“You're trying to do it so everyone is as happy as possible,” Leesman said. “But you understand that you have to make trade-offs sometimes.”
There are around 8 million concurrent players across all regions at any given time, all playing at different skill levels. “League of Legends’” primary game mode is Summoner’s Rift, where teams of 5 players fight to destroy their opponent’s base while each controlling a single champion. These characters have a unique set of abilities that levels up and grows stronger as players kill their opponents. To keep the game fresh and fair for as many of these players as possible, “League of Legends” is changed — in varying degrees of severity — with a new patch every two weeks. It’s a big responsibility, one that falls to around 15 developers at Riot.
There’s a tension inherent to these updates, which sometimes dramatically — and often inadvertently — create new optimal ways to play. But while some players in the “League of Legends” ecosystem will actively seek out the most powerful and efficient ways to play, others simply want a balanced, even playing field, and a stable game experience. The tension is compounded by a professional scene that will eagerly take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of a patch, disregarding the idea of balance in favor of winning.
“Usually [professional players will] just be like, ‘that thing’s busted, so of course we’re gonna play it,’” said Indiana “Froskurinn” Black, who has worked in the “League of Legends” scene since 2014 as a coach and color commentator. “It’s kind of like an acceptance of how gaming works. That then puts some level of acceptability on things like this, versus someone coming from a traditional sports background being like, ‘What the [expletive]? You just break your game every six months?’”
Defining the metagame
The amount of changes and how drastic they are varies depending on the state of the game, but “League of Legends” game director Andrei “Meddler” van Roon said the balance team chases a similar question with each update: Is this a fun experience?
“Is this an engaging experience that players play and want to keep coming back to, whether that’s as a player or as a viewer?” said van Roon. “We’re pretty convinced that a healthy meta is one with regular interaction between players on opposing teams throughout the game.”
In any game, the meta is usually the most effective or popular strategy. In “League of Legends,” metagames usually revolve around some combination of the strongest or most synergistic champions and items at a given time. They change and evolve as players learn what has become good or bad after each patch.
Though Riot would never admit to authoring the meta themselves, their data gives them a picture of where things will head after certain changes. Sometimes they take a heavy hand. Other times they tinker after the fact.
Leesman gave an example of a clearly defined but infamous meta from 2017 that revolved around the item Ardent Censer. After building this item, healing a character or granting them a shield boosted their damage, the speed at which they attacked and let them heal a bit with every hit. Not only did this offer a huge amount of value, the targets of this effect didn’t need to buy other items that let them heal with each hit anymore. This allowed them to focus more on items that helped them attack faster or hit more targets, which translated to both more damage and more healing.
The Ardent Censor wasn’t a strong item — at first. Leesman said the item was repeatedly buffed across multiple patches to encourage a style of play people weren’t using at the time. But by the time people figured out how strong the item was, it was way overtuned.
As a result, teams almost always required a support character that could heal or grant shields and make use of Ardent Censer. Since teams usually only run a single character focused on supporting the rest of their team, that meant the many other champions in that category without healing or shielding abilities saw no play.
The strategy was so powerful that teams at the highest level almost always used it. Some team members would even go out of their way to buy items that helped their support accumulate gold faster, just so they could get an Ardent Censer sooner. That narrow pattern of play stood in contrast to the balance team’s goals, and Ardent Censer was eventually weakened; after the change, its usage waned.
Finding the balance
A healthy meta reflects “League of Legends’” depth, allowing players to win using a variety of champions and strategies. This is easier said than done, though, and van Roon is quick to acknowledge that the balance team has made mistakes. With the rate at which the game changes, an Ardent Censer style meta is bound to pop up from time to time.
“I think there are a lot of challenges there, and it isn’t something we always get right,” van Roon said. “At the same time, a lot of that complexity and nuance is what draws players to League. It’s sort of the price you pay for being able to offer a rich experience, and balancing that rich experience can be more challenging.”
As he describes it, if a metagame’s stability is too short, players can feel like there’s no point to mastering it or making discoveries. On the flip side, if the game stays too static for too long, players are stuck with a stale, unexciting experience.
“Trying to figure out the sweet spot for any particular game is one of the most interesting parts of trying to create a healthy meta,” van Roon said. “It’s not, ‘get to the perfect state and leave it there.’ It’s, ‘what rate of change over time leads to the best experience, and how big a difference between adjacent metas is right?’”
Armed with that philosophy, van Roon said the balance team usually follows a data driven process for identifying what needs to change in a given patch. Each region in the world has different statistics for champion usage and win rates, and the same is true for different skill levels. Due to this fact, the goal is to make every champion viable for some portion of the player base. The team also does a gut check, setting data aside: Is there anything obvious that’s ruining the fun?
To assess whether those changes hit the mark, van Roon said developers often tie an expectation to it before Riot tests them in house.
“Our general hope is that when a designer is putting something in for a play test, there’s a thesis on what they’re trying to prove or disprove,” van Roon said. “It could be something as simple as ‘is this champion now appropriately fair to play against in the laning phase?’ or ‘did we slow this skill shot down enough to make it the appropriate level of dodgeable?’”
From the outside looking in
The developers at Riot Games aren’t the only ones with hypotheses about the “League of Legends” metagame. News sites break down every patch in extreme detail. Casual players debate balance changes on social media. Commentators analyze the state of the game during professional matches. But since each group approaches the subject with different ideas of what constitutes good balance, how does the public reach a consensus about “League’s” direction?
According to Black, the coach and color commentator, professional play skews the conversation around patches. Pro players are front and center in the community, and when thousands of viewers watch the same game, certain ideas catch hold, to be parroted ad nauseam across the Internet. Black has seen these narratives unfold — and understands the ecosystem well enough to see through some of the loudest complaints.
“To be frank, the majority of viewers really don’t understand so many of the intricacies here,” Black said. “They just sort of snowball into an echo chamber.”
While casual and serious players may play for different reasons, Black said they still share the same goals in-game. They need to acquire gold to buy items, get strong and break the other team’s base. Since professional teams dedicate most of their time to figuring out the best, safest and fastest way to do that, the strategies they use often trickle down to the rest of the community and dictate the meta.
Black added that since teams are always searching for the most exploitable strategy, the balance team is often reacting to the meta instead of dictating it themselves.
Players also have in-game workarounds to lean on when problems arise, such as the champion bans — where players can chose to keep certain characters out of play — available to each team during the draft at the beginning of the game. But according to Black, that’s just a Band-Aid and not a real solution.
“The bans don’t exist to take away champions that Riot can’t do the accounting on,” Black said, “The bans exist there so you can sculpt a strategy against the opponent’s team.”
Aside from those few problematic periods, though, Black said she has faith in the balance team’s ability to maintain a healthy meta for everyone. With such a complex game that’s played by so many people, Riot’s process is about as good as it gets.
“I personally feel that Riot probably does the best job possible in trying to balance out both spectrums,” Black said. “Like, have there been obvious blunders? Yes, but you’re also trying to balance for millions of players.”
Jason Krell is a freelance journalist from Arizona who writes about all kinds of esports. You can follow him on Twitter @Krellitlikeitis.