Why Ranked has to be Painful: How Riot Keeps Players Playing

It’s a widely acknowledged fact that people hate solo queue. Bronze players hate it. Gold players hate it. Challenger players hate it. Every ELO has an “ELO Hell” and for good reason:  ranked play is not fun. As much as everyone wants it to be fun, it isn’t. It can’t be.

The sole reason to play ranked games is to rise in rank, and trying to rise up in anything is not fun. What’s worse is that, unfortunately for all of us, it has to be this way. Solo queue can never be the joyous romp through the flowers we want it to be. We can never play 25 games, go 10-o-15 in each one, and end up Plat II in the first week of playing, even if we were that good. Especially, if we are that good. And there’s a reason for that:  business strategy.

The WoW Cycle

For a moment, I want to break away from talking League and talk about a wildly popular and dominant game of its genre:  World of Warcraft. WoW may not be the powerhouse of an MMO it once was, but looking back when it was at its prime cane give us some insight as to why Riot has designed ranked to be played the way it is played, and how we can use that knowledge to sate the bloodlust and teeth gnashing that ranked play might otherwise induce in us.

WoW has a very specific “playability model” (I made that term up, but I like it so it’s going to stay). You level a character from 1 to, what, 90 now?


Anyway, you level from 1 to 90 by doing repetitive quests and following eerily similar story arcs across the lands of Azeroth only to wind up at the “bottom” of the end game. Here you complete the same dungeons, raids, and dailies for months and months until you find yourself at the pinnacle of success.

And here, at the pinnacle of all your gamer glory, a new patch is released.

The cycle then repeats, you cry a little, and then you move forward.

There is something genius, or perhaps nefarious, about the way Blizzard developed this game model. You can never really win. There’s no end. Sure, some people will be happy to down the “final” raid boss, or to “max out” their arena ranking every week. But at the end of the day, when the carrot is pushed just a little bit further, the urge to get that one last item level is enough to entice most players into one more month of subscription time. And that’s more money for Blizzard, so it’s a win-win.

But how does this relate to League of Legends, a free-to-play, PvP-based game?

Simple: Ranked Solo Queue.

“Now hold on there, Jethro,” you are probably thinking to yourself. “My Summoner’s Rift is nothing like the dreaded evil that is Warcraft raid content.” And in a way, you are right; the reward isn’t as concrete as a shiny new piece of pixelated weaponry. But that doesn’t matter in the long run. The reward is still there; it just comes in the form of perceived worth. In the eyes of the community, being Gold is well above being Bronze. Being Diamond is what most people strive for. They want the fame. They want the fortune. They want to feel like the time they spend playing is actually worth something. And that’s really what it all boils down to:  perceived worth. To most of us, every small step upward is a step toward Diamond. A step towards feeling accomplished. A step towards feeling, in a way, we’ve beaten the game and haven’t wasted all our time.

The problem is if we beat the game too quickly, then we will stop playing. Riot knows this. If everyone was allowed to ride win streaks indefinitely, than the player-base would quickly diminish. Winning would feel like less of a rush, and as a result, fewer games would be played. With fewer games played, fewer RP will be purchased to buy this month’s OP champ, a skin for my lucky Garen, etc. And all this means money falling out of Riot’s pocket.

Now I don’t mean to imply that Riot purposefully rigs solo queue to increase its profit margin. I do believe, honestly, that they have implemented a decent system for allowing the average player to climb to his rightful place in the ranked ladder.

However, the fact that it takes an average of over 150 games to get there is no coincidence. And if we as players can start to understand that a game lost is like another dollar in Riot’s pocket, maybe we could relax a little and learn to play through the inevitable losses as a means to Riot’s end. And hey, money for Riot means more game for us.

And that’s always good. Right?

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Some Other Zack

Some Other Zack has a passion for League, a penchant for economic and social theory, and a passable grasp of the written word. He brings all of this together to provide a unique angle on Riot and how they function.

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