Scratching the Itch

How League of Legends took basketball’s place in my life

League of Legends- mileys_virus (jax) textbook team fight 5v5

from the YouTube Channel of k00ij (118 subscribers at the time of writing). Also, I think ‘Mileys Virus’ is a pretty funny gamertag to choose.

I know, it looks like madness.

And at some level, it is. Ten characters, firing off multicolored abilities willy nilly is going to to be visually overwhelming just about anyway you slice it. Within this laser light show, however, there is careful positioning, impeccable timing, and flawless coordination. Once you know what to look for, a thing of chaos becomes a thing of beauty.

If you’ve never played League of Legends (sometimes written as LoL or just ‘League’), here’s what you need to know so you can climb aboard for what’s to come.

In this video game, teams of five face off on a large battlefield (known as the Summoner’s Rift). Each player controls one of 156 unique characters that fills a certain role within the team. For example, you might play as a…

tank — disrupting the positioning of the enemy team while absorbing tons of damage

mage — casting a rapid burst of damaging spells before backing off to recharge

marksman — dishing out constant damage from afar with your bow, rifle, ghostly spears, or bouncy axes (<– for real!)

bruiser — dealing and taking huge chunks of damage as you slug, slash, smack, and stab your way through the thick of the fight.

enchanter — healing and amplifying teammates while you attempt to weaken, confuse, or entrap the enemy team.

Most players specialize as a particular role, choosing from a smaller pool of characters that they’ve spent time mastering. And boy does mastery take time.

The next thing to know about this game is that it is complex to the point of near convolution. Not only is it crucial to have internalized the range, damage, and cooldown for each of your character’s four abilities, one must also have a working knowledge of the various abilities any of the other characters might be about to deploy. Make one misstep, and you’ll likely end up “slain” — sidelined from the action for a period of time. Your character’s demise earns the enemy team gold and experience points, and your absence from the battlefield likely gives them opportunities to eliminate your teammates, capture toss-up objectives, and otherwise earn more gold and experience points.

Players call this concept “snowballing”: leveraging a small advantage into a larger and larger one until the game is entirely under one’s control. This punishing positive feedback loop makes it all the less likely that new players will encounter scenarios within the game in which they will have a reasonable chance at success. Not only does this make it hard to improve, it all but guarantees that early experiences of the game will be characterized by feelings ranging from sullen dejection to mouse-hurling-rage.

At this point, it’s reasonable to stop and wonder why anyone would ever want to play this game.

There is a certain type of activity that exerts an inexorable tug on my being. It’s got to have cooperative competition, but that alone isn’t enough. The cooperative element needs heterogeneity. Games in which each player has roughly the same responsibilities (i.e. Tug of War, Dodgeball, Team Deathmatch, Rocket League) won’t cut it. I need to be given a special job to do — a chance to feel like I’ve uniquely contributed to my team’s success. Mix in a steep learning-curve, so I can feel the rush of progression through a new skillset, and you’ll have me hooked.

Basketball, of course, checks all of these boxes. The explanatory direction here is tricky, however. Was I drawn to it from a young age because it was the type of activity I craved? Or did years of playing the sport cultivate in me a penchant for unforgiving, heterogeneously cooperative competition? Either way, basketball was a fixture in my life throughout high school and college, but I didn’t realize how much I was using it to scratch that itch until the pandemic struck.

Housebound and hankering, I stumbled upon League as a way to connect with my then 15 year old brother back in San Diego. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite good at the game and I spent the first few (ok maybe six) months following him around as more or less dead weight. But as things started to click into place, I spent less time looking down at my keyboard and more time paying careful attention to the delicate balance within that laser light show.

The enemy marksman dances back as our tank charges into the fray. The tank gets zapped with the full force of their mage’s spell burst, but she survives and their mage is quickly dispatched by our bruiser. In a blink, my brother dives behind the enemy team’s front line and takes out their marksman and enchanter with, yes, a pair of bouncy axes. The enemy team retreats.

Of course, basketball and league have their differences. The banter on the pick-up courts is usually jovial and supportive, while the in-game chat box is often rife with all manner of finger-pointing and demeaning jibes. The exercise benefits I used to get from basketball have been replaced by a burgeoning case of carpal tunnel syndrome, and I’ve spent far more money on my gaming hobby than I ever spent on basketball shoes.

Not all differences leave League lacking. In basketball, you’re stuck with the body you’ve got. Taller players will tend to do better closer to the basket, while shorter players are better equipped to make quick moves near the perimeter.

Out on the Rift, if you’re tired of blasting foes with fireballs alongside your demonic teddy bear, that’s ok! You can be a possessed tree, a hooded vagabond armed with an old lamppost, or a very, very sad mummy. Once you have a basic understanding of how the game is played, it’s up to you to figure out how to help your team and (if you’re me) which character’s voice lines annoy you the least.

Beyond the obvious 5-on-5 format, there are subtle similarities that have enabled this exchange of activities. To move your character around in League, you click a spot on the map and they take the shortest path there. Moving in a strategic way, then, requires near constant clicking, not unlike the dribbling of the basketball. Many characters launch spells out in a particular direction — called ‘skill shots’ — that only have an effect if they come into contact with another character. With its catch-and-shoot three-pointers, pull-up jumpers, and reverse lay-ups, you might say that basketball involves a fair number of ‘skill shots’ as well.

The deep unifier, however, remains the same. Both are activities that give me a chance to make a difference as part of a team as we try our best to come out on top. With the world opening back up again, I can’t wait to get back out on the court. But I don’t think I’ll stop playing League of Legends any time soon either.

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