Who is League of Legends balanced for?
A few months ago I interviewed at Riot Games to become part of their in house balance team. Over the course of two separate interviews, lasting thirty and forty-five minutes, I was thrown through what I can only describe as the gauntlet of game health adjudication. In this interview, I trash talked Nasus, roasted Janna mains like myself and complained avidly about Azir, all to my interviewer’s delight. The aforementioned interviewer was none other than Gleebglarbu.
Rolling through question after question about various “toxic” champions, champions whose design create frustrating experiences for players, we finally got to the big one. I’m not talking about Corki’s package here, but instead a question that left me more perplexed than a drunkard watching Inception for the first time. Here, Gleebglarbu, and later another interviewer by the name of Trevor asked me what demographic of skill would I balance League of Legends for. More specifically, they asked me if I would balance champions for professional play or the average Silver player. The dialogue went something like this:
Gleeb: In situations where you can either balance for LCS levels of play or Silver levels of play, which one do you choose and why?
Me: Do the two situations have to be mutually exclusive?
Gleeb: For champions like Azir (a champion I had complained about laning against earlier in the interview) the perfect player will make him seem frustratingly overpowered. But then you see a Bronze II player pick the champion up and all the sudden his team is missing a mid laner.
I continued to fumble around with this question, attempting to find some middle ground balance between pro and casual play, but alas with Azir and champions like him, there was no middle ground. I had to pick a side within this dualistic paradigm, and if you know me, you know that I hate dualistic systems more than anything.
Ultimately I suggested that Riot had to first and foremost balance for the competitive scene, a decision I still do not entirely believe in, but I had to choose one or the other. I chose to balance around the professional level of play, pulling data from Masters through LCS to make balancing decisions due to the fact that League of Legends as a Spectator Sport, is for everyone. While it is impossible to balance a game for everyone with the sheer amount of player skill diversity and champion kit variety, it is possible to balance it for just the professional scene.
Balancing for the LCS
Whether you are in promos to Diamond I or someone who has never played ranked, you can watch your favorite players fail flash into the thick part of the wall on side lanes. And most importantly, you can do so on the big screen of the LCS stage. League of Legends has established itself as the pinnacle of Esports and will continue to do so through their constant reinvestment into the competitive scene. It’s paid off too. The production value of Worlds, Rift Rivals and even weekly LCS keep viewers returning week after week, season after season.
Professional League of Legends as a spectator sport is for everyone and not balancing around this level of play cheats both the pros and the viewers out of a dynamic viewing experience. Riot tries their best to make the viewing experience as close to perfect as possible, but there have been long periods of pro play imbalance that have made League of Legends a stale viewing experience.
If you remember the times of lane swaps, where top laners had less farm to their name than the average Cannon minion, you remember a time of darkness and boredom. While this lasted for far too long, changes were made to towers in order to make the viewing experience one worthy of the viewers’ time.
This change had little impact on the solo queue experience for the majority of players and was an all around success, but there have been other dark times on the competitive stage that have bled into casual play. I know I have seen one Shurima Shuffle and several machine gun Ryze plays too many and the repetitive nature of these picks were answered in a timely fashion by Riot’s balancing team. However, the costs of these changes left League of Legends with two champions that when picked in ranked would ensue dodges from those trying to safeguard their LP.
This is a real drag for players who enjoy playing those champions that are gutted in such an extreme fashion simply because they cannot be balanced in professional play. I am sure Riot has learned a lot from their trouble making Azir and each failed variation of Ryze. The problem with those champions doesn’t entirely run in the power of the numbers in their kit, a problem that champions with more simplistic kits run into a lot of the time. The problem instead lies in the nature of a kit that relies on low ping and insane amounts of team coordination. The fact that getting my team to leave the base before thirty seconds in the game is a problem makes using a champion that requires everyone to hop in a designated zone that’s only available for two seconds even more problematic.
And while I can go on and on about Ryze, that should really be saved for a different piece entirely (hire me Riot I got ideas for the next six Ryze reworks). What Ryze represents at Riot Games is something completely different. The failure of Ryze is Riot making a statement. A statement that Gleebglarbu would have never told me in the interview: League of Legends balances around professional play over all else.
And while this statement does not sound great for the player base, it is one that I ultimately agreed with in my interview. As I have explained earlier, balancing around professional play is not a bad strategy. But there is a better way. Yes, the viewing experience must come first and the sanctity of League of Legends as THE competitive Esport is Riot’s most prized possession. But there is a way to avoid the dualism of champion balance that I have struggled so much with, and that answer comes in the Champion design.
So before you patch with small buffs and incremental nerfs, the design of each champion must come under the highest level of scrutiny. Remember that we are communicating with pings and we are also communicating with strangers, who have no more reason to trust us than we have to trust them. I’m not going to hop in my mid lane Ryze’s ultimate anymore than I’m going to hop in a stranger’s Van. So let’s continue with the Rakans and Kayns whose kits rely upon communication that can easily be done through our five ping options. Let’s stick with champion designs that do not rely upon the blind trust of strangers asking for you to get in the blacked out Van covered in Runes.
Feature image courtesy of lolesports flickr