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League of Legends and you: the pros explain how to get the most out of spectating professional games

League of Legends and you: the pros explain how to get the most out of spectating professional games

The League of Legends All-Star game is coming up this weekend, with a huge event streaming live from a packed stadium in Shanghai. Hundreds of thousands of people will be tuning their web browsers to Twitch.tv to watch the world's best players compete. But what if you don't already know how the professional game is played?

League of Legends is played by over 30 million people worldwide, but not everybody is familiar with how to actually observe and understand the way that the pros play. So I reached out to some professional League of Legends casters to get a better understanding of the most important aspects of the professional game and how to enjoy it as a viewer.

This article assumes you know a fair amount about the basic game of League of Legends and the MOBA genre, so if you're not at that level of knowledge then you might want to consider watching a beginner's guide before continuing. Or just try it for yourself, it's free after all.

Map Vision

“This is a doozy of importance in a professional League of Legends game,” said Tom 'OptimusTom' Searfoss, a League of Legends caster for productions like Major League Gaming. He said that the earliest battle in a League of Legends match is often a war for vision of the map. Players will canvas the arena, planting sight markers called wards that allow them to see what's happening at that location, even when they're not there.

The idea is simple: if they know what the enemy is doing then they're going to be able to counter it and win. As a result, vision control is crucial and teams make a priority of planting plenty of their own wards while making sure to clear the opposing team's.

“Often times you'll see the winning team is the one with the most wards on the map,” said Searfoss. “Periods of time that may seem to 'drag out' in games are often the product of intense jockeying for position through vision by both sides.”

Vision control is important for being aware of surprise ambushes, and it also helps teams control objectives.

Controlling the objectives

“I tend to split the map into primary objectives (towers) and secondary objectives (dragon, baron, jungle buffs),” said Randall Fitzgerald, caster and former MOBA manager for Quantic Gaming. “You will see lots of play styles around the world at the pro level in regard to the importance of these objectives. Korean teams tend to have a heavy focus on swift, aggressive attacks in the interest of pressuring primary objectives. This gives them map control and leads to their ability to control secondary objectives.”

At the top level, players are great at the basic skills: farming minions for gold, and ensuring they don't die which would give the other team free gold. So much of the focus comes down to the objectives as the primary means of getting ahead in the game. If a team has great vision control on the map then they'll be able to see what the other team is doing so they can reinforce defensive positions, kill an enemy who is caught out of position, or attack the other team's exposed weakness.

The Dragon and Baron boss monster objectives are particularly important as they can provide the gold boost and stat buffs (respectively) that can break a close stalemate between evenly matched teams.

That said, teams need to be careful when approaching these objectives. Fighting a turret, Dragon or Baron can be dangerous. If the other team sees them thus engaged,  they can attack with a decisive advantage. If one team has been weakened by a fight against Baron, they're not likely to win a fight against the enemy team.

Obtaining vision of the objectives allows teams to ransack the opponent when they attempt to fight boss monsters, or even try to steal the kill at the last moment.

Teamwork and communication

The biggest difference between the low levels and the professional league is team communication. I've played in dozens of matches where nobody ever said a single word that wasn't a curse or a slur, but at the professional level teams must be 100% coordinated at all times.

“They need to be working together as a cohesive unit at all times and you will find that a lot of games are swung early based on how well coordinated a team is,” said Fitzgerald. “Pro players are fond of saying it like this: It's better to have five guys act on a bad play call than to have two or three act on a good one.”

If even one player is out of step with the rest of the team then it can completely sink the entire squad.

“When a team is on the same page with one another then things go swimmingly,” said Searfoss. “When they're out of sync by even a second or two, the consequences could be a lost buff, a death, or even a lost game after a grueling team fight goes south. League of Legends requires a 5-man team to stand strong together. If even one member is off-beat from the rest or in a sour mood during the battle back from falling behind, the game becomes so much more out of reach for them.”

Fluid communication is important at every stage of the game, but it becomes the most important late in the game when teams stop fighting in small groups and start grouping up for the big rumbles.

Team fights

There's some small room for error early on in the game. In the early game, respawn times are quick and there's still time to make up for the advantage you've just given the opponent. Later in the game, the match turns into a tightrope walk on a windy day. One false move, even a single step, can mean a lost match.

“A single player takes a single step in the wrong direction and, before they know it, they've been destroyed,  leaving their team down a player for nearly a minute,” said Fitzgerald. “But it's not just [pick-offs like that]. Shorting an ultimate from Malphite or Sona, for example, means that you've just lost the ability to lock up the enemy team and they are still loaded for bear.”

The single most difficult thing about watching competitive League of Legends is figuring out how to enjoy the big fights. They're extremely complicated with dozens of abilities going off all at once and players dancing around in an unsychronized ballet. The best most viewers can do is watch and pray that their team slowly starts to come out on top, but Fitzgerald offered us some tips for observing the action.

“Disables and crowd control! It used to take a bit of knowledge about animations to spot these as the overhead icons were a bit difficult to see, but no longer,” he said. “Now disables appear near the champion health bar. If you see a large number of champions on one side disabled for a time, chances are fairly good that unless they have strong disengage, a solid counter initiation, or a positional advantage (other team too far spread or something like that) then you will see them drop fairly quickly. The flashiest skills are also generally the highest damage. Pay attention to where they come from and who they hit.”

However, if you're still to new to the game to try to drink in the action of ten players at once, Fitzgerald suggested picking one heavy damage dealer and then following that player through the battle.

“If they die quickly without getting much done, that's bad,” he said. “If they pull a kill and get back out, that's great. Once they are done, look at another damage dealer. As time goes, you'll be able to hop around the fight from damage dealer to damage dealer and get a good idea of the overall flow of the fight.” 

It's also important to keep an eye on each team's gold count. Gold count is the most important stat in League of Legends and it's an easy clue as to who is winning the game. The more gold a team has, the more money they have to buy all-important items and equipment. A team with a sizable gold lead is likely to be statisically more powerful and generally more likely to prevail. 

There's so much to understand and study when it comes to the professional game of League of Legends. You could stay busy for months following the strategies and evolving playstyles of teams and regions, but if you keep an eye out for these specific things then you'll have a much better understanding of what's going on in the world's most popular spectator video game.