I figured I should get around to reviewing this game at some point, because, well, it’s sort of where I made my writing debut. What is League of Legends and why do I think it’s so great as to spend a ton of time on it? It’s an entirely different type of game than everything I’m used to commenting on, so this post will have a much different tone. League of Legends (or LoL) is what we call a MOBA, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. Essentially, it pits teams of 5 players, represented by their champions (heroes in the League of Legends universe) in a battle against each other. I think League of Legends (or LoL) is one of the best run and designed games I’ve ever played because the company that produces it (Riot) pays so much attention to its upkeep, and today, I want to talk about a few areas where League of Legends is revolutionizing gaming and eSports.
Essentially, League of Legends has been designed to be a competitive eSport. If you don’t know what an eSport is, don’t worry, it’s simple. You know those meaningless games that people gather around, with arbitrary rules and favorite teams and tournaments and seasons and playoffs and millions of dollars on the line? Basketball or Football or Futbol or Tennis or whatever? An eSport is just like that, except the game is one played on a computer. Now, the first response I get when I introduce it like that is “like a basketball video game?”
That could be an eSport, but come on, think bigger! eSports can do things sports can’t! Why would you watch eBasketball when you can watch Basketball? But you know what you can’t watch? Gladiator games to the death (anymore)! Skirmishes between SWAT teams! anything involving elves! Quidditch! Anything you can imagine that couldn’t happen in real life, due to either practicalities or nonexistence, you could probably make an eSport out of! Previously, most eSports have just been competitive games that people realized ‘hey, if we patch this up a bit, we could play it competitively!’
Before LoL, most eSports were either fighting games, shooting games, or RTS games like Starcraft (controlling a base and an army). But more importantly, they were games that were designed to be fun, and mostly competitive. LoL (well, perhaps SC2 or some newer fighters could also claim this title) is the first game designed to be an eSport. Every two weeks, the game is tweaked to try and weaken overly strong strategies to keep the game balanced. Every two weeks or so (it’s gotten closer to a 3 weeks or a month in recent times), a new champion is released.
On top of that, they have funded weekly games between the top teams in the world in each region (well, Korea runs their own league, but Korea has always been in its own league when it comes to eSports).
It’s no secret that gamers can be assholes. Misogyny, homophobia, and other underlying societal problems we have come out in full force with the anonymity of the internet, and adding a competitive environment only makes things worse. Riot has a department they call PB&J, or Player Behavior and Justice, whose sole ob is to find ways to reward positive behavior and punish negative behavior in a way that reforms players or minimizes their negativity. That alone makes League of Legends an interesting game, in my opinion.
Balanced around readability
The common wisdom in old eSports is that readability isn’t that important. As long as the pro players know what’s happening, they can react to it. But this is actually a huge problem for eSports, because it makse it harder for casual spectators to get into it. The success that sports have had in getting a wide audience is simple: you can almost always tell what’s going on by following the ball and the camera. You might not understand the strategy behind it, but you can see what is happening. A lot of higher level eSports are either very hard to read, or simply occur too quickly to take in. Riot has spent a lot of work designing LoL to be readable. Watch these two games and tell me you can’t (in general) figure out what’s happening and how/why:
Fun and competitive
Finally, despite the focus of the game on competitive play, a lot of their balance design philosophy is aimed as casual players, about making sure that the game is about creating fun experiences. There are a lot of ways in which games, when played competitively, stop being fun. That is, there are actions you can take which are fun, and there are actions you can take which shut down other players’ fun. Riot has done significant work to make sure that the former is the focus of the game, and that where the latter is strong, it creates more fun than it removes.
Overall, I think Riot has done an excellent job at making a game that is both fun and competitive, and their dominance of the eSports market reflects this. They are the premiere eSport, and other eSports, both new and old, are going to have to take significant lessons from them to be strong.