Why is the average LoL career so short?

Chae “Piglet” Gwang-Jin (photo courtesy of the Daily Dot)

June 25, 1999. Beyond the walls of Madison Square Garden, the New York City air was an unusually breezy 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Midtown streets were barren, and the metro underground seated no one, because inside the Garden the air had reached a boiling point. 78–77. The home team Knicks, on the brink of elimination from the NBA Finals, inbounded the ball to guard Latrell Sprewell with 2.1 seconds to play. He caught the ball underneath the rim, took two hard dribbles, and rose up for a short-hop fadeaway. The clock ticked to zero before ‘Spre’ could get his shot off, and as the season’s final buzzer tore through the stunned crowd, the visiting bench mobbed the court with explosive, joyful synchrony. 78–77. The San Antonio Spurs had won their first championship in franchise history. Finals MVP for the ’99 Champs? Timothy Theodore Duncan, in only his second season. 17 years later, after winning four more NBA titles, two more Finals MVP awards, and two league MVP awards, Duncan would finally retire. He was selected to 15 All-Star games, 10 All-NBA First Teams, and 8 All-NBA Defensive First Teams. He played a total of 19 seasons.

David Robinson (right) and Tim Duncan (left) celebrating their first Larry O’Brien trophy in 1999.

There aren’t any veterans in the professional League of Legends scene, at least not in the Tim Duncan sense of the word. The community considers players like EDG “Clearlove” or TSM “Doublelift” to be veterans, but both are only 23 years old. There are obvious reasons for veteran scarcity in pro LoL; League of Legends is barely seven years old, and the NBA just turned 70. But out of those that entered the pro LoL circuit seven years ago, only a handful of stars remain. The vast majority of that first generation are now the youngest fossils around.


Dog Year Veterans

An excerpt from an interview between William “scarra” Li from the Score eSports and CLG owner George “HotShotGG” Georgallidis:

scarra: Talk to me a little bit about player longevity … what would you say is the average lifespan of a player right now?
HSGG: I mean, right now, it’s a year to two years. And that’s incredibly disheartening.

That’s shorter than the 3.11-year average for an NFL running back career, a notoriously unstable position. With exception to the franchise faces, most pro players are out of a job in less than half the time it would take them to get an undergraduate degree.

The community has formed a consensus. Find something else to do around 22, it’s Game Over. But is there is a way to significantly extend these careers? Is it possible that, starting with this current generation of eSports, standards for mental, physical, and fiscal health are outgrowing the boundaries for how old an in-their-prime pro gamer can be? The Public Library of Science (PLOS) published research in 2014 for a study titled “Over the Hill at 24: Persistent Age-Related Cognitive-Motor Decline in Reaction Times in an Ecologically Valid Video Game Task Begins in Early Adulthood. (Thompson, Blair, Chen & Henrey)”

Using a dataset of 3,305 StarCraft 2 players, the study yielded results that show physical reaction times, vital for eSports success, consistently slow at 24 years of age, regardless of player skill or game knowledge. From the study’s abstract:

“Using a piecewise regression analysis, we find that age-related slowing of within-game, self-initiated response times begins at 24 years of age. We find no evidence for the common belief expertise should attenuate domain-specific cognitive decline. Domain-specific response time declines appear to persist regardless of skill.”

In both traditional sports and eSports, ‘Father Time’ remains undefeated. Yet eSports careers tend to be startlingly brief. Tim Duncan retiring after two seasons instead of two decades is unimaginable. While he is the outlier of all athletic outliers, the idea of a 10-year eSports career seems impossible, let alone a 20-year run. Even all-time greats like SKT “Faker,” the consensus best player to ever play LoL, is starting to show possible signs of (very) early decline at age 20. Faker is still widely regarded as the best player in the world, but there’s almost zero expectation for him to play until age 30.

Maybe competitive video-games require a higher standard of reactionary sharpness than traditional sports, so that if even the slightest edge is lost, retirement is the only option. A dubious theory at best. Most (if not all) traditional sports demand uber-elite reaction times. Just ask any tennis player that has successfully returned a Pete Sampras serve. Or watch a journeyman Major League batter smack a 2-seam fastball for a double, and tell me if he needs to hang up his cleats as soon as his bat slows down a bit.

It’s worth noting that eSports athletes rely solely on their cognitive sharpness; losing a tenth of a second in processing-speed means losing a massive teamfight, whereas losing a little bat-speed still allows room for quality fielding, base-running, and hitting for a high average. But a worse bat speed typically indicates worse physical measurables across the board. LeBron can’t jump quite as high as he could when he entered the NBA, but he’s also better at all the stuff you can’t gauge at the Combine. The degradation of his raw abilities has been surpassed by immense growth in every other area. Put it this way: if you were starting an NBA team from scratch, wouldn’t you rather have LeBron at age 30 instead of LeBron at 18? What if you were drafting a pro LoL team, and needed to decide between Doublelift at 23 versus Doublelift at 17? Probably not the same mechanical monster he was at 18, but on the other hand, his game knowledge is less mechanical too. He’s accumulated way more skills — shotcalling, macro-strategy, et cetera — than he’s lost, and, just like LeBron, he’ll still dunk you if the game calls for it.

From the same PLOS study abstract (“Over the Hill at 24 …”):

“A second analysis of dual-task performance finds no evidence of a corresponding age-related decline. Finally, an exploratory analyses of other age-related differences suggests that older participants may have been compensating for a loss in response speed through the use of game mechanics that reduce cognitive load.”

Not groundbreaking stuff. As elite athletes get older, their bodies decline but their game knowledge sharpens. There are many more important attributes in sports than vitality. So why is youth still so unassailable in eSports? If, as the evidence suggests, physical deterioration is not the culprit for early retirement, the issue must be mental.


New Tricks

It’s common knowledge that eSports pros burn out fast. Hours are unbelievably long, the pressure to perform is high (especially for a demographic associated with anxiety), and there’s a distinct lack of time for any interpersonal relationships outside of the gaming house. For many pro players, there comes a point where the grind just isn’t worth the glory.

But teams and players have adapted to the grind over the years. Gone are the days of Saintvicious’ infamous (lack of) work ethic or Doublelift getting away with playing Diablo instead of honing his craft. That generation has either retired young or, in Doublelift’s case, evolved with industry standards. The truth is that pro eSports has adopted the same professionalism that traditional athletics preaches. Pros need to work full-time now, and there’s little room for play. It is the new benchmark. Stress has not lessened on the individual, it has been ingested as mantra.

At the start of 2016 NA LCS Summer Split, TSM hired Sports Psychologist Weldon Green to be their Head Coach. Green has since been called out by the likes of Duncan “Thorin” Shields and others for selling snake-oil at a steep price, while TSM performs at unprecedented heights.

The effectiveness of Green’s tactics is irrelevant. The fact that North America’s preeminent LCS team has entrusted a Sports Psychologist with their most prominent leadership role says a great deal about the mental health evolution underway in pro LoL. Teams are investing big to ensure players do not crumble from the daily grind. There have been stabs at this in the past, and those attempts have left an exhaustive cycle of eSports coaching styles in their wake. But the scene has just seen one of the last of its old guard — a barking, “wake up it’s already 5 am”, drill-sergeant-esque eSports coach — fade out with the departure of ex Fnatic Coach Deilor. Teams are softening their approach to accommodate players’ mental taxation, and this trend should continue as long as organizations continue to enjoy on-the-Rift success like TSM.

Internally, burn-out has been properly triaged, but to no avail. Because of a LoL-specific structural issue, an external wildfire nipping at every team’s doorstep, players are still quitting pro servers at rapid rates.

Patchwork

TSM Owner Andy “Reginald” Dinh, in an interview with William “scarra” Li of the Score eSports (above):

scarra: What do you think about these crazy patches that come in. I know Riot does Midseason and Preseason patches which are supposed to be the [only] big patches every year, but last year they had a “juggernaut patch” … and right before [this year’s] playoffs and Worlds they make extreme changes to 1 v 2’s . What’s your personal opinion on these types of last minute changes?
Regi: Well, if you look at it from a fan perspective, they have a lot of fun watching LCS and Worlds with new champions . . . But from an owner perspective and a player perspective it’s honestly really discouraging to play in the LCS when there are these major changes … If you look at the NBA, it would essentially be like changing the basketball. [Imagine] changing the ball’s weight so instead of shooting a basketball they were shooting a bowling ball.

Since LoL beta in 2009, Riot has “patched” their game on a monthly basis to ensure that no single in-game strategy is overwhelmingly stronger than another. They “buff” certain champions and “nerf” others, strengthening and weakening in-game elements as they see fit. This is mostly beneficial for the non-professional community, as it adds a dynamic reason to return to the game and try to master the nebulous landscape. Patches prevent the game from turning stale, and LoL is now, by a wide margin, the most popular online video game in the world. However, many casual players have stopped playing because their favorite champions have been nerfed into oblivion. For this pocket of non-pro gamers, there was no reason to stick around after Riot removed the medium by which they understand the game. Now imagine what that would feel like if your champion also paid your bills.

League of Legends champion Urgot

Once upon a time, a champion named Urgot was nearly unbeatable. If used correctly, he was a guaranteed win. After receiving nerfs in Patch 1.0.0.143, he became nearly unplayable. Nearly two and a half years later, he is still one of the weakest champions in the game. While his nerfs were necessary, many less oppressive champs have been tapered down as soon as they fit into an obviously strong strategy. This is devastating for pros that feature inflexible playstyles. Take IMT Huni for example, considered one of the world’s best top-laners not too long ago. He uses a set of very aggressive, highly-mechanical, carry champions. Due to a barrage of patches, the Meta has been ripped out from underneath him, and his champion pool is now suboptimal. Huni just lost his second straight NA LCS Semifinals, just one year after earning 3rd at the 2015 World Championships.

So what’s the solution? Riot co-founder Marc Merril has very publicly responded to the above Reginald interview with the Score eSports, and Merril essentially confirmed that Riot will not prioritize their professional scene. They aren’t as concerned about pro player fatigue as they are keeping their game relevant to non-pro gamers. Merril has acknowledged the issue at hand, but on the list of Riot’s concerns, pro players are still nowhere near the top, and it’s forcing a lot of pros to consider other careers.

From the same Reginald interview with the Score eSports:

Regi: A lot of my players practice ten to twelve hours a day, and it’s not a fun practice either. They wake up at 10 am, do VOD review until 10–12 (noon), and then they scrim from 12 to 9 pm, and then they play Solo Queue. They’re really invested into this, and all their hard work essentially goes away [from these patches]. So from a spectator standpoint, it seems really funny when players] don’t know what they’re doing and they’re playing all these champions. But from a player standpoint … they spend their whole lives and most of their time practicing and essentially within a [single] second, without any notice at all, the entire game changes. I think that’s a big reason why you see a lot of player burnout, and why players careers are so short.

Players don’t burn out from practicing anymore. They burn out from rebooting. It’s nearly impossible for a player to maintain a level of freshness, no matter how many Weldon Greens a team has, when said player is forced to relearn their craft four to six times a year. There are a few immediate, improbable fixes for the pro patch problem. Riot could dull the severeness of patches and/or dim their frequency. A more radical option is for professional LoL to branch off into its own stabilized game, so that pro players actually play under different rules than casual gamers. Riot is unlikely to take either of those paths, and their hesitation is understandable. The professional scene is such a small portion of their player-base, and they have to think about the big picture through a utilitarian lens. Patching is good business. Riot must give their millions of players a reason to come back, or they run the risk of seeing their own product become irrelevant. At the same time, it’s entirely possible the “Regi v. Merrill” discourse will goad Riot into small changes next season. The idea is at least on their radar now. But one thing is clear. If professional League of Legends is to survive — if longevity is to improve — patches must be nerfed. From Marc Merrill’s response to the Regi interview:

“We understand sustainability goes beyond League revenues — pros are an integral part of growing a sport, and creating an environment that allows them to excel and extend their careers is something we aim for. Patch timing has an impact on pros as they prepare to compete in the season and for major tournaments like Worlds or MSI, and while we believe adaptation is an important skill in a game that constantly evolves, we acknowledge that we haven’t gotten some of our major patch timings right when it comes to esports.” — Marc Merrill on TwitLonger

Piglet

Chae “Piglet” Gwang-Jin when he played on Season 3 World Champion SKTT1

I think if Piglet had come along 5–10 years later, in an ideal LCS future, he would have been our Tim Duncan. He was never the flashiest AD Carry, but he was so consistently good. Like Duncan, his mechanics were textbook, and his team’s win conditions always seemed to come before his own personal accolades. He was an egoless player. Piglet was also infinitely confident in his own abilities, yet he never came off as arrogant. He was simply honest about his impenetrable self-belief. If you saw Piglet and Duncan walking on the street, you would have thought they were a different species — a meek-looking Korean boy next to a 6'11 giant — but in a lot of ways the two were cut from the same quiet, viciously competitive cloth. Piglet even had little Duncan-esque quirks, like when he would wear Winnie the Pooh socks on game day for good luck.

No one knows if Piglet’s retiring yet. But if he is, the LoL community will have been robbed. Unlucky, as the saying goes. Not because he had 10 years left in the tank, but because he might have had 10 years left in the tank if things were a little different. Now? He’s admittedly burned out from the game, just three years after winning LoL’s preeminent World Championship in Season 3. Maybe if patches weren’t as impractical Piglet would still be kiting tanks for a team today.

Or maybe it has nothing to do with luck. A few veterans are already popping up in other eSports. In Counter-Strike: GO, Virtus.pro’s “pashaBiceps,” is a living legend as an active 28 year old pro player. Even in LoL, we’re starting to see early signs of enhanced longevity. EDG Clearlove and TSM Doublelift are in the midst of spectacular seasons at 23 years old, practically dinosaurs in League of Legends. The North American scene saw C9 Hai retire early due to a wear-and-tear wrist injury, only to fully recover a year later. Teams and players are getting smarter about prolonging careers, and there aren’t a ton of reasons to think that progress can’t continue. The average NBA career used to be laughably brief, until teams started flying on planes with leg-room, and players stopped smoking cigarettes at half-time. It’s natural for practice habits to evolve in tandem with sports, and over time, most players learn how to play longer. It’s yet another skill that must be mastered, and professional LoL, in that regard, has come a long way since Season 1. Tim Duncan would have been a pipe dream in 1946.

Change is difficult. Patching is an integral part of Riot’s business, and Riot has to continually sell its game in a way traditional sports don’t have to. But it sticks out like a sore thumb when so much progress has been made in other areas. Mental freshness is an unprecedented priority now. Players are universally equipped to deal with repeated stress injuries today. Everything is trending toward increased longevity, and the ideal age of a pro gamer isn’t as concrete as it once was. While 18 year olds still have better mechanics and faster recovery than their older counterparts, the eSports community is wising up to the philosophy that 23 year olds are, in turn, better at managing professional demands and tend to have deeper game knowledge than the younger players. There’s a reason why traditional sports teams don’t exclusively employ 1-and-done college athletes, or sign only 35 year old veterans. Successful teams need a healthy mix of both, and League of Legends as it is currently constructed, is robbing itself of its veterans. There’s no easy fix. Patch the patching problem, and new problems will undoubtedly arise to complicate longevity. But every step in the right direction is a potential veteran, a faceless visage carved into the smooth marble quarry that begs to be our Mount Rushmore.


October 4, 2013. The air outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles was a cool 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside the packed arena, the stage was rocking. Dazzling screens towered over 10 young men playing a video game on individual computer monitors. Fans in the hallowed stadium went ballistic. With a 2–0 lead in a best of 5 series, SK Telecom stormed into the base of Royal Gaming, and breezed their way to a monumental 20-minute stomp. As confetti rained down from the rafters, SKT rose from their seats and hugged each other with joy, pride, and mostly relief on their faces. 3–0. SKT had just swept Royal Gaming to win their first League of Legends World Championship in franchise history. Star AD Carry for the victors? Chae “Piglet” Gwang-Jin, in just his first competitive season.