Illustrations by Josh Lees

Would all of the meta-obsessed competitive gamers raise their hands? Thanks. I’ve got a bone to pick with you.

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If we’re going to hash this out, we should start by defining the word. Put simply, the metagame (or “meta”) refers to the predominant strategies in a game at any given moment (many gamers use the backronym, “Most Effective Tactics Available”). Competitive games rely on software updates, or patches, in order to introduce new content and balance the playing field. As these patches roll out, players discover new advantages. Because the pros are the best at finding and exploiting these advantages, the meta can be seen as flowing from top to bottom.


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And herein lies the problem: Fixated on what they see happening in pro play, many gamers will harass their teammates if they deviate from the current norm. Not only does this attitude choke off fun, but it can also be bad for your win rate.

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I’m a League player, but my frustrations extend to other competitive games as well. I’m talking about those Overwatch or Dota players who start static in the game lobby as soon as someone locks in an odd hero choice. Sure, she might be trolling, but odds are she made that choice for a good reason.

Volibear FTW!

Take my own experience: The biggest win streak I ever had in League was on Volibear, a champ who almost never pops up in pro play, and who is only rarely see in solo queue. And that’s exactly why I loved him. I knew Volibear inside and out, and most of my opponents didn’t.

Because I had a solid grasp of his mechanics and build paths, Volibear allowed me to play to the real limits of my skill. I was free to think about the bigger picture, enemy movements, map objectives, and so on. LoL pros can do this with dozens of champs. The rest of us only have time to master a handful of play styles — which leads to my first point: Experience with a champion or role is far more impactful than following the pro meta.

The other factor with Volibear was surprise. Most opponents didn’t know what to do with him. They had forgotten about his passive health boost, or just how fast he could come at them with his Q. It was easy to bait them. Sure, my moves would never fly against a pro, but they were perfectly viable at my own level (ahem, bronze). Volibear was working for me because he was out of meta. People had forgotten how to counter him. It worked, and it felt good. This is what competitive gaming should be about.

Play Against Your Opponents

The above leads to my second point: “Normal” competitive gaming is its own strategic biome, the conditions of which are very different from pro play. Forget what the pros do. Strategy means responding creatively to the vulnerabilities of your actual opponents, and in normal competitive play these vulnerabilities are far more diverse and idiosyncratic than they are at the pro level.

And this is a good thing! In ranked yet non-professional gaming, there is enormous room for innovation and creative play precisely because your enemies don’t have a pro’s mechanical skill or game knowledge. All kinds of tricks will work, all kinds of character choices are viable. This rich potential for fun shouldn’t go to waste. Follow your own instincts, and play what you’re good at. Forget the haters. Unless you main Teemo. In that case I hate you, too.

When the Meta Does Matter

OK, here’s where I backpedal a bit. The meta doesn’t arise in a vacuum. Whatever your game, some heroes, items, and strategies will have a mathematical advantage within any given patch. These (slight) inequalities are emphasized at the pro level because pro players make far fewer mistakes, and know how to leverage the smallest advantage. The higher up the ranking ladder you climb, the more reasonable it is that the meta should play a decisive role in your games.

And yet, ask any old-school League fan to describe their favorite moments in pro play, and they will likely pick a time when the meta was busted wide open by a surprising choice. When ROX Tigers picked Mrs. Fortune support for the first time, or any of a dozen crazy Moscow 5 choices, including Genja’s ADC Urgot or Edward’s roaming support. And of course there was Faker’s Master Yi, or Faker’s Olaf, or Faker’s…

This is the joy of competitive gaming, at any level: When someone takes a risk, executes it boldly, and wins as a result. This is what gets the fans up out of their seats, or makes you yell so loudly that you wake the neighbors when the victory splash appears on your screen.

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So chill out, meta-police. The next time you’re forcing your teammates to form a three-tank comp in Overwatch, or qq-ing your roaming support in LoL, take a step back and have a little faith. Don’t cut off your chance to see something innovative. You might learn something new that carries you on a win streak. Hey, you might even have some fun.

What do you think? Is the meta overhyped, or is it ignored at your peril? (And does it depend on the game?) Let us know in the comments.

Asher Ross covers arts and culture for a variety of publications. He has also proudly mained Xin Zhao in bronze for five seasons.

This post is a sponsored collaboration between Gillette and Studio@Gizmodo.