And man, I have to say: I picked a really good year to be a fair-weather fan. I’ve been watching the League of Legends worlds series since season 2 (which was in 2012, god bless), and while I’ve always enjoyed it, it was hard to really get “into” things. After all, save an unexpected upset my very first year with a victory for the Taipei Assassins, a team from Taiwan, every year afterwards has simply illistrated Korean domination as Korean teams crushed their competition from all around the world, again and again and again. I’m talking about SK Telecom T1 (and their former best player in the world, Faker, who were able to win three times!), Samsung Galaxy White, and then just normal Samsung Galaxy. Not a lot of diversity, and it was always exciting when Europe or America even managed to break the top 4.
Which, uh, didn’t happen much.
But this year? Things are crazy. Korea, as a region, was knocked out of the tournament early. And at time of writing, the semifinalists are two European teams, a Chinese team, and a team from the United States, which is the first time a US team has ever been this close to taking the illustrious Summoner’s Cup. It’s been called the year of the underdogs, with stunning upsets, unexpected reversals, and outstanding play from all around the world. I’ve never been so excited for a Worlds Final.
Which is why it’s kind of disappointing that I have to wonder: is the League of Legends Worlds Series – or the eSports league of any game – actually good for the game itself?
I don’t mean commercially: of course they’re successful commercially. Riot Games gets sweet, sweet ad revenue and buy-in fees, as well as in-game purchases prompted by the event, such as skins and icons. If they weren’t making money off the whole enterprise, they wouldn’t be bothering with the arena, the stage, the crowds of fans, the live performances, the cosplay, ect. And the teams that compete can earn some sweet money too, on the side, thanks to streaming and merchandising and, of course, cash prizes.
When I say it’s bad for the game, I mean it’s bad for the game experience. Because while League of Legends has never had a very positive community – in fact, it’s often (and correctly) used as the poster child for toxic gaming communities – I can’t help but notice that over the past few weeks, players have been trying harder, raging louder, feeding faster, and generally being worse all around.
There’s never been a better time to watch League of Legends. But there’s never been a worse time to actually play it.
On one hand, the esports scene is directly to blame. After all: this is a time where we witness and celebrate the game at the highest level of play. Transitioning from watching these hyper-skilled top players perform superhuman feats in game (the reaction time on their flashes, abilities, and movement is downright mystifying) to playing a round of ranked in silver league where people can barely flash over walls, well… it can make one feel a little bit hopeless, or trapped, or just plain bad. And when gamers feel hopeless, trapped, or bad, they lash out, especially if they play League of Legends. They blame teammates for holding them back from the illustrious ranks they feel they deserve, they suddenly think they’re the best shot callers in the world, and suddenly pro-tier meta becomes the most important thing in existence.
Basically: people become hyper-aware of the mistakes of others, and themselves. And it pisses them off.
Of course, there’s another reason why this matters: the League of Legends World series also marks the final weeks of the ranked season. Come November 10th, your “rank” is set, and the rewards you get for excellent play will be delivered – from the Bronze “you tried” to the frankly breathtaking rewards for reaching challenger. For real, the rewards are nothing to sneeze at: if you reach Master (the level below Challenger, which is pro-tier) you get:
- A Master summoning icon (your avatar).
- A profile insignia (cosmetic swag)
- A master loading screen boarder (more cosmetic swag)
- A new skin for a champion (with all the chromas)
- Two new skins for your ward
And you know, I’m willing to bet that League of Legends isn’t the only game with this problem. Because it’s not the only game with seasons, rewards, ranks, or a highly-viewed esports scene. And I can’t help but wonder if maybe the game would be more positive, and more friendly, if there was no pro scene or no seasons. Which is not the same, I should point out now, as hoping that those aspects of the game get removed.
Because after all: they both do something valuable. Seasons are necessary to give people “fresh starts” with their ranks, but more importantly, they allow Riot Games (and other developers) a period to experiment and release giant, meta-shifting patches to the game, and gives time for players to adjust to those changes and see how it affects their ability to play, professionally or otherwise. And eSports, of course, on top of giving lots of companies lots of money, gives players something to strive for. Most people will never, ever, ever play this game professionally, but the fact that it’s technically possible can make things genuinely exciting and puts a bit more actual stake in ranked games. And of course, it’s always fun to watch: at least, if you’re a dork like me it is.
So this isn’t so much a call to get rid of seasons and esports, and more of a question of what we can do to mediate the toxic ways they impact the community they’re supposed to celebrate.
Of course, to “solve” any kind of toxicity requires some dramatic changes I don’t think anyone is prepared to make, both to society and to themselves (which might include some light brainwashing and/or hypnosis). And while some ideas are good, like, say, hiring the worst players in the world to be Pro, so everyone will think their jungle Anivia is actually pretty good by comparison, it sort of betrays the spirit of the whole thing.
So, a few ideas to wrap things up, just so I don’t pose a question I’m not prepared to wrestle with myself: the issue of the season could probably be fixed by giving players opportunities to unlock certain things later. Rather than making this the ONLY season you can unlock a specific skin, have a pool of skins and let players pick which one they want to unlock a year: that way if you fail one year, you can still get a unique skin for your champion of choice next. Or you could have a special currency that you “earn” at the end of the season, which can be spent on rewards: if you’re just never good enough to reach gold, reach silver a few years and save your points together for that one gold-tier reward. It would be pretty presumptuous to assume the game will still be around that long, but hey: nothing wrong with hope.
As for the eSports skill gap provoking undue rage? That’s a bit trickier, but a good start might be focusing streams and commentary on good team play over individual outplays. I’m not saying not to talk about that stuff entirely: but underlying the team aspect of this team game might help people realize that even if one person isn’t quite up-to-snuff, there are four other people who can still make up the gap, so long as everyone is willing to try.
But hey: I’m sure there are smarter people out there who are wrestling with this issue. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.