Scaling the E-Sports Skill Cliff

Curator's Note

When I first began playing League of Legends with a few friends I had no clue what I was getting into. The game, like many e-sports titles, eschews the gradual “skill curve” of most games in favor of a “skill cliff” that hurls mountains of information at novice players in a short amount of time. I was entering into a highly competitive space faced with the task of learning the strategies of (now) 114 playable champions, dozens of items, and a dizzying number of combinations of the two. Fortunately, I had help; there are plenty of websites and forum threads dedicated to helping players learn the game. This isn't a new development, of course; players have been exchanging tips and tricks ever since the rise of the medium, and the advent of digital media further expanded the scope of the practice. However, what is notable about the culture of guide writing in e-sports is the identity of the authors. Many of the most popular guides are written by professional or semi-professional League of Legends players. These guides aren't limited to text either; a large portion of the professional League of Legends community live streams their own practice sessions, giving other players tips on improving their play and offering insight into their own thinking process. The post's video, a promotional spot for Team Curse's Voyboy, highlights this; he places a strong emphasis on his efforts to teach his viewers the ropes and interact with them during play. At first glance this seems counterintuitive: the New England Patriots don't publish their playbook online. However, the professional players reap their own benefits from the process. Most of the principal spaces for this discourse are somehow affiliated with professional League of Legends teams; and, two of the most popular guide sites, are tied to TSM Snapdragon and Team Curse, respectively. This is especially true for live streaming, which creates a space for conversation tied to an individual player. The result is increased exposure and fan loyalty in an often volatile competitive field. By teaching novice players how to play top lane effectively, Voyboy is expanding his name recognition within the e-sports fan base. The resulting relationship forms a key element of the moral economy of e-sports culture. Professional players toss down a rope to help others up the skill cliff, and they're rewarded with appreciation and (hopefully) support.


Great post. The teaching/training aspect of e-sports is fascinating for how it ranges from top-end (including pro players offering lessons) to everyday players helping each other. The stuff they are doing over in the Leveling Up project on StarCraft2 is pretty interesting and Tim Young (aka @shindags ) details it out at: The one bit I'd add re: publishing playbooks - pro-players & teams will at times hold back (new) key tactics until after critical tournaments. Live-streaming has made this more complex since often so much of practice time is now broadcast but top players I've interviewed talk about actively balancing showing their play on stream (building audiences, sharpening their practice time, name recognition as you mention, etc.) with keeping new strats private for a competitive edge. (Fwiw, there is a long history of this in top MMO guilds too - sharing boss tactics often happens after an accomplishment period.) I've not broken down my own data on this by games so no clue if the patterns are different from League to SC etcetc - would be curious of anyone has thoughts on that!

Neal - thanks for the great post. I'm curious to learn more about your work with LoL, since there doesn't seem to be many people (yet) studying it. I'm kicking off an educationally-focused study of a local LoL group at my institution and would love to chat about what you frame as a (surprisingly?) open and supportive community -- which is at odds with the portrayal of LoL players as vicious and ultra-competitive.

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