Riot can learn from Blizzard about balancing game around professional play

The year wouldn’t be complete in League of Legends without Riot Games trying to dissuade professional teams from lane swapping. Ever since Season 4, Riot has taken to the task with no success. Despite unintuitive decisions to vary the strength of towers and reduce the information available in the early game through vision and time changes, lane swaps have remained a staple of competitive League of Legends. Is that a problem? If you ask Riot, apparently so. If you ask analysts and pros, the answer is usually, “no.”

To briefly summarize the arguments, Riot stated its goal isn’t to eliminate lane swaps, but to make it less of a programmed trade off. Citing the “non-interactive early game” it creates, Riot’s goals are to promote more conflict at the start of games. Some could interpret the lack of conflict in the early game as “boring,” but others might find a cerebral pleasure in lane swaps and dissect a team’s decisions in them. Admittedly, the latter is something that tends to be achieved only by the most ardent followers of the game.

Meanwhile, arguments for lane swaps are centered on how they open up strategic options and champion pools by allowing teams to circumvent bad matchups. Without lane swaps, the game would center around dominant lane matchups, and scaling champions would have a harder time finding success. The argument can go both ways: some champions are about dominating a lane, and in a world where lane swaps exist, those champions don’t find success because their purpose can be circumvented.

“So if the changes go through like proposed, it’ll be one of the biggest changes we’ve seen of all time,” Immortals coach Dylan Falco told Slingshot. “I think overall, I completely understand why they need to do it as six, seven, eight minutes of non-interactive game play in most pro matches just does not seem good for the game.”

But Falco took issue with the timing, saying: “It’s really unfair to teams that it’s done at this time, right before playoffs, as it will make playoffs a lot more variant. The team that has been practicing this game for eight months will now have to play a different game for playoffs. Which of course is unfair.”

It’s important to note that these remarks were given before Riot announced it would not go through with the proposed changes to canon minions. Based on professional feedback, Riot instead decided the changes to the towers would be enough to accomplish its goals.

The situation is reminiscent of a discourse that took place in Overwatch, Blizzard’s rising esport, regarding hero stacking. For those that don’t know, hero stacking is when multiple members of a team play the same hero, ranging from two all the way to six. Initially, Blizzard marketed this feature as a “core concept” of the game. But pros abused the mechanic, as it was the most efficient way to play in some situations. For example, in Control the Point game mode, teams would usually play mirroring compositions with stacked heroes, which strangled the diversity of the compositions. Additionally, they would pick heroes that could abuse the overtime mechanic, dragging on the game length with never ending Tracer suicides. It wasn’t fun to play — or watch. After ESL followed GosuGamers’ lead by implementing hero limits in its Showdown of the Atlantic, Blizzard then implemented a hero limit into its own competitive play mode.

These conversations within Overwatch and League of Legends are interwoven with similarities and nuances. Blizzard planned for hero stacking to be a feature; Riot Games did not anticipate lane swaps being a regular thing. When pros in both scenes began to use the mechanic to the highest level of efficiency, the results varied. Overwatch’s overall quality in macro play and entertainment went down, while League of Legends’ macro quality arguably improved, and some have derived enjoyment from analyzing lane swaps. In response to the community and professional outcry, Blizzard rescinded its philosophy regarding hero stacking. League of Legends’ community has not presented a united front against lane swaps as something that detracts from the value of the game, but to the casual fan it may be too over complicated and subtle to appreciate without study. Blizzard changed its game after it was clear an intended design feature harmed its quality. Riot Games is attacking an unintended development, despite its importance to the current metagame.

What this boils down to is who controls the shape of the game: the developer, or the pros? They both play a part: on the one hand, developers decide the structure, genre, aesthetic, and goal of the game; on the other, pros construct the metagame with the most efficient tactics. The developers then react to those tactics and choose to adjust the tools — such as characters — that enable the tactics, typically to produce a more balanced game. The developers have another responsibility to the casual player base, however, and also must address concerns to ensure the majority of its player base enjoys the game. The existing duality results in developers addressing gameplay at both ends of the spectrum, sometimes simultaneously.

Of course, there are some behaviors a professional will have that a casual player will not, and its important that a developer listens to the pros regarding such behaviors to decide whether or not to address it. As of now, the sentiment of hero stacking in Overwatch is that it does, and the first instances of implementing a hero limit were driven by feedback from professionals. In League of Legends, the conversation surrounding lane swaps varies based on the level of discussion, but generally pros — the group most likely to play in a lane swap — seem to be in favor of it, yet Riot chooses to discourage the behavior with little data or incentive from feedback.

Taking such a path is not a guaranteed victory for the developer. We’ve seen Riot try to control the game before: merely invoking the Juggernaut Update should bring about laughter at the audacity of Mordekaiser’s update. The reality is pros will always understand the game better than the developer. Perhaps, initially, Riot’s goal will be a success and the rate of lane swaps will decline. But the possibility that professional teams will study these new changes, experiment, and derive a new formula for lane swaps in order to keep this cornerstone of strategy alive exists. We’ll see how that settles, but if the trends of this back and forth over the past few years are any indication, that is more likely to happen than Riot’s vision.

Rather than fight this kind of war, Riot perhaps might want to consider discussion around trying to present lane swaps in a manner where even the most casual fan can appreciate its beauty. It’s not the most exciting thing in League, but it does not deserve to be so heavily targeted for that reason.

Cover photo courtesy of  Chris Yunker/flickr.

Freelance writer for Slingshot, Liquid Legends, and DraftKings.

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