As a follow-up to his interview with League Of Legends' design director, Greg Street, Michael got in touch with professional player-turned-caster Martin 'Deficio' Lynge to discuss how ideas of balance and tweaks to the game by the design team impact the world of esports. N.B. If you haven't already, you might prefer to have a read of the earlier interview first as it's a useful reference point for some of the topics of discussion!
The idea of ‘balance’ as the supposed holy grail of any multi-player game, is out-dated. We’re in some ways conditioned to expect developers to support their multiplayer games for many years, with the nebulous never-ending goal of polishing their rough gem of a game into a dazzling diamond, while updating and adding to it at the same time. Greg Street noted that he doesn’t think true balance is ever going to be possible for LoL, but that they use the concept as a framework or guideline for all of their changes instead.
Nonetheless, balance is a stick often used to beat Riot, with players angry that their favourite champions have fallen out of favour, or simply feeling that changes to the meta go against that idea of overall balance rather than working towards it as a theoretical end point.
Following up from my interview with Greg Street on what has sometimes been referred to as a ‘rotating meta’ in League of Legends, it seemed pertinent to try and analyse how these balance and design decisions impact on LoL as an eSport. Fortunately I had the expert analysis of Martin ‘Deficio’ Lynge to help me work through these thoughts. Martin is an analyst for the European LCS and part of Riot’s broadcast team as well as a former professional player.
MJ: The way the meta rapidly shifts with updates to champions, such as the Juggernaut patch and the Marksman patch, bringing new champions to the fore, how difficult is that for professional teams to adapt to? Especially when we're talking about events or international tournaments, where they haven't had a lot of time to prepare?
ML: I think when it comes to being a pro player - and all teams have gotten used to this now, with patches that are often and large - it’s become a normal thing. When a patch hits, you will instantly sit down with your coach and analyst and start to break down the numbers and use testing in solo queue.
That's also what defines good teams from bad teams and also good coaching staff. If you have good scouts and have good analysts, you can look at what other teams are playing, look at what other people are building and you can figure out the meta fairly quickly. The way that the patches are coming now in the LCS this split, it's like every two weeks there's a new patch almost, but it's very small changes, not like - as you mentioned- the Juggernauts, where there was a massive meta shift.
I feel like it's maybe now easy for teams to adapt to the small patches, but the big ones will always take time and I think there was a mistake made personally, or there have been mistakes made in the past where a big big patch happens just before a big tournament and that one can maybe be a little bit unfair because you want to have VODs to watch, you want to be able to play this patch against other teams before this tournament's start, outside of just scrimming.
But honestly, it boils down to the same thing - this game will always change, it's changing all the time, it's always going to change in meta, new champions will get buffed, other champions will get nerfed, new items... whatever, and it is part of being a professional team.
MJ: So do you think maybe these champion changes, they can explain things like how Origen from last season have gone from being one of the strongest team in the world eventually, to their struggles today? Or do you think it's more involved than that, that more factors are at play?
ML: I think definitely there are multiple things. I think the fact the game changed hurt Origen, but not for the reason people probably expect. Not because they can't play the new champions or the new meta, but because Origen as a team are really slow at adapting to new things. So they were basically the worst example of a team adapting to changes.
This [is] more a weakness of Origen - that adapting to new things and maybe not having the support staff around them to help them out and that's why big meta changes can hurt them. But now that we've seen all these patches come every two weeks with very small changes, they've been able to find a more consistent level where they don't have to completely change the meta, they can just [...] keep playing what they've already been playing.
There are definitely cases though, where you'll have players stuck and they're only playing one style and if it changes - say you have a pure split-push team like CLG (North American side Counter Logic Gaming) with Darshan up in the top-lane, he's obviously very split-push focused - let's say something happened in the meta that meant hard-engage top-laners were just the greatest and you have to teamfight, teamfight, teamfight - CLG would obviously suffer quite a lot from that.
But that's sometimes the limitations of players and why I think you see the greatest players in the world, they can play multiple styles. Look at Faker - give him an assassin, he's gonna carry, give him a control mage, he's gonna do well, give him a supportive mage like Lulu - he's gonna do well. He can play all of these things. That’s adaptation as a player.
MJ: Earlier you mentioned that the game is always going to change, there are always going to be things that are new and different that people have to adapt to. As an analyst do you think these changes are a good thing for LoL, keeping the game fresh and new and exciting to watch? Or do you think that it would be a better game if there was an overall balance where as many champions as possible were viable and more choices in terms of team comps?
ML: So, I'm kinda split, because I really like changes, I think it keeps the game more entertaining, when you can for a certain amount of weeks watch specific picks and then suddenly coming into a new split it's a whole new metagame going on with new things happening. I think that's very exciting, but I do think that champion diversity is super important. Let's say every champion was equally strong and it just depended on what kind of comp [team composition] you wanted to run or what kind of player you had, you would still get all of these picks. The problem is I don't think it's even possible to reach that point. There will always be something standing out, that just is better than the rest.
So I think changing the game is important, I think changing the game is a key thing for League of Legends and one of the things that's made it very interesting always. But it would be awesome if at some point - I don't think it will ever happen, I think it is impossible - to have maybe a hundred champions, with these hundred champions all being played. It would make my job as an analyst though, really really damn difficult [laughs] because you'd have to prep for all hundred. You'd have to know the lane match-ups, optimal item builds in different situations. I sometimes prefer just being down to fifty and you know which kind of comps and lane-matchups and so on. It makes it a little bit easier to prep.
MJ: So finally, in terms of the workings of Riot, what's the feedback loop between the eSports part of Riot and the balance team? We often see interviews in the LCS where a player will be asked to explain why they pick a certain champion and they'll just say 'It's super OP' [overpowered]. Is that something you guys can then pass on to the balance team and have a discussion about with them?
ML: We have a really good relationship with a lot of the guys from the live design team and it's not like we sit and just directly poke them every day saying "Why is Swain [a control mage who assaults foes with a flock of ravens] buffed here, why is this champion so strong?" Because they obviously have a ton of ways to measure how good a champion is, what the champion is lacking, what's the weakness, what's the strength they really want to to emphasize and also they will watch the broadcasts.
We will be honest on air and say 'This champion right now is too strong' so they can obviously take that feedback. But I think it's very important for us, or myself as an analyst, to understand that my view of why a champion is too strong can be very tunnel-visioned and built around what I see in-game. I fully respect the live design team to actually know what they want to do [...] and how they can make [champions] more balanced.
So feedback is always appreciated, people will give feedback to each other - as a caster you get feedback from other people in Riot, saying 'that was really good', or 'I noticed you did some of these things here that could be changed' and it's something that's valued really highly. But from watching just the patch notes over and over, from feedback from players and casters and so on, I am 100% confident that they have the right plan and know what they want to do with the game. So I don't want to be the guy jumping in asking "Why is Swain not buffed here? What's happening?"
ML [joking:] I'll poke them sometimes on Twitter, hoping maybe Swain will get buffed, but it hasn't happened yet.
MJ: Maybe one day...
ML [wistfully]: One day.
MJ: Thanks very much for your time, Martin.