The trouble with tier lists

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Any game with a competitive setting in mind will have a host of tools for players to choose from. Okay, well most competitive games anyway. You really don’t get to select from a variety of paddles in PONG. But throughout the history of video games, many games have given the players who’ve enjoyed them some variety. By the time the Commodore 64 rolled around we had games like Mail Order Monsters where we were choosing which giant twisted creatures we were going to command and level against one another.

Of course, by the mid-1990s we had reached a point where games didn’t have to give both competitors carbon copies of one another. This was also the period when fighting games would truly evolve beyond the usual martial arts competition games we’d seen before. Data East had given us Karate Champ, Epyx had given us World Karate Championship (a.k.a. International Karate), but Capcom’s Street Fighter would move the needle a bit. It had the same approach as Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! in the sense that you were going to essentially be playing a boss rush. To a lesser extent, one could point to Konami’s Yie Ar Kung Fu.

But Street Fighter would spawn Street Fighter II and SNK’s Fatal Fury. and before long the genre would see a slew of contenders. This is the point where fighting games gave players several characters to choose from. Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter, Killer Instinct, Tekken, and a host of other contenders would also enter the fray. All of them would put their own spins and tweaks on the fighting game formula.

While this was going on in arcades, in the PC Gaming side of things another major genre we love today was coming up: First-Person-Shooters. Obviously, we think of games like Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM for wowing everyone by putting us in the head of a hero. But DOOM, Rise Of The Triad, Duke Nukem 3D, and Quake brought us the Deathmatch. And while most of these games gave us all the same character, they all had different weapons strewn throughout their maps. Before long, the FPS would be bringing us multiplayer-focused experiences like Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament. 

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But these genres’ options in characters and weapons both led to something. Something called the tier list.

Tier lists are most referenced in fighting games but they also show up in First-Person Shooters due to the possible weapon matchups that can occur at any given time. Within a few weeks of release, you’ll begin to see them pop up in their respective game communities. Showing off brackets that group the combatants or the weapons into different levels or “Tiers” of effectiveness in battle.

These lists change continually over the lifespan of their respective games. As new strategies are discovered, new content is added via DLC, and when patches are created by the developers to fix bugs or rebalance the game they’re redone. Who makes these lists? Usually, it’s the absolute best players of any given competitive game. The top 1% of the top 10% of tournament level players. Here, they lay their opinions down at the feet of everyone in the community. And to be honest, at that level of play it makes some sense. It gives the absolute best players a good idea of which matchups are going to be the most difficult, or most balanced among two players of equal skill.

The problem is that these lists are not gospel. Even among the top bracket, there will be a lot of debate because one player might intricately know a supposedly lower-tier character or weapon has a technique or talent that isn’t being given enough credit by the author. And sometimes these debates may change the writer’s mind.

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Be that as it may, the unfortunate trend in recent years has been that average people have been taking these lists as concrete law. Leading to a swath of people entering into a game like Street Fighter V, going on Eventhubs to find Karin on the top of the list and immediately choosing to use them. Because they want to win, and in their minds being number 1 on their list means they should always win.

It doesn’t take anything else into account. Why did the authors think Karin was the best character in the game? What does the character have over the other characters? How complicated are these advantages to learn? Are they really *that* much better? Because if one pays any attention they’ll notice that some matchups are nearly even, and there are even a couple of characters that give them some trouble.

And whether you decide to believe a list or not, these were generally made by people who have tens of thousands upon tens of thousands of hours in experience in it. Those who have mastered most of the fighters in a game or weapons in a game as well as arenas and maps. What they’re talking about pertains to a very small portion of the audience playing the game regularly. Although with things like Tiermaker, pretty much anyone can make one about anything. I made a joke list for a private group below.

 

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The reality is that if you take any of the best players in a given game, and force them to use the tools they haven’t written a lot of fondness for they’ll still likely win even if they think they’re using inferior tools. Because they have enough of a handle on the ins and outs of that weapon. They know exactly where the best sniper locations are, and they’ll still take you out with the pea shooter. They know when you’re going to try to use that awesome super and they’re going to make you whiff it. And when you do they will absolutely punish you.

Until you get to that kind of a level of talent in your favorite competitive game, pay no mind to these kinds of lists. Instead, find that character you like, or that weapon you feel comfortable with and try to go as far as you can with them. Along the way, you may just discover things even some of those who are objectively better than you haven’t yet. Then use those things to your advantage. To truly get better at any competitive game you’ll have to get used to losing and analyzing those losses. Eventually, you’ll start finding those holes in your plans and patching them. You’ll change strategies. Something far more effective than looking at a list and changing a character or a weapon.

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