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The metagame is a concept that all gamers know by heart, but what does meta really mean? Get to know what a meta truly is, its origin, and how it affects the pro scene in our educational guide.
The meta (or metagame) is an all-too-familiar concept to competitive gamers, defined as the most optimal strategies of playing the game at a given time. Whether this means playing a distinct playstyle, picking an overpowered champion, or following a set build, the meta can be defined differently across genres of games.
The meta only represents the most effective tactics available at a certain point in time as it is ever-changing, evolving through time as players find better ways of playing the game in the effort of one-upping one another.
Once a meta has been established, developers can launch patches that change the meta or otherwise, and players can find counters to meta picks and strategies. In this way, the meta keeps a game and its esports scene lively because of how it presents newer and more innovative ways of playing the game, forcing everyone to adapt.
In 1971, the origin of the esports term ‘meta’ was first published in Nigel Howard’s Paradoxes of Rationality: Theory of Metagames and Political Behavior. Back in the cold war, Howard used the term in the context of the nuclear arms race during the cold war as countries competed to see who could outweigh who.
Since then, meta has been defined by researchers in game theory as an approach to a game that goes beyond the limits set by the game itself. And fundamentally, that is what the meta is at its core — transcending what’s known to create a status quo (or ‘meta’) anew.
So what does meta mean now? These days, the meta is more known for its use in video games, referring to the current trends in strategy and gameplay that allow players to succeed in-game. From tabletop card games, such as Magic: The Gathering to the greatest esports titles of all time like League of Legends and Dota 2, each game has its own meta that continuously changes over time.
To start, the meta can simply be described as the rudimentary framework that allows players to succeed in a game. This includes the bare minimum of mechanics, player roles, and strategies needed to win a game. The meta not only applies to competitive esports games, but to single-player and role-playing games as well.
But for our guide, we will be focusing on the meta in competitive games and esports. In MOBAs like League of Legends or Dota 2, you follow the same guidelines: clear minions, level up, take down champions, and destroy structures until you’re left with the Nexus or the Ancient.
In first-person shooters (FPS) like CS:GO and VALORANT, you approach a site, perform an execute, then plant or defuse the bomb or spike. These are the basic rules that the developers have laid out for you to win a game.
Then, once you’ve got the basics covered, you can delve into the higher-level strategies that players make use of to gain the slightest of margins to win games. As of this writing, we break down a few of the metagames in each top esport.
In Worlds 2022, DRX won out despite being outperformed by T1 with all the stolen Barons and lane leads that they lost down bottom lane. Twelve years since xPeke won the first-ever world championship, this is a sign that the game has evolved far past who can click keys on a keyboard better. The meta has evolved to be more team-centric, with the odds favouring the team that can play better together. But in solo queue, the meta in League simply refers to the highest winrate champions, builds (remember Ardent Censer?), and strategies (dragon stacking versus early skirmishing) that dominate the game.
Counter-Strike has seen hundreds of changes throughout the years from when it was first released and played as CS 1.6. In its last iteration, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, its meta has changed constantly as well, with differing guns proving to be the most effective at a given time due to patches released by game developer Valve. Right now, for example, the AK-47 is the absolute go-to for T-side, with the M4A1-S being the reliable primary for CT-side. Meanwhile, the AWP remains as one of the best guns for holding angles provided you have the aptitude to use it. And while new CS:GO maps have been added to the game, Mirage still remains one of the most picked maps in competitive play.
Meanwhile, in The International 11, each team in the playoffs had their own distinct playstyle that made them unique. However, the champions, Tundra Esports, shone above the rest with the level of perfection they reached with their style of play. By their slow and methodical way of playing the map, they were able to take down favourites like Team Secret and OG. They did this by slowly choking out their opponents through cutting and pushing waves, then using this advantage to take better fights in their favour. They played to their own style so well that they only lost one game in the entire playoffs, which just goes to show how far you can go if you master your own strengths.
In the years since VALORANT was launched, its meta has drastically changed as new maps, agents, and patches have been released. This is one clear example where the community is only starting to figure out how to ‘properly’ play the game at the highest of levels. While before, players would pick Cypher and Killjoy all the time in Masters Reykjavík, now, the meta has swung to favour only Chamber as the Sentinel of choice. As such, the meta in VALORANT primarily revolves around the agents being picked per map and the strategies that surround these picks. Alongside this are the guns chosen during buy and eco rounds with Phantom, Vandal; or the Operator being picked for buy rounds; and Sheriffs, Marshals, or even Shorties during save rounds.
Overwatch has been reborn with the release of Overwatch 2 last October. With it, came a whole new meta tied to the changes implemented in the game’s brand-new update. The change from a six-man to a five-man team per game has meant that there’s one less tank on the front lines. This, alongside the changes to its map pool, translated to a more aggressive form of play because of the lack of safety that the second tank used to provide. Which is why, in the playoffs of the Overwatch League 2022 season, you had heroes like Winston and Reaper that rose in prominence because of their ability to raise hell in the backlines of a fight.
A game's meta does not just come out of nowhere and take over a game unnoticed. It takes time to develop and change as players, pros, and developers all figure out how the meta works. There have even been researchers and theorycrafters that have laid out the fundamentals of how a meta comes to be.
First, we have the metagame ignorance, which is basically when the meta is “unsolved”. Here, there is a ton of strategy variability and experimentation in games. Players will attempt to theorycraft and hypothesise the meta from using data points taken from previous metas, the latest patch notes, or just playing the game. Players will race to “solve” the meta to be ahead of the curve. As an example, this happens every time there is a clean slate in each game – whether a new season for games like League of Legends or a new set for games like Teamfight Tactics.
Then, players start to have an understanding of the metagame as ‘superior’ strategies emerge from scrims, tournaments, and competitive matches. Although the meta is not yet fully understood, there are already strong meta picks, compositions, or strategies that have become commonplace. Compared to metagame ignorance, there is average variability in games as everyone starts to understand why these tactics work. While there are still strategies that do come out of the blue, there is a general consensus to the way the game is played.
Lastly, with the meta mostly figured out, pros, analysts, and players alike can predict how a game will go from start to finish. Since the metagame is now ‘solved’, there is low strategic variability with only the top strategies being used at the highest level of play. This is where the community and audience find the game ‘boring’ to watch since all the teams play the same way. However, all is not lost as it is at this point where the meta can be shaken up once again. Developers can push patches, competing teams can think of the cheesiest counters, or players might innovate newer ways of playing the game
One such example where you can see a meta being established is in the Worlds 2022 of late. In the first stage of the competition – the Play-Ins – you can see how lane dominant champions like Kalista and Miss Fortune were favoured in the draft. This lane-focused playstyle worked against lower skilled teams in this stage. However, in the group stage, the major regions had a better idea of playing the game from watching the play-in teams. Teams were almost always banning overpowered picks like Caitlyn, Yuumi, and Aatrox. Further on, the meta had been ‘solved’ in the playoffs, with the teams opting for picks like Sylas or Azir at the base of their composition, then building a team centered around these picks as their draft progresses.
If you play a game, you play a part in creating the meta. While there is a meta that exists at the peak ranks of competitive play, there are individual metas that exist at each level of play.
For example, in League of Legends, Bronze players would prefer simple and easy-to-use champions like Master Yi and Amumu compared to the harder, higher-skill ceiling champions like Yone and Gwen. Similarly, Iron players in VALORANT are less likely to use concrete strategy to enter sites compared to an Ascendant lobby who will coordinate their agents’ utilities. Therefore, each player really contributes to the ‘birth’ of the meta in their respective level of play.
Meanwhile, high-ranking players, theorycrafters, and pros have an ‘idealised’ meta where strategies are honed to absolute perfection. Since pro players have mastered the fundamentals of the game, they fight tooth and nail for the smallest of margins. This, inevitably, creates a meta that is dubbed as the ‘most optimal’ way of playing the game.
Lastly, the developers themselves contribute a major part in building and changing the metagame. Each developer and game publisher has its own ideals for how the game should be played and enjoyed by its player base. These ideals then translate to reworks and changes (buffs and nerfs) to in-game mechanics, strategies, and the like that dominate the game. This is also one way that developers can always keep the game ‘seemingly’ new.
Metas can give a game longevity by keeping players on their toes not knowing what to expect around the corner. While there will be those who complain about ‘meta slaves’ or ‘meta abusers’ (individuals who religiously adhere to the meta), metas actually keep games fresh because they force players to keep adapting and innovating.
Case in point, if League of Legends were still the same game it was 12 years ago, it could never hope to achieve the amount of complexity, depth, and popularity that it has in the present day. As one can observe in the cycle of a meta, the presence of it allows for innovation to repeatedly happen. In this way, players can experience the game in newer ways without having to play another game altogether.
If anything, a game’s meta most heavily affects its own professional scene. In lower-ranked and even higher elo gameplay, the meta can always be outplayed. Players can find counters to existing meta strategies because they are played imperfectly. But at the highest levels, players and teams build strategies around metas and perfect them to the dot. As such, a meta that does not suit a team’s playstyle can heavily affect their performance during tournaments.
Furthermore, the kind of meta that the developers are pushing for can greatly affect viewership. Take, for example, the 2017 Worlds, which featured the Ardent Censer meta. That meta was extremely unsatisfying for the community to watch because of how uninteractive the games were due to the amount of shielding and healing the item provided. Compared to this year’s Worlds that featured an intense, back-and-forth finals series where teams brawled it out on the Rift, the community agreed that this was one Worlds to remember.
Which is why developers take their time and are careful to listen to the community for how they should move forward with the game. Developers must remember to balance the game for unranked, solo queue, and professional play. Otherwise, players get frustrated and may quit the game altogether.
A meta exists, according to a study by Kovach, Gibson, and Lamont, because one player does not know or fully understand all the ‘optimal’ strategies in-game. This then gives the well-informed player an advantage by allowing them to outmaneuver their opponent by ‘obtaining a more preferred outcome with a higher utility’. Simply put, the meta exists so players can win more games, therefore, it’s in your best interest to figure out so you can either play into it or counter it.
Decoding a meta is as simple as it is complex, and the first step in figuring it out is to play a lot of games. By playing, you get a feel of the champions, strategies, and builds that work in differing contexts. As Einstein once said; ‘the only source of knowledge is experience', and that doesn’t change in gaming.
However, there comes a time when playing can only get you so much. At this point, you can then look towards outside perspectives that can give you a more holistic idea of a game’s meta. You can watch games in high elo, tune into streamers, or follow professional play to get a better idea of what works at the highest levels of play.
But if you want the easy way out, you can always head on over to tier lists and guides made by these same streamers, content creators, and pros. Across the board, you have services like Pro Guides, SkillCapped, and Mobalytics that can help you track the meta live on the servers. However, getting to know the meta yourself in-game is always the best way of knowing what works.
The meta, which is ever-changing, is regarded as the most optimal way to play the game at a given point in time. This makes learning the meta a crucial aspect in figuring out the best way to play and eventually, bet.
The meta often stands for most effective tactics available. However, it can be simplified as the strategies in a game that are the most optimal to play at a given time.
The meta is made by a game’s community. This includes all the players, pros, and developers alike. Each contributes to the development of a meta at a respective level of play.
A meta goes through phases in its cycle. Namely, ignorance, understanding, and then stability. Each has its own indicators and cycles resulting in changing metas across time.
A meta greatly affects how esports teams perform in tournaments across the year. One patch gone wrong, and teams can struggle in a meta where they cannot play the dominant strategies.
You can figure out the meta by either playing a lot of games to experiment with what works or watching prominent pros, theorycrafters, and analysts for an external perspective.
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