Tier lists have been controversial since the dawn of fighting games, and have slowly seeped into every other competitive game featuring pre-game or mid-game loadout choices.
From a casual perspective, it can be easy to be skeptical of tier lists, especially in modern times. Casual players typically don’t play the game consistently enough to be able to execute the counters that can shut a low tier character down.
Alex in 3rd Strike might be scary to someone who can barely block crossups, but a higher level player can simply parry option-select Alex’s crossup stomp, tapping exactly as it connects, and either getting a parry if it’s same-side, or a block if it’s crossup. Urien might seem mediocre, since he doesn’t have incredible frame data, his specials are slow or unsafe, and have crappy hitboxes on top of being mostly charge moves, but when his moves are mastered, he has ridiculous combo damage and setups into unblockables.
A higher level player can play Chun Li, Ken, or Dudley, and simply tank Alex’s slash elbow, or block the EX slash elbow, and punish it with a super. Chun Li can get roundhouse kicked in the face by Q, and then punish him with super art 2 for more damage than the roundhouse.
These types of weaknesses aren’t as obvious at low level, so it can be hard for lower level players to understand the true shape of the game.
The fact that characters are different from one another means that some will be better against others. They’ll counter each other. If a character counters a lot of other characters, especially if it’s by a wide margin, then that’s a top tier.
So the competitive beginner level response to the reliability of tier lists is to take them as gospel. The tier list is truth. Anything that contradicts the tier list is a statistical aberration. But this isn’t entirely true either. Obviously tier lists change as a game ages, and not just by new patches being implemented. Players come to understand characters differently and realize new strengths and weaknesses in characters. The top tiers, especially in modern games, are sometimes not that far above everyone else.
Is it Rock-Paper-Scissors or just Efficiency?
As I like to say, there are 2 elementary types of multiplayer games, from which everything else is composed: Rock Paper Scissors, and Efficiency Race.
Efficiency Race is when there’s a transitive relationship between the payoff of different options in a game, strictly better and strictly worse payoffs. Rock Paper Scissors is when there is a non-transitive relationship between payoffs.
Character select, Loadout select, Deck Building, choosing a Build Order, all of these are a type of RPS that is pre-selected before the game starts (or in some cases, you make commitments mid-game).
Tier lists are what happens when this preselection is closer to transitive, when there are strictly better and worse choices. Matchup charts are what happens when there is a more non-transitive relationship between choices. And obviously these things coexist within every game that has loadout selection or character select. For every tier list there is a matchup chart, and for every matchup chart, there is a tier list. Some characters will beat more characters, and by wider margins, than others. And some characters will (usually) have winning matchups on higher tier characters.
So this also means there are 2 types of imbalance: Stronger & weaker characters existing in a hierarchy; And individual matchups being heavily lopsided.
If a game has a strong hierarchy of characters in place, that means that character selection is more of a transitive relationship, some payoffs are simply bigger than others. That means that character choice is an efficiency race, or more accurately, it’s a knowledge check. Do you know who the the top tier character is?
If a game has many lopsided matchups, but not a clear hierarchy of characters, then counterpicking your opponent’s character choice is the correct option. If you know your opponent’s choice already, then you can simply switch to what beats it. If this is a big enough deal in the game, then tournament rules usually provision for blind character picks instead of simply giving advantage to whoever picks last.
Characters/Decks are an Investment!
Where this all gets tricky is that: Players devote hundreds of hours to practicing their characters! In collectible card games, they spend hundreds or thousands on building decks to play in sanctioned tournaments. You aren’t capable of simply swapping out one character for another in response to a patch, or a meta shift, or to get the counterpick for a matchup.
From a competitor’s perspective: The question is, how much should the tier list be valued? How important is that to this game? In a lot of modern games, it’s not very important. They’re well-balanced games and you can win with a mid tier or bottom tier. It might not be helping you win, but it might not hurt enough to matter. How much investment does it take to pick up a character, or to switch characters?
I personally follow the rule of thumb to pick the highest tier character that I’m competent at or feel comfortable with; Leverage my strengths in addition to the high tier pick. If I pick a low tier and that matters a lot, then I’m probably not going to play that game on a serious competitive level. I’ll stick to just playing with friends.
From a game designer’s perspective: Is it healthy for a game to ALLOW players to devote hundreds or thousands of hours to a character that’s not worth anything? Should a game’s result really be decided by whether both players knew what the tier list would look like in 3 years’ time? Should a game really have matchups so lopsided that you might as well give up when you see your opponent’s character pick?
A lot of beginners tend to like counterpicking, because it’s cool that someone went to all the trouble of busting out a different character, but seasoned played tend to be more annoyed with it, because each matchup should be interesting and fun, rather than losing just because someone had your counterpick in their back pocket.
Counterpicking Each Round
In Starcraft, picking a build order is like character select for a given match. Each build order can play significantly differently, and they have counterplay to each other, but notably, picking a faction is NOT like that. The factions are designed to be highly balanced, so that picking a faction is mostly arbitrary, but counterpicking your build order in response to what your opponent does is a committal response, but not as committal as picking the faction. In this way, Starcraft lets people counterpick for the matchup, but also gives them security from making a bad choice at faction select.
Some competitive games like Overwatch, encourage players to switch characters mid-round. In MOBAs, it’s common to pick different champions from game to game, and they even let you ban champions at the start of a match, to safeguard against getting counterpicked. The drawback of this style is that characters tend to be require less practice to pick up or master, so that jumping across characters is possible. And it means that if someone puts in the work to be good at a given champion, and their opponents know that, they can just ban it and that’s the game.
My basic point is just that tiers are real, and tiers do affect your odds of winning, but if you take that too seriously, it can be absolute brain poison and weaken your understanding of the game, or seriously hurt your priorities in improving at a game. If you think tier lists don’t matter at all, stay free. If you think they matter a lot and you haven’t picked a top tier, why are you choosing to lose? If you’re playing well on a viable character and the game is balanced, stop worrying about it. And remember that tier lists change as people’s understanding of the game changes. If you think the game isn’t understood properly, show people what they don’t know about yet.