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Whats in a Meta?

Analyzing Champion Viability in Esports


Jeffrey Liang
London Business School & Fnatic
jliang.mba2018@london.edu
Paper ID: 1629

Abstract
League of Legends is a popular esports title in the Action Real-Time Strategy genre -
currently boasting over 100 million monthly active users, and over 130 champions
playable in-game[1]. The term meta is used to describe the subset of playable
champions that is widely considered viable and/or dominant in professional play.
This meta evolves rapidly because the games developer, Riot Games, continually releases
new champions (every 6-10 weeks) and rebalances the relative strength of existing
champions (every 2-3 weeks). To date, approaches aimed at identifying changepoints in
the meta have largely relied on subjective opinion and feel. This paper therefore
presents an empirical methodology for characterizing the frequency with which meta
shifts occur over time, applying an offline agglomerative changepoint model to
professional champion select data from the past three seasons. We then derive and
introduce a new statistical measure called Champion Viability Score (CVS) which
quantifies how the priority or value that professional teams place on different
champions changes over time, applying an exponential smoothing approach to the time
series data above. Together, these methods empower esports managers, coaches, and
analysts to (1) better understand the historical viability of champions in past meta
regimes (2) better adapt and develop strategies to align with the current meta, and (3)
better anticipate and prepare for inevitable changes to the future meta.

1. Introduction
At their heart, esports are video games. More specifically, they are multiplayer video games that
are deep, challenging, and complex enough to warrant being played in a competitive format. This
paper focuses on League of Legends currently the most popular esports title in the world. From a
player base perspective, the game now boasts over 100 million monthly active users.[1] As for
esports viewership, 43 million fans from around the globe tuned-in live to watch the 2016 World
Championship of League of Legends, hosted in a sold-out Staples Center.[2] And in terms of capital
influx, a growing list of high-profile athletes, team owners, and professional sports franchises are
investing into ownership of a professional League of Legends team*. As the market for esports
continues to develop, so does the opportunity in esports analytics.

* List of sports figures invested into ownership of a League of Legends team as of Dec, 2016: Athletes (Rick Fox, Shaquille ONeal, Alex
Rodriguez, Jimmy Rollins, Magic Johnson, Jonas Jerebko), Team Owners (Stephan Kaplan, Andy Miller, Mark Mastrov, Ted Leonis, Peter
Gruber), Sports Franchises (Philadelphia 76ers, Schalke 04, Paris Saint-Germain) [3-11]
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Game Overview: League of Legends is a real-time strategic combat game held between two teams
on a digital battlefield. The object of the game is to destroy the nexus located within the opposing
teams base. Teams are comprised of five players, with each player using keyboard and mouse
commands to control one champion within the game. Players fill one of five roles: top laner, mid
laner, jungler, support, or attack damage carry (ADC). Of the over 130 champions playable in-game,
each brings a distinct value proposition to the battlefield via their unique ability kit (a suite of five
abilities/skills).

Before the start of every match, both teams enter a draft-style queue called champion select or
picks-and-bans. In this phase, teams take alternating turns banning their opposition from playing
up to three champions, and then selecting five champions for their own team composition. The
term meta is used to describe the subset of champions that is widely considered viable and/or
dominant in professional play at any given time. The meta evolves rapidly because the games
developer, Riot Games, continually releases new champions (every 6-10 weeks) and rebalances the
relative strength of existing champions (every 2-3 weeks).

Research Overview: This paper explores how teams can inform their picks-and-bans strategies in
light of the constant sea of change in champion viability within League of Legends. To date, analyses
of champion viability have largely been guided by rudimentary analysis, and attempts to identify
changepoints in the champion meta have largely relied on subjective opinion/feel. Our focus is
therefore on proposing empirical metrics and methodologies that bring objectivity and rigor to the
investigation of these topics. By leveraging the insights form these techniques, teams can enhance
their ability to carve-out a consistent competitive advantage over their opponents in the champion
select phase, before gameplay even begins.

Section II of this paper begins by introducing a new statistical measure called Champion Viability
Score (CVS) which quantifies how the priority or value that professional teams place on
different champions changes over time and across meta regimes. Section III then draws-out
analytical insights by ranking champions in order of historical Champion Viability Score. Section IV
repeats this same exercise, but adjusts the champion rankings to consider each distinct meta
regime separately. In doing so, we outline the statistical methodology used to define and identify
these meta regimes. Lastly, Section V offers conclusions and next steps.

2. Measuring Champion Viability


Some statistics in League of Legends are easily observed and recorded such as a players KDA (kill-
death-assist ratio) or GPM (gold per minute) over a season. Champion viability, on the other hand,
is a difficult concept to track and measure. In many cases, two individuals may disagree in their
subjective assessment of whether Champion A, B, or C is most viable at any given moment. Who
should we believe in these scenarios?

One tact is to leverage the resources and effort invested by professional teams into champion
research. Through thousands of hours of play-testing and experimentation, pro teams go through
an effective natural-selection process to identify which champions they believe to be strongest.
These strongest champions are then prioritized and fought over during the picks-and-bans

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phase of professional matches. As the game evolves from the release of new patches (i.e. updates to
the game with new champions, gameplay adjustments, and balance changes to existing champions),
champion select outcomes in professional matches to operate akin to an efficient market with the
latest information always being priced-in and taken into account. Therefore, simply by observing
the champions being picked and banned in professional play, we can leverage the expertise of
the best coaches, analysts, and players in the world to gain an understanding of which champions
are most viable at any given time.

Pick-Ban Rate is a commonly-cited statistic that uses the tact described above. It looks back over a
specified span of games (usually back to the start of the season or split*) and recounts the
percentage of matches in which a given champion was picked or banned by either side. While this
metric is simple to calculate and intuitive to interpret, it falls-short in several areas. The inherent
construction of the calculation makes pick-ban rate more a reflection of the past than the present.
The metric quickly becomes bogged down by previous observations, especially toward the latter
parts of a season or split. As a result, pick-ban rate is often difficult and/or misleading to compare
across varying time periods.

In response to these issues, this paper introduces a new statistical measure called Champion
Viability Score (CVS), an adjusted take on pick-ban rate. Let Y = { Y1 YN } represent a binary vector
of pick-ban outcomes for Champion Y over a string of N matches (1=picked or banned, 0=null), and
let represent a smoothing factor coefficient, then Champion Viability Score is derived as:[12]

1 = 1 (1a)

= 1 + (1 ) 1 (1b)

By adopting an exponential smoothing approach, we can increase the weight given to more recent
observations, and decrease the weight given to more distant ones. This yields a more real-time
measurement of which champions are viable at any given moment. Using this approach also
enables us to optimize around the term, which dictates how quickly/slowly previous data points
are discounted. An independent analysis of the five major regions of professional League of Legends
play (North America, Europe, Korea, China, and Taiwan) yielded the same optimal alpha term of
0.15. The resulting discount scheme derived from the optimal alpha term minimizes the mean
squared error (MSE) of smoothed values versus actuals. CVS therefore represents an improvement
over pick-ban rate, as it empirically identifies the relevant span of matches to consider, and places
appropriately higher emphasis on more recent observations, while minimizing distortions of the
original dataset. This yields a fair and comparable statistic capable of measuring the real-time
viability of a champion.

Figure 1 graphs Champion Viability Scores over time, illustrating the constant ebb-and-flow of
champions in-and-out of the meta. Through it, we observe just how drastically the game of League
of Legends can change over the course of a season (or even a few months) due to the rapid pace of
innovation in gameplay strategy, and the active role Riot takes in re-balancing/re-designing game
elements.

*Each competitive season of League of Legends is organized into two splits - Spring and Summer.

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Fig 1. Visualization of Champion Viability Score Across Three Seasons
(N. America, Seasons 4-6)

Figure 1. Champion Viability Scores (CVS) for all champions, mapped across North American matches
from Seasons 4-6. Each color band represents a distinct champion. Vertical height corresponds to
intensity of meta dominance, while horizontal width corresponds to length of meta longevity.
(Graphic can be replicated for Europe, Korea, China, and Taiwan regions).

3. Mapping Historical Champion Viability


The value of establishing Champion Viability Score an objective, standardized, and trackable
measure lies in the ability to look back upon past pick-ban outcomes to draw-out quantitative
insights. Figure 2 presents a ranking of the Top 20 champions in terms of average CVS over the
past three years of North American professional play. For champions released within the past three
years, averages are calculated only over the period since the champion was released. Figure 2 also
presents a champion heat signature, which shows the movement of each champion in-and-out of
the meta through the use of a visual timeline. We can see, for example, the champion Vladimir
(#14) was considered unviable in Season 4, low-priority or situational starting in the second half of
Season 5, again unviable for the start of Season 6, and finally dominant for the latter half of Season 6.

These methods yield a variety of interesting observations, which can be analyzed to unlock new
insights into champion viability and champion select. The following are several examples (details
available in appendix):

Finding 1: Two junglers (RekSai and Nidalee) occupy the top two spots, while only one top laner
(Maokai) makes the list at #19. This suggests varying levels of champion pool diversity have
historically existed for different roles. Borrowing from the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI)
approach*, an analysis of the full champion set reveals Top lane is historically the most diverse role,
followed by Support, Mid lane, ADC, and lastly Jungler.
*The Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) is a standardized measure of firm concentration within a business industry, measured as the sum
of squared market shares of all firms (expressed as whole numbers). Higher values on the HHI indicate greater market concentration.

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Finding 2: Several highly ranked champions offer the added dimension of being playable in more
than one primary role. These champions are known as flex picks (e.g. Lulu, Karma), and teams
who pick these champions benefit from denying full information to their opposition during the
champions select phase. In total, flex picks account for on average 2.7 picks or bans per match
across Seasons 4-6.

Finding 3: Nine champions in the top twenty (RekSai, Azir, Braum, Kalista, Elise, Lucian, Thresh,
Kindred, Jihn) are among the most recent thirty champions released, suggesting potential power
creep in champion design over time. A regression analysis of the full champion set confirms that a
statistically-significant, positive relationship exists between champion release order and champion
viability. On average, every 10th new champion released is 0.008 CVS pts stronger.

Fig 2. Top 20 Champions by Average Champion Viability Score


(N. America, Seasons 4-6)
Rank Champion Avg. CVS Season 4 Season 5 Season 6
1 RekSai 0.68
2 Nidalee 0.52
3 Sivir 0.47
4 Azir 0.46
5 Braum 0.45
6 Kalista 0.43
7 Gragas 0.43
8 Lulu 0.43
9 Elise 0.43
10 Lucian 0.42
11 Ryze 0.39
12 Thresh 0.35
13 Kindred 0.31
14 Vladimir 0.31
15 Karma 0.30
16 LeeSin 0.30
17 Alistar 0.30
18 LeBlanc 0.29
19 Maokai 0.29
20 Jhin 0.28

Figure 2. Top 20 champions in professional play, ranked by average CVS over the past three seasons. Gray
periods indicate champion was not yet released. Averages for champions taken only over period since
champion was released. (Graphic can be replicated for Europe, Korea, China, and Taiwan regions).

4. Mapping Historical Champion Viability (by Meta Regime)


For some purposes, the information presented in Figure 2 spans too long and too disjointed a
spectrum time. In these cases, its often beneficial to think in terms of meta regimes. This process
involves sub-segmenting the overall three-year timeline into smaller eras of more uniform
character. While this concept isnt new to the League of Legends community, the body of work on
the topic has largely relied on subjective opinion and feel. We therefore introduce an empirical
methodology for identifying statistical changepoints in the champion meta.

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For our dataset, we construct a matrix of CVS scores for each champion and each match observation
over the past three years (Seasons 4-6). This dataset is then fed into a statistical changepoint
model, which identifies significant distributional changes in the first or second moment of the time
series. We selected to use a non-parametric, offline, agglomerative modeling algorithm offered by
the R package ecp.[13]

In simple terms, this algorithm begins by considering each observation as a stand-alone entity. It
then iteratively and sequentially merges adjacent observations into larger and larger sub-segments.
After scanning all permutations of all possible sub-segmentations, the algorithm then identifies the
optimal segmentation which maximizes the below goodness of fit measure:[13]

= [ ( , +1 )] (2)
=1

where C = {C1. . . Cn} is the segmentation of T observations into n segments, represents the
between-within distance of divergence among adjacent clusters in the segmentation[14], and k is a
penalty term based on the number of changepoint nodes used. By maximizing this goodness of fit
measure, we arrive at an optimized parsimonious solution as to where statistical changepoints
reside within the dataset. Using the North American region as our continuing example, our analysis
revealed the existence of six distinct meta regimes over the past three seasons of competitive play.
If more granular or less granular regimes splits are desired, other specifications of changepoint
models can also be employed to match the desired sensitivity (as well as other penalty terms).

Figure 3 presents a ranking of the Top 5 champions in terms of average CVS within each meta
regime. We can compare these figures to the previously-reported CVS average over the full three-
year period (shown in the third column as a heat index).

These methods yield a variety of interesting observations, which can be analyzed to unlock new
insights into champion viability and champion select. The following are several examples (details
available in appendix):

Finding 4: We see a trend toward champion pool consolidation arises in the latter part of each
season, illustrating that teams may become more risk-averse as they near playoffs and relegations
(thus reverting back to more proven champion picks/bans). Using the proxy of the HHI again, we
see that champion concentration increases on average by 5% in the last meta regime of a season.

Finding 5: By analyzing correlations in CVS between meta regimes, we see that regime #6 was the
most atypical meta compared to other regimes (with an average correlation of 0.27), while regime
#5 shared the most similarities to the others regimes (with an average correlation of 0.39).

Finding 6: We observe champions like Tristana can be a top three pick in one meta regime, but
have a low average CVS overall. This lends merit to the theory that certain champions with
problematic ability kits may be difficult to balance from a design perspective. They tend to wind-up
either over or under-powered. Nine champions in the top fifty fit these characteristic, with a CVS
kurtosis measure over 2.0 (Taliyah, Soraka, Ekko, Jhin, Kindred, Yasuo, Jax, Tristana, KogMaw).

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Fig 3. Top 5 Champions per Meta by Average Champion Viability Score
(N. America, Seasons 4-6)

CVS CVS Season 4 Season 5 Season 6


Meta # Champion
(Meta) (Overall) Meta #1 Meta #2 Meta #3 Meta #4 Meta #5 Meta #6
Elise 0.87 0.43
Thresh 0.84 0.35
1 LeBlanc 0.83 0.29
Lulu 0.81 0.43
Lucian 0.77 0.42
Lulu 0.85 0.43
Braum 0.84 0.45
2 Tristana 0.80 0.17
Elise 0.76 0.43
LeeSin 0.75 0.30
Rumble 0.70 0.24
Lissandra 0.70 0.21
3 Maokai 0.70 0.29
Morgana 0.66 0.27
RekSai 0.66 0.68
Kalista 0.95 0.43
Alistar 0.84 0.30
4 Gragas 0.81 0.43
Sivir 0.70 0.47
Azir 0.66 0.46
Nidalee 0.84 0.52
Kalista 0.81 0.43
5 Gangplank 0.76 0.17
Corki 0.73 0.27
Lulu 0.70 0.43
RekSai 0.90 0.68
Vladimir 0.90 0.31
6 Karma 0.87 0.30
Sivir 0.72 0.47
Braum 0.59 0.45

Figure 3. Top 5 champions in professional play, by meta regime. CV (Meta) gives the average within the
specified meta regime only. CV (Overall) display the average across the entire three-year timespan. Gray
periods indicate champion was not yet released. Averages for new champions taken only over period since
champion was released. (Graphic can be replicated for Europe, Korea, China, and Taiwan regions).

5. Conclusion
In this paper, we introduced a new statistical measure called Champion Viability Score, which
provides a more empirically-derived and real-time measure of the priority or value placed in a
champion at any given time. By analyzing this CVS metric both holistically and across individual
meta regimes, we were able to unlock new and interesting analytical insights relating to champion
pool role diversity by role, power creep in champion design, and difficult to balance champion kits,
among others. Moreover, the possible applications of this work extend far beyond the (6) sample
use case analyses explored in this paper. Interesting topics for future research include whether
picks versus bans represent different types of signals of champion viability, and whether
predictive models of champion viability can be developed to forecast into the future.

For esports managers, coaches and analysts, advanced analytics offers a highly promising and
mostly unexplored source of insight. As esports organizations continue to grow in sophistication
and resource, we can expect a wealth of attention to be dedicated toward furthering the field of
esports analytics over the coming years.

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References
[1] Riot Bradmore and Magus. 2016 League of Legends World Championship By the Numbers Lol
Esports (2015)
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[2] Paul Tassi. Riot Games Reveals League of Legends Has 100 Million Monthly Players. Forbes
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worldwide

[3] Nick Schwartz. Rick Fox Bought a League of Legends Team. ForTheWin, USAToday (2015)
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[4] Darren Rovell. Shaquille ONeal, Alex Rodriguez Among Investors in NRG Esports. ESPN.com
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rollins-invest-nrg-esports-teams

[5] Wizards, Warrios, and Magic: A Strategic Partnership. Team Liquid (2016)
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partnership

[6] Darren Heitner. Boston Celtics Forward Jonas Jerebko Buys Esports Team. Forbes (2016)
http://www.forbes.com/sites/darrenheitner/2016/08/30/boston-celtics-forward-jonas-jerebko-
buys-esports-team/#638d76635591

[7] Grizzlies Owner Increases Stake in Immortals. ESPN.com (2016)


http://www.espn.com/esports/story/_/id/17662888/memphis-grizzlies-owner-stephen-kaplan-
increases-stake-immortals

[8] Pete Volk. NGE Esports, New LCS Team Purchased by Sacramento Kings Co-owners, Announces
Roster. SBNation (2015) http://www.sbnation.com/2015/11/16/9743044/nrg-esports-roster-
impact-gmb-sacramento-kings-lol

[9] Darren Rovell. 76ers Acquire Esports Teams Dignitas and Apex. ESPN.com (2016)
http://www.espn.co.uk/esports/story/_/id/17637299/76ers-acquire-esports-teams-dignitas-apex

[10] FC Schalke 04 Takes Over Esports Team Elements. Schalke04 (2016)


http://www.schalke04.de/en/news/160516/page/2234--86-86-.html

[11] Paris Saint-Germain Launches Ambitious Esports Project. PSG (2016)


http://www.psg.fr/en/News/112002/Article-Club-s-Side/77444/Paris-Saint-Germain-launches-
ambitious-eSports-project

[12] Robert Nau. Moving Average and Exponential Smoothing Models


http://people.duke.edu/~rnau/411avg.htm

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[13] David Matteson, Nicolas James. An R package for nonparametric multiple change point analysis
of multivariate data (2013)

[14] Gabor J. Szkely, Maria L. Rizzo, Hierarchical Clustering via Joint Between-Within Distances:
Extending Wards Minimum Variance Method (2005)

[15] Lol Event Vods. Retrieved Aug-Dec, 2016


https://www.reddit.com/r/LoLeventVoDs/

[16] Lol Esportswikis. Retrieved Aug-Dec, 2016


http://lol.esportswikis.com/

[17] Lol Esportspedia. Retrieved Aug-Dec, 2016


http://lol.esportspedia.com/

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Appendix
Calculation for Finding 1:
Herfindahl-Hirschman Index applied to average CVS (Seasons 4-6) by primary role:

Role HHI
Jungle 14,078 << most concentrated
ADC 8,994
Mid 7,691
Support 6,845
Top 4,735 << most diverse
*excludes champions with no primary role (e.g. Lulu, Karma, etc.)

Calculation for Finding 2:


Average CVS across Seasons 4-6 for champions that fill multiple roles (e.g. flex champions)

Champion CVS
Lulu 0.43
Karma 0.30
Kassadin 0.27
Lissandra 0.21
Gangplank 0.17
Yasuo 0.15
Hecarim 0.14
KhaZix 0.14
TahmKench 0.13
Shyvana 0.12
Nautilus 0.11
Olaf 0.09
Kayle 0.07
Swain 0.07
Fizz 0.07
Urgot 0.06
Varus 0.04
Kennen 0.04
Karthus 0.02
Jayce 0.02
Total CVS 2.7

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Calculation for Finding 3:
Regression output of average CVS (Seasons 4-6) run against champion release number:

Regression Statistics
Multiple R 0.184
R Square 0.034
Adjusted R Square 0.026
Standard Error 0.137
Observations 133

ANOVA
df SS MS F Significance F
Regression 1 0.086065483 0.086065483 4.581131521 0.034178649
Residual 131 2.461090271 0.018786949
Total 132 2.547155753

Coefficients Standard Error t Stat P-value Lower 95% Upper 95% Lower 95.0% Upper 95.0%
Intercept 0.0978 0.0192 5.0838 0.0000 0.0597 0.1358 0.0597 0.1358
Release Order 0.0008 0.0004 2.1404 0.0342 0.0001 0.0015 0.0001 0.0015

Calculation for Finding 4:


Herfindahl-Hirschman Index applied to average CVS by meta regime:

Split Meta Regime HHI %


Season 4, Spring Split Regime 1 77,861 -
Season 4, Summer Split Regime 2 83,476 7.2%
Season 5, Spring Split Regime 3 64,135 -
Season 5, Summer Split Regime 4 69,760 8.8%
Season 6, Spring Split Regime 5 72,340 -
Season 6, Summer Split Regime 6 71,016 -1.8%
3-year average 4.7%

Calculation for Finding 5:


Correlation table of average champion CVS by meta regime:

Regime 1 Regime 2 Regime 3 Regime 4 Regime 5 Regime 6


Regime 1 100%
Regime 2 50% 100%
Regime 3 16% 12% 100%
Regime 4 1% 11% 34% 100%
Regime 5 24% 28% 23% 46% 100%
Regime 6 -3% 1% 18% 30% 11% 100%

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Calculation for Finding 6:
Champions ranked by Kurtosis of CVS scores from Season 4-6:

Rank Champion Kurtosis Rank Champion Kurtosis


1 Taliyah 7.6 11 Hecarim 1.8
2 Soraka 4.1 12 Gangplank 1.4
3 Ekko 3.8 13 Lissandra 1.3
4 Jhin 2.9 14 Caitlyn 1.1
5 Kindred 2.8 15 TwistedFate 1.1
6 Yasuo 2.8 16 Evelynn 1.0
7 Jax 2.3 17 Ezreal 0.9
8 Tristana 2.1 18 Graves 0.6
9 KogMaw 2.1 19 Annie 0.3
10 Zed 1.9 20 Ashe 0.2

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