A primary theme in Riot's gigantic laundry list of upcoming changes for League of Legends is that the developer is trying really, really hard to make its game more social. While many of the new socially-minded features announced this week sound wonderful, not all League fans are happy about their impending future.
A lot of Riot's new features sound like no brainers. They're adding "clubs" to the game, for instance, which will (ideally) make it easier for a large group of like-minded League friends to communicate and coordinate with one another. They're also introducing a smartphone app that lets you talk with your in-game friends when you're away from your computer, which, again, is a great idea.
Things get dicier when it comes to League's ranked play. Previously, players were only allowed to queue up for ranked games alone (soloq) or with one other teammate (duoq). They're changing this to allow for "dynamic groups" of up to four players -- five-man teams play in their own special group (emphasis mine for this and all other block quotes):
This upcoming season we're replacing the solo/duo queue with a dynamic group queue, where you'll be able to climb the ladder with any number of teammates, going from single participation all the way to a full team comp. There's no longer a penalty for players ranking together, so the benefits of grouping up will always prevail. You'll still need to be of similar rank to your queue-buddies, and the system is designed so that groups will almost always play against similarly grouped opponents (so if you're in a premade five, there's a 95% chance you'll run into another premade five), but now you'll be able to compete the way you want to.
In its announcement this week, Riot justified the decision by saying that League needs to have better systems to acknowledge and reward people for being team players, rather than just highly skilled individual players. Team play therefore needs to be encouraged and supported as much as possible:
If the World Championships have shown us anything, it's that League is a team game and the best competitors are also amazing teammates. We believe a truly competitive ranked experience should reward a player's ability to lead or collaborate with their teammates just as much as their ability to shut down a lane. That said, for a while now the ranked experience has also been a lonely one, having the choice of either queueing up with a friend or braving it solo. We've even had to go so far as to give small penalties to duo-queuers to compensate for the unspoken benefits of friendship (can you really put a price on friendship?).
Our belief is that League is better - and more competitive - with company, so we need to walk the walk on that philosophy.
It's hard to disagree with Riot's rhetoric about teamwork and collaboration. So why are some League players upset? Because this runs against pretty much everything Riot's said and done about ranked play for League's entire history.
"The Soloq system was founded on the idea that personal skill is the most important part of being a good League of Legends player," one high ranked League player who asked to only be identified by his in-game handle, ellman121, told me in an email today. "This was certainly true in Season 1, when the ranked system was started."
"However, as League of Legends evolved from a semi-competitive game into the monolithic eSport it is today, team play became more and more important," ellman continued. "Riot is effectively giving up on the idea that personal skill is the most important part of being a good League player."
Ellman is in League's platinum rank, the fourth highest rank in the game and one far above the average skill level (which is Silver, the best-populated rank). He and many other high-ranked players are the ones most concerned about what Riot's changes will do to the ranked ecosystem. And for good reason: reaching platinum, or diamond, or master, or even challenger means that you've had to spend a lot of time playing League of Legends and investing a great deal of energy into mastering a system that, apparently, is going to go away soon.
"Many Platinum, Diamond, Master, and Challenger players got to their rank by playing essentially 1v9," ellman wrote in his email to me. "I didn't get to platinum by working with my team every game, I got to platinum by shitting on my opponents every game and working with my team when needed. I think this is true for most high-elo players (it's probably the main reason that platinum is widely regarded as the most toxic elo). But, by heavily depreciating the personal skill aspect of Soloq, Riot has just told all of the high-elo players that their skill (and the effort they put in to gain that skill) is worthless. This is the big flaw with the new ranked system."
For a long time, Riot presented solo and duo-queueing as a compromise. Yes, people wanted to play ranked games with friends. But letting larger groups queue up would undermine the competitive integrity of the whole ranked system -- something Riot cares a lot about, given that they now own and support the world's largest eSport. Being placed with a pre-made team of three or four other people doesn't just make it harder for solo and duo-queuers to play effectively if, say, the larger group of friends on their team decide to gang up on them. By extension, it could make the game a whole lot less fun.
Soloq can be a very lonely experience in League. But for many players, that's all they have -- or all they want. Maybe they don't have many gamer friends who play League. I certainly had to make some new ones when I started playing. Or maybe they just like playing alone more than they like bantering with people about the state of the meta and whether or not they should have gone for baron.
Jeffrey Lin, Riot's lead social systems designer, responded to concerns that solo and duoq players were being disregarded in a post on his ask.fm page. In it, he appeals to that same newfound philosophy of being super gung ho about being as social as possible:
When we first started building the new Champ Select, we knew this would be a big debate. In every research survey, the majority of players wanted to try Ranked, but also wanted to play with friends and did not have enough friends always online to play Ranked Teams. In every analytics report, the more friends you play with on average, the better your experiences and the less toxicity there is. We looked to other popular games and it was very hit-or-miss. Non-MOBAs have historically rewarded group play with more opportunities and better rewards (such as WoW, where the entire end-game is based on group play and you are forced to group up to get the best loot). Competitive PvP games, however, were split. HOTS and LoL were most recently Solo/Duo Queue, but CS:GO has Dynamic Queue, and DOTA2 has a hybrid Dynamic Queue. When we looked into this, the *reason* every game chose their approach was for different reasons. For some, it was size of their playerbase, some were forced to because of how their matchmakers were designed. For Riot, League is a competitive team sport. Playing with friends allows you to try more strategies, and the more organised play there is, the more competitive the entire ecosystem becomes. By playing with friends, it becomes much easier to organise a rotation strategy, a knock-up comp, or double jungler invade strategy.
So, we had to make a super risky, super difficult choice. We -- a team with a bunch of solo purists -- had to try to make Dynamic Queue a great experience.
"We're going to try everything we can to make Dynamic Queue a great experience," Lin concluded. "Please give it a chance."
I think a lot of League of Legends players are willing to give the game a chance. But many can also get fed up with Riot after they feel like they have already given them a ton of chances.
Riot has had a habit of promising big, ambitious things and not fully delivering on them, and trying to assuage fans by saying that they're working extra hard to make sure everything's just right. So when Lin promises that, say, "We've upgraded the Report System to completely wipe out the power of Premade 4 reports ganging up on a player, and given the solo player 'equal power' reports in this scenario," some might not be inclined to take him at his word. This new reporting system, like all of League's reporting systems, could very well end up being open to all sorts of abuse.
That said, Riot's priorities here are the correct ones to have. I don't think anyone really disagrees with that. Despite sounding concerned, ellman did acknowledge that Riot judging players as team players is the right thing to do.
"League is a team game, at any level, so it's good that my rank reflects my team abilities," he wrote.
Also I feel like I should point out that despite Riot's checkered history of delivering on new features, the new champion select system is a humongous improvement. It seems like the developer is really getting serious about fixing up the broken parts of League this coming season.