Taking a Sunny Stroll Through the Fields of Justice…

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen that I’ve recently taken the plunge and started playing League of Legends again. I had sworn the game off for ages, partially because I was intimidated by the time commitment necessary to become anything resembling “good,” and partially because my first experience on the Summoner’s Rift was a spectacularly unpleasant one.

It was the summer of 2011 when I first learned about League of Legends. The game had become quite popular with the BioWare Austin Creative Services team, and after nearly a month of being nagged about it I decided to finally give it a try. I downloaded the game, created an account, and powered through the tutorial. I thought I was prepared to join my fellow gamers in glorious combat!

I thought wrong.

The next 35-plus minutes were an assault on my senses as teammates described to me, in great detail, all of the various things they wanted to do to me and/or my mother. One of the comments described their desire to violate my mother with a chainsaw. Another said, simply, “im [sic] gonna piss in your eyes.” After the match ended in a merciful defeat, I uninstalled the game and didn’t touch it again for over a year.

But in that time, two very important things happened…

Firstly, I had the chance to spend time with a number of Rioters (Riot Games employees) during an E3 party at the Lucky Strike bowling alley. I was a guest of a few friends who had gone to Riot after SW:TOR launched, and they went out of their way to introduce me to a number of their colleagues. We all hung out, had a few drinks, rolled a few games, and eventually the discussion drifted to League of Legends and whether or not I played. I told them that I had played, and I proceeded to tell them about my sole experience with the game. To their credit they sat through my tale, and afterwards we started talking about player behavior in the game. The Rioters (whose names I’m blanking on, sadly) told me about how they were working to improve the community and they let me in on a few of their ideas for curbing player behavior. They did a lot to reassure me that the toxicity that I had experienced, while not eliminated completely, had been greatly curbed in the year since I played last.

Another thing that I noticed about the Rioters I met was that they they were passionate about their game. Every single person I met spoke with an unbridled enthusiasm and joy, filled to the brim with excitement about what they were doing and what they had coming down the line. In an industry where ennui is only too common, seeing their faces light up with a genuine love of their game made me understand why Riot Games is seen as one of the best studios in the world.

Secondly, and more importantly, I started watching the League of Legends Championship Series.

I had been a vocal critic of eSports for a very, very long time. It was a criticism born out of frustration, having seen organizations like World Cyber Games wither and die while others continued to represent competitive gaming in a amateurish and immature manner. There was also nothing being played competitively that appealed to me as a viewer.

Then a girl I was seeing told me about LCS.

I was immediately impressed with the production of the League Championship Series. Here was a professional eSports set-up which took what they were doing very seriously, while also recognizing that you have to be entertaining to a larger audience. I found their pre-game and post-game analysis useful and helpful, and their play-by-play during games kept me informed on what I was watching while also teaching me about the mechanics of different champions and situations. I was immediately drawn in and have been a fan ever since.

I also happened to tune in for the first time to watch two well-oiled machines push each other to their very limits: Counter Logic Gaming battle Team Dignitas.

Seriously – watch this game.

To the untrained eye (to my untrained eye, at least), League of Legends is an orgy of hues; colorful characters using colorful abilities on a colorful map. Once you know a little about how the game works, however, you understand the levels of teamwork, split-second decision-making, intelligence, chutzpah, and good ol’ blind luck needed to succeed at a high level. To watch a team fight in a professional LCS game is to watch poetry in motion… only with demons and pirates and shit. It’s fun to watch, it draws you in, and it makes you want to play the game.

I watched for a couple of weekends before I felt the itch, but eventually I downloaded the game, enlisted the help of just about anybody willing to teach me to play, and set out to give it another chance. I had one friend in particular who took it upon herself to teach me the very basics of the game: crowd control, last-hitting, when to push your minions towards the enemy turret, etc. As I completed one game after another, I vividly recall the feeling of accomplishment that swept over me as the initial confusion melted away. It all finally began to click in my mind, and from that point onward it felt like I was playing an entirely different game; a game that, even now, I find myself struggling to pull myself away from.

I finally understood why everyone I knew was so in love with League of Legends.

From a purely objective perspective, I absolutely love the carrot on a stick meta-game. An offensively gross oversimplification of the LoL carrot chase:

  • Why do you farm minions? To earn gold.
  • Why do you want gold? To buy items.
  • Why do you want items? To be more effective.
  • Why do you want to be more effective? To defeat enemy players.
  • Why do you want to defeat enemy players? To push your minions forward.
  • Why do you want to push your minions forward? To destroy enemy towers.
  • Why do you want to destroy enemy towers? To push into their base.
  • Why do you want to push into their base? To destroy their nexus.
  • Why do you want to destroy their nexus? To win.
  • Why do you want to win (besides the obvious)? To earn extra Summoner XP.
  • Why do you want Summoner XP? To level up.
  • Why do you want to level up? To unlock more Rune Slots, Mastery Points, and other benefits.
  • Why do you want to do all of this over, and over? Because it’s fun.

The carrot chase has even found its way into their monetization with the inclusion of Influence Points, or IP, which you gain (I think) by being awesome at the game. These points aren’t worthless, either – you can use them to buy Runes to better your in-game stats, or you can use IP to purchase new champions instead of spending Riot Points (which you buy with real money and spend on new skins because oh my god Panda Teemo is too cute for words).

Those of you who play League of Legends already know all of this, but for those of you who aren’t familiar with the game… well, there you go. It’s fun.

Another reason why chasing after the leveling carrot is so enticing to me is because I’m a very late adopter of the game. All of my friends who play – all of them – are already at Level 30 and refuse to play with a filthy unranked peasant such as myself. If I want to play with my friends and be competitive, I feel compelled to level my account. I also enjoy the leveling process – it gives me something to strive for, and is an easy way to track my progress.

“But James,” you say in-between bites of your In-N-Out animal-style fries. “What about the community that was so aggressive to you when you first played?”

Well, I’m pleased to report that I’ve had very little issue with my fellow players, though I’ve certainly noticed a slight uptick in “dicksmokery” that directly correlates to my level. At first I thought very little of it, but as I’ve invested more time in and become more adapt at the game, I find myself understanding their plight. In the heat of battle during a hotly-contested match, even the tiniest mistakes can cost you and your team dearly. When you see Sona going full-Leeroy Jenkins against a roaming party Miss Fortune, Volibear, and Talon… yeah. Your teeth begin to grind. The vein on the side of your head pulses. The voice of reason that resides in all of us, which tells us that it’s “just a game,” starts to fade behind the thundering drumbeat of fury.

But you don’t act. You never act. Because it is just a game, and that’s never a reason to shout rage and hate at another human being.

…but for the blink of a moment, you understand the dark place they’re coming from.

This is part of a phenomenon I refer to as “CoD Rage,” and it is a peculiar state of being in which, during the heat of the moment in an online game, you find yourself perfectly capable of and willing to force a keyboard in an explicit and violent manner down the throat or up the rear entrance of your fellow human being. It’s not real anger, and once the match ends you find yourself as calm and serene as a mighty oak tree on a breezeless autumn afternoon.

Maybe I’ll write about it in more detail some day.

I’m glad that I decided to give League of Legends another chance. It’s one of those rare gaming experiences that I not only love to play, but love to watch others play. It’s a game that I can sit down and discuss with my friends for hours on end, dissecting champions’ loadouts and debating decision-making during LCS games. It allows me to take my love of metrics and numbers into the game as I look for ways to squeeze every point of damage, mana, health, and armor out of each champion I play (I have a red notebook with builds for each champion I own).

League of Legends is a game that has brought my friends together on a damn-near-nightly basis. It’s a game that has allowed me the chance to meet interesting people from all over the world, and make new friends in the process. It’s also turned me into “that guy,” the person who needs to know every-single-thing about the game, and use that knowledge to blaze a path towards victory. But the most damning thing of all? I’m loving it.

I’m loving everything about it.

It’s just a shame that I can’t last-hit to save my damn life…

JBJ UPDATE (03 January 2016): I’ve stopped playing League of Legends. I have my reasons.