Gentleman Gustaf here today to talk to you about why Solo Queue is a surprisingly good learning environment, and moreover, why its success is crucial to the idea of e-sports. For a long time, I labored under the delusion that solo queue isn’t a good way to improve. I insisted that since the game was a 5 person game that was most interesting and strategic with 5 consistent players, practicing in solo queue at best didn’t give you the full experience, and at worst taught you bad ‘selfish’ habits.
However, about a year ago, my opinion shifted somewhat, and with time, it has only shifted more dramatically. This is largely because I realized that until those of us in the e-sports community start treating e-sports like sports, those outside the e-sports community will not even begin to consider treating e-sports like sports. I think it is easy to fall prey to the ‘solo queue isn’t real’ mindset, but that opinion seems to be more the result of the Self-Serving Bias and Confirmation Bias, in that people tend to think that they are better than they are, and being confronted with that fact can be hard for people to deal with. There are really three points in this post:
- What is a sport and are e-sports sports?
- How do you improve at e-sports?
- Is solo queue an environment which fosters that style of learning?
What is a sport?
Historically, sport comes from the French 'desport', meaning 'leisure'. This meaning is still present in the phrase 'for sport'. Various dictionaries list the following definitions:
- A source of diversion; recreation.
- physical activity engaged in for pleasure
- an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature
- an individual or group activity pursued for exercise or pleasure, often involving the testing of physical capabilities and taking the form of a competitive game
It's quite clear that we're looking at something like the latter two definitions. The facts are simple: e-sports are hard to excel at, require significant skill and knowledge, and are highly competitive. Many would argue that e-sports don't require 'physical prowess', or aren't 'athletic' (never mind that the word athlete comes from the Greek for 'competitor'). However, the International Olympic Committee has ruled that bridge and chess are bona fide sports, and several other 'mind sports' have been recognized. So are e-sports just mind sports? I would argue no: e-sports require a certain amount of physical ability (albeit of fine precision, and not of cardiovascular fitness or muscular strength) like traditional sports. This is quite evident in how we would think about what 'mistake' can mean in each of the three categories. In traditional sports, there are two types of mistakes you can make, decision related mistakes, and execution related mistakes. That is, you can make a mental mistake, and make a poor choice, or you can simply fail to properly execute said choice. This is also quite true in e-sports. On the other hand, it's hardly true in mind sports. In mind sports, the only available mistakes are those of making a poor choice. Consider the following three scenarios, and which ones feel right.
- I saw that I had an open shot, but I failed to sink the three-pointer for the win.
- I saw that I had an open shot, but I failed to pull off the Blitzcrank grab.
- I saw that I had an open shot, but I failed to get my bishop to C3.
To rephrase this, there really isn't a concept in mind sports of trying to do something and failing. Once again, I am not arguing that e-sports require cardiovascular or muscular strength like traditional sports do. I am not arguing for the hidden physical fitness of e-sports players (although Liquid_Tyler was a college track runner, and InControl can bench 435 lbs). I am also not arguing that e-sports are a subset of traditional sports. I am arguing that our idea of sports is outdated, and that e-sports share enough similarities with traditional sports that we should consider traditional sports and e-sports to be non-overlapping subsets of sports, and mind sports are another such subset of sports. So basketball, baseball, football, hockey, and other similar sports are physical sports, poker and chess and bridge and other similar sports are mind sports, and Starcraft and League of Legends and Halo are e-sports. And while mind sports and e-sports may draw a similar crowd (i know they both draw nerds like me), I argue that e-sports have more in common with traditional, physical sports than they do with mind sports, as a result of their reliance on degrees of execution.
How do you improve at an e-sport?
Ultimately, you improve at an e-sport much in the way you would improve at a sport: you increase your capabilities and you decrease your mistakes. And what is the easiest way to do that?
- You have to know what the right thing to do is.
- You have to be capable of executing it.
You can get the former from experience or from watching streams, but you can only really get the latter from experience. Ultimately, much of improving at a sport doesn't involve playing that sport. To get good at basketball, you don't just play in tournaments and scrims all day. You spend hours in the gym or running. No, you won't be running around a track during games, no, you won't do pushups, and no, you won't be benchpressing or lifting weights. But all of these activities help you be prepared for the physical aspects of sports. Why is this important? For two reasons
- If you are physically incapable of executing a strategy, you won't be able to pull it off.
- If executing a strategy takes most of your physical effort, you won't have room for the mental effort to make the right decisions.
As such, you actually need to be much more physically capable to play a sport than you need to pull off any given action in that sport. This is why you lift weights far heavier than a basketball, this is why you do squats for far longer than you would ever remain in a defensive pose, and this is why you jump up or down 100 times in a row when you would never jump more than 4 or 5 times in a row; you don't want to be pushing your physical limits just to execute the basics of a sport, you want those basics to come naturally.
What does this mean for e-sports? This means you don't just need to be able to last-hit alone, you need to be able to last-hit while dodging poke, harassing, watching the minimap, and thinking about your strategy at the moment. Last-hitting doesn't need to be something you can do under optimal conditions, it needs to be something you can do while Armageddon rages down around you. Going back to strategy, you don't need to be able to think about what objective to take now, or how to play in lane, it needs to be something instinctive, because if you have to stop to think about it for even 1 second, you might miss the window.
Solo Queue training?
So where does this leave solo queue (by which I mean ranked solo queue) as a training environment? I think it makes it a wonderful training environment. Everything goes wrong in solo queue on quite a regular basis. Sometimes a strategy is way more unconventional than you'd like, on your team or on the enemy's team, and you have to react to it. Sometimes you get trolled or raged at or one of your players DCs. And no matter what, the only way to win is to continue to perform. In many ways, solo queue is just like training for any sport: you don't train at the level you play, you train at an unreasonable level beyond that level.
And what are those things you're training? In my mind, there are three incredibly important things to train.
- Responding to ganks
- Team fights
- Positioning (this depends on your role)
- Focus targets (this also depends on your role)
- Game Sense
- When do objectives need taking?
- Where is their jungler?
- Where are their other laners?
When it comes to these three (and other) aspects of play, solo queue play is no different from team play, and arguably, these are the most important three aspects of LoL. These are your fundamentals/basic mechanics, your positioning, and your playmaking, all things crucial in any sport.
What are (some of) the 'unreasonable levels', and what do you have to do to overcome them?
Inflexible players - you'll encounter plenty of people who only play one role, or one champion, and you'll have to pick around them. Think of it this way, you know you’re better than your team, right? If not, get better. If so, you can play every role better, so let them have their best role. No, it’s not a waste to have your best player at support, especially if your other option is that guy who only plays jungle Yi. This also forces you to know more champions, which allows you to avoid bad lanes.
People who are out of position - people get out of position all of the time, and you have to either follow them out of position, but stay as a team, or leave them to die.
Leading people who don't want to be led - If you know what to do, do it and ping your team to follow. Lead by example, if you consistently make good choices, people will follow you. But if team morale is down or you make bad calls, people won't follow you, even when your calls are good.
Determining whom to follow - If somebody is making better calls than you (or even just halfway decent calls), follow them. There's advantage in numbers, and it's better to have your team do something suboptimal as a group than for you to do the right thing alone.
Keeping your cool - Always be the chill one. Reacting negatively emotionally makes you play worse. Just shrug off your mistakes, after you acknowledge them. Don't rage. Instead laugh it off and enjoy it when somebody does terribly on your team. Instead of raging ‘you suck’, offer advice, and laugh to yourself ‘what a bad player, I’m going to carry his ass’. I played in a game recently with Bwas (he jungled), and it was honestly one of the best games I've ever played in. Our top lane had fed hard, and our mid was raging at him, but Bwas took control and said (paraphrasing) 'stop yelling at him, it isn't going to make him play any better and we're doing fine. This is what we need to do to win'. He defused a bad situation and made it into a good situation, by not arguing, but instead by being constructive and calm.
The blame game - Always take the blame. Who do you want taking the blame? Some pug who might rage/troll/quit, or you, who are super chill and won’t play badly because of it? So just say 'my bad', even if it wasn't your bad, and move on.
Communication - If your team doesn't know your plans, they may pick things that don’t synergize well. If they refuse to match your plans, you can at least match theirs.
Some of these are relevant to organized teams (like emotional state) and others aren't (like role flexibility). But they are all good training in that they force you to play the game under pressure, meaning when you finally do take the handicap off, you'll be a stronger player for it. Ultimately, solo queue hones your muscle memory, while simultaneously developing your instincts in all sorts of scenarios. Why do I say instincts instead of strategy, and prioritize muscle memory? Because as much as its proponents would like to think of e-sports as a highly cerebral activity, where you think about strategy intensely, much like in traditional sports, this is not really the case. Strategies are developed before the game, and most things happening in-game are simply instinctive, experience-based reactions. When somebody decides to engage in a 1v1 fight, they don't calculate their dps, their opponent's dps, account for tankiness, and decide who wins. They look at items/levels and have a general instinct of 'I can win this fight' or 'I can't win this fight'. And the way they have those instincts is that they've been in the same, or similar circumstances before. As such, having lots and lots of games means you've been in lots and lots of situations, which means you have better instinctive choices.
But Gentleman Gustaf, solo queue isn't fun; it's frustrating!
Largely, this is irrelevant to LoL as a sport. If you're treating LoL as a game, sure, solo queue is frustrating, but there are other aspects of League of Legends that you can engage in (normal games, for example). But if you intend to approach League of Legends competitively, if you believe e-sports are sports, if you are playing and training for and trying to improve at League of Legends like it is a sport, it is not always going to be fun. Nothing that you do in life that you want to be good at, and not 'I'm better than all of my friends' good at, but 'I'm legitimately good at this in comparison to other people who take it seriously' good at will ever be nothing but fun. Going to the gym may be satisfying, exercise may flood your body with endorphins, but a hard workout is not 'fun', at least for most people. People may engage in these activities because they are satisfying, or because they are fun in ways, but the act of improving is often stressful, hard work. This is exactly what solo queue is; it's a hardcore work out for your game play. Is it fun? Not in the same way that playing with your friends is. Is it satisfying? If you continually improve, very. Is it useful? Incredibly. And ultimately, if being competitive and comparing only about improvement and winning isn't your goal, perhaps you shouldn't be playing solo queue? After all, why are you playing the ranked mode of the game if not to be ranked against other players and to move up in rank? If that doesn't scream 'competitive sports environment', I don't know what does.
Until we abandon this notion that everything about e-sports should be fun, how can we rebut these claims that e-sports is 'just a game'? If we really are playing 'just for fun', we're not treating e-sports as sports, we're treating them as hobbies. As somebody with a more than substantial involvement in e-sports, I'm not at all surprised when people don't take my involvement seriously. Why? How can I expect them to treat e-sports as sports, as something that some adults do competitively, when most people involved in e-sports don't, either? It is no surprise to me that the cultures where e-sports are publicly taken the most seriously are also the cultures where e-sports are taken the most seriously by players. Isn't it time we became one of those cultures?
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