Risk aversion: why teams do not succeed in high-pressure situations when they play to not lose
When the Gigabyte Marines took the international scene by storm in 2017, it was by virtue of their fearless mentality and willingness to take risks, as well as a reluctance to play in the same way that other teams did. It would appear fitting then, that the first glimpse of their ethos would be displayed for the world at large against Team SoloMid, winner of numerous LCS titles and by most accounts the typification of North America’s hopes and dreams, and a team that is as risk-averse as they come.
Here we have to introduce the concept of risk aversion, as this will be important in framing the discussion that will be had later. Quite simply, it is the tendency to make decisions based on losing as little as possible, even if it means that decision will result in gaining less as a result. In other words, taking the safe option is preferable to making gambles that can result in higher returns but also carries a chance of losing more.
In League of Legends terms, it could be deciding between taking a Baron spawn in a short time window with the possibility of an opposition collapse around the pit, and electing to secure vision and take the Baron at a more opportune moment later. I’m painting these scenarios in broad strokes for the purposes of this article and to demonstrate human psychology rather than in-game decision making; there are of course more nuances in these situations than depicted.
Analysts tend to be overwhelmingly risk-averse and rational in nature. When analysing decisions that teams make, they tend to hone in on the ones that were riskier and failed, and admonish these teams for not being more cautious and holding off until a better, less risky opportunity came about.
Classical economists assume that consumers are rational and consistent in making decisions; this is not true in practice, however. Consumers are anything but consistent in several types of choices. Translating a rational and consistent approach in game would be to make the most logical moves in any given situation, and that can lead to remarkably clean games followed by games where teams get choked out with no response.
In some ways, this culture of minimizing risks has resulted in top Western teams, like TSM and G2 of 2017, developing a playstyle that focuses on capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes while minimizing the ones they make. Think WildTurtle being forced to suppress his tendency to Flash forward for kills, or Bjergsen prioritizing wave-clearing mids over influencing the rest of the map.
“I pretty much play to get small advantages now instead of going for huge advantages by putting myself in risky situations. Overall, over the years, I’ve played more and more passive. And people have noticed I haven’t been making these crazy plays, because if I mess up then I could lose my team the game. I don’t want to be that type of player anymore. That’s why I’ve changed a lot. But I still want to make those plays if it’s a good opportunity for it.” - WildTurtle, Under the Shell
Because lower-ranked teams in Western regions are also compelled to do the same, they are unable to best TSM and G2 in domestic competition. But Gigabyte Marines nearly beat TSM in a Best of 5, save a hasty attempt to finish the game in Game 4; even this decision can be attributed to the Marines’ propensity to take 50/50 risks (end the game and win the series, or fail and increase the possibility to go into a Game 5), although they reigned that tendency in for future games.
I’m going to argue that learning from their ‘mistake’ in that instance, actually did more harm than good, for it was not a mistake, but a risk that happened to fall on an unfavourable side. Just as the chance of a coin landing on either heads or tails does not change for each successive coin flip, going into a new game in a group stage scenario does not change the chance of a victory or loss.
It would appear that the longer a tournament progresses, the less likely GAM were to be risk-lovers, having supposedly ‘adapted’ throughout its span. This actually seemed to result in worse results over time, as opposed to the better results they had while coming in all guns blazing at the start of a tournament.
The most egregious example of this was GAM’s tie-breaker against Fnatic at Worlds 2017; the winner would advance and the loser would have to fly home. GAM had surprised Fnatic in their first game, opting for a daring, power-levelling Nocturne jungling strategy focused around Levi, their star jungler.
The approach paid dividends in part due to how unexpected it was to have a level 6 Nocturne at around 4 minutes into the game, but few teams would have even dared to pull this off. For the deciding tie-breaker, GAM instead opted into a teamfighting composition with no surprise picks or tactics built around aggression.
The Marines appeared as though they were playing not to lose — Optimus’s performance in particular seemed to suffer as he missed several crucial Orianna ultimates — and Fnatic, coming off the back of a shaky first week, shed any signs of nerves to advance.
The psychological battle was won by Fnatic arguably because they played without the fear of losing, while the Marines seemed overwhelmed by the occasion and switched into loss-prevention mode over using their important ultimates in offensive ways, winning nothing in the process.
At this point, one might be tempted to point at three-time winners of Worlds, SK Telecom T1, and indeed, their approach was not that of taking gambles, at least for their latter two victories. kkOma, their coach comes down hard on mistakes and believes that mistakes cannot be repeated. They played to their strengths, however, and just because they won Worlds does not mean that their approach had to be emulated for success.
Gigabyte Marines, taking the same approach as SKT, were far less likely to get as far as they did. Not only is aggression the preferred way of how Tinikun likes to get the Marines to play, his teams have also seen far more success when they take the game to their opponents, even if they made more mistakes along the way as a result. Who cares if their playstyle is seen as messy when it delivers a higher chance of success? It is hence the job of the coach and/or psychologist to ensure that losses do not adversely affect the players.
2018 has observed a larger number of teams in the West being risk-lovers and shooting up the standings in both the NALCS and EULCS - Echo Fox in NA and Team Vitality in EU. While the jury is out on whether they can win a split in the play-offs, even if they do not, it is much more preferable, both for teams and viewers, if they stopped being crippled by the fear of loss.
The lesson to take from this is: losing should not be seen as a demon that must be prevented at all costs, because losing is absolutely not the end of the world. Pragmatism is fine insofar as normal games go, but in a tournament decider, there is arguably no more room for pragmatism; sometimes a leap of faith is required.
All images except where noted courtesy of LoL Esports.
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