"I'm very new to this," I typed, "just to warn y'all." A second later, someone responded: "You're a smurf, aren't you?" "What's a smurf?" I asked. "Yep," another wrote, "definitely a smurf." This was a few weeks ago, right before the fifth, maybe sixth game of League of Legends I had ever played.
League of Legends is the most popular video game in the world by many metrics. Last year, Riot Games, its developer, said that 27 million people play the game every single day. 67 million play in a given month. 67 million people. That's more than eight times the population of New York City, the place I live and spend most of my time in the real world. More baffling to me than those figures is the fact that this, of all games, is the one that 67 million people are playing. It's famously difficult to play well, even harder to master.
I've played tons of games in my life. But I've always had a hard time understanding League . I tried to get into it a few years ago and dropped off after playing two or three games. It just didn't make any sense. Most games I play speak a common language—not a universal one, but one that's relatable enough that I can appreciate, say, Shadow of Mordor because of its similarities to Assassin's Creed, or Batman: Arkham City, or even Grand Theft Auto V.
This is not the case with League of Legends. The game speaks a language almost entirely its own—one that's only shared by a small handful of competing titles. When I first tried playing, then, I understood so little that I couldn't even apprehend if it was "easy" or "hard." I couldn't tell if I was learning anything, or improving at all. All I knew was: I was overwhelmed by the constant barrage of information on the screen.
There was just so much to pay attention to at any given millisecond: text messages popping up from fellow players on the bottom left corner, tiny "ping" sounds of other non-verbal alerts these same teammates are sending, your and everybody else's location simultaneously on the map. On the mini-map. The health bars of your opponents, their minions, and towers. The health of yours. How much gold or mana or whatever you have. Someone typing furiously why the hell didn't you notice that one specific signal I was sending through so much noise and do what I ******* said?!?!?!! (The game automatically bleeps out swear words most of the time). All of this culminating in a grayed-out screen and a chipper message from the game's wispy female narrator saying, "You have been slain" every minute or two.
It was too much. After a few stumbles through impossibly awkward matches, I decided it wasn't worth it anymore. I uninstalled the game, and said goodbye.
"You have to get better," friends who play explained to me at the time. "It only starts to get fun once you know what you're doing."
Fair enough. But how long would that take? Those same friends mainlined League for years at a time—playing several matches a day, which can take up to three or four hours. Every single day. How did that leave any time to do anything else, let alone play other games?
"I don't play other games," many of these same friends would answer. "Who needs other games when you have League?" The prospect of losing myself to something so compelling that it's less a game than a lifestyle choice was enticing, but also...kinda scary. I kept my distance.
Something about it stuck with me, though. 67 million people can't all be wrong. There must be something there that I was missing. What was it, exactly?
I've spent the past few weeks searching for an answer to this question. It took many long nights hunched dutifully over my keyboard as I stumbled through graceless fumbles and pestered total strangers with naive questions. But finally, only very recently, I started to get it.
"Getting it" doesn't mean that I became adept at playing League of Legends. I'm not a skilled League player by any means. Nor am I an experienced one. But I don't really mind that—not anymore, at least. Because at some point over the past 5 weeks, I stopped feeling overwhelmed and confused. Instead, I started having fun. A lot of fun.
These days, I regularly catch myself debating whether I can sneak a game (or two, or three) in before work, during work, on my lunch break, after work, and before going to bed. Reading up on the game is fine, I guess, as is watching videos of seasoned pros playing it in awe-inspiringly dextrous ways. But really, more than anything, I just want to be playing it.
I'm obsessed with League of Legends right now. It's hooked me in a way few games ever have. And just a few weeks ago I was repelled by the mere thought of trying it again.
How did I get from point A to point B? I'm still trying to make sense of that myself. And there continue to be so many parts of League I haven't even seen that I can't honestly try to "explain" or sum up the whole of the game. Much like League itself, the way it pulls me in is difficult to understand. But damn if it isn't strong.
In lieu of a simple answer, then, here's some of what I've seen and learned so far in my journey.
A big part of what makes League of Legends opaque—even for experienced gamers—is the fact that it doesn't sit comfortably in an established genre. It looks sort of like a real-time strategy game, and often bears an uncanny resemblance to Warcraft III—the game that inspired League's creation. But it plays nothing like Warcraft. People have often tried to explain League to me by describing it as a combination of a fighting game and an RTS—like what you might get if Super Smash Bros. and StarCraft had a baby. But that doesn't feel right. The keys you mostly rely on and the ways you string them together with your mouse reminds me more of a first-person shooter. So...maybe if Call of Duty and StarCraft had a baby?
Added on top of League's many idiosyncrasies is the fact that there's no easy way to learn how to play it. There are countless strategy guides and tutorial videos online, sure. But all of these require a basic level of knowledge and literacy you don't have when first starting out.
The game itself only offers two short tutorials before throwing you straight into the deep end. And if I went by these brief lessons alone, I would've thought League was a much simpler game than it truly is.
The first tutorial guides you through the absolute basics. It takes maybe five, ten minutes to play. Here is your character, the game tells you, pointing to a svelte woman holding a bow and arrow.
This is your "champion," the narrator intones. These are minions. Right-click on one to attack them. The archer lady, known as Ashe, shoots at the minions until they wither away into nothingness.
Oh, look! You just leveled up. Click on one of the plus signs at the bottom of the screen to unlock a new superpower.
Now, press "W" to use it.
Ashe shoots out a wide fan of arrows all at once. More minions die.
A pause for a brief lecture from the narrator. There are three more of these superpowers. No two champions are exactly the same, but at least they all have one thing in common: the buttons you press to execute their special powers: Q, W, E, and R. Don't worry about the rest of Ashe's abilities yet. First, make sure you're holding your left hand in this position:
Ok, enough of that. See that tower?
Go attack it. Ashe jogs towards the tower. Oh, wait—the building strikes back with an energy ray, removing a sizeable chunk of the green space in the health bar above the champion's head. Stay behind your minions, let them go first. My poor little mushroom-esque allies shuffle past Ashe towards the tower, soaking up the damage from its death ray.
Eventually, the tower crumbles and falls to the ground. Ashe moves forward a little further.
There's a big, important-looking building on the far side of the screen,opposite to where Ashe starts out.
That is the enemy's Nexus. The tutorial is so outdated for the current game of League that the real Nexus now looks like this:
Destroy the Nexus. This is how you win a game of League.
Simple enough, right? If only.
The second tutorial holds your hand as you enter into a battle waged between two teams, each with five champions. Now you must attack enemy minions, then towers, then inhibitors, then finally the Nexus in a specific order based on your position on the team. An image pops up before the game begins, showing you a map of the battlefield. Two bases sit on the top right and bottom left corner, respectively. The path between them is divided into three dirt roads known as "lanes." One snakes around the top of the map, another the bottom, a third cuts diagonally through the center. There's a dense and thorny forest full of angry monsters filling in the space between the lanes.
This is Summoner's Rift, the place most League of Legends games are played.
Study it, I remember thinking to myself. Memorize it. Get to know it like the back of your hand.
Problem is, there's not much information to be gleaned from just pondering an overview of the map. The only way to "study" Summoner's Rift is by playing inside of it.
I can't remember the last time I spent so much time in such a small, singular patch of virtual space. And still I don't feel I've seen all of it.
Once the second tutorial is over, you're on your own. No campaign like Warcraft, no single-player modes, nothing. You can run through the tutorials again, but why would you? If you want to keep playing League, you have to dive straight into the online multiplayer. The game has a well-known reputation for being both ferociously competitive and harboring a notoriously toxic community of players, so as a newcomer I was more than a little intimidated by this prospect. Thankfully, there's a co-op mode that lets you play with four other people against a team of computer-controlled bots. I went straight for that.
I found plenty of things to be intimidated by once I dove in, but not the ones I expected. Rather than getting crushed by experienced players who jeered mercilessly at me, the biggest challenge I was confronted with was the scope and complexity of the game.
For starters, there's the matter of choosing a champion. If you start playing League right now, you'll technically have more than 120 champions at your disposal—each with wildly different characteristics and abilities. The game winnows down this monstrously large number to a small handful of free champions that rotates at regular intervals. But still: not knowing anyone besides Ashe didn't make the decision particularly easy.
Am I picking the right one? I wondered frantically. What do all these abilities mean? I started Googling "best League of Legends character" on my phone. But the clock was ticking. Literally ticking. There's a timer counting down at the top of the screen during champion selection. If you haven't picked a champion and pressed the button to "lock in" by the time it reaches zero, you're sent back to the main menu. The game had already warned me that I'd be penalized for interrupting the match-making process like this.
I didn't feel like tempting fate.
Oooh...look at this lady. Shyvana?
I clicked on her icon. "They are nothing before me!" She rumbled in a handsome baritone. Well, she talks the talk. Plus, it looks like she can turn into a dragon. That's a good thing...right?
As I was thinking through all of this, messages from other players had begun to pop up in a chat box on screen. "top," one player wrote. "mid," came another a moment later. A third: "adc." Then a fourth: "anyone want to go jungle?"
I could tell what top, mid, and jungle meant—the players were calling out which part of Summoner's Rift they were going to play in once the game got going. But adc? What the fuck is an adc?
No time to be embarrassed, I told myself. Get ready to take the first plunge into the League community.
"guys...im very new to this and have like no idea what im doing," I wrote.
"its ok," someone wrote back. "its pretty ez."
"ok," I responded. "but, like...what position/character should I play as?"
"lol," another teammate wrote.
I went with Shyvana, the dragon lady.
Hearing so much about League's toxic player base, I'd expected to encounter an army of vicious trolls once I stepped into the game. Instead, I met a much kinder, gentler creature: the smurf. These are experienced players who create alternate accounts so they can go back into the game's kiddie pool. They may do that to try out new characters and positions, or just enjoy low-stakes games without the pressure of competing against formidable opponents. But really, many of the smurfs I met in co-op explained to me, they do it to fuck with new players.
At least, that's what they said they wanted to do. In my experience, they ended up doing the exact opposite. Especially when playing in co-op games, smurfs were often willing to entertain the many, many questions that kept coming into my head. I just had to learn how to phrase them the right way.
"how do you all level so fast?" I asked at one point a few games in.
"you kill people" a self-identified smurf replied, adding an "lol" for good measure.
"no i mean im already doing that," I replied. "but youre all so much higher than me already."
"you gotta last-hit the minions," the smurf said.
"ok," I wrote.
Maybe the teammate could tell that I still didn't get it, because a minute later the smurf wrote: "focus on their health bars. attack the ones with the lowest health. then you kill as many as possible."
I looked to the cluster of red and blue minions going at it a few feet in front of Shyvana, picking out one with an almost-empty health bar. She ran up and punched him. It only took one hit—the minion slumped over. Same with the next one. And the next one. And the one after that.
"Ahhhhhhhh," I wrote. "I see." One small thing suddenly clicked into place.
Never mind the tutorials, I realized, this is how you learn to play League of Legends. I kept asking my teammates for small pieces of advice. Sometimes I'd find myself in a team that barely said a word to one another after calling out their positions. Far more often I found willing friends and allies.
No single person laid bare the secrets of League or anything like that. But over the course of many more co-op games during my first two weeks playing, I gathered up enough bits and pieces of feedback from vocal and friendly smurfs that the game finally started to make sense. Shyvana is a "tank," these players helped me understand. That means she's best suited for the top lane, where the heavy bruisers of the team go, or killing monsters in the jungle. I should kill as many minions as possible early in the game rather than champions to level her up as fast as I can. Her "W" helps with that, since it casts a ring of flame that damages anything in her immediate vicinity. Her ultimate dragon-transforming ability, or "ult" in League-speak is a great way to get an extra leg up against an enemy since, I mean, it turns her into a friggin' dragon:
But the ult is useful in other ways as well. It can also help her jump away from a dicey position when she's getting ganked.
"What does ganked mean?"
"Like, ganging up on you."
"shyvana," a teammate wrote a week later. Shyvana seemed sturdy enough in co-op that I'd decided to step into full-on player-versus-player mode. The game had only just begun.
"whats up," I replied. I'd just been killed by Garen, a hunky sword-wielding champion. Each time your champion dies, you have to sit through a cool-down period before they're dropped back into the base. I was using this downtime to peruse the shop and try to decide what to buy next—another tip I'd picked up in co-op after a smurf noticed I was spending too much time idling at the base.
"stop going in like rambo," the player said.
"ok sry," I apologized. "ill be more careful now." Human enemies were already proving much more tactful and tricky opponents than the co-op bots.
Shyvana dropped into the base, and I sent her back to the top lane. Like the cool-down times you're forced to endure after being killed, traveling to and from your bases eats away valuable seconds of game-time that can and should be better spent. It's an incredibly clever form of punishment, making you feel so powerless to the ticking of the clock. Every unbearably long walk from the base to my lane hammered home a crystal-clear message: don't fuck up.
I made it back to the top lane and started killing minions. Garen showed up. I kept my distance, skirting around the edges of the enemy minion cluster to put as much distance between the two of us as possible. It wasn't enough. A few seconds later, we edged close to one another and Garen leapt into the air, falling back to the ground by my feet with a resounding thud. My health bar dropped. I tried to run in the opposite direction, back to the safety of my tower, but I was stunned. Shyvana moved in slow motion. Garen started spinning around in circles, slashing at me with his sword.
"Shiv," my teammate wrote. Ugh. Not this guy again.
"I know I know"
"You're feeding him."
"are u ******* serious"
This was pvp. No more time for co-op's idle chatter. It was strictly business now.
Back to the lane. There was Garen, again. He had two levels on me at this point. I stayed well away, darting backwards pre-emptively whenever he seemed like he was getting too close. Things seemed like they were going fine for a minute or two, and I managed to close some of the gap between our levels. Then I heard a short ding—League's ping sound. A small red icon appeared near the two of us, at an opening in the top lane that goes into the jungle.
I'd been hearing a lot of pings, and still hadn't mastered any part of League well enough to multitask so effeciently that I could actually listen to these same pings, so I didn't make much of it. Suddenly a giant unsightly demon of some sort ran through the opening and charged at me.
HOLY SHIT. I'd never even seen this champion before. I fumbled with my keyboard, jamming blindly on the q,w,e, and r keys. It didn't do much. Garen leapt into the air again while the demon kept slicing at me.
Jesus, I thought.
"I told you he was coming."
Ahhh, so THAT'S what the red danger sign was for!
I wanted to write: "What the fuck do you think I've been doing?" Instead I just said: "ok."
Should I just stop playing? I started to think, completely defeated by the thought that I was messing up so much I'd become an extra burden on my team rather than a genuine asset. Can I leave the match—is that a thing you can do in League?
Not really, no. Once a game begins, there's no easy way out of it unless your entire team surrenders. You can just sign off, leaving your team to finish out the battle one man down. Doing so is universally frowned upon, though. It might not feel very good, but you're better off just sticking it out—seeing the game through to the end, however bitter that end may be.
I sat through yet another cool-down, fuming at myself and wondering what, if anything, I could do to salvage the rapidly deteriorating situation. Then as I was running back to the top lane, I noticed something. Garen wasn't there anymore. I could see from the circle icon with his face on the mini-map that he'd gone to the middle, where he was duking it out with two of my teammates.
Maybe he'd grown bored of having so little competition. Or maybe his team said they needed him more on mid. Either way, I had an opening! I could take the next tower with only minions to deal with. Even I knew how to deal with minions.
Finally, I thought, I can do something useful! I was wrong.
As I ran past the safe zone of the last standing tower in my lane, I noticed things were quiet. Really quiet. Way too quiet. I came up on one of the patches of tall grass peppered throughout all of the lanes. When I was directly next to it, the demon leapt out and started hammering at me. Shit, shit, shit. I turned around and started racing in the other direction, triggering my ult to put a precious few feet between me and the enemy. Another two champions ran out from the jungle and cut off my retreat. The three of them made short work of me.
Oh dear god.
"Who fed Yi?" one of my teammates asked a week ago. It was a simple question. But something about it sounded desperate.
"Guys seriously," he added a moment later. "Who the **** fed Yi???"
This was the week after my Shyvana struggles had officially come to an end. She'd been taken off the free champion rotation, meaning that I'd either have to spend the "Influence Points" I'd gathered from playing to permanently unlock her or purchase her with "Riot Points," the other main currency in the game. Champions cost a lot less Riot Point than Influence Points, the catch being that you don't accumulate RP over time by just playing the game. One of the main ways Riot makes money off League, then,is by selling huge bundles of them for real-world cash. I had a few thousand IP at that point—enough to purchase Shyvana if I really wanted to. But I was doing so poorly with her that cashing in on all my game time didn't feel worth it. Better to try something new instead.
One of my roommates, who's a veteran League player going on more than three years, told me to try someone named Quinn instead.
She's a ranged character who excels in the ADC position. I still didn't fully understand what an ADC is meant to do, but I eagerly took his advice all the same and started focusing on playing games in the bottom lane.
Quinn was a good choice. Ranged attacks let me keep a safe distance from opponents. Two of her abilities—"blinding shot," a single overcharged shot that temporarily blinds targets, and "vault," a neat jump move that bounces her off opponents to land a few feet away from them—proved enormously effective in helping me out of tight scrapes.
She also has a transforming ult like Shyvana, only Quinn turns into an eagle instead of a dragon. I found it more handy than the dragon ult, mostly because Quinn's eagle form doesn't just help her jump a small ways away from enemies before returning to a more normal speed. It also lets you keep zooming in and around a lane, which is great for making long-distance escapes.
Most importantly of all, though, was the simple fact that once I started playing as Quinn I stopped dying as much. I had the relative space and comfort to start toying around with her move-set, figuring out how to use vault and blinding shot in quick succession to take out an enemy champion, or using her ult to close the distance between me and an opponent who was trying to run away. At her highest levels, the combination of damage-per-second and sheer speed make this eagle move an absolutely devastating way to take out whole chunks of the enemy team in a few seconds:
Just realizing that I was the one trying to catch a fleeing opponent was empowering. I was finally doing some serious damage.
Once I had Quinn's basics in place, I was finally able to do another very important League thing: pay attention to her place on the team. An "ADC" is important, I came to learn, because the position is meant to develop into a powerhouse capable of dealing massive amounts of damage by the end of the game. That's where the name—"Attack Damage Carry"—comes from: you develop attack damage over the course of the game, and then use that to carry your team to victory. You're meant to play the early game cautiously as a result, which was totally fine by me. Rather than gunning aggressively for champion kills, I learned to lean on the support of my fellow lane-mate (who, fittingly, is meant to play a position called "Support")—farming hordes of minions for gold and only taking out champions when the two of us could quickly tag-team them after they'd stumbled. This is how you do real damage in League, I thought one time after a lane-mate and I simultaneously killed both of our opponents when they tried to move too fast in our direction. It's not about one character over another. The team working together and acting as one organic unit—that's the truly powerful champion.
Before I had a chance to get too cocky, Master Yi showed up.
I was sticking to the bottom lane, as I assumed everyone still was at such an early point in a game. Quinn was still only level four, after all. League games shift dramatically over time as all the champions destroy towers, kill one another, and use the resulting experience and gold to beef themselves up. The tight structure of the early game's map gradually gives way to something much more formless and chaotic—you move from lane to lane depending on where you're needed most. If a team is communicating effectively, all five players begin to coordinate attacks against enemy champions or push against a weak spot in their base's defenses.
The second half of a League game is when all the epic stuff happens—giant five-versus-five team battles, rapid-fire assaults to destroy a series of enemy towers in quick succession, stuff like that. Lots of insane episodes unfold at such a rapid clip that I'm still not really able to keep up. Team battles in particular are like all the minute, hyper-granular aspects of League, only on steroids and happening at the exact same time. I often lose sight of where my character is amongst all this noise:
There's much less room for spectacle early in a game, which looks a lot more like this:
But the very beginning of a League match is my favorite part by far. It's a quiet, tense period when you square off with one or two opponents at most. You circle around one another like boxers, waiting to see who will try to go in for an attack first. It's a wonderfully delicate few minutes, trying to keep your cool and anticipate your opponent's next move.
That's the mindset I was in when my teammate started to panic about Yi. I had no idea what he was talking about at first. But then I saw it for myself a moment later. An enemy champion who looked like a ninja wearing funny high-tech goggles showed up at the top of my screen. He was running down the lane towards me with alarming speed. I saw that he was level 8. How on earth did he already get to level 8?
I fired what was supposed to be a warning shot, aiming Quinn's reticle down the lane to track his trajectory. Yi was too fast for that, so it missed. When he was still a long enough ways away that I hadn't bothered to retreat, the guy suddenly vanished into thin air. He reappeared a fraction of second later, on top of me, unleashing a flurry of rapid-fire blade maneuvers. This killed me instantly.
The rest of the match was a terrifying game of trying and inevitably failing to outrun the deadly ninja.
"How the hell do I counter Yi?" I asked a few games later during a match I was playing with Anthony Smith, my League-veteran roommate (yes, he asked that I use his full name and link to his Twitter profile because he's just that proud of his time with the game—as he should be!). We were playing on bottom together against Yi and Blitzcrank, a mech champion who has a frustrating grapple move that pulls the target back towards him.
The Blitz player was using this on me every chance he got—pulling me into immediate range of Yi's instant kill attack.
"dont let him kill you," Anthony wrote back.
"but like how," I asked, completely lost.
Trying not to die made sense, obviously. In addition to the lost time, there's another penalty you incur every time you die in League: the champion who kills you gets a big chunk of experience, making them all the more formidable next time you square off. Yi benefits from this "feeding" process in a far scarier way than many other champions. I understood in the abstract why I shouldn't die—especially so many times, especially at Yi's hands. I could even see in completely literal terms how I was supposed to be blocking Blitz's grab, since Anthony kept saying "use your minions to block it."
Putting these ideas into practice, though, was a whole other matter. Dying seems like an inevitability in any competitive game. So is, uhh...not dying really the only solution?
"lol stop," Anthony wrote after the seventh or eighth time Blitz grabbed me.
See, what makes League of Legends so tough is that it isn't balanced the way many other games are. Playing something like Super Smash Bros., I can be safe with the knowledge that any fighter I pick should technically be able to defeat anyone else in the game. That's not really always the case with League. Choosing Quinn as a champion means that I may end up encountering enemy champions I can't effectively counter. Moving quickly and using ranged abilities lets me respond to most attacks. But if a powerhouse melee champion gets in too close? I'm all but done for. Shyvana, on the other hand, can only swat off so many arrows at once—facing off against two or more ranged opponents is the quickest way to turn her into nothing more formidable than food for enemy champions.
After Anthony and I had lost our Yi-feeding game, he finally explained to me how countering can work if you actually know what you're doing. Remember the message from the tutorial, "stay behind your minions?" They could block Blitz's grab, meaning I wouldn't be delivered straight to Yi for a killing blow. And if Yi got too close, I just had to blind him or vault away. The reason I kept banging my head against the wall was because I was still acting like I should target enemy champions directly. Trying playing around them instead.
"But...Yi just always catches up to me!" I said, exasperated.
"No," Anthony said. It was oddly like our in-game chat, only in real life. Talking to him about these rock-and-a-hard-place moments made me recognize that there really is a way around most, if not all, of League's many trying situations. The difference between the two of us was, primarily, a matter of time. So many things that are second-nature to him at this point, like leaning on minions for an ever-present meat-shield, were still barely tangible concepts to me.
Call it good timing, but the very next game I played the following morning put me against Blitz and Yi once again. Playing with extreme caution, I made sure to run away every time Yi got close to taking me out. Doing so wasn't even that hard, I realized. As long as I maintained my concentration whenever he was close by, the low-level Yi hadn't gotten enough speed boosts to feast on me the way others had. Somehow, I also managed to only fall prey to Blitz's grab three or four times. My team ended up winning the match.
I messaged Anthony on Facebook immediately afterwards to say, "YOU'RE GONNA BE SO PROUD OF ME."
Overcoming terrifying, seemingly insurmountable obstacles is a crucial part of improving in League of Legends, I've learned. But that's also the case with many games. What I've found uniquely fascinating about League is the way it teaches you to do so. All the embarrassing fumbles and ensuing deaths add up to something that's often felt unbearably defeating in the moment: playing through a game I feel like I've ruined for both me and my teammates by, say, feeding an opposing champion. There's no way to make the game stop or reload after fucking up like this. Really, there was only one thing to do: keep playing.
Making it through a rough game of League with a close friend helps soften the blow. But I haven't had that in the majority of my games. All the other times I'm left at the mercy of my teammates—people who just want to play the game they like and don't give a shit about how new a player I am, or any other excuses I try to muster when apologizing for inadvertently feeding an enemy champion enough that they turn into an uncontrollable monster.
Most people I've encountered have been nice enough in this regard. But everybody's patience wears thin at a certain point. One player, the only real asshole I've met so far, got so fed up with my Shyvana shenanigans that, after ordering me around for several minutes, decided he'd had enough.
"Shyvana," he proclaimed. "You are bad." No profanity, no gross epithets. Just bad. The clarity of his statement made it all the more difficult to bear. He told me I should go back to playing with bots, then tried to start a surrender vote.
"Shyvana, please surrender."
Our other teammates had voted no, and it was far too early to make any clear call on the game. I declined, asking him why. He didn't bother responding. Instead, he logged out of the game—leaving the other four of us to keep fighting against a team of five.
We lost the match. In the post-game chat between both teams, the player showed up again. "Sorry," he wrote. "Someone on our team was just very new."
It was already past midnight at that point, but I didn't want to step away from League on such a sore note. I stayed up and kept playing more games, trying to find some way to improve.
There's a single line in my notebook from that night, which I wrote when I finally tried to go to bed. Am I only playing this game to try and prove him wrong? It was a troubling thought. Progression can often be its own reward in video games, but I'd like to think there's something else that keeps me coming back to play something. Is there a genuine sense of enjoyment in League, or does the game just manage to hook people with some bizarre compulsive drive by convincing them they always need to be getting "better?"
The thing that finally clicked about League for me that allowed me to enjoy the game was realizing that winning or losing a particular match doesn't really matter. Any sense that I'm playing at an adequate skill level (or not, and feeling like I need to) doesn't either. What keeps me coming back to the game right now is the incredible level of creativity and experimentation it allows.
No matter how many mistakes I make, there's always a new technique to try out, another way to work past a challenge either by myself or—even better—with great teammates. The moments when everything seems to click into place and I pull off some feat I didn't know I was capable of are as thrilling as they are varied thanks to how vast and complex the game is. The first time I managed to control an entire lane against three enemy champs, for instance, left me with such a headrush that I skipped excitedly down to Anthony's room afterwards to bang on his door and tell him what had just happened. Sadly, he wasn't home. But hopefully he will be next time.
I've been binging on League for almost a month at this point, and it still feels like every game I step into has a new champion I've never even seen before. Facing off against so many different foes makes every encounter new and interesting in its own way. And that's just playing against them. I still haven't bothered to step outside the relative comfort zone I found on the bottom lane once I started playing as Quinn.
Speaking of Quinn, she went off the free champion rotation last night. I couldn't say goodbye to her as easily as I did with Shyvana, so I caved and made my first real-money League purchase. I've only played one game as her since then, though. Because Caitlyn, another ADC-friendly character, caught my attention.
"So how's League going?" a friend asked me the other day. "I feel like I've become everything I hate," I answered. I meant that as a good thing.
There are a lot of shitty stereotypes associated with League of Legends players. The main one that kept popping up whenever I'd tweet about it or talk it over with my League-averse gaming friends is that the community takes itself way too seriously. "League isn't about having fun," someone would often say sarcastically over Twitter, "it's about winning."
Once I actually got my footing in League, I realized how true that is. I'd ask lane-mates why they didn't bother to tell me that they were heading back to the base. Or keep pleading with a rowdy team of friends to shut the **** up and keep their head in the game. Or—hoping that nobody was around who knew me well enough to detect the serious irony—demand that they stop making stupidly reckless plays that were feeding our opponents.
One night this week, I left someone knocking furiously on my door for a good 10 or 15 minutes while I kept shouting, "One second!" We were just so close to taking these last two towers and sealing our team's victory.
Does this mean I've already become one of those 'crazy' League players? Pretty much. But the thing I've learned—the thing many of the game's detractors don't seem to realize—is that we're actually not that crazy. And we're definitely having fun.
I've never played a game that demands as singular a focus as League. Letting your attention go, even for a fraction of a second, places you at great risk of messing up. If I stop to say hi, I might not trigger Quinn's ult in time to survive an enemy ganking, or miss the fleeting window of opportunity to kill an enemy champion who's trying to dart away. Anthony's cat has proven as formidable a foe as some of the in-game champions I'm scared of in this regard:
(How he deals with the cat during games at his level is beyond me)
Fuck-ups like these screws the entire team over.
So while many League players might come across as curt, rude, even hostile given the way they succinctly order each other around, they usually have a good reason for doing so. Even taking the time to type out a message to teammates—let alone a message longer than "come to bot" or a non-verbal ping—pulls you away from participating in the most important parts of the game.
The most thrilling moments in League are the ones with such a powerful sense of urgency you don't even need to send messages—plunging into a full team battle, darting around the enemy base to chip away at enemies and back-up your allies, tactical maneuvers that evolve at such a rapid clip you only have a split-second to decide whether you should press R to run away or Q and E to stay in the fight a little bit longer. Maybe you'll have a moment to breath after the narrator cheers "Ace!"—the term for a situation in which you've killed all five of the enemy champions, meaning you have most of the map to yourself until they start respawning. But even then, most players give themselves a second to blurt out, "NICE," or "gj," or the ubiquitous League boast: "rekt." Then it's on to the next tower. Or maybe back to the base to gear up for the next big fight.
Playing to win is the only way to let yourself have the most fun.
At least, that's my theory for why I'm so obsessed with League of Legends right now. Let's see how I feel once I get to level 30, and finally start playing the most intense form of the game there is: ranked mode.
CORRECTION (1:30 pm): This article originally said that Riot Points accumulate over time like Influence Points, albeit at a much slower rate. Many readers quickly pointed out that this is NOT the case. The only way players gain RP is by purchasing it with real money. I apologize for the error.