I've had a bad losing streak going in League of Legends the past few nights, which made me realise a fundamental truth about the game and others like it: they're a lot less fun when you're not on the winning team. Uniquely so, I mean.
Saying something like, "a competitive game isn't as enjoyable when you're losing" might sound like such a basic point that it's not even worth bringing up. But what cast this unpleasant aspect of my newfound MOBA obsession into sharp relief was how defeat in League, or Heroes of the Storm, or Dota 2, felt in comparison to the other great games I've been playing as of late.
I sank back into Mario Kart 8 last week, for instance, and immediately picked up on a crucial difference between it and a game like League: being the first person to cross the finish line in Mario Kart isn't the only thing that makes that game fun. If anything, being in first place for most of a race can actually be pretty darn boring. That's what makes the blue shell so great. If you're always zooming along miles ahead of the competition, there's no chance to indulge in the whimsical chaos that makes Mario Kart special. Races quickly start to seem drab if you're not barreling forward neck-and-neck with some Bowser or Toad opponent who always seem to know the exact right moment to fire off a green shell.
Putting Mario Kart up against gaming's greatest MOBAs is obviously comparing apples and oranges. So let's consider Mortal Kombat X, another highly competitive game I've been playing a lot recently. Is getting stomped on match after match in Mortal Kombat fun? Not entirely. Especially when my roommate keeps spamming me with fucking ranged attacks. But even in the worst Mortal Kombat matches I've bumbled my way through so far, the game still manages to dazzle me with its sheer spectacle.
I mean: yes, it's not ideal to see your character's face bitten off, or having their testicles exploded out from under them, or suffering whatever other wanton bit of gratuity your opponent can punish you with. But at the very least, it's entertaining. I'm willing to bet that's an important reason why gory fatalities are such an iconic mainstay in the series: because watching something grisly unfold after a fierce fight is fun for both parties involved.
There isn't anything like the enjoyably gruesome fatalities when you face defeat in League of Legends and its peers. There aren't any of the "Thanks for trying!" type pity trophies players can still get even if they embarrass themselves in shooters like Call of Duty or Titanfall either — or just win through the sheer endurance of grinding for virtual tchotchkes. So what is there? The the long, drawn-out process of learning from your failures, honing your skills with time and practice, and ultimately improving enough to secure more victories. That might be a more rewarding process than anything I've gotten out of my months spent playing Mario Kart 8 with no tangible improvement to my online ranking. Landing a pentakill, or pulling off an awesome baron steal feels all the better when you know you've put in the hard work it takes to actually achieve such moments of mastery. But as my colleague Patricia said of Dota 2, the prolonged journey from scrub to not-quite-scrub status isn't necessarily a fun one. Regardless of how one evaluates games, "fun" is undeniably an important part of what makes any game good.
The lack of fun in failure isn't just a problem for a MOBA's overall quality, either. It's also a contributing factor that's helped establish MOBAs' sour reputation as breeding grounds for gross and offensive behaviour. While losing game after game might help one develop a better sense of themselves as a player in the long run, suffering a loss in the moment is a very different thing. It's a rare thing to see when players on a League team work through a defeat with good graces and earnest efforts, in my experience. Tolerable ones, maybe. But everyone can easily descend into an unbearable "circle of blame", a toxic dynamic the web comic Ctrl+Alt+Del immortalised in this strip about League's "blamenomics".
Something I've always found fascinating about League of Legends' large, vibrant community is the way that vocal, serious players seem to have internalised these sorts of general criticisms and negative stereotypes to the point where they frequently chastise and instruct themselves on how to behave better in games. Very often when reading through forum threads between players sharing, say, basic gameplay tips, I'll suddenly come across a profound, often philosophical moment of critical self-reflection. Like this one I just found the other day way down in a thread about beginner's tips:
Its wonderful to see gamers lay their hearts and minds bare in this way to one another. But it's also sort of odd at the same time, because it seems like they're struggling to work through something the game they love so dearly is denying them: a better environment in which they can actually live with, and learn from, their mistakes.
Heroes of the Storm, for its part, recently decided to try and curb the violent excesses of failure and inter-team toxicity in its game by leaving out a surrender option and making games run short and shorter times. I guess that's one way to deal with failure in a MOBA — albeit one I don't agree with. But shaving down game time and limiting player choice also seem like excessive, defeatist responses to a problem that could be solved in a much simpler way: by making a loss something players can actually appreciate in its own right, rather than just endure as best they can.
I have a hard time believing that the people who've made some of the best games I've ever played can't think of more ways to do that.