural fits in terms of listening to analysts, coaches, and team housing. And yes, the Koreans also might have better infrastructure to use the tools with analysts and coaches, but in my opinion, replays and sandbox will have a much greater impact on the improvement of the western scene.


Replays and sandbox mode have clearly made their mark on esports. As Riot hopefully keeps their word and implements replays and sandbox mode I am tentatively hopeful for the future of western League. I think that the League community needs to step up and more strongly request these tools, as not only will the tools help improve the competitive scene, they will also improve the general skill level of players. I’m not going to lie, there are some really cool things you can learn from replays and sandbox and to me, there aren’t many things more satisfying than being able to feel and watch yourself improve at something you’re working on.