Filled stadium for League of Legends 2015 World Championships

League of Legends is a great spectator e-sport, but that’s it.

I’ve always been a gamer. From the first PlayStation, in the 90s, to this day. I like playing, and in our house it has always been a way to spend time together. Me and my girlfriend played League of Legends for a couple of years, before abandoning it completely. I’ve been out of the loop for many months, and just yesterday I’ve started watching a few VODs of the 2015 World Championships, and it dawned on me.

League of Legends is a great game to watch, and a lousy game to play.

But that’s quite normal, because making a really nice game is very, very hard. A lot of the important parts are deeply concealed, and it takes a lot of effort to get them right. In my opinion, this is one of the things you realize only when you start to make one yourself, or at least to approach the subject.

At my current company, StudyFlow, we are building an educational platform for secondary schools. One of our key goals is to make learning fun through gamification. So we started looking into the principles of making something fun, and a couple of them are fundamental.

  • People should have fun while playing the game
  • Whatever the outcome, people should want to play more

These are the intrinsic ways in which a game is awesome. External motivation (i.e. highscores, leaderboards, grinding points for whatever reasons) are something completely different.
Technically speaking, those are extrinsic motivators. If you rely only on them to achieve the two key points, then your game is not fun.

League can be frustrating

I believe that, when playing League, people can be restrained from playing more, for a few reasons:

  1. games take a somewhat long amount of time, from 30 minutes to 1 hour;
  2. League, like StarCraft 2, is an intense game. Great players have an insane amount of APM (actions per minute).
  3. More often than not, mistakes can compromise the whole game.
  4. Playing 5v5 without a premade team is a roulette: there are a lot of rotten apples in queue. One person is enough to throw a game.

The combination of these points have a couple of natural result, in my opinion.

Playing to win is very tiring.

If you are winning, your team is (on average) playing better than the other team. Which means you’re making less mechanical mistakes, you’re able to last-hit more minions, having a better strategic positioning, a better overview of the game, and probably better reflexes as well.

On one side, this effort makes the game more interesting, but it is also very tiring. So, immediately after you won, alongside with the joy of victory there is also the relief that you can relax for a bit.

This was even truer in StarCraft 2, at least for me: because of the frantic action during a game, often than not at the end of a game I had a pretty high heartbeat and tension, needing 5 minutes of rest before playing again.

Because of the high level of tension during games, it’s also very easy to make mistakes when you are tired. Which brings us to the next problem.

Games outcomes are often decided long before the end

Games are somewhat long, and are rarely decided in the last few instants: most of LoL games are a simple case of snowballing.

One team gets ahead, and uses the advantage to get more ahead, and so forth until the game is over. So, it’s definitely likely that even if a game takes 40 minutes to complete, the team that has advantage at the 10 minutes mark keeps it for the next half hour.

It is not always the case (throws and big mistakes are possible, especially at low levels), but from my experience that was often the norm.

This has a terrible side effect: after losing you feel like you wasted the time of the game, because you spent most of it in a disadvantage position and could only try and not to lose more, rather than overturn the whole match completely. You’re dragging along most of the game.

This critical point is especially true when you have a troll teammate: if in the first few minutes (or even at the pick phase) something goes wrong, and/or this person gives the opposing team a clear advantage (by suiciding, going AFK, etc.), then the rest of the game is somewhat decided already. And you drag along.

Other competitive games

Most of these considerations are not unique to League. The more I think about it, the more I think the same reasoning applies to StarCraft 2 as well, with a single caveat: being a single player game has advantages and disadvantages as well: it is more frantic because everything depends on you (no one will carry you to victory), but on the other hand, you cannot be dragged down by a troll teammate (2v2 and 3v3 in SC2 are less commonly played). It’s fairer, in a sense.

This however, is not true for all competitive gaming. Take Hearthstone for example: it’s definitely competitive (there are tournaments for it with decent money, aren’t there?), and it is definitely hard to master (I’ve played for a bit, and I hardly have a clue how to make a deck by myself), but has basically none of the drawbacks that I described before.

  • Games are very short
  • Individual games, no one can throw a game for you
  • Turn-based play with more relaxed pace

In that sense, HS is a competitive game that resembles a lot more chess. I don’t think I’ve ever left a lost game of chess thinking I wasted my time. I was sorry for losing, and felt like an idiot for a mistake I made, but never regretted it. That’s a great game!

Ok, card games and MOBAs are very different, I realize that. But note that most of the critical points I described earlier are directly dependent on the actual mechanics of play, rather than genre.

Heroes of the Storm, the Blizzard MOBA, addresses some of these. I have not really experience with it, but there are key differences with LoL: the most evident one, in my opinion, is that there is no last-hitting of minions, and no items to purchase.

Doing so, you definitely take away some of the gameplay for the players, but you take away the need for mechanical precision and shift it a bit more into the strategy.

League is a great spectator sport

Everything bad I just said about LoL becomes basically moot when considering it for the entertainment value, as a spectator (e)sport.

Because you’re watching professional gamers, so trained and extremely good at it, the mechanical part is 99% of the time perfect. Then, with the help of commentators, the strategic part and the shotcalling is a lot more predominant. But it is still such a complex game, that even for them it’s easy to make mistakes, one way or the other.

Moreover, pro-players are extremely good at exploiting the other team’s mistakes. It happens so often that the game is fairly equilibrated till the end, then a huge teamfight happens and one of the team makes a blunder. The other team capitalizes it and deserves the win. Game over.

To recap, this has all the ingredients for a great spectator game:

  • Players are highly skilled and almost always perfect
  • Teams have strong points and weaknesses which are clearly distinguishable in a game, and their behavior is noticeable during the whole season
  • Errors are very often capitalized well by the opponents
  • It does not require a lot of game knowledge to figure out what is happening on the screen

So, I’ll definitely be watching more game of the 2015 World Championships of League of Legends, but I don’t think I will be playing the game anytime soon. Kerbal Space program is more to my taste, for the moment.