How to E-Sports: Understanding inevitability

For today’s How to E-Sports, we are going to take a look at how metas get formed. If you aren’t familiar with the terminology, a “meta” is the game that exists outside of the game. It’s the knowledge of which strategies have an advantage against other strategies. Metas aren’t really new. They have existed in traditional sports for ages. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a hard hitting aggressive style rather than a style that emphasizes staying out of your opponent’s reach was a huge part of the meta of boxing. Understanding what sorts of plays your opposing team likes to run is part of the meta of football.

While metas vary for each individual e-sport, there are some similarities you can find across all metas, and one of those elements is the focus of today’s article: inevitability. An inevitable strategy is one that will win, given the opposing strategy takes no action. Usually, these strategies tend to be defensive. In fighting games, the inevitable strategy would be sitting in the corner throwing projectiles. Chip damage will eventually win you the game. In an RTS, the inevitable strategy is sitting in your base and turtling up, building lots of defenses and units. In a card game, like Hearthstone, the inevitable strategy is whatever slow deck creates the most value (in the current meta its Jade Druid).

Fight or Flight

You might notice that none of these strategies are necessarily “the best” strategy that any particular game has to offer, but they are important nonetheless. The existence of inevitable strategies is essentially a roadblock on another type of strategy: the greedy strategy. A greedy strategy is anything that gives up immediate gain now for bigger gain down the line. The idea behind a greedy strategy is that it doesn’t matter if you play from a disadvantageous position now if you are unstoppable later.

Once again, you can see this across multiple e-sports. Building meter in fighting games, resource hoarding in MOBAs, waiting until your whole team has their ultimates ready to attack in Overwatch, all are examples of “greedy” strategies.

Greedy strategies tend to be more viable than inevitable strategies. They are less one-dimensional and tend to have a gameplan against other strategies in the meta. However, greedy strategies are all based, in some part, on inaction. As I said before, inevitable strategies win when the opponent is inactive. Therefore inevitable strategies essentially reign in the greed. You can’t sit in a corner and whiff moves to build meter in a fighting game if you are being pelted with projectiles. You HAVE to take action at some point or you will lose.

Inevitable strategies have a weakness which is, appropriately enough, action. Inevitable strategies aren’t necessarily looking to “win right now.” Instead they are looking to win, provided that the opponent can do nothing to stop them. Thus, when the opponent takes action against them their strategy becomes less inevitable.

Let’s look at fighting games again as an example. If you have the life lead, you can win simply by avoiding your opponent until the end of the fight. This strategy is inevitable. If the opponent takes no action, you will win. The opponent can sit in the corner and build meter, letting you run away, but this puts you at a distinct advantage since he will have less time to actually deal damage to you. However, the “correct” thing for him to do is chase you down and attempt to deal damage. The correct thing for him to do is take action.

Granted, this is not actually an example of a meta at work, but rather of the strategy that plays out in an individual match. The meta gets involved when character choice comes into play. You see, whenever a player is given a choice (characters, loadouts, etc) they are essentially playing to a particular strategy. Sometimes that strategy is the inevitable strategy. Dedicated keep-away zoners are built around this inevitable strategy.

Understanding which strategies are prospering in the current meta is a good way to give yourself a slight advantage. Let’s look at Hearthstone this time. If heavy and greedy value decks dominate the meta, then some people will start playing decks like Jade Druid to defeat them. If Jade Druid, the inevitable strategy, becomes popular, then a more aggressive strategy will step up to defeat it, say Pirate Warrior. But then, once Pirate Warrior has become big, more mid-range value decks come back, holding off its aggressive start, and winning in the long run. It’s a cycle.

You might think that this makes every meta a simple rock-paper-scissors game, but you’d be wrong. Players can always attempt to change their strategy mid-match. In our fighting game examples, zoners could shift to a more aggressive playstyle. Even though their character doesn’t necessarily support that playstyle, shifting gears may win them the match.

Gaming the Meta

So now that we understand what inevitability is, how do we use this knowledge?

First, understanding which strategies are inevitable will give you a picture of the meta as a whole. Someone, somewhere, will always be using that strategy. So the first step in developing a strategy of your own is to say, “How do I beat the inevitable strategy?” Luckily most strategies will, so this isn’t a hard bump to get over.

Next, think about ways to incorporate elements of the inevitable strategy into your own. This is what you will switch to if you see your opponent going for greed.

Finally, make notice of how many people are falling back on the inevitable strategy at any given point in time. This will give you an idea of how the meta is shifting. If you can remain one step ahead, then you will have an advantage as the meta shifts. If you switch to aggressive when everyone else switches to inevitability, then you will see your win rate skyrocket.