5 Things League of Legends Taught Me About Human Behavior

For most people League of Legends is a Video Game. Some players see it as a fighting simulator, others see it like chess on steroids while there are still some players remaining looking for “fun”, whatever this means in the context of League.

For all the people who don’t know what League of Legends is: it’s hard to explain. But at its basic core it’s a multiplayer Game in which two five man teams compete over virtual resources that make them stronger (Experience for Levels, Gold for Items etc.) while destroying each others base. The team that can get access to most resources tends to win but the win-condition is not having the most Gold but destroying the enemy Nexus, a building protected by towers that need to be destroyed first. After 30–45mins you either win or lose and based on your results, next time you get matched with slightly better or slightly worse opponents (btw: this is achieved with Elo-Rating-System, really interesting!)

In this short explanation you already see some familiarity to situations we encounter in real life:

  • Individuals competing over resources
  • Individuals cooperating to achieve a shared goal
  • One group of people competing against another group of people with diametrically opposed goals

In other words, LoL is a closed system with conscious agents competing over different objectives. The rules may differ from the rules we experience in the real world (laws of nature, laws of states, laws of society etc). But it’s still a group of smart monkeys cooperating together against another group of smart monkeys. Comparing how we behave in both systems and finding similarities can help us learn more about ourselves.

Disclaimer: Everything I’m mentioning in this list is based on subjective personal experience.


1. Humans Don’t Perform Well Under Stress

By the nature of the game, you can’t control everything. There will be games where one of your teammates just fails over and over again, giving your opponent more and more advantages, single-handedly losing you the game. For a lot of LoL players this is the most frustrating thing that can happen to them.

What they don’t realize, is that there is a good chance they are part of this problem even thought they aren’t the one under-performing in critical situations.

How? Well, you have to know that getting killed by the enemy is usually no great feeling. Now the enemy has the advantage, therefore he is able to kill you even quicker. To get back into the game a player has to play as disciplined and controlled as he can, trying to get enough resources to claw his way back into relevance without dying over and over again. The absolute worst thing that can happen to him now is tilting.

For those who are not familiar with this term, it originated in poker:

Tilt is a poker term for a state of mental or emotional confusion or frustration in which a player adopts a less than optimal strategy, usually resulting in the player becoming over-aggressive.

So this is one of the biggest problems in league of legends. The first person making a mistake will usually get flamed and attacked by their own teammates through chat. This puts them under way more stress, increasing the chance of a tilt.

Every player does mistakes. But this is not comparable to a tilted player. A tilted player is not only making way more mistakes than usual, but he rattles the cages of the other monkeys too. And once there are at least two tilted players, they will blame and flame each other, tilting the rest of the team until they are all busy figuring out whos fault it was in the first place instead of getting control of the game. This is the surest way to lose.

So if someone does a mistake, even in a critical situation, the first thing you should do is to not say anything.

If another player reacts, ignore that as well, starting a discussion in chat about the degree of “fucked” you are because of that teammates mistake won’t help him be chill and focused.

If you are good at “reading the room” and you find the right encouraging words, this can prevent any tilt. Most of the times these words shouldn’t have to do anything with your allies mistake but rather be something game relevant. There are several objectives in the game that are way easier to get with your team members. Calling an objective is a great way to steer the group focus to a more pressing matter, while generating momentum and an atmosphere that reduces stress and therefore tilt.

2. Great Performance Inspires Greatness in Others

This was a real Eureka Moment for me. I first experienced this myself without realizing it. A few years ago when I was playing way more actively than I’m doing now, I played with two groups of people. One group was considerable worse than the other. Even thought playing with the “bad” group gave me way easier opponents through the matchmaking algorithm (Elo) I really under-performed most of the time.

Playing with the good group matched me versus great players (High-Dia up to Challenger). And even though the enemy should crush me, I generally played really well and surprised myself with focused and controlled plays.

Why is that? There are some reasons that I believe are plausible:

  1. If your teammates perform well this removes some stress factors
  2. If your teammates control the flow of the game well, finding the right mix of aggression and calmness, you tend to be less tilted
  3. If your teammate makes a great play and he get’s positive comments by his team, you are more likely to do your best

This is something that translated really well to my real life projects. Once I internalized this principle I noticed that me working hard on a project inspired my team members to put in extra work as well. This lead to way more projects being completed in faster time, all I had to do is put in more work :)

3. Humans want to be in the spotlight — Supporting them leads to more wins

Why do players play this game in the first place? I think for most people it’s not about winning but about being the person who contributed most to the win (and having every other person notice this).

This may sound pity but honestly, almost everything humans do is to impress others and/or make themselves feel good. I mean, when was the last time you contributed food for a group event, like baking a cake for a friend. If tried your best I bet you $50 that while working your ass off you fantasized about your cake being the best cake by far. First the guests would ask the host who baked this delightful greatness. After the host points at you, you are surrounded by everyone asking you about the recipe. You’ll be the center of attention, everybody will love you and you will be happy. At least in your fantasy, right?

Every human wants to get attention from other humans and feel special. It’s just the way we evolved, after all we are just a (smart) group animal.

So, this applies especially to a video-game catering to our more primal motivations like fighting and dominating your enemies.
The problem is, that because the resources a team can get are limited, most of the time only 1–3 people played the first 10–20min well enough to be in a spotlight position. If you aren’t one of those players the smart thing you should do is support them, let them lead and adapt your plays according to what they do. Sometimes the best thing you should do is to force the enemy to attack you instead of your more valuable teammates, even if this increases your risk of dying.

But doing this means accepting that a stranger played better than you. And adjusting your play-style to help him excel will only put him more in the spotlight and you further away from that.

This is really counter-intuitive because most of us were told that WE are the special ones. Nobody taught us the value of being a good second or third. Nobody taught us that real greatness means doing the thing that helps another to achieve your goals together with you, even if it means that someone will get the praise for it while instead of you.

4. Positive Reinforcement >> Negative Feedback

This one is something that ties in with the reasoning of the above mentioned points. We already learned that negative feedback, aka flame, increases the amount of tilted players in your games.

Positive Reinforcement is one of the most basic core loops of human behavior.

Telling your team members “good job” for something done well helps you steer the course of the game. There are some ‘obvious’ good plays, most of the time these are the more riskier but flashier plays. There are lots of great plays happening that don’t look that impressive because it was more a feat of control and discipline, rather than reflexes and skillfulness. Positive Reinforcing these plays greatly increases your overall win rate as it incentives your team members to repeat such plays.

This works really well in real life too. If you are ever interested in steering the course of a group slightly in one direction or the other while increasing overall performance, positive reinforcement should be the first thing to consider.

Possible Side Effects: People will perform better, do the things more often you want them to do and people will tend to like you more as you are the one giving them the gratification they crave.

5. There is no growth if you blame others for your situation

This one is really important. This is like the ultimate lesson you can take away from this 7 year long running experiment.

So in League of Legends you can climb a ranking-ladder. It goes like this Bronze->Silver->Gold->Platinum->Diamond->Maters->Challenger. The distribution looks something like this:

Generally speaking, the more you play the better you get, and the better you get, the higher you will climb.

But there is a phenomenon I first discovered with a friend of mine. He decided to just play one champion. Making him a one-trick player. Generally speaking, if you spend all your time playing just one champion you will be able to play him to his fullest potential. Generally speaking.

But even though he played more games than me and my other friends combined, and even though he focused his efforts only on one single champion, he still couldn’t get out of silver while we where already climbing our way to platinum.

Why didn’t he excel but we did?

The difference was the mindset. After every game he lost he came raging in our TeamSpeak, complaining about how he always gets the bad teammates, teammates that make it impossible for him to climb.

Well, the problem was just that. Not the bad teammates but him focusing on the bad teammates. Every time he lost a game he tried to rationalize why it wasn’t his fault. Short term this might protect him from feeling bad but long term this makes it unable to improve. After all, how can you improve if you don’t focus on your mistakes?

Player in higher-elo know the only thing they can change are themselves. Even if they teammates play bad and seemingly are the reason their team loses, most high-ranked player don’t see this as a reason to flame and discourage their teammates but instead are motivated to improve even more so next time they will be strong enough to compensate for that.

They are focused on their own performance instead of their teammates and this is the only way to improve, not only in video games but everywhere in life.

In Conclusion

If you haven’t noticed or you are just reading the conclusion, the word “teammate” refers to both, the people that are in your team in-game but as well as the people you meet in the real world.

  1. If a teammate is stressed, don’t push their buttons.
  2. If you want to inspire your teammates to greatness, give it everything you got.
  3. It’s okay to not be the person in the spotlight. While everyone wants to play the leading role there need to be people to support them so they can really shine.
  4. Use positive feedback to motivate your teammates and to reinforce behavior you want to see more often.
  5. The only way to improve is to accept full accountability for your mistakes and to acknowledge them.

If you liked the article…

Right now I’m producing a couple of videos exploring economics, human behavior, etc. in the context of League of Legends. They have a more scientific approach than this article and will be released on this — right now empty — YouTube channel. If you liked the article consider subscribing. If you are more of a twitter person, follow me there for more.