League of Legends — shortened to LoL, a clear indication that the developers meant to spread it like a meme from the start — has become mainstream. I hear about it on the tram and refrain from interjecting; there are massive competitions worldwide with huge prize pools; even my non-gamer housemate is obsessed with it. I started back in 2010 (it was released at the end of ’09) and went through my addicted stage, but I can feel its cartoony tendrils pulling me back. But why has it remained so popular and gone from strength to strength? The answer is twofold: One, it has avoided stagnation by constantly reinventing itself, and two, it has unbelievable ties to the community. It’s a two-pronged tactic that has worked remarkably well and put it above others in its genre.
LoL is based on the Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne modification, Defense of the Ancients (DotA), with some members of Riot (the developers of LoL) having worked on DotA. The basic game is as follows: There are two bases connected by ‘lanes’ in opposite corners of a map; down each of these lanes ‘minions’ or AI creatures are sent against defensive towers; two teams of five ‘champions’ (player-controlled units with various abilities) aid the minions to destroy the enemy base. Players guide their chosen hero from a top-down perspective and try to outsmart and outplay the opposition heroes, usually in large team fights.
So simple it has spawned a new genre, often called MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena). But in a sea of copycats, LoL stands above the rest. It isn’t as hardcore and punishing as Heroes of Newerth (HoN) or Defense of the Ancients 2 (both solid games, but mostly for elitists). It sticks close enough to the formula to avoid becoming niche like Bloodline Champions or Super Monday Night Combat (both are more combat-focused). And it doesn’t outright suck like Demigod and Rise of the Immortals (both are boring takes on the genre, and the former was doomed with a failed launch). There are other notable entries such as Smite with its third-person perspective of the player’s champion and a mythical theme, but a game doesn’t become the most played PC game in North America and Europe (1.3 billion hours logged in a year) for no reason. LoL is doing something right.
Key to both drawing in new audiences and keeping veterans coming back is reinvigoration of the formula. The basic game is free, which encourages newbies to play with their friends. It’s bright and colourful with a very simple UI, and the controls are intuitive; unlike DotA 2 there isn’t too much for a new player to come to terms with. There is persistent level progression for player accounts up to a maximum of 30, and each level unlocks new skills and abilities. Every week a given number of heroes are free to play with, but each game earns you points to unlock champions that you can use at leisure. You can see how this becomes an infinite loop, as there is always something new to try. And if that wasn’t enough, Riot has released three new game modes over the years: a 3vs3 map, a capture-the-flag style map, and a single-lane, randomised one. This constant variety and upgrading means that old players are tempted to return and there is always a reason for potential players to dive in. A successful game resides on maintaining a customer base, and Riot are community-driven geniuses.
One of the major issues for new players of HoN and DotA 2 is the harsh community. People expect you to be good; they do not hold back if you are not. LoL isn’t perfect either, but it does encourage more wholesome player interaction, and includes a tribunal system to judge bad sports. There is a weekly showcase video for player fan art, and Riot encourages cosplay (or ‘costume play’, where fans dress up as their favourite characters) at all major events and expos. It’s this sense of fun and relishing the distinct design that helps build an affinity between players and the game. But there’s also the fact that LoL is a solid game even without the cosmetics. If you train and practise enough you can become a star. There are major competitions for LoL with some generous payouts, and it is constantly streamed online. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services now recognises LoL pro-players as professional athletes, allowing players to stay in the United States for up to five years. That’s kind of a big deal. It means videogames are being taken seriously — and Riot is largely to thank for that.
You can see League of Legends as a catalyst: It’s made a complex genre accessible, forged a framework for e-sports and been a leader in developer-player relationships. And there is still room for growth and improvement. It’s not often a game like this comes along, but after almost five years of fine-tuning it’s more than worth a look.