How It All Began
“C’mon, it’s not that late,” my friend grinned, knowing full-well that neither of us were going to bed anytime soon. “Let’s play another,” he said. It was 5 AM. I had class the next day, and we had just won a tough match, so we were both feeling pretty pumped.
Naturally, I said yes through gritted teeth. We lost the next 3 games in a row. In a moment of clarity, I asked him, “What are we doing?”
“Not sleeping,” he remarked, sending me another invitation. “It’s okay, this time I’ll go Lee Sin.”
League of Legends is probably the single most complicated game I’ve ever had the opportunity to play, and that’s a lot of games. But when I say complicated, I don’t mean mechanically. Sure, League of Legends is mechanically complicated; anyone who’s ever played it knows just how confusing and disorienting it can be at first. I was one of the lucky ones. I had a great teacher, I picked up the rules fast, and played to the best of my ability every time. Even while going up against people that had been playing three-times longer than I had, I matched up fairly well.
The game was new. There were 80 characters to choose from, each with their own unique powers. Each with their own unique backstories, that were, at their best, beginnings of young adult novels, and at their worst were completely idiosyncratic with the LoL universe. What attracted me first and foremost to this game was the cast of crazy characters.
So I chose a favorite: at first it was Sivir and her chakram-boomerang weapon. She looked horrible and was extremely sexualized, but I liked her range, and her ult had this war-cry that was just so satisfying to hear when chasing down those beginner bots. Then, it was Kayle and her flaming sword of why-is-her-range-so-big. Then came Fiora and Riven, and Kha-Zix and Evelynn, and Leona, Vi, Rumble…
Each time a new champion came out, I wanted to know what made them tick. I wanted to know what each button press would do, why they were here, how they connected to everyone else in the lore. I was, in a word, enthralled by League. For a while, I stopped playing other games. League was fun, my friends played it, and best of all, I could mess around and not feel guilty. It was great.
And Then I Reached Level 30
Things changed. Jungling got serious. Suddenly, people cared about ranked. Everyone had runes, and everyone knew the sites for builds. No longer could you fall back on weeding out the weak opponents, and guaranteed kills were now a thing of the past. People watched pro player streams for new strategies. And I got caught up in all that. I’ll admit to nursing a beer during one of the championship matches, watching attentively as the pros worked their magic.
Losing was no longer out of your hands. It wasn’t that the enemy Tryndamere knew how to capitalize on controlling your jungle camps, it was that you fed him. It wasn’t that the enemy Ashe ulted you at just the right moment, it was that you weren’t paying attention to the map. If you built the wrong items, you were ostracized for not understanding the up-to-date meta of the game.
There was one time when a friend of mine and I lost a game against 3 people. We had 5 people on our team, and we each systematically lost lane, fed them, and got overwhelmed. It was a slaughter.
I am not good at dealing with failure. I have mentioned to my therapist multiple times that one of my ultimate fears is failure in almost any context. Big stuff or little stuff—it doesn’t matter to me. And if I admit that I failed at something, I internalize that failure, which only serves to tilt in the wrong direction. It all fuels the flames.
So, it’s not hard to imagine what happened. My friends played much more often than I did and understood the metagame much better than I did. They “got it”, and loved playing it. Win or lose, they found a reason to continue. Yet, I sought after the positive experiences in playing well, and not necessarily in seeing how others play. It’s why I played mostly assassins and junglers: if I excelled in a game even once, I got confident and snowballed. If I fucked up, I lost all that momentum, and would start to break down.
“Sorry, guys,” I’d say, ashamed that I hadn’t done everything I could to stop the enemy team from ganking top lane four times in a row. I had bought too many wards to keep up with the build, and the harass from the enemy was so strong, I couldn’t do anything. “I’m just not good at this…”
“Yeah, but we’re all bad.”
Yeah, But I’m Worse
From then on, I didn’t want to play with friends. I played solo with four random people. The wins no longer mattered, or even felt good. They were hollow victories in a sea of misplays and fuck-ups. During the loading screen into games, I’d start shaking from anxiety, not knowing whether or not I’d be useful this time.
And the losses were always crippling.
They were constant reminders that I wasn’t good, and that someone would always, always, always kick my ass the moment I started to tilt. The game doesn’t just punish you for bad play, it mercilessly reminds you for 30 minutes why you shouldn’t have chosen that champ or that item, and why your reflexes are inferior to the other guy’s. But the worst part is the team-chat. Seeing toxic comments about how awful you are never really became bearable. Sure, I could’ve tuned out the jeers, but then I wouldn’t be able to communicate effectively with my team. I was stuck between wanting to play effectively and wanting to play alone.
I started to decline game invitations from friends unless I knew we weren’t going to play seriously. If it was a joke game, I was all-in. If not, I would’ve rather buried myself in work. And then, sometime around then, it dawned on me: this game is actually hurting me. How can that be? How can a game that has no lasting impact beyond 30 minutes (give or take) actually effect my psyche?
And yet, there it was. I had to admit to myself that this game got to me.
I couldn’t handle the constant losing, the reminders that I’m doing things wrong, the tears that came with knowing that I was the worst one in queue. No longer was there whimsy to pull me back in, or cool new characters to drag me back kicking and screaming into queue. Every time someone would beg me over Facebook to play League with a group, I’d say no.
I was much more content playing video games alone than coming face-to-face with my failures. Video games have always been an escape for me, but when the escape roams so close to home that you find it revealing all your problems over and over again, you’ve got to reasess what you’re running from.
What I Meant By “The Most Complicated Game I’ve Ever Played”
League is by far the most complicated game I’ve ever played. I know that’s a lot to choke down, but there it is. Mechanically, it’s not too difficult to learn given the time. Execution is usually pretty sound, and there’s very little instances of confusing mechanics or characters that are too complicated to learn. Really, it all comes down to math and reflexes, which can be learned traits with practice. It all compiles together to create a rather difficult game to master, but that means nothing when you’re playing it for fun.
The complication comes when you realize that every time you play the game, you are peering into yourself. The characters you regularly use, the play style you choose, the builds, the friends you play with, the comments you make, the comments that are made about you, how you relate to total strangers, how you empathize with total strangers, etc. All in a matter of 30 minutes or less.
It’s unbelievable. Here I was, thinking I was just going to play some simple game with really weird characters in a universe that George Lucas would consider “stretching it”. And yet, it has illuminated some of my biggest flaws, and some of my biggest strengths.
I can’t handle failing multitudes of people. I’m self conscious about my ability, and rely far too much on my basic skill-set when it comes to things I excel at. I often don’t voice my shortcomings to others, and if I do, it’s never in the moment. I’m good at communicating, but tend to listen too much to bad criticism, internalizing it for the rest of the game. To top it all off, I have anxiety that is deeply rooted in all of this.
Also, I think too much.
And once I realized all of this, I knew that it was a recipe for disaster when it came to playing League. I have so many traits that work against the game’s basic principles that even viewing it as a challenge was too difficult. Like so many other things, I ran from it, because it scared me. It scares me to be reminded so nonchalantly that I’m inferior.
So, I Stopped
That’s not to say I was alone in quitting, but there’s no shame when I say that this game really did a number on me. I was at a very fragile time in my life then, and to even have my escapes be mirrors back to my insecurities wasn’t what I needed then. I needed time, I needed space, I needed to play something simple. Something mindless. Something that wouldn’t end in tears unless I wanted it to.
Sometimes, I come back to it. Sometimes, I see that tab on my computer and think, “I’m kinda lonely right now. I wonder if anyone else is on?” I’ll play a game or two, but if we start losing, I’m out. Of course, this means that whenever I play, we lose a lot since I’m all out of practice, but hey, better than spending a night alone checking twitter every 5 minutes, right?
For what’s it worth, League taught me a lot. It taught me more about myself than any indie game ever has (and I hate myself for admitting it). It wasn’t all bad, that’s for sure. I became closer with a lot of my best friends through this game, and I learned about my positive qualities as well. I want to work on my fear of failure, and figure out how to combat it. I want to be able to lose at something and say, “Yeah, I could’ve done this and this better. Let’s play again!”
Someday, I’ll tackle all that. For now, I’m cool with playing XCOM on normal mode.