In exploring the world of League of Legends, I find myself stymied by some of the basic terminology. The application of “game” and “metagame” is counterintuitive for me, and it took a fairly lengthy discussion with my boyfriend (LordCOTA) who has been playing League of Legends (for three “seasons”; more later) to understand how they’re used in this context. So I’d like to replicate both some of what I learned, and some of how I feel about it. I am trying very hard to avoid some of my prescriptivist impulses, and instead, want very much to focus on how these terms are constructed by players and developers and random forum posters. Because despite not showing up in mainstream (as much as there can be a mainstream) games criticism, this vernacular theory is very important to me. (And I hope I can give it its due.)
I’m going to quote a comment on the first post in this quasi-series, to illustrate this point:
But lastly (and maybe most importantly) I think that the kind of engagement with map layouts, skills, balance, and even lore is often sequestered away in sites that are about becoming really really *good* at the game, and so there’s a feeling of just creating the same knowledge as is already out there.
– Ben Abraham, comment here
With that flourishing player discourse in mind, let’s look at “metagame” and “game”, and how these two terms work together to make League of Legends what it is, halfway between classic video and computer games, and sports. In this way, League of Legends offers an example of how eSports are constructed by viewers and gamers alike.
Game refers to the mechanics of the game within the client, what you’re allowed to do by the game rules itself, the original product of the designers. The game includes stats, and is balanced based on the state of competitive play (both professional and high league). Riot Games tunes League of Legends biweekly during the “season” when competitive play is happening, and makes bigger adjustments between “seasons”.
The metagame is set of rules and expectations for how the game should be played, built on top of the restrictions of the game mechanics.
“that’s what the community considers the appropriate way to play, and it follows the current state of the competitive scene of the game”
It is similar to emergent play in a way, except if emergent play describes the moment of surprise and unpredictability, metagame refers to when that previously-surprising action becomes standard.
High-level players try out certain modes of play, which eventually settle into what gets known as the “metagame”, which affects what Riot rolls out in their biweekly balance patches. As a newcomer to League of Legends, I get somewhat confused by how people use “metagame” (and “meta”) to refer to things that I would consider part of the game, but in discussing it with my interviewee (lol) I think I have a better handle on why those terms are used in that way, and it’s actually fucking fascinating to me.
So here we have sports, where the “metagame” (LoL version) is practically what we think of when we think of the game. Soccer isn’t a game about kicking a ball, it’s about movement and getting your defense to push up just enough to apply pressure but not enough to leave a hole, and of having a goalie, and people designated to go score goals and people designated to stop goals from happening. Football has a whole system of plays and roles; there’s a person on every football team whose entire purpose in the game is to be good at kicking. Nothing else, just kicking the ball between the goalposts. And, what happens in sports is that over time these cultural expectations of how the game ought to be played start to shift, because really good people start doing really strange things, and the best part is, they work.
And apparently, that same thing happens in League of Legends, except this is called the “metagame”.