While difficulty in competitive multiplayer games is almost entirely based off each player’s relative skill and how they play against each other, there still is a slight nuance in difficulty that the developer has a hand in influencing for these games. In most cases of MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arena), the entire infrastructure is based on a team based game where players battle against each other in an attempt to destroy the enemy’s base. This involves a plethora of different characters that players can choose to control for each game, each controlling radically differently from the next with there own set of goals.
While players are free to choose their favorite champion and have fun playing them, there is often a metagame that determines effective strategies within the game such as that of League of Legends. The metagame, or meta for short, is often built around a set of strategies and a select few characters within the game that are determined optimal for the current state of the game. These are often seen as the best characters to play as, to a degree that they over perform and overshadow other characters. While largely the meta is influenced by the player base and in a game like League of Legends the meta is often dictated by the upper echelon of players in the professional esports scene, the developers, in this case Riot Games, have a very large acting say in what the game’s current meta is.
Most developers, including Riot Games, shake up and alter this game within the game by periodically updating and changing the game through patches. These patches will often buff champions who are deemed weak by Riot, and nerf champions who are too strong. Although often times Riot will also tweak certain champions to try and slightly alter them, sometimes resulting in a champion who all of a sudden receives tweaks that make them incredibly strong. This along with the very infrequent changes to items that can be bought, alter the state of the metagame and determine what are best picks. For example in one of the most recent patches, 6.18 (the world championship patch) they made slight changes to the game with the goal of not shaking up the foundation weeks before a major tournament. As a result the meta that had developed over the past few patches stayed, resulting in a handful of champions being determined optimal for each position. Anything outside of these 3-5 champions per role are considered risky picks that can easily flop miserably.
In a large part the meta influences difficulty on the player, as they may struggle with not being able to play or simply not being comfortable on the strong champions, requiring them to overcome a learning curve and engage in a matchup that is working against them. In a way difficulty in these multiplayer focused games comes directly from how well the player can mold and adapt themselves to fit the metagame, and their inability to do so makes the game that much more difficult for them.