Becoming What You Fear the Most: The Vicious Cycle Within League of Legends

by

you fear the most

To me League of Legends represents a paradox of conflicting emotions that lie at extreme ends of the gaming experience.

On the one hand, it is an incredibly good video game. Some of my finest mouse-clicking memories have been created in it. It’s addictive, satisfying even when you’re losing and there’s always more to learn. Despite the fact that every game involves fiddling with an everlasting procession of guys that bundle down one of three lanes to their demise, it manages extraordinary depth.

On the other hand… and it’s at this point in the conversation that, were you and I sat opposite one another, I would take a deep swig of my whiskey and fix you with a tired, haunted gaze. On the other hand, some of my most awful experiences in gaming have come from League of Legends.

Now before I go any further let me define awful for you in this context. I’m not talking about the kind of awful experience that comes from, for example, playing Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness. That is an awful experience because it is a poor video game. We’ve already established that can’t be true here. No, no this is an entirely different awful. An awful that results, not from any game-play mechanics or developer choices, but from the interactions within it.

I’m talking, of course, about the League of Legends community. The fact that the community of a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) like LoL is generally perceived as hostile is hardly newsworthy, or indeed noteworthy. So accepted is the general atmosphere of vitriol and elitism that even those only passingly familiar with the genre know that signing up for these games is the online equivalent of putting one’s head in the lion’s mouth. However, in LoL’s case that’s not entirely fair. Not entirely.

endgame

I’ve played LoL for over a year now and during that time I’ve racked up around 300 ‘Normal’ wins. Normal is LoL’s more “relaxed” PvP mode, entirely distinct from ‘Ranked’ play, where every statistic is tracked and you move up leagues based on your performance. I’ve not tried Ranked yet, and that’s mostly because I hear it’s even worse than Normals in terms of player interaction, and Normals were bad enough for me.

Bearing in mind my win-rate is only a little bit over 50% that means I’ve played near enough 600 ‘Normal’ games, to say nothing of over 800 co-op vs AI battles. With games lasting an average of thirty minutes that’s an alarming amount of time spent playing. It’s likely to be much more than any other single video game I’ve ever played, and I have played a lot of games. Despite all these hours behind me, though, I’m small fry compared to a large percentage of the player-base – some of whom have thousands of victories to their name. In short, I’ve played more than some and less than others, and while a great section of the community would be eager to dismiss my musings as irrelevant (after all, I’ve never even played Ranked!) I do have something to say about my experiences. Or, more accurately, what my experiences started to do to me.

I began with a fairly brave face, and fumbled through my first matches just like anyone else. Now that my brain is marinaded in so much LoL action I’m sure I’d find some of my previous item choices and general actions quite horrifying, but it’s the same for everyone. Back at low level, when everyone just built the items they felt like and played the champions in whatever positions they liked abuse from one’s fellow players was fairly rare. The most you’d get was an earful for “KSing” (kill stealing) from someone. It wasn’t until a bit later on in my career as a Summoner that I encountered the ragers.

vlad laughs

A rager, as his or her names suggests, is very very angry indeed. Or at least it would appear that way from the text they type in the game’s chat system. LoL does not have a built-in voice chat functionality and we should probably be grateful for that. Nonetheless, it’s perfectly possible for anyone in the game to type whatever they like, using the usual methods to get around the token profanity filter. And there will be a lot of profanity.

You might be forgiven for thinking that most of the anger would be catapulted at you from the enemy team. After all, the game casts you in an adversarial relationship with them. You must fight and defeat one another in order to win! Oh my sweet child. How wrong you’d be to make such an assumption. While there’s an occasional rager on the enemy team (usually spouting something derogatory about your choice of champion) it’s almost invariably someone on your own team that’s performing the verbal equivalent of friendly fire.

There’s not too much that’s friendly about it though. I don’t wish to engage my own token profanity filter here so I won’t repeat anything verbatim, but if a word is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘vulgar’ then you can be certain it’s been aimed at me in anger at one point or another. Not only that, but I’ve also been the butt of some multicultural discourtesy, with naughty words in both Spanish and Portuguese making an appearance (I play on the North American server). In addition to that, I have been told to uninstall the game. I have been told to commit suicide. I have had cancer wished on me and my family. If an insult has been birthed in the festering bowels of the internet and flung like digital faeces across cyberspace at any point in human history then it’s made an appearance in LoL. In a game that’s so wildly successful, with more than 12 million players per day, you might almost say it’s inevitable.

It’s not just the insults that get to you, though. Oh no. If it was just bad words it would be relatively easy to ignore. No, what really destroys your experience is the players that take it upon themselves to wage all-out psychological warfare on you. Let me give you an example.

Blood-Lord-Vladimir

I was playing Vladimir, a ‘Blood mage’ who generally sits in one of the ‘solo’ lanes (two of the three lanes usually have one champion from each team assigned to them, and the third lane has two, with the final team member in the ‘jungle’). I was facing Ryze, another solo champion who happens to counter Vladimir quite handily. I was being cautious, playing conservatively and trying not to die too much. The Ryze was able to push the lane to my turret and then leave it to ‘roam’, which basically means going to the other lanes and causing mayhem there. If I’d followed the Ryze out of lane, he would have been able to turn on me and destroy me, so most of the time I simply stayed in lane and pushed to try and cost him his tower.

The top laner on our team, playing a Champion called Shen, did not agree with my chosen strategy. After a couple instances of Ryze coming to the other lanes and picking up kills, he decided that it was entirely my fault and was fairly vocal in explaining that. He began the conversation in the customary way: “This Vlad.” I don’t know where this tradition comes from but in LoL it seems to be that if you want to indicate someone or something is bad the way you do it is say “This X”, where X is the object of your scorn. If you want to make it doubly clear you can of course follow things up, like Shen did.

“This Vlad. So bad. Noob Vlad.”

He followed up this series of helpful observation with a number of other insults. The mistake I made was engaging in this conversation, suggesting that he purchase vision wards so that he would know when Ryze was about to arrive, and explaining that my following him out would result in disaster for me.

shen in bushes

That was it. The blood was in the water. Shen was now no longer interested in playing the game. After all, it was lost because of this noob Vlad, right? Yes. Better not waste his time trying to win any more. Much better to make this Vlad’s life hell. While making a token effort to stay in is lane, Shen spent most of the rest of the game either sat in a bush (where the enemy is unable to see you) or sat at our base. What was he doing there if not playing the game, you ask? Why, he was typing of course.

“Look at this Vlad. Noob Vlad. Doesn’t know how to use his champion. So bad.” I get caught out and killed. “lol. Good. Die noob Vlad.” The situation was probably further exacerbated by the fact that I was wearing a ‘skin’. LoL is free to play but you can spend money on visual upgrades to your favourite champions, and since I like Vlad I’d splashed out on his ‘Legendary’ Blood Lord skin. Shen was not happy about this.

“Omg noob Vlad with skin. Doesn’t know how to play. Why buy skin when such a noob? Disgusting.” It’s worth noting that there’s no skill or level requirements for purchasing skins, something that seems to be lost on a minority of players. Finally, with the same inevitability as death and taxes, the calls to report me began. Reporting is the method by which LoL is a self-policed society. If you did not like the behaviour of any of your fellow players you can report them at the end of the game. If they accumulate enough reports, they are sent to the Tribunal, a peer review system that can result in anything from warnings, to temporary account suspensions to outright permabans. People asking for reports in the game are usually ragers like the Shen who are using it as a threat in order to make other players feel worse. I had done nothing reportable but in the heat of such moments there’s very little room for thinking rationally.

league-of-legends-shen_111567-1440x900

“Report this Vlad. gg noob vlad. Report noob Vlad,” were the messages flooding the chat in the game’s dying moment. Now on this occasion, I actually had a player both on my team and the enemy team come to my defence. The enemy Ryze turned out to be an unlikely ally, saying that I’d done the best I could against a Ryze. A fellow teammate made several sarcastic comments about Shen. It was a lost cause at that point, though. The damage was done. The game was lost, and I was angry.

I was livid at the vile, needless ignorance of it all. I was fuming because I was not in the wrong, yet I had been browbeaten by this player all game long. I was trying my best, and if our Shen had concentrated more on helping the team and providing words of encouragement, we might have been able to turn a bad situation around. But no. No, he was more interested in proving his superiority at that stage.

I queued up another game. I don’t know why. The red mist had me and I queued up again. I went right in to another game. I shouldn’t have done it. I should have taken some time away from the game, so that I could regain my sense of rationality and proportion and realise that none of it mattered. Instead, I hit Play button. I wanted revenge. Revenge on who? The Shen? Impossible. I’d never see him again, and I was so worked up after the game I’d even forgotten to report him. The game started. I picked Ezrael, and went to the bottom lane. My lane partner was a Shen.

Maybe it’s because it was the same champion that had tormented me the game before. Maybe it’s because he was genuinely playing badly. More than likely I was playing badly because I was frothing with anger. Things didn’t go well. We were losing the lane horribly, and instead of trying to turn things around and play better, I reached for the keyboard and I typed. God help me, I typed.

“This Shen.”

And in that instant, I knew I had become what I feared the most. I looked in the mirror and saw a monster. We lost that game, of course, but worse then that I had lost a degree of self-respect. I had fallen in to the horrid trap that lies in wait for any League of Legends player. I had become the rager.

Fortunately, I was possessed of enough self-awareness and regard for my fellow humans that once I realised I was displaying this behavoir I was able to prevent it immediately. It is the lack of those things in select members of the LoL community that sours the experience for the majority. In a game where every match contains ten players, there’s often an unrepentant rager in there somewhere.

The developers are taking steps to improve player behaviour, and I have noticed things getting better since I started, but it’s still not in a decent state. It’s a great shame that one of the greatest and most successful video games of our time has the capability to turn even a placid and well-reasoned bloke like me in to what he fears the most. Then again, perhaps the problem isn’t League of Legends. Perhaps the problem is that Bloodlord Vlad is right in what he says.

“There is a monster in all of us.”

Please note: The artwork from the beginning of this article is taken from Fantasy Flight’s Elder Sign dice game.

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[ 2 comments to read... submit another ]

  1. I enjoy reading this site, but I admit I am bummed out that you didn’t talk about what you think can be done about the community and what factors contribute to its existence.

    I feel like it has to be a combination of Riot’s obsession with making games a sport and with the win-base reward system of League. As Riot works to make people care about pro matches, they also add to the attitude of “this game really matters” that has consumed every rager. As people do poorly in each individual game, they make it more difficult for their own team to win, not merely because of the opportunity cost of a wasted player slot, but also because each death gives gold to the enemy. And losing isn’t acceptable because you don’t get as many points for it and the almighty W:L ratio goes down. Contrast this to games like TF2 and CS where no one gives a damn about whether you keep dying because there aren’t any points had for winning and your death doesn’t give the enemy a significant advantage towards winning.

    But on the other hand, it’s not just a matter of competition because it seems there are highly competitive yet friendly communities. A friend of mine, and avid SC2 player, that I introduced to League said it has the worst community he’s ever seen — unbearably bad in comparison to Starcraft. Apparently, it’s customary to, and almost rude not to, say “glhf” at the start of each game. He told me that when he played his first League game, he said that and someone on the other team immediately responded with something to the effect of “fuck you go to hell”. Which would be hilarious in it’s ridiculousness if it weren’t symptomatic of such a greater problem with the community.

    To whoever has the time or willpower, I’d like to hear some thoughts on the cause of this community and what can be done about it. Because not all games are this bad, and League is uniquely bad in my experience. (Note: I’ve never played console shooters, but apparently they get quite the reputation as well.)

    • Some excellent questions and a fair point – I didn’t address what it is about the game that causes the uglier parts of human nature to become so prominent. You may be aware that Riot has a team of behavioural psychologists headed by Jeffrey ‘Lyte’ Lin who spend their working lives trying to answer that question, and they’ve recently put forward the ‘Honor’ initiative in an effort to improve things, although that’s only one step in what will probably be a hike up a very tall mountain.

      The problem is that I think one of the most compelling aspects about League of Legends is that your actions *do* matter. You’re right that if you die twelve times in TF2 no-one really cares, but that devalues the act of dying. It’s less important not only to other players, but to you as well. The fact that in LoL, death really does matter, means that it’s something to be avoided at all costs. When you do avoid it, and inflict it on your enemies, I’d argue the feeling of reward is greater than in something like TF2. The cost of that increase in reward, is that the perils of failure are much greater. However, those perils should only extend as far as game effects, and not the emotional terror we have now (oh my god I can’t die – my team will abuse me).

      It might not necessarily be the competitive scene that Riot’s trying to foster that’s the problem, since player behaviour is monstrously bad whether you’re playing a ranked game or Normal. Heck, I’ve even seen people start abusing one another horribly in Co-Op Vs A.I. games. The problem with the competitive scene is that a great many of the top teams consist of players who consistently demonstrate poor behaviour in game. You can go and watch ‘pro’ streams and you’ll see them shouting abuse, typing derogatory comments in to the chat and so on. The message to players looking to climb the ladder is that you can behave however you want and that’s tragic. If LoL ‘pros’ actually showed professionalism and sportsmanship then it might go some way to improving attitudes.

      SC2 also had a healthy competitive scene. I played a lot of that online when Wings of Liberty first came out (and Voidrays were overpowered) and while there was the occasional bit of abuse it was nowhere near the level of consistency and vitriol of League of Legends, so your friend is right on the money. There’s a fundamental difference there.

      I think in order to answer your questions fairly, and with the detail they deserve, another article is required, so watch this space.

      Also, thanks for reading!

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