How Often Should Competitive Video Games Be Patched?

Nearly all competitive games get “patched.” The NFL updates its rules every year. FIFA recently added goal line cameras to competitive matches. In fact, the only games that I can think of that don’t get updated are turn based, like Chess. Despite these small changes, the games themselves are rarely affected. This past year, the NFL updated a rule concerning running backs charging forward. Prior to this change, a player could run headfirst (literally) into an opposing player, but after the rule changes if the “crown of the helmet” made contact with an opposing player, then the runner’s team would be penalized. Despite a lot of buzz about this new rule, it has barely been called this season, resulting in little to no difference in the play of the game.

I think that this is an example of a “good patch.” It probably changed the way that players were coached to run with the ball, but ultimately it made little difference in the overall look and feel of the sport. This is because American Football has rules that are mostly set in stone. Since the advent of the forward pass, not much of the game has changed. Soccer, long known as “The Beautiful Game” due to its simplicity, has barely changed in a hundred years. Because the rules in these games are roughly fixed, the emphasis of competition is on putting together talented players, managers, coaches, and strategists in order to win.

Competitive video games struggle immensely to find balance and are in constant state of flux. Patches are released doing everything from tweaking to overhauling gameplay mechanics. In such a a system consistency can be difficult for teams to achieve. Commentators can easily say one patch “favors” a certain team, or that a different team struggles on a patch. These patches aren’t necessarily a bad thing, competitive video games are much more complex than their athletic counterparts, it is like comparing tug of war to hockey, or tic tac toe to chess. Games like League of Legends are in a sense “complete and incomplete” at the same time, they have all the working tools of the game, yet we the players expect new champions and items to come out, change the game, and make it better.

Yet, not all patches to rules are created equally. In fact, patches often end up favoring certain playstyles, and this leaves players who don’t excel in those styles in a poor position. In League of Legends for instance, there has been a constant back and forth between systems that favor tankier jungle champions and then those that favor aggressive damage oriented junglers over the past year. Depending on the patch, a more passive player who enjoys playing tanks might find themselves at an advantage or disadvantage playing as the jungler.

The state of flux created by a patch also needs to be timed well or else we see what happened at the League of Legends World Championships this year, in which a new patch completely changed the way that the game was played. While ultimately the best team won the championship, it must be extremely difficult for players to adjust to playing a new patch just for the Championship. It would be as if a huge rule change occurred in the NFL a week before the Super Bowl.

The NFL, FIFA, MLB, and NBA know better than to throw new rules into the game right before an important game or series. Instead, new rules are submitted and approved in the offseason, when there is time to adjust. To Riot Games credit, they often do most of their biggest changes to the game during the offseason (which runs from around November until January). But this year, the amount of changes introduced before the World Championship was too much, and we saw an imbalanced patch played by inexperienced players (in terms of playing the new version of the game). This affected the quality of the games. In nearly every game, Gangplank and Mordekaiser, two champions who had seen the most changes to their gameplay kits before the World Championship, were banned either because they were overpowered or teams just hadn’t learned how to handle their changes.

This is not a position that a competitive game ever wants to be in, creating changes right before the most important and watched games of the year. Instead, you want players to feel comfortable with the current state of the game and are ready to compete on their own terms, rather than on the game’s. Ultimately when watching a competitive game, we want to see the players and coaches shine. The game should be a tool for them to express their expertise. The more and more the audience sees the mechanisms of the game itself, the less interesting and entertaining the game becomes. A similar problem occurs in the NFL when too many penalties are being called, the game becomes frustrating to watch and significantly less enjoyable.

Hopefully next year Riot learns from their mistakes. It is not that a video game shouldn’t be patched, but the timing and impact of patches must be managed appropriately if that game has a competitive, professional side. Players should be primarily concerned about playing each other, not the game. Once that is achieved, eSports will skyrocket in popularity.