What is “the meta” and how does it affect gaming?

If you want to be competitive, you have to understand the metagame.

Image via Riot Games

The meta, or the metagame, is a huge part of competitive gaming that refers to a number of things depending on the game that you play.

The term has become more commonplace in esports, with casters and developers using it to describe what is powerful, or overpowered, in matches.

In short, meta is a word used to describe characters, items, or weapons that are more dominant than others in a game. It could reference champions in League of Legends that are stronger than others, for example, or cards in Hearthstone that are either broken or popular at the time.

Origins and meaning

The meta has had multiple meanings throughout history.

A concept known as metagame theory was first developed by Nigel Howard, an English scholar, in the 1960s. He created the theory based on strategic games and war, and touched on how players will try to reach their objectives and goals through the best options available to them.

One way he describes this process is through the military, and more importantly, arms races, where countries contest against each other to have the most powerful weapons available to them in order to outdo their opponents.

Another meaning refers to a change in the rules or functions of a game to maximize the satisfaction of play. When players optimize board games, for example, they might tweak or make up rules to enjoy the game in their own way.

In video games, however, the metagame has its own meaning—and depending on which game you play, the context differs. In short, the metagame in video gaming means using characters or items that are the most powerful at the time to try and find the best and quickest means to victory.

Niche characters can also find their way into the meta even if they aren’t overpowered to act as counters to high-tier picks.

How is the meta represented in games?

The meta exists in every game that has a competitive element. How players describe the meta, however, depends on the title.

In fighting games like Super Smash Bros. or Street Fighter, the community creates tier lists to rank the strongest to weakest characters in-game. The meta in this instance comes from players using the strongest characters to win events, such as Super Smash Bros. for Wii U’s infamous Bayonetta metagame.

For Hearthstone, Blizzard’s popular online card game, the metagame refers to the strongest decks in the current set. This is also the same with many traditional card games like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic the Gathering.

The meaning of the metagame is always dependent on the community and the game’s creators. A new patch could turn what was once a strong character in League of Legends into a useless one. This also applies when a developer adds a new overpowered item into the game, which it then nerfs after a period of time.

The metagame will continue to be a part of competitive gaming for years to come, so be sure to keep an eye on each game’s tier lists, competitive ladders, and player discussions in your push to the top.