You hear or read about it quite often if you have an interest in esports, the “meta” or “metagame” is a core concept of competitive games culture.
By “competitive games” here I mean:
- esports-ready video games (League of Legends, DOTA 2, Hearthstone, CSGO, Starcraft, etc)
- some card games (poker, Magic the Gathering)
- some board games played competitively
As the name hints, the metagame is something happenning beyond the game itself, in between matches, as players adjust to the current main strategical and tactical trends in competitive play in order to counter their opponents from a theoretical standpoint.
Let’s use a fictional and very simple example to illustrate: if at a certain point in time a lot of people on the Starcraft ladder start winning using ground armies that can’t attack air targets, it’s very likely that a few weeks later a lot of players will switch towards strategies involving heavy airborne damage to counter the initially-winning “ground armies” strategy. This new leading strategy will then get countered by another one a few weeks later, and so on.
This natural evolution of the main winning strategies, that’s the metagame.
I wrote “natural evolution” and, just like in nature, that one doesn’t do the job without its fair share of pain. The metagame is fueled by the pain of defeat and hours spent by thousands, millions if the game is very very popular, of human brains ruminating it, looking for solutions.
So in a way the metagame is a constantly-evolving crowdsourced research project involving a huge amount of people on the topic of “how am I going to exploit this game in order to woop more asses on the ladder tomorrow?”
The answer is usually pretty good. As if thousands or millions of brains were not enough, they actually are brains of hardcore gamers who love to compete through thinking. In more than a few cases, this huge human computing resource will take the metagame way further and faster than initially expected by the developers.
For very complex games involving a lot of in-game data management from players as well as knowledge as to how everything in the game works (MOBA’s, RTS games, Trading Card Games), the meta can evolve very fast and be very much influenced by balance and content patches. It can also get blocked very fast when a new patch comes out with a couple changes generating unexpected negative side-effects. RTS’, and MOBA’s even more, are extremely complicated systems that can generate their fair share of butterfly effects: changing one detail for a valid reason at one end of the system can break something very important at the other side.
For games that are less data-intense, such as Counter-Strike, the metagame doesn’t evolve as fast and with a lesser amplitude in regards to what strategies are viable or not, but it does exist. In the following ESL CSGO Pro League match that was played just last week, in between the comments directly related to the action itself, shoutcasters sadokist and then HenryG stress on how teams on the T side of dust2 have recently started to jump towards CT start to put the sniper in Bomb site A, that’s fnatic.twistxD in this video, in big trouble.
As it is a collective work so to speak, the metagame is related to information flow and consequently, location. For example in a well-designed online game where you have 3 regional servers (Europe, America, Asia) that don’t communicate with each other, it is likely that each of the servers will develop its own metagame. With internet booming like it has in recent years, the local aspect of the metagame has proven less and less true but it still does show the meta is also a child of human creativity, influenced as it is by individual characters and the social groups they’re a part of.
I went to ask former Starcraft pro gamer turned poker phenom ElkY what he could tell me about the meta in poker:
Even if the game is the same, one could say there’s an “online” meta separate from the “offline”. There’s also a meta at each table, even if in this case it‘s usually called “history”.
Also it’s important to notice the main metas in poker don’t evolve as fast as in esports games since there’s obviously no balance or content patch.
Pushed as it is by gamers, the boundaries to how much and how well the metagame can evolve are defined by game design work. A game with balancing issues will end up with a blocked metagame, meaning that one or a few strategies become too strong and not even Ender could find a counter. That’s when Reddit goes on fire and developers need to work on the design of the game and come up with a balance patch to put everything back in motion, and in the proper direction.
Practically speaking, top esports games now all have dedicated design teams working all year long at what could be fixed or improved. Something interesting in that regard is that back in the 2000's, Counter-Strike 1.6 almost didn’t get updated at all for years but still had an evolving meta and huge player base fueling what was then the leading esports scene in the West.
Not all games are CS though and when their meta gets stuck and nothing can be done to fix it, community members of all kinds (pro gamers, competitive gamers, viewers, tournament organizers, community site owners, etc) will gradually lose interest and look for another title to have fun and express themselves with.
It turns out most games don’t even have a metagame — hence their rather short lifespan — as it is synonym with a very complex multiplayer game design system that can be approached efficiently by gamers from several angles. As it is already very hard to produce an entertaining video game that can be played in just one way, one can only imagine how insanely difficult it is to build one that can accept several approaches, several playing styles evolving through time as players practice and improve.
This is where the idea of the top esports titles as masterpieces of video games comes from: some games are so well designed they allow for enough metagame flexibility for people to play them for 5 years, 10 years, most likely their entire lives, without getting tired of them. These video games are extremely rare, there’s not even been 1 coming out each year across the past 20 years. Usually these titles have not been produced by AAA publishers and, I noticed working at Gamoloco for the past 2 years, rank rather high on Twitch.
Now that esports mean something from a business standpoint, it will be interesting to see if the gaming industry manages to produce more of those titles with highly flexible metagames in the future. I‘d say there’s at least already one just like that that came out this year, and it’s none other than Clash Royale.