Thursday, August 14, 2014

Understanding "OP" in League of Legends

This week on PopMatters, I discuss all those OP champs we love to hate.

Once again, League of Legends shows up on my radar for one reason or another and I feel compelled to talk about it. In this case, the article that spurned me on was "Don't monetize like League of Legends, consultant says." This piece stirred up a lot of discussion around the net, which shouldn't really be a surprise. A man who makes a living improving a game company's money per player ratio thinks folks should charge more for their content. He is right, League of Legends gets away with a lot because they have such an enormous user base, but he is still preaching the wrong lessons. For a thorough take down of his argument, I leave you with Ben Kuchera who wrote an excellent Polygon retort:

"Counting heads purely as conversions into paid customers is a great way to show how little you understand about creating long-term, sustainable value in your games, a trait that in which Riot, along with Valve, has excelled."

In other news, the League of Legends regionals, the tournaments that lead up to the world championship, have already begun. The issue of balance in games is a particularly interesting one in light such a large eSports spectacle. For your uninitiated viewer, relative champion balance isn't even on their mind. They are not familiar enough with each player's kit to know. Those deeply familiar with the game know the professional teams enough to understand how they play around the shifting sands of game balance. It's the swath in the middle that matter in this regard. If they sense that some characters have an unfair advantage, does it undermine their perceived legitimacy of the tournament?

It's an interesting question because real world athletics have no concept of balance, at least not one integrated into the sport on a day to day basis. In the world of sports, balance is more about fairness, and fairness is only questioned when one side is considered cheating. Recruiting underage women to compete in gymnastics or steroid use, for example, could create an "unbalanced" competitive event, in which case the entire event's credibility is called into question. If we really believe in the concept of balance in videogames, shouldn't eSports fairness be a more important issue?


  1. I don't think it's true that "real world athletics have no concept of balance", they absolutely do. It's just that they operate on a longer time scale, so patches are less frequent. To use baseball for just one example, Major League Baseball decided in 1969 that pitching was OP, so they nerfed it by lowering the height of the mound and shrinking the strike zone. That's pretty straightforwardly a balance patch.

  2. That's an interesting point, but if it took so long to change, what the reason for the change the same as balance shifts? Did people see the game as unfair or was it more they thought it was fare, but wanted to make the change better for, say, viewers?

    I know very little about sports history, so it'd be interesting to know what and why rules changes happen. I generally presume rule changes are motivated to either make a sport more entertaining for spectators or safer for players, which seems very different than balance changes motivated by fairness and relative power.

  3. You're right that rule changes are often made for other reasons, but the one I cited was primarily motivated by game balance. What the balance between hitting and pitching should be is, of course, sort of arbitrary, and different from something like LoL heroes because both teams hit and pitch in every game. But by 1968, the overall batting average in baseball was down to a record low of .237, when it had been up around .260 in the mid-1950s. So there was a clear sense that pitching had become relatively OP for some reason, and needed to be changed. (The addition of the Designated Hitter in the American League also came around this time, and was a buff to hitting.) On some level you could say this was just to improve the spectator experience by creating more offense, but I think there was also a feeling that the game was out of balance and "unfair" to hitters in some way.

    To give another, more narrow example, in the 1990s Coors Field, the home park of the Colorado Rockies, was known for very high levels of offense, because balls fly farther in Denver's thin dry air. In that instance, hitting in Coors was eventually nerfed by putting the balls in a humidor before the game to keep them moist.

  4. Wow, that's nutty. At this point I'm sure I'm just bugging you for more info, but was the demand for humidifiers or designated hitters from players, manages, fans or all of the above?

  5. Hey no problem, I like chatting about this stuff! I don't know about the DH, because that was before I was born--but I think it was a commissioner-led effort. It was (and to some extent still is) controversial among both fans and players, which is why it's still only used by half the Major League teams. (One of the true oddities of baseball is that it has teams in the same league playing by slightly different rules.)

    As for the humidor, at some point I think basically everyone agreed that something had to be done, and the team and the commissioner's office (which basically plays the role that a developer occupies in an esport) agreed on the humidor.

    From a fan and player perspective, a big issue was the perceived unfairness of the fact that Rockies players could win batting titles or home run titles by taking advantage of playing half their games at Coors, which gave a misleading impression of their real talent relative to the rest of the league. And on the flip side, Rockies pitchers always looked worse than they really were because they had to play there. So in that sense it's maybe a better analogue of things like OP LoL heroes or race imbalance in Starcraft, etc.