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Posted by Marc Soskin on Apr 6, 2012

League of Legends: Intensity By Design (Part 1 of 2)

The source of all my nerd-rage since mid 2011.

I tear off my headphones and curse in frustration. Another League of Legends round has started poorly, and I’m not happy about it. In own my mind, it’s my teammate’s fault, and I let him know it in the Skype chat we’re in. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong, but that’s not really the important part. As I impatiently wait to respawn I take a deep, calming breath, and I realize what that is.

I have no idea why I’m so pissed off.

It’s not that I don’t know the sequence of events that led to me being so frustrated. They occurred only a few seconds ago. The thing is, I’ve played tons of games with this same friend. Some of them he’s good at, some of them he’s terrible at, but in none of these other games have I ever been so mad when he screws up. Hell, I was never this mad at him when we played Street Fighter IV together and he would kick my ass a dozen times in a row.

So why does League of Legends make me so frustrated?

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that I’m not the only one. League of Legends’ community, along with the communities of similar games like Heroes of Newerth and the original Defense of the Ancients mod for Warcraft III, are rather infamous for, as Tycho of Penny Arcade put it, “being noxious hellholes.” However, that’s really not quite accurate. The truth is that most the people playing League of Legends are the same people playing Team Fortress 2, Starcraft II or any number of PC games. In other words, they’re just gamers. It’s not that they’re mean spirited people; it’s that these games in particular have a way of bringing out the aggression of their players. So I guess the real question is this:

Why does League of Legends cause so much frustration and aggression when compared to other games?

To find out why, I’m going to compare some elements of League of Legends’ design next to another online PC game. This game has a lot of similarities to League of Legends, but from my own experience and its community’s reputation, it definitely causes less aggression. Not that it doesn’t have its share of the insults, griefing and general nastiness that is created by Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, but clearly not as much. Like League of Legends, it has small teams, it takes a very long period of time to play a round to completion, and teamwork is absolutely critical. One weak link in the chain can destroy an otherwise solid team. This game is Left 4 Dead 2.

While comparing these two games, I found that the key differences between them broke down into two categories: things that encourage competition and things that encourage cooperation. For this first part of the article, let’s start with the obvious and tackle the design elements that encourage competition.

Before I go further, however, I’d just like to note that I love League of Legends and I play it all the time. What drives this article is curiosity and scholarly interest. The features that I mention in the following section are not necessarily good or bad. They just happen to make things, well, more competitive.

Statistics

In Left 4 Dead 2, statistics rarely show up and lack any real significance. At the end of a round during Versus mode, several windows will appear while everyone loads the next level, ranking the players’ performance in several categories. The categories are usually things like “Most Damage Dealt as an Infected,” “Most Common Infected Killed,” or “Most Damage Done to the Witch.” However, what statistics actually appear is randomized, and they only flash for a few seconds as a way to occupy players’ time during loading screens. For the most part, that’s their only purpose. There are two statistics that matter, however. The first is a team’s actual points, which you gain by progressing further through the level. If you get all four people into a level’s safe room, you get the maximum amount of points. If you get curb stomped at the beginning of a level, you get the minimum. This statistic is the only one that matters, except in one instance. When a team ties in this category during a round – which almost always occurs when both teams get all four team members to the safe room – then the total damage dealt as infected is compared. The team that dealt the most damage gains 25 additional points. This is a relatively small amount, however, and it’s rare to see a game decided by a margin of 25 or less.

League of Legends, on the other hand, is positively overflowing with statistics. Your kills, deaths, assists and a method for ranking players called Elo – named after a method for ranking chess players – are the big ones but there’s a bevy of others. How many creeps you’ve killed, how much gold you’ve earned, how many structures you’ve destroyed, and that’s just during the game. After the round, you can see things like how much physical or magic damage everyone gave or took, what their highest critical was, or how much healing they did. They even allow you to compare them between players with graphs and charts. Then there’s the character statistics, which are as varied and complex as any RPG. Things like attack speed, magic penetration and health regeneration are laid bare for all to see. These are augmented by items you buy during the course of the game, which are similarly diverse. These items compose what are called a characters’ build, and there are entire websites dedicated to determining which builds are the best for every character in the game.

So, obviously League of Legends has way more statistics than Left 4 Dead 2 and they’re far more important, but how does this heighten competition? And, similarly, how does this competition make players so much more susceptible to frustration and anger? This is a pretty easy one, actually. Statistics have been proven to cause competition wherever they show up up. Be it in professional sports or in a Wall Street office, everyone wants to be the guy with the bigger number. In League of Legends, this philosophy is most prevalent in the idea of “the carry.”

As most commonly used, the term carry refers to a specific kind of character – a low health, high damage character meant to snowball and be extremely powerful at higher levels. The term comes from the idea that they essentially carry their team to victory over the corpses of their enemies at the end of the game. Typically, this character gets the most kills during a match, and because everyone wants the bigger number, everyone wants to be the carry. This sometimes results in bickering over them on the character select screen or what’s called auto-locking – when a player selects a character and locks in without regard to what characters the other players are choosing. Within the game itself, the idea of wanting the bigger number also leads to accusations of kill stealing. Whether this is for reasons of ego or for want of another statistic – gold – varies, but can lead to a lot of conflict within a team of strangers. In Left 4 Dead 2, such conflicts are a rarity. No one really cares who killed that hunter that was leaping towards Ellis, they just care that it died and it died fast. The statistics that exist to fight for are so small and insignificant that no one wastes their time on them.

The fight for a higher number is not the only thing that comes out of all these statistics, however. In fact, it might not even be the most important thing. Lots of games have that battle of egos, most prominently shooters like Call of Duty. However, those statistics are fairly limited. League of Legends’ extensive statistics give players another tool entirely – they make it incredibly easy to find someone to blame when you lose.

Now, the most straight forward example of a statistic that lets players do this is kills, deaths, and assists.

“Why did we lose? Oh, it must be that 2/7/10 Amumu. I’m going to call him a feeder.”

Any experienced player knows that those stats only tell part of the story, though. Support and tank characters especially can be doing an excellent job and not come up with many kills, as often they’re just trying to serve them to the carry on a silver platter. The sheer amount of statistics in League of Legends give people looking to blame someone an easy way around this, however. Creep kills, for instance are sometimes looked to for blame. The less creeps you kill, the less money you get, the less items you buy, and the less powerful you are. Speaking of items, they’re also a common tool for the blame game. Not getting items with the right statistics or even getting them in the wrong order can make a character less effective, and everyone’s got an opinion on what’s “right.”

In summary, when a game goes south in League of Legends, all these statistics make it easy for a team to tear itself apart by blaming each other. This is partly because, a lot of the time, these statistics mean that there’s at least some truth to most accusations. Even if they deny it at the time, a lot of players will realize that in the back of their minds, and no one wants to be the reason their team loses. That fear and guilt doesn’t help matters, and makes people quick to blame others and angrier when they are doing poorly. Sometimes, the opposing team can even egg things on by using these statistics to taunt their hapless opponents.

Left 4 Dead 2 doesn’t really have this issue. Though there’s certainly the occasional blame game, there aren’t many statistics to support it. The only time that can occur is when a team is playing as the infected and a player has a very low amount of damage. However, given that some infected aren’t meant to do lots of damage and what infected you get is random, as long as they have even a moderate amount of damage, it’s difficult to use that statistic to blame a player for a loss. Even then, that statistic resets every round.

The Game Beyond the Game

The other big set of elements that encourage more competition in League of Legends than Left 4 Dead 2 are those that exist outside of the actual game itself. In Left 4 Dead 2, when you stop playing the game, you stop competing. How well you perform is based solely on your actions within each specific competition. In League of Legends, a round may end or may not have started yet, but the competition never stops. Some of the elements that cause this are called “the metagame.” What the metagame is specifically depends on who you’re asking, and not everything I mention here will fit into the common definitions of the metagame, hence the different title for this section. That said, the general concept of the metagame fits: actions that affect the game, but aren’t actually performed during gameplay itself.

The biggest thing this idea refers to is what takes place on the character selection screen. In what is accepted as the most complete mode in which to play League of Legends, character selection is done through a system called a draft. Each team picks three characters from the roster to ban from competition, and then takes turns selecting the remaining characters. This is a crucial phase to the game. Failing to ban an overpowered character or one who is simply a great counter to your team can be pretty bad, and there’s a generally accepted list of who to ban at any given time – depending on who’s been buffed or nerfed recently. A team captain who squanders the banning phase will likely face some ire.

After the banning phase, draft mode is similar to other modes when it comes to selecting characters. The difference is that characters cannot be selected twice, and people take turns picking them. This adds some strategy, but the gist is the same in other modes: you need to pick a team with a balanced composition. If you have a balanced combination of characters, you’ve basically given yourself a shot at victory. If you don’t, it’s entirely possible that you have lost the game before it even began. That’s how important it can be. Similarly, there are some characters that are not considered viable at all, and a player who selects them will likely be informed about this politely or otherwise.

Other features that bring the competition outside of the game itself are the runes and masteries systems, which are for boosting those character stats I mentioned earlier. As you can imagine, that makes them somewhat important. Selecting the right runes and masteries for your character can give you an edge, and selecting the wrong ones can give you a handicap. They’re not as important as the items you buy in the game itself or as team composition, but they’re that extra competitive element that keeps you occupied between games.

So what’s the point to me explaining all of this? Well, the point is that all these features push the player to constantly strive to be competitive. Doing better at the game is always in the back of the player’s mind. Compete. Improve. Win. This is what the game beyond the game tells the player League of Legends is about. It’s not a bad thing, it’s not a good thing, but when a game encourages the player to compete at all times, it’s going to heighten the aggression of its players and cause greater frustration when they fail.

So we’ve established that League of Legends encourages more competition that Left 4 Dead 2, and that’s certainly a big part of it. However, in the second part of this article, we’ll look at things from the opposite perspective: how does Left 4 Dead 2 encourage cooperation rather than competition? Don’t change that dial.

Click here to read Part 2

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