League of Legends screenshot
"Elo hell" is a term that gets thrown around a lot in League of Legends. If you're actively working to improve your skill at the game, either you've been in Elo hell or you are still there. The term comes from the Elo rating system that League of Legends uses for its matchmaking. Because matchmaking has to deal with three or five players on each side, there's a lot of potential for a bad match. In Elo hell, this is exacerbated by players who have inflated ratings due to wins they probably didn't deserve.

At the higher ratings, matches tend to improve in overall quality despite the smaller pool of players. It is virtually impossible to maintain 1600 Elo or above (top 10%) without being somewhat decent at the game. While weaker players can occur in any matchmaking level, they are still two advanced players who know the game. At 1300 Elo (top 50%), there's a very large chance that a matchup inequality is an intermediate player battling an opponent who has no clue what he is doing.

Elo hell is extremely frustrating because nothing worse is having your chance at winning taken out of your hands and put in the hands of a terrible player.

I was not very aware as to what different ratings meant in League of Legends for a long time. I knew that 1500 meant you were pretty good, and I figured most people were around the 1200-1300 mark (you start at 1200 Elo). Otherwise, I was pretty clueless about the rating system. I didn't realize how much better a 1600 player is than a 1500 player, and I didn't know where my personal skill was.

For a while, Riot used to send your Elo information to the game client, although it didn't display on the screen. This allowed for datamining programs such as JabeBot to pull detailed player information, including your Elo for unranked games and most notably Dominion games. Because we don't have a ranked mode in Dominion, it served as the Dominion community's performance bar. Draft Dominion became our little version of ranked games, and people could find out where they stood in comparison to their opponents. During this time, I looked at a lot of the ratings of people I knew and people I played with and got a good feel for what the "middle ratings" meant. It also allowed me to understand Elo hell (which I was near the top of) and why it exists.

As a result of this information, though, I ended up being very self-conscious about my rating and slumped horribly. I went from just under 1600 to around 1425 or so after a streak of around 15 losses in a row (I got one win, then went back to lose eight or so more, too). I'm kind of glad there's no ranked Dominion for this reason -- because I would play it and would be really self-conscious about it. I'm still recovering from that miserable set of losses.

Unfortunately for the community (and fortunately for me), Riot eventually decided to hide rating information entirely from the client. Now you can only see someone's rating for ranked games, which you can only play on Summoner's Rift. However, I did get a much better understanding of what Elo meant after observing rating changes and looking at the skill level of others.

League of Legends screenshotDefining Elo hell

Elo hell is the level at which matchmaking is most likely to pair skilled players with bad players. It occurs most frequently in the 1300 to 1500 Elo range and can occur slightly above or below that. At around 1700-1800 rating, matches almost always are composed of people who have a firm grasp of the game's fundamentals. There are a variety of reasons that the 1300-1500 range is so bad, and we'll look at them in turn. This mostly covers player ratings at level 30; it doesn't really apply below that because lower-level summoners are generally not matched with higher-level ones and because lower-level Elo is very volatile.

At lower Elo ratings, most people deserve their rating. There are a few people who artificially deflate their ratings by losing a lot of games, but the vast majority of League summoners below 1200 Elo are not very skilled. These players lack any battlefield awareness and have a difficult time making good decisions. They often don't know when they should be going for objectives and when they should be farming in a lane. This is totally fine; not everyone has to play League on a bloodthirsty, competitive level. These people deserve their rating, and they deserve to play with similarly skilled people. They certainly shouldn't play with someone who has a good game sense; they'd get crushed and wouldn't even know why.

Because League of Legends is a team game, lower-skill players can be carried to higher ratings simply by virtue of luck. It is entirely possible for a poor player to get matched into a game with a "rising star" whose rating hasn't peaked yet. This rising star is better than his rating suggests, likely because he reads about the game and puts new techniques to practice. If he's put into a game with nine other players of his rating, his team will probably win. The game does not know that he was responsible, so all of the players on his team will get a rating increase. That, combined with the wins a player "deserves" and wins by other players that have a lower-than-skill Elo rating, ensures that it's possible for a player to get lucky and climb to levels she probably didn't deserve.

Eventually, the system will settle itself, and the lucky player will get pushed back down to his expected rating, but on the whole it is very common for 1200-ish Elo players to get a lucky streak that pushes them into the 1300s. As one might imagine, this player will be a huge drain on any team he gets seeded into at a higher rating. Likewise, unlucky 15-loss streaks by good players can put them in a lower expected rating. When I was coming off of my huge slump, I won about four out of every five Dominion games I played for a while. I didn't deserve my below-1400 rating, and I quickly climbed out, carrying whomever I was playing with up along with me (I'm still probably well below 1600, though).

Another big problem for the matchmaking system is teaming with friends. Riot tries very hard to make premade teams fair for everyone, and I think it does a decent job. However, no automated matchmaking system is perfect, and premade teams can have no effect or they can be massive. How many times have you played with friends and had a string of rough losses? For less-skilled players, the value of instant voice communication is much lower; you might not even be using a voice chat program to talk to your friends at all. However, even if you're not, Riot raises your effective rating if you're teamed with friends. At lower ratings (below 1200), this increase is not very meaningful. At higher ratings, this can actually hurt your team a lot. The difference between 1400 and 1500 Elo is extremely large, and it only gets more divided the further up a player gets. The difference between 1600 and 1650 is larger than the difference between a 1200 and a 1400 player. If you're queued with a friend, make sure you can talk directly to your friend (or you're playing against bots).

League of Legends screenshot
Strategies for getting out

One of the most significant elements of Elo hell is that if you've been there for a while, you probably deserve to be there. Another player can lose the game for you, but if your rating is lower than your skill suggests, you will get seeded into games that are basically free wins for you. Just keep playing, and if your skill is up to the task, you'll get out.

One major problem in Elo hell is that teams will often instalock the worst possible team compositions. It is vitally important that you soft-lock whomever you want to play, and then if your character is not suitable for the team, switch. This seems like common sense, but it can be difficult when your team is Morgana, Brand, Heimerdinger, and Olaf -- sometimes you can't make sense of what character you should play to fix your team. This is a very important skill, and I might address it in another column, but if you practice it, you will get better at learning what specific character can fill the gaping holes in your team composition. In Dominion, this often means taking the bottom lane spot, although it can also mean taking up the initiator role or poking/zoning role.

Unless you're exclusively queueing in a five-man premade, you'll want to practice a variety of roles and champions. When my only role in Classic was support, I was pretty hurt when our team needed a jungler and I couldn't step up. I'm not an amazing jungler, but at least now I can fill the shoes if I need to.

Don't queue in premades with teammates whose skills vary widely from your own. I have a lot of beginner friends, and I either smurf with them or play against bots (usually the latter). Smurfing doesn't help your friends much, since they have you to fall back on instead of improving their own game. I prefer to just play casually with bots and save my serious matches for my duo queue partner whose Elo is pretty close to mine.

Perhaps most important is just practicing. I keep harping on this every week, but if you find things that you are bad at (and there's always something), practice that thing and just that thing until you've improved it a lot, then move onto the next thing. If your goal is to improve and not to win, winning will come naturally as you get better and better. Good luck and have fun!

We understand what it's like to climb the skill ladder in League of Legends. The Summoner's Guidebook teaches you the tools you need to get a competitive edge. Whether you're climbing the ranked ladder, playing Draft Dominion, or getting crushed by intermediate bots, every enemy has a weakness. And every Thursday, Patrick Mackey shows how you can improve improve on yours.

This article was originally published on Massively.