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How Cosmetics Affect Player Skill Level in Competitive Video Games

January 18, 2019 |
eleven minute READ TIME

How Skins Affect Player Skill Level within Competitive Video Games: A Comprehensive Analysis

The term skin most commonly refers to purely cosmetic items that change the appearance of an object in a video game. These potentially include texture, model, particle, and sound changes to the player’s character or weapon. There are games like Valve’s DOTA 2 which offer the ability to further customize many other aspects of the game with items like user interface modifications and announcer voice packs.

Research estimates that the skin industry within gaming will surpass $160 billion by 2020, up from the $117 billion it reached in 2018 (Foye, 2018). Cosmetics may range from loot boxes in Overwatch which cost $0.99 each, to a single ‘Dragon Lore’ skin in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive which recently sold for an astonishing $61,000.00.

These cosmetic items claim that they do not offer the player any advantage as they do not adjust numbers or otherwise directly influence gameplay. Players usually purchase these skins for one of six reasons: vanity of the skin, uniqueness it potentially shows, beauty of the skin itself, ability to ‘show off’ to others, or to support the developer of the game itself.

Skins, Visibility, and Readability in Competitive Games

The average person has a reaction time ranging from 0.25 seconds to 0.35 seconds, while a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive professional player has a reaction time of 0.17 seconds. How quickly you are able to react to something in a competitive game like League of Legends can be a great determiner of skill, as dodging an ability and reacting to your opponent can often be the difference between a kill or death.

There are many different types of reaction types, such as visual versus auditory, which may lead to different results. Someone’s reaction time is also closely linked to their sex, age, and dominant hand. There are two primary reaction tasks that dictate how quickly someone will react, known as Simple-Response Time tasks (SRT) and Choice-Response Time tasks (CRT).

In a Simple-Response Time task, there is one stimulus that requires one response. An example of a Simple-Response Time task in competitive gaming would be a player who is aiming down a long hallway with a sniper, and simply needs to click their mouse the second they see someone pass into their crosshair. In a Choice-Response Time task, there are multiple stimuli which require different responses. An example of a Choice-Response Time task in competitive gaming would be the same player who is aiming down a long hallway with a sniper, waiting until they see someone but needing to verify it’s an enemy and not a friendly player before clicking their mouse to shoot.

This is where readability takes an important role in the design of competitive video games. How quickly someone is able to identify an enemy or ability against any given background becomes vital when it could be the difference between a win or loss in a multi-million-dollar world championship. In a more casual setting, it could be the difference between the player seeing the enemy or not and labeling both their death and the game in a negative light as a result.

As skins directly change the appearance of these different characters, abilities, and objects, readability becomes a clear concern. There are many instances of existing skins in games, such as League of Legends, where the particles and colors begin to blend in with the terrain and other character abilities. The most expensive skins in these games also tend to be the flashiest, having the most sophisticated and beautiful effects or designs. These can dramatically contribute to poor visibility, often adding too much visual and informational noise to where it can become difficult for their opponent to accurately discern what’s happening during team fights.

Skins and Mechanical Advantages in Competitive Games

There are a large number of ways that a skin can affect the play space in a dangerous way and provide a unique advantage or disadvantage to the user of the cosmetic. In the case of League of Legends, Riot Games became aware of this issue early on in the lifecycle of the game and actively continues to patch existing skins. The developers maintain a pipeline around these limitations to avoid similar problems not only with the release of newer skins, but weigh these potential challenges heavily against the design of future champions and abilities as well. An example of a directly harmful skin would be something that looks visually different enough from the unskinned object that a new player or livestream viewer would get confused as to what champion, ability, or weapon the skin is masking.

Most skins do not change the hitbox of the champion or ability because that would result in it being easier or harder to hit, or otherwise leave room for inconsistency between skins. However, the model or effect of some skins may be larger, smaller, or otherwise complex enough that a player would assume the hitbox is a different shape than it actually is. If it’s too large, the player may wonder how they were hit by something. If it’s too small, the player may wonder how an ability didn’t land. There was a major issue in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive where the skin of one player model had a backpack which did not have a hitbox and resulted in the player not taking damage when it looked like the bullet landed during a professional tournament.

Skins also often change the timing of animations and particle effects as a natural result of the other cosmetic changes. In League of Legends, this leads to certain skins feeling better to play with outside of just looking cool. For example, it may be easier to last-hit minions with a particular skin based on how long it takes to begin firing an auto-attack and how long it takes for that auto-attack to land from the moment you press the button. While the speed of the auto-attack actually landing is the same, there may be a shorter or longer time between the button press of starting the auto-attack and when the champion reaches the firing aspect of the animation. This results in what feels like more precise and easier auto-attacking when done in the usual rhyme.

Skins and Time Investment in Competitive Games

Whenever someone purchases a skin or otherwise spend money in a game, they are significantly adding to their sunk cost in that particular title. Mobile games often try to reel in the player with a cheap but great introductory deal because it influences the player to keep coming back to that experience as to have not thrown away their money. MMORPG’s also heavily rely on this principle that you will keep coming back because of the significant time and money investment you have in their title over starting completely over with an alternative competitor. This is equally true in games like League of Legends, Overwatch, and Counter-Strike.

This is not only applicable to the game itself but the components inside of it. If a player spends twenty-dollars on a Talon skin in League of Legends, they have increased their sunk cost in both Talon and League of Legends. They only get value out of their purchase of they play Talon, and thus they are more likely to do both. They are less likely to stop and try to relearn an entirely different champion or game. The longer the user plays the game, the more experience they have and the more they likely will have learned.

By sticking with that one champion, they’ll have learned most of that champion. After they’re finished learning that champion, they can then focus on learning how to improve at the game instead of the intricates of another champion. Both of these factoring into a potential improvement of the player’s skill level. As time goes on, they are more likely to have spent time researching how to improve such as finding an item build guide online or watching a how-to video series as well. This investment increases the activity they have in both that champion and the game itself, both of which are a significant contributor to improving that player’s skill level.

Skins and Player Confidence in Competitive Games

Players with cool skins know that their skin looks cool, and by association, that they look cool for wearing it. A player may be calmer and happier when they hop into a game with their favorite champion and best skin to show off to everyone else in the game. There is the knowledge that other players may enjoy that skin, and the player may become even happier if other players positively comment on the skin. This especially true on newer skins, rarer skins, and skins on newer champions.

It is also worth recognizing that when the player does something considered cool, such as wiping out the entire enemy team alone, it looks and feels even cooler if they have a skin that makes them look cool while doing it.

This confidence boost is a large reason that a significant number of people buy luxury cars like Mercedes-Benz, thinking that people are likely commenting to themselves in admiration if not directly to the owner about it. The mental aspect of competitive games is closely tied to performance and coming into a game with a healthy level of confidence and happiness is more likely to lead to the player playing to their highest potential.

This boost of confidence may also be harmful to the player in the case of overconfidence, the player making mistakes they otherwise wouldn’t have without this confidence threshold. The most common example in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is someone who feels amazing because they just purchased a new knife. They start out doing well, which makes them feel even better, but then they quickly fall behind. This is because they just purchased this knife which influences them heavily to take the knife out and put their gun away, which frequently leaves them open to getting shot and dying before they can pull their gun back out or otherwise react.

Skins and Enemy Expectations in Competitive Games

If a player has a good skin for their champion in League of Legends, it is easy to assume that they have spent both time using that champion and playing the game. While neither of these necessarily have to be the case, it is likely given that individuals are often cautious with their money when they enter uncharted territory such as a free-to-play game like League of Legends. This assumption of the enemy’s prior knowledge is likely based on the rarity of this skin, and any other cosmetics the enemy showcases, such as their avatar and border.

Most players have a resistance to this natural assumption given the popular mentality that skins do not equal skill. But as a result of better skins equating to the assumption of more time having been spent, the lack of a skin also often means the opposite assumption takes place. The expectation that players without any skin have not spent that much time on that champion and are therefore new to that champion or the game entirely.

This is where the halo effect takes place in competitive games. If a player with no skin or avatar goes all-in and dies at level 2, it’s very easy to assume that player is either new or bad at the game. On the same token, if an opponent with a legendary skin, border, and avatar goes all-in and gets a kill at level 2, it’s equally easy to assume that this player is from a higher elo and better at the game. Confirmation bias will often solidify either of these cases as true in our mind given this unconfound evidence, even though we are basing our original expectations on little to zero knowledge of the actual opponent’s skill level.

Once it is believed that the opponent is better at the game, the loss of that match can often fall into that of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The player is more likely to play defensively given that they are behind, while their opponent is then more likely to play aggressively either because the player is playing passively or because they are ahead. The act of playing defensively leads to dealing less damage to the enemy and punishing the enemy less for their mistakes. In the case of both League of Legends and Counter-Strike, trying to run away from fights is one of the most common mistakes that lead to death. This leaves you susceptible to damage and movement speed reduction without being able to deal any in-return, often leaving the player burst down when they could’ve potentially won the fight if they tried.

It is also important to cover that skins often change the animations of a champion such as their recall and taunt animations. These taunt animations are often ‘significantly better’ than the base skin and act as a major selling point as they serve as a way to annoy or upset their opponent. This can be further increased by the fact that League of Legends allows you to spam the taunt animation, and that they more recently implemented an emote system. The emote system allows the player to purchase cosmetic stickers which they can display above their champion at any time in an effort to taunt and upset their opponent, such as after they get a kill or steal an objective.

When a player begins losing, their engagement with the gameplay typically begins to decrease over time. The player’s attention could be directed towards flaming their teammates in the chat or alt-tabbing to browse social media in-between deaths. Regardless, the player starts to care less the further behind they are, and eventually reaches a point where they stop caring entirely and instead look forward to the next match. As their investment fades away, the player stops trying as hard and begins to make more mistakes which further solidifies the loss.

There are a large number of factors that go into a player’s skill level and how skins can affect competitive games separately. The author believes this topic would benefit from further practical research and investigation, which has been planned. Nonetheless, it appears evident that skins can provide a large number of advantages or disadvantages. It is important that developers remain conscious about the indirect consequences of these cosmetics, and that players stay vigilant about their issues while optionally taking advantage of the benefits they may present.

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