A really good board or computer game is like an onion; enjoyable on the surface (well, if you like onions) but with many layers of gameplay that make the game even more enjoyable the longer you play it until you burn out or move on to the next cool new game. Sports though… sports are different. America hasn’t gotten “burned out” on football or baseball. The rules and strategies haven’t substantially changed in recent history, yet somehow professional sports continue to be a huge business and a massive pass-time for millions of Americans. There is something about the consistency of sports, the fair playing field, the competition designed to reward skill and teamwork over all else that consistently captures our attention and excitement.
Then you have E-Sports, a sort of hybrid concept where you take a computer game and you add sport elements to it: consistent rules, fair matches, features to improve the spectator experience. The players benefit from large prize pools and publicity which can lead to sponsorships and other opportunities. The game companies benefit from huge advertisement and attention for their game with accompanying surges in sales. The spectating public benefit from a new and surprisingly enjoyable past-time: watching people play computer games against each other who are really, really good.
Starcraft was really the first and is still one of the most popular E-sports games but it has now clearly declined in face of the king of all E-Sports: League of Legends. League of Legends success as an E-Sport game is not something I particularly care to write about, I think League of Legend’s rise to power has been well documented in plenty of other places. This post is more just to ramble about my thoughts after having sunk another set of hours into the game and moving to the next layer of the onion. I’m going to set this up as a series of LIKE – DISLIKES.
A major statement up front: Apart from an occasional Twisted Treeline match with my brother, I play almost entirely unranked 5v5 Summoner’s Rift. That is League of Legends to me and all other game maps and modes are not part of this post.
This is the sports element. The very carefully designed Summoner’s Rift map combined with many years of tweaking and balancing presents an extremely consistent experience across matches. Unlike Starcraft where you may have a variety of maps to adapt your strategy to, the consistency of Summoner’s Rift basically mirrors the consistency of the football field. It keeps the focus on the players, not the field.
LIKE: Player Skill is King
There is no doubt that the player skill curve in League of Legends is incredibly steep. The game system is quite approachable, especially if you start off playing some of the lower difficulty champions. Playing as only one champion, you only have 4 abilities which are unlocked one at a time which makes the game initially very friendly to learn. However, the breadth of items available for purchase combined with the gradual unlocking of Masteries and Runes as your account levels up allows for a surprising amount of depth of choices in how you build and play your champion.
LIKE/DISLIKE: Teamwork is King
Really, teamwork is the core of League of Legends gameplay. A team of good players who don’t work together will get absolutely destroyed by a team of good players who do work together, or even a team of mediocre players who play well together. The variety of champion types, play styles, abilities, item builds, etc. provides for endless different in-game interesting team combinations. Again, the analogy to sports is spot-on. Teamwork wins games. Of course the problem here is that as a casual player I generally don’t choose who is on my team, and the concept of feeding (i.e. dying early and often which allows enemy players to progress faster than you) means that a single bad player can literally ruin the game for their entire team, not just by failing to contribute to their own team’s efforts but by actually assisting the other team inadvertently. The emphasis on teamwork is a double-edge sword.
LIKE/DISLIKE: The Summoner’s Rift “Meta”
The Meta, as I call it, is the accepted standard strategy of deploying your team in Summoners Rift to maximize champion development and kills during the early laning stage of the game. You have a strong AD top carry, an AP mid, a AP support and ranged AD carry bot, and a jungler. This may sound unintelligible to you if you don’t play LOL but it’s really not that different from understanding what a Nickelback or Left Tackle do and why they are important. And, while the accepted meta is certainly not the only successful strategy, it does represent a very good one. The problem is getting a team of total strangers who each have a champion they want to play to agree to fill all the roles, on the spot, within a very short time window. In practice this generally means whoever “calls” a position first gets that position and the other players have to fill in the remaining spots. Often it gets pretty dumb, especially since the person who was able to “call” the position first is in no way necessarily the person the most qualified for it. So trying to play a position in the meta without conforming to the expectations of that position can lead to a lot of abuse and conflict within a team; people can yell at you as if you are a catcher standing out in the outfield. It tends to bring out some of the worst player behavior in the game.
DISLIKE: Never-ending stream of new champions
So this one is sort of minor; the ever-growing list of champions is, after all, a major strength of the game. It ensures a ton of variety and, frankly, is probably the main way Riot makes money off of the game. The problem is, when does it end? As a fairly casual player I already have a really difficult time remembering what the more common champions do, let alone the many dozens of less commonly played champions. Plus it makes balancing more and more difficult for Riot as time goes on. I’m ok with new champions I guess but the speed at which they are putting them out, and the ever-lengthening roster, ends up being a negative for me.
DISLIKE: Last-Hitting Minions (aka the importance of “Creep Score”)
This one is my MAJOR pet peeve. The concept of minions within DOTA-style gameplay is pretty unique and cool, they form a sort of “battle-line” and give the game an important PVE element which has to be balanced with PVP. Staying in a lane to kill minions gives you XP, but you need to spread your team out to do it most efficiently and this leaves you vulnerable to enemy group attacks, which is an interesting balance. The problem I have with it is the way the gold system works; in order to get the gold from the minion kill, you have to be the one perform the killing blow on that minion. Maximizing your gold income is incredibly important part of making your champion more powerful as the game progresses but the micro-management required to ensure those last-hits is an absolute pain. I realize that players have adapted to this and it’s just viewed as one more element of game skill, but I HATE that such inane micromanagement is a critical part of the game and view it as poor design. I wish gold from minion kills was awarded in a more passive manner similar to XP, or some sort of compromise that didn’t require such annoying precision.
So there you have some of my current thoughts on LOL for better or worse. For now I will keep playing, maybe not as intensely as I have been, but I would like to get to Level 30 eventually. I’m currently sitting at Level 20 and primarily playing Renekton, Heimerdinger, and Taric.
UPDATE: Ironically, shortly after writing this post I discovered that Riot is actually going to put out a “team builder” functionality that lets you put together a role-based team prior to matchmaking. On the upside, this means if you really want to play a specific role you have a more secure way of having your team acknowledge it than simply being the first to type “mid” into the chat window. On the downside, it further cements the existing meta which some players will not like.
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