League of Legends (LoL) is an online competitive video game, and as a digital space one might assume it to be relatively free of gender norms. However, the game is filled with many instances of identity normativity ranging from artistic direction to gameplay dynamics to the player community.
In LoL, players form teams of five and fight against another team (making ten people per match). The game is won when one team successfully invades the other team’s stronghold. Each individual player selects a champion to play as, and each champion has different strengths and weaknesses. Some champions can turn invisible and sneak up behind enemies, some champions can launch attacks from a very long distance, some champions can grab enemies and pull them closer. Teams need to carefully decide what champion each player picks, because the enemy team also gets to pick five champions of their choosing. All five players on a team need to be aware of their champion’s role and how it relates to the roles that their teammates picked.
The stereotype is that women primarily play as supports. A support in LoL is a champion who specializes in protecting their teammates and enhancing their abilities. Supports are commonly able to heal their allies and confer buffs upon them (a buff is a temporary boost in combat abilities such as movement speed). They usually need to stay as far away from combat as possible, because if they die they are no longer able to help their teammates. A support is typically paired up with a “carry,” which is LoL terminology for a champion who can do lots of damage but is also very fragile: champions like this must be “carried” by their teammates early on because they are weak, but later in the match they become powerful and “carry” their teammates to victory.
This stereotype (women primarily play supports) has several nuances. First of all, it perpetuates the idea that women are caretakers and homeowners, the benevolent mothers who act as enablers for others rather than taking action themselves. Likewise, the counter stereotype is that men primarily play as carries, because carries are the ones tearing enemy teams apart and claiming all the glory (obviously, thanks to the help of their supports and tanks). In terms of gameplay, supports and carries have a relationship similar to that of the traditional homemaker wife and breadwinner husband.
However, this runs deeper than just a social norm: the stereotype is further strengthened by the idea that supports are easier to play as, so women play as supports because they’re not good enough to play a more difficult role (such as carry). This stereotype is particularly damaging because it is completely untrue at higher levels of play (professional LoL depends very much on each team’s supports), but as a beginner it feels true: all a support needs to do is heal their allies, and they can sit back away from the action and let their teammates fight in actual combat. The problem is exacerbated by ragers in the community: a rager is a person who will harass and belittle a teammate who isn’t doing well, and if a teammate isn’t doing well it drops their chances of winning the match. If a player tries a new role and does a poor job, their teammates might rage at them, and they’ll feel bad about it. It’s very tempting to stay away from the action so you don’t draw ragers to yourself, especially for new players, and support is (initially) the best way to do that.
If someone starting to play LoL for the first time decides to play support because support is the easiest role, they will become accustomed to that role. Maybe they’ll switch roles later on as they get better and try out different champions, but there are just as many players who prefer playing the first role they picked out of habit. From this, it is easy to see “women play supports” as a self-perpetuating stereotype: women playing LoL for the first time are incentivized to play support because it’s easier, and then they continue to play support because they’re used to it, and then other people deduce that women play support.
Riot Games (the company that makes LoL) has made efforts to reduce the stigma around support role with its recent “Teamwork OP” campaign. “OP” is game terminology for “overpowered,” which refers to a mechanic that is so strong that it is unfair to play against (if an enemy champion singlehandedly defeats my whole team, that champion would be OP). In this case, Riot’s campaign raised awareness that having good teamwork is just as powerful, if not more powerful than having strong individual skill.
Traditionally, supports were supposed to buy wards, which are items that grant vision of an area and alert teammates when an enemy is nearby, which prevents enemies from sneaking up on allied characters. Buying wards costs gold that could be spent on buying other items that increase the amount of damage you do, so carries typically never bought wards and instead saved all of their money to buy damage-boosting items instead, and supports had to spend all their income on wards. Ever since Riot’s Teamwork OP campaign, it is no longer rare to see all five champions on a team buying wards, rather than having all of them offload ward duty to the support.
LoL is almost a microcosm of society: many modern day interpersonal connections can be interpreted as a variation on the support/carry relationship. However, that is not to say that supporting is wrong and carrying is right, nor to say that women are supporters while men are carriers. People can be more nuanced than that, and LoL proved it with its recent Teamwork OP campaign. We can develop a better understanding of gender roles in our society by analyzing gender roles in LoL.