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Game Design In Theory

Your Honor, League of Legends (part 1)

☰ Table of Content


Okay but why though

Look, League of Legends is huge. It’s the game that popularized the model of spending millions of dollars to run an international tournament so that a bunch of impressionable young nerds will spend hundreds on commemorative hero skins and dream of Hitting It Big. League has, rather infamously, 200 years of collective game design experience behind it. It is a household name, either because you play it or because you avoid it like the plague.

Let’s talk about that second part.


is a word a lot of you have heard over and over. Some of you will be tired of hearing about how toxic gamers are. Some of you are afraid to get into multiplayer games because you have a lot of shit going on already and don’t need to be screamed at by 12-year-olds. Some of you will be wondering if it’s really that bad. Some of you are convinced that it will always be that bad.

I have a theory: League is toxic because of its design. Specifically, League is toxic because you have to rely on your teammates.

Wait, what?

Teamplay has been in games almost as long as multiplayer has! You’ve been relying on teammates in games, especially in competitive games like League or CSGO, for decades! It’s borrowed from sports for God’s sake, and you don’t see nearly as much bad behavior in–no, wait, actually, there’s some real fucked-up shit going on in pro sports, nevermind.

Look, the point is, teamplay has been around forever. Relying on your teammates is practically the least toxic thing ever! How can League cause toxicity by being a team sport?

There’s an excellent video that goes over some very interesting quirks of TF2’s design. One of the most interesting parts–the part most relevant to this blogpost–is that TF2’s classes were actually designed in a vacuum. All of Team Fortress’s classes were built to be useful in some way without having to interact or communicate with your fellow players. Even the Medic was designed in such a way that he doesn’t need to talk to his team to help them. This carried through into TF2.

Was this on purpose? Probably not! Frankly, it seems like the Team Fortress developers just kinda stumbled onto this method.

However, contrast with League’s design–where there are entire categories of character who are defined by needing assistance to secure kills, or by their ability to secure a kill for a character who can’t really do it on their own. At an extremely high level, an ADC can take on the whole enemy team, if the enemy team makes several mistakes in the process; but for 90% of the playerbase, the ADC is defined by needing a Support to keep them alive until they can scale up. And therein lies the problem: It is all too easy to leap from “I need a support to survive this fight” to “I lost this game because my support didn’t keep me alive”.

One player not showing up to a teamfight can drastically change the outcome of that fight. And when you already know for a fact that you need to coordinate with your team to win, it’s human nature to blame them instead of yourself. Taking ownership of your mistakes is a learned skill, and a difficult one, so when presented with an excuse, the average person takes it.

Also, feeding is a thing.

Another place where League’s design naturally pushes players toward blaming teammates for losses is in the way death affects team strength. Strictly speaking, the most impactful part isn’t the resources you’ve just granted to the enemy–it’s that you’ve just lost access to at least one, maybe two waves of minions, leaving you behind on gold and XP. Remember how one guy being absent from a teamfight can drastically change the outcome? Dying repeatedly in your lane means that you’re always absent from the teamfight, even if you show up, because after enough deaths you no longer function as a threat to the enemy team. After a certain point, being at the teamfight becomes a liability because you’re probably just going to die in that fight and continue feeding whoever’s stomping your team, not to mention all the ways a character can heal off of a successful kill and snowball back into a fight they were previously losing. Your team now has to deal with your laner, who’s gotten powerful off your deaths, while also being de-facto down a team member. Is it any wonder that people blame the guy who died 5 times in the first 10 minutes?

This is compounded by the fuzzy divide between feeding by lack of skill, and feeding intentionally (or inting). It is hard enough to read intent in the first place; it’s even harder to read intent when you’re angry; and it’s even harder to read intent when the choices are “this person is trolling me” versus “I might suck at this game”.

Contrast something like Heroes of the Storm, where–because items aren’t even a thing, and XP is granted across the whole team–one person repeatedly dying in their lane has very little impact on the game, especially if they’re dying repeatedly in their line while the rest of their team is currently taking objectives or steamrolling other lanes. You don’t see accusations of feeding in HotS, because you can’t feed in HotS, not unless your whole team feeds with you.

There’s also games like Counter-Strike where there’s a tangible benefit to getting kills, but one death undoes that advantage, and more importantly, there’s a reset halfway through the game. If you feed super hard in CSGO, your teammates can overcome that disadvantage fairly easily–at least, compared to League, where your team is stuck with the consequences of your actions, with few ways to mitigate it.

Teamplay versus Team Reliance

is the point I’m getting at here. There is a marked, clear difference between a game where you can help your team pop off, and a game where you have to help your team pop off. Teamplay is good, but Team Reliance is a recipe for anger and frustration, because your players are gonna be immature sometimes and that means they’re gonna look for excuses instead of growing.

I don’t really know how much research has been done on this, but to my knowledge the discussion about toxicity has focused mostly on what to do about it, not why it happens, and I think that’s a mistake. We need to understand the how and why to make a call on the what.

This is also gonna be a multipart series. Next time, I’ll be talking about readability, learning, and how League’s complex design is undermined by the way it emphasizes things that don’t really have a lot to do with playing the game better.

Update: 2021-07-05

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