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How Riot Games tried to ‘fix’ support, and failed

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Making a support character people want to play is a big challenge

League of Legends - artwork of Pyke rising from the water Riot Games

Pyke, an angry ghost pirate on a quest to kill everyone he thinks is responsible for his death, is the newest champion in League of Legends. What is unusual about this character is that he has an assassin-style kit, but he is designed to be played in the support role.

This is something League of Legends developer Riot Games has never tried before. Here’s why Riot did it, along with an explanation of why it’s not working out very well.

Nobody wants to play support

League of Legends characters fit into one of the game’s five roles. The top and middle lanes are occupied by solo laners. Traditionally, a top laner is a tank or a bruiser, someone who can start fights and put a body between the enemy threats and more fragile teammates.

A mid laner is often a mage or an assassin, someone who can deal a lot of burst damage and roam to the other lanes when there’s an opportunity for a kill. The jungler farms jungle camps instead of lane minions for their main source of gold, and roams into all the lanes to try to score kills on overextended or otherwise vulnerable enemy players.

In the bottom lane, there is usually a marksman or an attack-damage carry backed up by a support. The carry’s job is to farm minions and get a lot of kills to try to snowball into an unstoppable killing machine later in the game. The support’s job is to help the laner do those things, which means the support doesn’t get to farm a lot of minions or get many kills themselves. The support player is rarely seen as an MVP due to the thankless nature of the role.

Everybody wants to rack up the multikills and light up the scoreboard. Nobody wants to be the guy who sets the wards so the carries can catch people out in the jungle, or be in charge of getting the stuns that set up the big plays. Nobody wants to be tasked with dropping the heals or shields that keep the star player from getting destroyed in the middle of their big combo.

In order to keep queue times short, League has an “autofill” feature for solo-queue players that will sometimes assign a player a role other than the one they want. According to Riot, 70 percent of autofill players go into support, with the other four positions combining to make up the other 30 percent. If you select “fill” as your position of choice, you will probably end up playing support. It’s not a job many people volunteer to do.

Riot has been trying to change this for years

Riot patches League of Legends every two weeks. Most patches bring minor balance tweaks or changes to a single champion, but a few times each year, Riot makes major changes to an entire category of champions. And the company has tried repeatedly to make support more attractive to players.

When League first launched in 2009, supports were characters like Janna or Soraka, very traditional priestess types. Janna is a wind priestess who puts a shield on a teammate, and helps protect her carry by launching a whirlwind that knocks opponents up in the air, while Soraka is an archetypal healing druid who can heal a teammate at the cost of her own health, but can amplify her health regeneration by landing a skillshot on an opponent.

In recent years, we’ve seen more aggressive mages in the support role, and some tanky characters originally conceived as laners have been revamped to fit support. Some older characters have become very dynamic; Sona, a bard character who plays songs that heal teammates, buff movement speed or damage enemies, used to be very passive. Her kit was focused around the auras that surround her when she plays her songs. In her current incarnation, however, her ability cooldowns are very short and she can do a lot of damage in lane, but she’s very fragile and can die quickly if enemies catch her.

Riot has also pushed back against the stereotype that the support role is feminine by introducing support characters like Braum, a muscle-bound hero who protects his allies by leaping in front of them, and Thresh, a Grim Reaper-type monster who eats the souls of minions and has a lot of crowd control abilities.

Quality-of-life improvements have also made support more enticing. Riot has tinkered with the items that supply supports their gold income to encourage more engagement in lane and keep the role from being too passive. In early 2018, Riot combined the support items with an item called the Sightstone that provided extra vision wards. Previously, the Sightstone, which offered a significant tactical advantage to the team but very little personal power to its wielder, was one of the first things a support had to buy. Now supports can buy their other items a little bit sooner, which players appreciate.

But supports still generally don’t get to kill a lot of people, even with all these positive changes, because every kill the support gets is a kill a carry doesn’t get. Therefore, the act of supports taking kills delays the endgame win condition of the carries growing strong enough to wipe out the opponents and win the game. That very basic fact of life is never going to change, and Riot doesn’t have a good way to adjust things without shifting the entire feel of the game.

That’s where Pyke comes in.

An assassin in the support role

Pyke’s twist is that he plays like an assassin, and he gets to buy fun assassin items, which means he gets to kill people. He can even get a coveted pentakill, which is very unusual for a support.

His Q ability is a harpoon. You can tap the button to make Pyke sweep the harpoon in front of him, slowing enemies it hits, or you can hold the button down and then release it to throw the harpoon in a straight line. If it hits an enemy, Pyke pulls them toward him. This isn’t a revolutionary mechanic; both Thresh and Blitzcrank have long-range grabs that displace opponents.

Pyke’s E causes him to dash forward, leaving behind a phantom version of himself. After a short delay, the phantom travels to Pyke’s current location and, if it passes through any players, they take damage and are briefly stunned. He can combo this ability with his Q to hook an opponent out of position and then dash through them, blocking off their escape and hopefully stunning them.

Pyke’s W allows him to dive into “spectral waters,” because he is a pirate ghost. This gives him camouflage, making him harder to detect, and increases his movement speed. Pyke can use this ability to reposition himself, to chase down a fleeing opponent or to escape.

These basic abilities aren’t unusual, but Pyke’s passive and his ultimate are unique, especially for someone playing a support role.

Pyke’s passive has an upside and a downside: The good news is that he rapidly heals a percentage of the damage he’s recently taken if he can get away from the enemy’s sight, whether by backing off outside their field of vision, by hiding in a bush or by using his camouflage.

But the bad news is that Pyke can gain no bonus health from items or masteries. If you buy items that have bonus health on them, the health converts into bonus damage, and not at a particularly favorable ratio. That means you don’t buy those items when you play Pyke, so you can’t build him into a tanky disruptor of the sort that his hook-wielding counterparts Thresh and Blitzcrank usually become.

Instead, Pyke builds items that bolster his damage-dealing potential, like Duskblade of Draktharr and Youmoo’s Ghostblade. No other support characters use these items; they’re generally the province of midlaners like Zed.

And what makes a character like Pyke work in the support role is his ultimate: It’s an X-shaped skillshot that causes Pyke to teleport to a nearby opponent, and strikes anyone touched by the X (as in “X marks the spot” or maybe “X gon’ give it to ya”). It deals a high amount of damage, and if an enemy is below a certain level of health, dictated by Pyke’s stats, Pyke automatically executes them, even if they have very high defenses.

If an enemy dies inside the X while Pyke is performing the ult, whether the ult kills them or they die from something another player does, the ultimate’s cooldown refreshes, and you can use it again within 20 seconds. Potentially, you can use it repeatedly to kill all your opponents and bask in the sweet, sweet penta-glory.

And here’s the kicker: If Pyke kills a target with his ultimate, the player who last assisted on the target also gets the full amount of gold awarded for the kill. And if another player kills a target in the X while Pyke is ulting, Pyke gets a full gold award for the kill as well.

There you go: a support character who gets to kill a lot of people and make fun, splashy plays. I’m sure there’s no downside to his design!

It sounds great! But it’s not great!

Gold is a big deal in League of Legends. Having more gold means you can get more items, which means you can win more fights, which means you can get even more items — and that’s how a game turns from a close contest into a rout. If you watch streams of pro games, the casters will always keep track of the total amount of gold each team has earned; it’s a very good indicator of which team is ahead and how large that advantage is.

Pyke’s ultimate, which spreads a ton of gold around to his teammates, is extremely powerful. This ability, and the fact that it can be used repeatedly, means that winning a team fight can potentially produce a much greater advantage due to Pyke’s presence. It’s an attack that, very literally, makes money.

That power has to be balanced against something else, and the something else is the rest of Pyke’s kit. Pyke wants to use those fancy assassin items to deal damage in melee range, but he can’t be in the middle of a team fight because he is so fragile.

In smaller skirmishes, Pyke can use his phantom dash offensively to lock people down after he hooks out of position, but he probably wants to save it to flee to safety if somebody tries to engage him during larger fighters. That means he winds up hanging back, maybe hoping to land a harpoon while he waits for the rest of his team to get the opponents down to low health so he can fire off his ult and make it rain.

If his ult is down when the fight happens, or if he misses his target — and the X shape is a bit finicky — then he doesn’t get to have much of an impact in the fight.

Pyke’s other big problem is that his core items are very expensive, and he only gets the typical support gold income for much of the game. His Ghostblade and his Duskblade each cost 2,900 gold, while typical support gear costs much less. For example, Redemption costs only 2,100 and Ardent Censer costs 2,300.

That means Pyke’s power spikes are going to come quite a bit later than those of other characters, and if Pyke isn’t generating a lot of extra gold with ult kills to fund his unusually high overhead, he will fall far behind.

Dragged to the depths

As a result, top players have been unimpressed with Pyke’s performance. CounterLogic Gaming support Biofrost said Pyke has “one of the worst laning phases ever,” while Cloud9 support Smoothie asked his Twitter followers, “Is it just me or does Pyke REALLLLLLY suck..?

It was not just Smoothie. According to Champion.gg, which tracks League statistics, Pyke’s win rate is hovering around 48 percent, lower than any other character traditionally played in the support role except the rarely seen Tahm Kench. And that’s after players have had about three weeks to get used to him, and after Riot has had a patch cycle to tweak his stats a bit.

Of course, with League’s aggressive patch schedule, there’s always an update around the corner, and Pyke might eventually get buffed into competitive viability.

But due to his ultimate’s potential to mint tons of extra gold, it’s probably really easy for the balance team to overshoot the mark when adding power to a character like this, so Riot will likely be very careful and conservative with buffs for Pyke. It’s better for the game if he’s never played than if he’s always played.

But it’s bad news for long-suffering support players who have been dreaming of pentakills, and shows just how hard it is for Riot to rethink what it means to play a support character in League, and to get more people interested in doing just that.