Most sports games aren’t really about playing sports, so much as they’re about watching sports. Or more to the point they’re about making it so the sport you’re watching gets to play out exactly as you’d imagine it, as a fan at home, in your head.
He should have passed to him; she should have made a run there; if only he’d caught that. Playing a FIFA or a Madden is a chance to correct the wrongs of the professional players, not to play as them. You’re more manager than player – and more omnipotent every-player in the sky, really, than manager, gradually cycling through control of individual players on a team while the others either remain static or fulfill their roles automatically. There’s strategy, sure, and all the decisions and counterfactuals and split concentrations that sports tend to involve. But it’s really not anything like the real thing. And that’s fine!
In fact it’s more than fine, it’s great, because it leaves space for other games to fill the gaps. Games like Star Trek: Bridge Crew – a great team sports game. Destiny is a sports game – at least during raids – as are Diablo, World of Warcraft, Overwatch and, of course, League of Legends. That’s because team sports, you see, are about everyone doing their damn job, and League of Legends captures this better than anything else.
A match lasts about 45 minutes and for that 45 minutes you may think about nothing but your job. You need to farm, to gank, to win the duel with your opposite number, to influence the rest of the playing field, to target objectives, manage the game, read the game, adapt to it, turning the screw when you’re ahead and killing momentum when you’re behind – and on and on and on, each and every element requiring you to think as an individual and a collective, as one. It’s body and mind: mechanical mastery (which I’ll never reach) and cognitive zen (that neither). Queuing up pre-game is signing a waiver. You are saying that you are promising to submit your will, no matter the interruption, to the common goal. A lot of the time it’s sheer masochism, absolutely, and by virtue of that it inspires a particularly insipid elitism amongst its players. But the payoff from than punishment, the full-body euphoria of the win, is just utterly unsurpassed.
You might think me mad for saying this, but in these past ten years nothing in my life has served up that rush with anything close to the reliability and intensity of League of Legends. On a personal level, competitive sports – team sports, especially – can leave a gaping hole when you’re forced to give them up. The sense of unity and belonging, of common purpose – of duty, even, to your role – that they offer up is irreplicable. People love sport because sport is war, only without the villainy and the bloodshed. There is nothing like it. But for three quarters of an hour, forever swinging between supremacy and subordination, victory and defeat, League of Legends is just enough. It’s unhealthy and wrong and something I’m loathe to admit, but unlike any other game this past decade, I think I’ve needed it.