big elephant gymnastics

One thing I’ve always considered to be one of the toughest challenges in esports writing and/or production — particularly compared to traditional sports — is meaningfully delineating and differentiating individual players’ style of play beyond “they’re the [nth] best at [something], which is pretty [adjective]”.

Usually this challenge is simply ignored, as recent form and/or career history-based narrativization can always stand in for style-based characterization, and the former tends to be more emotionally effective and easier to prepare.

By “easy”, I’m not trying to devalue narrative in any way. Asking around and gathering details of a player’s narrative takes a lot of effort to do properly, and cobbling them together to make something coherent and beautiful can often be excruciating. Life isn’t a ready-made book and most stories really don’t write themselves.

But everyone inherently has an original story. They’re completely distinct from the get-go. That helps.

In the majority of esports titles, particularly team-based ones, it’s very difficult to immediately differentiate between professional players of a similar caliber based on their on-screen play. For the lay audience, the IDs and player cams are always the only things that let you realize that player X is piloting A and player Y is piloting B.

My perhaps unpopular opinion is that this has always been and still is a massive problem.

In traditional sports, every player has different physiques and physical abilities. Those differences are starkly apparent to the eye. There’s also no disconnect between an athlete’s appearance as a human being and the vehicle they use for their performance.

Even if you didn’t know a single thing about football, Messi would look very different from Ronaldo in a million different ways — even if they weren’t wearing numbered uniforms, even if you were watching in 144p. And if you had watched them play before, it would take maybe about two seconds at most to realize them exactly for who they were.

In contrast, I’d bet that even the most dedicated fans of [insert major region League of Legends circuit] would find it nearly impossible to identify who’s on what in a meta matchup, even if they were handed entire minutes of laning phase footage, if there were no player IDs on display.

League of Legends may be an extreme example, true, because the game is team-based, uses top-down view, patches very frequently, and is balanced so that optimization almost always trumps comfort — all of these factors, particularly the last one, serve to brutally normalize style.

But having watched many Brood War ex-pros barely bat 0.500 when pressed to identify other ex-pros’ first-person play footage, I feel comfortable extending this to most of esports.

I’m not saying individual quirks or styles of play don’t ever become apparent. Occasionally they do, and I’ve written a number of articles pertaining to such cases. But the fact remains that identifiable in-game characteristics of individual players are painfully rare, often take years of play to emerge, and often aren’t even that immediately interesting.

I’ve always hoped that the availability of advanced stats could alleviate this problem one day, and this hope seems to have partially come true in the case of Overwatch, with the initiatives spearheaded by @CaptainPlanetOW and still going somewhat strong thanks to @emgtfy and @MattMersel’s efforts. Unfortunately OW suffered from much larger problems, though, and I feel most of those breakdowns never received their due attention or praise.

Perhaps the larger issue was that most esports viewers don’t care much for any body of text that runs longer than a handful of tweets, but that’s definitely a topic separate from this one.

Right now, most broadcasts and articles tend to only use numbers to service narrative (Renekton has been on a loss streak in LCK, let’s see if Fly can buck the trend; looking at how the expected win rate graph fluctuated in this game, C9’s throw actually happened here, not here; Deft may look to be in horrendous form right now but look at his DPG).

I enjoy those tidbits when they pop up, but I also usually found them to be unnecessary, if only because most caster crews in esports are well capable of building and sustaining compelling narratives without extra figures of questionable statistical significance.

It’d be far cooler if broadcasts would occasionally feature analyses such as @karonmoser’s breakdown of TSM’s mid-jungle problem, which to me still stands as the best data-based esports article I’ve ever read.

Anyway, all this was to say that I’ve always been interested in efforts to glean insights into individual players’ styles of play through whatever data is available to me (usually very little, sadly), and I’m interested to see what Factor will offer.

Do I really think Bdd recalling and taking enemy jungle camps a bit less compared to other elite LCK mid laners is a statistical irregularity of groundbreaking proportions? No, but it’s still something.

And if Bdd himself found those figures interesting enough to have a spirited discussion with me, in an uncomfortable chair, in a chilly hallway, until the LoL Park staff got very annoyed at us for going overtime — I felt the conversation was at least worth sharing.

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