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League of Legends celebrates a decade by staking out the future

By: Ramon de Veyra

Maybe video games are your blind spot. Maybe you’re a casual gamer, and PC gaming is your blind spot. But Riot Games’ League of Legends (LoL) is a hell of a success story. You might say it’s in a… league of its own (see what I did there?). The multiplayer online battle arena game is celebrating a decade and somehow it is still the most-played PC game in the world. It’s got 100 MILLION active monthly players. By comparison, there are about 80 million monthly players using Sony’s PS4 platform, but that’s across their entire library of games.

LoL is practically synonymous with the term esports, with 40,000-capacity Olympic stadiums around the world serving as regular venues for their Mid-Season Invitationals and annual World Championships. Last year’s Championships attracted 99.6 million viewers. That viewership is more than National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup, Major League Baseball’s World Series and National Basketball Association Finals combined. There are 800 professional players on over 100 teams across 13 leagues around the world. There are coaches and trainers, nutritionists and managers. Sponsors include MasterCard, Nike and Mercedes-Benz. The winning team in 2017 was simply named Samsung Galaxy.

For the last 10 years, LoL has dominated. And in that decade, Riot Games has published and maintained only one game. So it was a big deal when recently, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the public launch of LoL, Riot Games held worldwide press events, coinciding with the livestream of one of its regular Riot Pls broadcasts. In a small amphitheater in downtown Singapore, huddled with game journalists and streamers from seven different countries, we sat and were treated to a raft of new information, including the announcement of seven(!) new games, a new piece of intellectual property (IP), and the expansion of LoL into new media.

In the core game, a new champion was introduced. Senna is a support marksman, tied narratively to champion Lucian, and will be available Nov. 10. Also introduced was Rise of the Elements, the 2020 preseason that will see elemental drakes taking on a more important role, as taking them down allows one element to dominate and change the map in what is called the Elemental Rift System. Consider it “dynamic weather” for the Summoner’s Rift, the field on which LoL games play out. Depending on the element, different effects are triggered. These new game play features roll out on Nov. 20.

The popular autobattler mode Teamfight Tactics debuted last August and is now a permanent addition. Teamfight Tactics is an 8-player strategic free-for-all as opposed to LoL’s usual 5-on-5 teams. It’s proven to be so popular that it will be released as its own stand-alone app on mobile gadgets early next year, featuring cross-platform play with PCs. There’ll be a beta available in December. Rotating sets of champions and abilities will come out on a roughly quarterly basis. The second set will be out for PC players on Nov. 5.

Arguably the most popular announcement (certainly the most anticipated) was League of Legends: Wild Rift, a mobile version that fans have been clamoring for for years. Jane Chen, in-game product lead for research and development (R&D) was on hand to explain that this was no mere port of LoL but a game rebuilt from the ground up, utilizing a dual-stick control scheme that will come in handy when the game also goes onto consoles. Alphas and betas will begin this year with a global launch eyed for late next year. Its matches will go for about 15-20 minutes, and is seen as an ideal entry point for more casual gamers and those who may find the main LoL and its sometimes hourlong matches daunting. It won’t support cross play with the desktop version but does use your main LoL account (if you have one) and will reward you for prior use. Art director for R&D Jia Tan explained that not every champion and skin will be available in this version, but it was an opportunity to reimagine champions and create new skins, consistent with what loyal players are familiar with.

The next game announced was Legends of Runeterra, a free-to-play strategy card game set in the world of LoL. A PC beta version will come out early next year before it launches on PC and mobile. Developers stressed during the stream that players won’t have to pay for randomized packs to unlock cards. Justin Hulog, general manager of Riot Southeast Asia told us that it had been in development for at least six years, in varying iterations.

League of Legends Esports Manager was a surprise; a team management game that will allow players to assemble esports teams and sign players to contracts. Revenue will be shared with featured pros. If you’ve got that friend who still dismisses esports, you can vex them further by letting them know there’s now a fantasy esports game. It’ll launch next year in the LoL Pro League region before rolling out to other regions.

There were a handful of games still in early enough development that they didn’t have names yet. Project F was barely shown but looked to be a multiplayer dungeon crawler, more cooperative than competitive. Project L was a 2D fighting game, bringing a new dimension to familiar champions from LoL. Project A is a character-based tactical shooter for PC, and is the only game announced not based in the world of LoL (their only completely new IP). More information and a beta will be available next year.

The final major announcement was “Arcane,” an animated series developed in-house and produced by Riot with Fortiche Productions animating. The story will explore the backstory of two iconic LoL champions and what drove them apart. Hulog has seen three episodes and says the voice cast is locked in (though was not yet announced). They will likely be half-hour episodes and will stream on an existing platform.

This is part of an aggressive expansion of LoL into other media, including comics, novels, board games and music. Nine seasons’ worth of soundtracks have been released on streaming services and LoL even has its own K-pop group, K/DA. “League of Legends: Origins,” a documentary telling the tale of LoL’s first decade, was just released on several streaming and video-on-demand platforms (including Netflix Philippines). Riot also announced the creation of their Social Impact Fund, a nonprofit to streamline their charity work. The Dawnbringer Karma skin coming later this year will see all its proceeds go to the fund.

Reading between the lines of the announcements, Riot Games is taking aim at big-name titles: Legends of Runeterra will take on Hearthstone, Wild Rift will go after Mobile Legends (which Riot has already successfully sued for being too similar to LoL), Project A looks targeted at Overwatch and Fortnite. Project L will seek to enter the Evo Esports scene, Project F will go after Diablo. The entire celebration was a giant flex on Riot Games’ part, a media explosion, an ambitious, aggressive, well-funded and confident battle plan for conquering basically every major game genre and media landscape. And why shouldn’t they be confident? Somehow their one game has stayed on top for an entire decade, when entire console generations usually last only seven years. Behind all these games, developers stress how they are taking their time to do it right, and commit to long-term support in refining the game and the players’ experience. They expect the players to tell them what is and isn’t working, and they will respond in kind. They really stress that relationship with their fan community, and it’s borne fruit. They didn’t stay on top for nothing.

The expansion into other media shows Riot knows its fans love the characters, the lore, the world that LoL has created, grown and evolved over the last 10 years. The only thing missing was a movie announcement, and we shouldn’t be surprised if that’s in the back burner. Riot is looking ahead, has been preparing for years for this moment and seeks to continue to create something truly… wait for it… legendary.