Hell Is Other People

It was Jean-Paul Sartre that concluded hell is other people and I’ve always subscribed to that belief. For some time many League of Legends players have spoke of the collective horrors of playing solo queue that lead to the term “Elo Hell” being bandied about. It was half grim joke, the other half horrible truth, that it was certainly harder to climb up the Elo rankings once you’d slipped to a certain point than it was to stay at the higher level.

It’s only recently though that people have started addressing the issue and, as to be expected, most of the commentators and high ranking players have dispelled it as a fiction, nothing more than a security blanket that shit players cling to in order to feel somewhat more secure about their inherent shitness. In many ways I want to agree. I want to be one of the other cool kids, chirping parrot fashion about how if you’re good enough you’ll climb and in the end you’ll end up at the level you belong but equally I know that to be absurd. There’s too many variables for that to be the case all of the time.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m more than aware of the existence of MOBA Madness, the same way I’ve spoken at length about Sourceaphrenia. They are gaming related disorders that ultimately mean you don’t perceive reality the way it is, a feverish self-imposed delusion that absolutely always makes you the one in the right. In Source it most commonly manifests as people saying things like “why has he re-peaked, what a retard” or “look how bad he is” or simply screaming “what’s he doing” after you’ve been owned. All of those players believe completely that they have only lost to their opponent because they are so inferior that it’s impossible to predict just how bad they will be, as they don’t adhere to the conventional wisdom.

In MOBA titles it’s not dissimilar. You see all sorts of ridiculous outbursts that ultimately amount to your death being someone else’s fault. I’ve seen people engage 4 enemies alone, died and then type abuse to their team who were on the other side of the map taking a tower. Get focused in a teamfight? Why haven’t your team-mates healed you (they killed four though and pretty much won the game, assholes). Get ganked for the third time and you’ve still not placed a ward… “Fucking call ss you shit cunts”.

League of Legends (which would be more appropriately titled League of Legends-in-their-own-minds) isn’t helped in this regard by the fact that it is so universal in its appeal that it has attracted players from all sorts of different backgrounds, many of them playing their first and only MOBA game. Because of this many people equate kills as being skill, that FPS mentality, and focus solely on learning how to faceroll their keyboard lightning quick to win those 1v1s then wondering why they’re not doing real damage late game because their items suck, or because they keep allowing themselves to get killed by poor positioning. You can spot these guys a mile off in game. They type real dumb shit like “LOL 4v1 to kill me? Noobs” as if somehow communicating and co-ordinating team manoeuvres was low skill.

So yes, I love the idea that this detritus will sink to the bottom and stay there but in agreeing that this in itself happens are we not also agreeing if someone who isn’t cut from the same cloth has a bad run and ends up there they will struggle to get out? Surely for one argument to stand up the other has to as well.

You see, Elo (not an abbreviation and as such not pronounced “E L O” like a Yorkshireman’s greeting) is a fundamentally flawed system to apply to any game like this in the first place. It was never intended for this purpose and as such it is ill fitting. Its creator, a Hungarian born physics professor Arpad Elo, invented it for calculating the relative skill levels of chess players. You can see immediately how there are few variables, how if one person beats the other they acquire more points and climb. Beating people well below your level yields fewer points and beating people well above yields greater points. He didn’t have any designs of applying it to anything else but needless to say it was appropriated by other pursuits, including a wide range of American team sports. You will know these more commonly as “Power Rankings”.

Even though it is extremely rare that these systems are actually used to decide anything in itself and are mostly used by sports pundits and betting agents as a way of determining how to sound informed and how to make money, while at the same time generating public debate, there’s still an argument as to why they make sense. After all a team is put together for a series of campaigns, each year seeing the core of the previous year’s retained to ensure some continuity. The fluctuations in any rating would be caused only by the loss of the truly spectacular players, the three point specialist, the inspirational quarterback and so on.

This is extremely different to what solo queue seeks to achieve. It looks to throw together two teams of five players of similar skill (skill that is assessed solely on their Elo rating) for little more than 20 minutes to an hour. It is a temporary alliance and often one that doesn’t even come close to working. At this point your fortunes are partly dictated by four players who you’ve never met, never spoke to (and never will) and often are your compatriots for one time only before disappearing off into the ether. Elo makes little sense within this context because, even if you were streets ahead of the other players on the server, the nature of any MOBA game means that almost certainly, against anything except the weakest opposition, you can’t do it alone.

This seems indisputable and while I doubt anyone would argue that a player of 1600 – 2000 elo skill would have no trouble breaking free from 1000 – 1200, It’d be a lot harder for a player of 1000 to climb up from 500 if you placed them there. No matter how good you are it’s entirely possible to carry the shit out of a game and still lose. It’s possible to adapt the game and take charge, to try and support the weakest links in the chain at the best of your ability and still lose. In short you can do everything right and still lose. That’s the curse of any team game but when you start making teams up of people who are either moonlighting at a low Elo, levelling up a friend’s account, inheriting someone else’s account with no idea how to play, are drunk, a griefer or simply someone who doesn’t understand the game, then it can’t be denied that some are going to get “lucky” and others aren’t.

Luck as people often refer to it, as some sort of cosmic force that determines life’s winners from the losers, doesn’t exist of course. However it would be entirely possible that you could be put with a series of match ups that others don’t. It’s statistically improbable that game after game you would get AFKers, early leavers, disconnects, trolls… But it is possible and there’s no doubt more than a few people having been afflicted by this.

I can speak of my own experiences. A relatively late LoL convert I tried to find the time to play a lot of games and by the time I’d hit level 30 I thought I’d got the hang of it, going around stomping on pubs. You know the kind of games… You’re 22/0/20 with Rammus and you’re zipping around the map killing people at will. Of course you don’t know why, or how, but fuck it… You MUST be good at the game or why else would it be happening. So where next? Well, you must be ready for ranked.

Except, like me, you’re not. I jumped into it without really understanding what I was doing or meant to be doing. I’d never really thought about a metagame and was probably a major annoyance to all the people I had to play with. I could play a handful of heroes well and that was about the size of my contribution to a team… When out of my comfort zone, things went badly, but for the most part the players at the 1200 Elo were decent enough to deal with my drag factor. As such I did OK, being carried to some wins and losing a few to keep me at a respectable Elo ranking despite the fact I was everything that I now rail against.

Then came the run of badness. Bad form, bad luck, bad teams… It was a testament to how bad things had got when I say I was by no means the sole reason for poor performances, even though I was still coming to terms with the importance of certain roles and refining my builds so they were actually useful. A run of nine defeats and I thought to myself, fuck it, I’m not ready for ranked, back to the drawing board.

It was a good place to go because after paying closer attention to some high level games, attending IEM, doing some reading, I realised for the most part I was awful. Not so much at the clicking and moving, not at the farming, not at that stuff. But just in terms of comprehension of what it takes to win, the importance of counter-picking heroes and what heroes are in the top tier for competitive play in their respective positions.

Upon my return though I didn’t find it easier. In fact at the lower Elo it was a lot harder to win games, even when I punched above my weight. Indeed the game was often won or lost by factors that were totally beyond my control. You knew before you went into the game a lot of the time if you’d lost because the further down the rankings you go the lesser the respect for the metagame there actually is. These people don’t understand why a team might want to take a ranged hero, instead opting for that one hero they’ve played 400 games with whatever the situation. It was like the Old Spice advert. Look at their team, now look at yours, now back to theirs… Your team isn’t their team but it could be if you weren’t playing with absolute jebends.

And again the wisdom passed down from on high is that if you are good enough you’ll just carry the team and you’ll win anyway. It’s a nice theory but how do you make up for someone that’s not there, or even worse 0/10 inside of 6 minutes? Is there something you can honestly do to turn that around? Maybe, maybe if you’re one of the best players in the world… If you’re just better than the players around you though, it’s no guarantee you’re going to get your just desserts. Indeed, if Elo is a fair measure of individual skill in this game then it’d be close to impossible for someone from a a much lower Elo to hold their own in a higher ranked game. Yet it happens and I’m sure there’s plenty of examples. That can’t simply be dismissed as being “carried” because if that was the case then it points to even more flaws in the measure.

The other piece of conventional wisdom is that if you keep playing these things will even out, keep hitting play and it’ll all work out, even if it takes thousands of games to do so. That to me sounds a bit like the old “these things level out over the course of a season” argument in football, which is bullshit. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t but there’s no force of nature that says they have to and will.

In all of this the plight of the support hero is often overlooked, because it’s extremely hard to “carry” a game, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, when you’re playing in such a role. You can put wards everywhere, save more lives than seatbelts and even have the healing hands of the offspring of Princess Diana and Mother Theresa (both of whom, of course, were simply awful human beings) but you’re still reliant on the others not being stupid. What good is a ward for players that never even look at the map? What good is a life saving heal if upon receiving it they run straight back towards certain death? The implication seems to be that if you’re a good player you should eschew this role in favour of others to drag the level of your team up… Usually this means you’re left with a support hero who doesn’t even know where to find wards in the shop.

If I took a cross section of my last ten games, which would be discounting the dozens that don’t even make it to the server because someone just insta-locked Ashe to play jungle, it’s hard to see anything other than a pattern of woe. Six losses, four wins and only one where I can say I was the problem. Everything else was AFK, tantrums and one guy who decided the best way to spend his time was making swastikas out of wards in our spawn.

And there’s the rub, that for all I want to believe that justice comes to those who deserve it, that there anyone who says otherwise are making excuses, sadly as more and more players have flocked to LoL and with it ranked play, the lower the standard and the lesser the understanding of the game exist at the lowest level. There’s still ways out of it, many people telling me about how they brought in a duo partner to each other inflate their Elo. That for me points to a clear flaw in the argument that you find your level and that Elo works in this purpose.

Maybe we do all deserve to be there but when a win comes down to which team is the least retarded in how it behaves, not who plays the best, that is to competitive play what Stoke is to the beautiful game. The best can always climb out of the mire. That’s why there the best. For many though, don’t say hell doesn’t exist. We see it daily and we’re not all delusional.