Climbing the competitive ranks in League of Legends is one of the boldest, most arduous things a modern gamer can do — one that's ultimately rewarded at the end of each annual season with juicy exclusive rewards. This year, however, some ranked players might not get anything at all. The reason why has many up in arms.
Last night, Jeffrey "Lyte" Lin, the lead designer of social systems at League of Legends development studio Riot Games and the person most closely affiliated with the company's many ambitious-sounding efforts to curb and ultimately quash toxic inter-player behaviour, posted a statement on his ask.fm page explaining that the developer is currently planning to deny any and all ranked rewards to players who'd received any sort of in-game ban or restriction. Here's his full statement, along with the question that prompted it (emphasis added):
Anonymous question: so from what i heard if u get a any kind of ban in any part of season u will not get Season 5 Ranked Rewards is that correct sir ? thanks in advance.
Lin: We are still working on the details for the 2015 Season, but the current plan is that players who have been Chat Restricted, Ranked Restricted or Game Banned during the 2015 Season will not receive Season Rewards in Ranked. Players who have had Low Priority Queues won't be affected unless they have had 20 min Low Priority Queues. Emails and Player Support sites will be updated with this new info when we finalise the details.
Some quick clarification for the uninitiated: Temporary bans and restrictions like the ones Lin is talking about here are punishments that League of Legends metes out for players who violate the game's "Summoner's Code," a set of rules and best practices that the community is expected to abide by. If a person loses their temper in several games and starts being toxic to his or her teammates, for example, the game will issue a chat restriction to that player: preventing them from communicating with any of the nine other players in a match for, say, ten games. Or if they keep disconnecting or stepping away from their computer mid-game, League's automated systems might forced them to play five or ten normal matches before they're allowed to re-enter ranked mode.
Normally, the punishments just stop there. Under Lin's stated plan, however, these temporary penalties would have an impact on a player's entire career in the current League of Legends season. Season Rewards are usually things like: special borders and icons a play can attach to their in-game profile as a sign to themselves and others that they participated in the ranked season that just ended, or unique champion skins known as "victorious skins."
These rewards might sound paltry to people who don't play League of Legends. But they carry a lot of weight for pretty much anyone invested in the game and its 67 million player-strong community. The victorious skins are particularly sought after, since nobody — and I mean nobody, not even Riot employees — can get their hands on one unless they have ended a season in gold rank or higher (the largest rank is silver, a step below gold).
As I previously wrote of victorious skins in League, they're not as highly sophisticated as the game's priced character skins. But they're arguably more important because of what they mean for experienced players:
Subtle though they may be, these aesthetic boosts mean a lot once you step inside League of Legends. A victorious skin is a way to show your teammates and opponents — people who often don't know you, inside or outside of League — that you're an experienced player who's accomplished something. And since they're only rewarded once, there's an element of seniority to it too. Since I only started playing League this year, I'll never be able to strut my stuff around Summoner's Rift with that rad-looking Victorious Morgana.
While the game's many other pricey skins might be far more ornate and imaginative, they don't offer their wearers that same kind of social capital. At best, they might suggest the pretense of skill and experience. But that can easily be disproven. I bought the ridiculously cool and ridiculously expensive DJ Sona skin, for instance, and was promptly told in my next game with her that I should refund it. The teammate who said that was just being a grumpy troll, but still: if I had some victorious skin instead, they'd have probably leapt to a different conclusion than "oh this guy is a total fucking scrub."
League of Legends players who've spent the entire season working towards these sorts of rewards have responded aggressively to Lin's statement on the game's popular subreddit, calling Riot's current plan "unacceptable," "insane," and hypocritical.
Given League's (often unfair) reputation as a hotbed of gamer toxicity, it can be tempting for some to read these upset fan reactions as stereotypical fan hyperbole. But they all have a point. Riot Games, and Jeffrey Lin in particular, have sounded a more conciliatory message than any other game developer when it comes to the company's many ambitious plans to curb in-game toxicity. In article after article, Lin has spoken about the importance of rehabilitating players rather than simply punishing them — providing them a chance (or several) to see the error of their ways and inviting them back into the fold to keep playing. At the end of the 2014 season, Lin himself said that Riot had decided to try and motivate both neutral and toxic players to "strive to be sportsmanlike in a larger range of games" by granting them "mystery gifts" — randomised, impossible-to-predict extrinsic rewards for not receiving any sort of restrictions during the 2014 season. At the time of the "mystery gifts" announcement, Lin said on Reddit that Riot was implementing this feature because they feel that positive reinforcement is just as important (if not more so) to repairing negative player behaviour as punishing people is.
That "more carrot, less stick" approach has been a centrepiece of Riot's publicly stated philosophy for years now, one that they have only become more gung-ho on in 2015. In an interview with the gaming site Gamasutra earlier this year, Lin also pointed out that the type of toxic interactions that lead to things like temporary bans and chat restrictions aren't a sign that people themselves are actually toxic. More often than not, they're just having a bad day:
So in our analysis of the whole player demographic, only 1 per cent of players are the ones who are consistently homophobic, sexist, or racist. What's interesting, though, is that they're not responsible for a lot of the toxicity in the system.
So when you break down the ecosystem — how much toxicity is sourced from that 1 per cent — it's only about 5 per cent. Actually, the majority of toxicity is the neutral or positive players.
And the thing is that every once in a while, they will have a bad day — a bad day at work, bad day at school. They will carry that into their game. 90 per cent of the toxicity is those players. So you look at a 100-game history, and they may be only negative in three games. And the question for us is, "How do you solve that problem?"
But part two of that is what we learned this year: Even though a small minority is truly negative, they can control your community's perception by themselves. It just takes — and this is really interesting — 11 per cent of negative posters on a forum discussion to just change the direction of the forum discussion.
I'm concerned about the message that Lin's latest statement sends to the very players he's describing here. A number of the people I play League with on a regular basis have received restrictions this year for exactly the reasons Lin is describing there: they lose their tempers in the ultra-competitive pressure cooker environment of a ranked match, as anyone would from time to time.
Is that reason enough to deny someone a reward they have been working towards for almost a year now — particularly when they had no idea that something as relatively innocuous as a single temporary chat restriction might ruin their entire 2015 ranked season? Along with many of the vocal League of Legends fans who've taken issue with Lin's statement, I'm highly sceptical of such a severe punishment. If anything, it seems like the same "neutral" or "toxic" players Lin described in his mystery gifs statement would now see absolutely no reason to improve themselves — at least for the rest of the current season.
At the very least, Lin's statement only referred to Riot's plans for the end-of-season rewards, not an actual policy that's set in stone. Hopefully that means they still have time to reconsider.