Two cosplayers at the 2017 World Championship dressing up as game characters Soraka and Lux. Soraka was considered highly ‘meta’, while Lux is barely played at all on the professional level (credit: Riot Games)
The meta concept is an integral part of the gaming world and does everything from dictating ranked play to the outcome of the World Championship.
A video game casual cares little about what is effective and what is not. It could be a 30-year-old woman playing mobile games on her phone while on the bus, or a 12-year old boy playing Mario on his Nintendo console.
Either way, games are just a source of enjoyment for most people, similar to a movie or TV series.
As a player’s skill increases, there comes a point when they are forced to adapt their playstyle to the most mathematically efficient way of playing a game.
Why go for a strategy that has 47 percent chance of yielding a positive result when you can opt for one with a 51 percent? Professional institutions operate according to what they believe is the most effective way to achieve their goals. Gaming is no different.
That is the ‘meta’, the accepted framework of what is the best way to play the game.
For a game like chess, this would be starting with the E-5 pawn on the white side of the board, and for a game like League of Legends, this would be playing the most powerful champions in the most effective roles, adapting them to the most viable strategy.
The Changing Meta
The 2013 World Champions. Of these five players, only one remains on the roster today. The rest have had their playstyles invalidated by the constantly changing game (credit: Riot Games)
Unlike traditional sports, such as football, where the rules are always the same, the teams have the same amount of players, the ball is equally large and heavy, online video games are constantly updated.
League of Legends receives more than a dozen updates every year and each update contains changes to the core gameplay that force players to constantly adapt to a changing ruleset and evolving environment.
For example, let us say that you are an aggressive top laner. The team is constructed around you and the game is dependent on your success. For six months, all is well. You play your aggressive champions, the rest of the team goes defensive, and the supportive players give you all the attention you need.
However, an update to the game is made that increases the value of the Dragon, a bot lane objective. Suddenly, the team with the best control around the bot-side of the map has a lot of advantages.
Your entire style becomes invalidated with a single update to the game and you have to either reinvent a new way of playing, break the meta with something unexpected and exceptional, or retire.
This happened to Fnatic, featured in an earlier two-part feature, in the summer of 2016.
Fnatic were ranked No 1 team in Europe thanks to a very tactical ‘lane-swap’ strategy that was based around genius shot-calling from their support.
With a single update – one that lowered the defensive stats of the bot lane turret and added a gold bonus to the team that destroyed the first turret – the lane-swap became an unviable strategy.
Fnatic’s early game could no longer be played. After just a few weeks, the No 1 European team had plummeted far down the rankings and didn’t even make the No 3 seed for Worlds.
The meta of tomorrow
The Unicorns of Love are known for often finding new ways to play the game, making an impact on the meta as a result (credit: Riot Games)
The meta is not international, but regional. As regions develop their own styles during the regular seasons, they then get the opportunity to have a tactical showdown at each international competition.
Europe and Korea have historically been the most innovative regions, coming up with new ideas and strategies and forcing other regions to adapt.
North America generally follows what is innovated in Europe and Korea and China has their own meta entirely which only rarely inspires or takes inspiration from the play styles of the other regions.
WIth every new patch, there is a chance for an old team to fall out of style, or a new team to rise to glory.
This update cycle causes many careers in League of Legends to be short-lived, but also allows for an unprecedented amount of young newcomers to enter the scene each year.
If you play the game, play it your way, and play it well, you could be the next person to change the meta if you manage to battle your way to the top using your own unique approach.