MOBA meta and the Muses: professionalism, performance, and meta-game discourse

In a post in August, I opened a discussion of how analyzing the meta-discourse surrounding MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) may help us describe the relationship between player-performance in these games and bardic performance in ancient epic in a more interesting way. The point of such an analysis is not merely be to demonstrate that the Iliad and League of Legends take place on the same cultural ground–a ground we might call “heroic play”–because that hardly needs demonstration, though people do seem to lose sight of it more often than an evangelical humanist like me likes to see. Rather, I hope that an analysis of MOBA meta and how it finds expression in player-performance, seen both strictly from an in-game perspective and from a broader perspective that includes marginal performances like chat, will help us develop better descriptions of the place of MOBAs in culture over against more usual objects of humanistic study like film and novel, as well as over against older forms like oral and written epic.

A tall order, but let me show you what I mean:

When fighting a support Blitzcrank, his damage will be much lower than his allied AD carry. Don’t be afraid to force a fight if he has used Rocket Grab and/or Power Fist recently.

This passage, which I also quoted in August, is a standard example of MOBA meta. It explains how a player whose champion finds him or herself opposed to a champion named Blitzcrank can fight Blitzcrank most effectively: because Blitzcrank (considered a “tank” champion–that is, a champion who absorbs a great deal of damage in order to protect another champion who has the potential to inflict a great deal of damage–the “AD carry” here) does little damage himself, an opponent shouldn’t hesitate to attack as soon as s/he sees Blitzcrank use one of his damage-inflicting skills.

The details of the meta aren’t the important thing–what’s important about meta is its role in the game. Imagine a hypothetical equivalent to this piece of meta in the tradition of the homeric bards:

When Hector fights, his prowess should be great, but not too great. Don’t be afraid to have him make mistakes, if he’s fighting a greater hero like Achilles, or even run away in fear.

It’s not difficult to imagine a more experienced bard saying something like the above to a less experienced one. Rulesets like those of League of Legends and oral epic give the potential for more virtuosic performances and less virtuosic ones: the transmission of expertise in meta-discourse represents a very big part of the development of the professionalism that eventually leads to the kind of virtuosity that gives us Book 22 of the Iliad.

MOBA meta is on the one hand only the tip of iceberg when it comes to the transmission of this expertise. A good quick comparison might be forum threads about character-classes in MMORPG community-forums–the caliber of advice, and the seriousness with which virtuosic players take it, are certainly equivalent both to the homeric bards, as we see them in the characters of Phemios and Demodokos in the Odyssey, and to players of MOBA’s.

But nowhere else has this meta-discourse yet been codified in the way it has been above all for League of Legends, and in such a way that the game itself evolves along with it.

The difference of MOBA meta from other kinds of meta-game discourse lies in the relation of the meta-discourse to the play of the game. Simply put, MOBA-players take the codification more seriously–as seriously as a bard might, if his next meal were on the line, or, to choose a more current analogy, as seriously as an amateur musician takes his or her “professionalism” when playing for an audience, above all when playing for an audience as part of an ensemble.

The audience is the key, I want to suggest, and just as the first audience of a musician is her fellow ensemble-members, the first audience of a MOBA-player is the team on which she plays her champion, trying to destroy the other side’s Nexus before they can destroy her team’s own. Just as millions of musicians play for no one but the people with whom they jam, millions of MOBA-players have neither the skill nor the intention to go pro.

But the existence of the professional level, I want to suggest now and explore soon, changes everything, when it comes to the relationship between player-performance and meta-discourse. In my next post, I’ll consider some more complex examples of MOBA meta, and how they relate on the onehand to the rulesets of the games themselves and on the other to the importance of the audience.

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