Improving your game through spectator mode

League of Legends screenshot

I love spectator mode. Since the patch introducing it to League of Legends, I’ve had the opportunity to observe top-level players and even my own friends. If you ever wanted to learn how to play like a pro, you now have your chance. High-level games of Summoner’s Rift are just a few mouse clicks away, and if you’re a little mentally fatigued from playing the game, you can sit back and enjoy some high-level play. It was one of the best updates thus far for League.

Watching high-level streams or spectating high-level games can dramatically improve your game if you know what to look for. This week, we’re going to cover some of the ways you can improve your game by stealing strategies and techniques from top players.

The tipping point

The most important thing you can look for in a match is the moment at which the winning team won the game. I’m not talking about when the enemy team surrendered or its nexus exploded. I’m talking about when the winning team started to snowball into a position that made it impossible for the losing team to come back.

Sometimes the tipping point occurs fairly late after a kill takes out one of the enemy champions, then the slayers go to take Baron and push an inhibitor. Games can also be decided in the first 10 minutes by a series of kills in one lane on a powerful snowball champion. That, combined with a few dragon attempts, can create a situation in which the one powerful champion can two- or three-shot most of the enemy team and take towers with impunity.

Most often, though, high-level games tend to be won in the midgame when teamfights first begin. When a team wins a teamfight, it can secure many advantages: It can steal buffs, take the dragon, or push down a turret. If the team’s members play conservatively afterward, their advantages will continue to snowball as they win more teamfights and continue to get more ahead.

Occasionally, a match can be won by masterful play by a single player. When I spectate games involving Doublelift, I see him turn a match around from a weak early game through great positioning and terrific mechanics. Although other pro players do this, I have seen few who swing games the way Doublelift does.

The reason you should look for the tipping point is obvious: You can find out what the critical element that won the game was. If you can reproduce those situations, you’ll win more games.

Just based on my own personal observation, I find that most games are lost through small mistakes. A few people get caught in the jungle all at different times, which leads to a dragon one time and a stolen blue buff the next. After that, a teamfight is won 4-2 and the victors push down a single turret. Slowly, the match snowballs into an unwinnable scenario.

Sometimes games are won without kills at all, but only in professional matches is this common. A few stolen blue buffs lead to a lost midlane, and the pros play so masterfully that these little advantages lead to bigger advantages. This is not common in low-level play or even in the high-level games you can spectate normally. In low-level games, a strong counter-jungle is not enough snowball to decide a match; in higher-level games, turning kills into minor advantages (which may include counter-jungling) tends to be the norm.

League of Legends screenshot

Composition, composition, composition

Top players have a much greater insight into what wins and what does not than most of us plebians. One of the biggest things you can do without any match analysis at all is look at the team compositions. After you’ve gone back and found out when the winning team started to win, you can glean a lot more insight into what the composition of the winning team was meant to accomplish.

If the game was won early (before 15 minutes), a strong kill lane or ganking jungler tends to be the cause. Sometimes it is the result of poor play on the part of the losing team (I just watched a match with a terrible Janna who lost her team the game), but at higher levels, it tends to be the product of a deliberate composition that was intended to get kills and win the game early on.

A kill lane comes from synergy between the carry and support, which I talked about last week. It can also come from synergy between the carry, support, and jungler. Occasionally the midlane champion also gets involved in ganks, which generally requires very good understanding of when to leave the lane to assist in a fight.

Lategame teams rely on strong inter-team synergy, which I went into a bit last week. Look for key plays by characters who are not damage dealers, and observe why a kill was possible. Often it’s a key slow or some other ability that allows the damage dealers to really pour on the pain. It’s somewhat rare for isolated damage dealers to survive in straight engagements; the game with the bad Janna I mentioned had a point when one team was down its tank and bruiser while the other team had lost its carry and support. Because of this, the more durable team was able to force the high-damage team back, since it had enough damage to do the job but also had ways to engage without melting instantly to enemy DPS.

Crazy mechanics are not crazy to experts

Always be on the lookout for simple tricks you can steal. A recent game I observed had a Graves who was amazingly slippery. After defeating the enemy Kog’Maw, he narrowly avoided death with perfect juking. He ran in one direction predictably, then changed his direction at the last second and used Quickdraw to dash, and the brief moment of time that Kog’Maw was directing himself in the wrong direction bought Graves the distance he needed to avoid Kog’s suicide passive.

Another example included a high-level Xerath — a rare sight. Xerath used his bread-and-butter combo of E > R > Q > R > R to devastating effect. If you’re interested in playing Xerath, learning that combo and how to use it properly can really improve your game. Ryze also has similar combos, and if you learn the different sequences that he can throw his nukes, you can take those into a match and really melt face.

The number of wild mechanical tricks in the game may surprise you. Have you ever seen Heimerdinger block a Blitzcrank grab or Morgana binding with a turret placed at the last second? What about using Safeguard to jump to a ward as Lee Sin or hopping over walls as Nidalee? Watch the pros use these tricks, then practice them yourself!

League of Legends screenshot

The danger of emotional investment

Above all, don’t put yourself in any player’s shoes. You’re not here to criticize or compare top-level play to yours. If you were as good as the players you were observing, your games would be on the featured matches and other people would be spectating you. It’s easy to say that you would have juked that Janna gale or Nidalee spear. It’s much harder when you go into a match and eat three in a row.

Always watch with the idea you will learn something! Don’t watch games passively. This isn’t professional football. These are people playing the very same game as you are, with the very same champion, rune, and mastery options as you. The only thing that separates the pros from you is better decision-making and more practice. Both of those can be improved, and we could easily be watching your games on the featured matches someday.

Of course, you shouldn’t take pro play as gospel. Experimenting is good, but watching the experts gives you a good place to start on your journey toward learning to win. Enjoy the videos, and make sure you learn something!