League of Legends has firmly established itself as the most enduringly popular game in the world. It continually dominates the Twitch and YouTube viewing charts and it attracts millions of gamers to Summoner’s Rift on a daily basis.
It is an anomaly in the typically fickle gaming industry. Players normally flit from title to title in promiscuous fashion, while games have a short shelf life, but LoL is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and it is still going from strength. What makes LoL so great and why exactly do gamers keep coming back for more with such uniform regularity?
To fully understand LoL’s appeal, you have to go back 18 years to the student days of Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill. They bonded over a shared passion for video games while studying at the University of Southern California, and they shared many frustrations with the state of gaming at the time.
Beck and Merrill felt that developers ditched titles far too quickly in pursuit of the next big thing, leaving passionate communities of fans behind. They wanted to create a game that could remain popular for many years, continually updating it and taking feedback from the community in order to cater to its wishes.
The duo took inspiration from the Asian gaming scene, where titles were beginning to be released on a free to play basis, while the publishers made money by charging for skins and other in-game extras.
They founded Riot Games in 2006 in their West Hollywood apartment and set about creating a multiplayer online battle arena title in the mould of StarCraft’s Aeon of Strife and Defense of the Ancients, and LoL was finally released in 2009. Within two months of release, it reached 100,000 concurrent players and Beck and Merrill grew the team in order to handle the increasing demand.
It quickly scooped a number of awards, gained international exposure and became a phenomenon. But rather than dying out after a year or two, it simply continued to snowball. There are two main reasons for this.
A Constantly Evolving Title
Firstly, there have been numerous updates to maps, champions and features, ensuring LoL is alive and it responds to technological improvements to stay fresh and exciting. The team listens to feedback from fans and tries to fix glitches, improve the gameplay and maintain a strong competitive balance.
The game released in 2009 looks pretty different from the one played today. The gameplay has evolved, the graphics have improved, new maps have been added and the champions have developed in interesting ways. But it has always retained the model that made it popular
An Economic Juggernaut
It is free to play, and Riot – which is now owned by Tencent – makes a fortune through microtransactions. In 2017 the game generated $2.1 billion in revenue and it continues to increase on an annual basis. Riot Games now has 2,500 employees spread across 24 offices around the world, and it has no other games, so they are all focused on making LoL great.
They have plenty of cash to reinvest in developing the game, and they maintain a steady stream of patches to keep the game fresh and relevant.
The second reason for LoL’s immense popularity is its position within the thriving world of competitive gaming. There are now around 450 million esports fans across the globe and that figure is growing all the time. There are a few key titles within that scene, but LoL is very much the top dog.
That is why it is always the most-watched game on Twitch. Fans love watching the leading proponents in action as they battle for fame and fortune in high stakes clashes on Summoner’s Rift. To some, the concept of watching others play video games might sound alien, but it can be positively thrilling to watch someone like Faker operating at the peak of his powers.
Climbing the Ladder
Players love LoL and they want to improve by observing how the top players engage in battle with one another. The rank ladder also keeps things interesting, as players can climb ever closer towards the pros as they go while hoping to be scouted for a team themselves. There is always something new to unlock, like a new character or a new rune, and that keeps players returning again and again.
The LoL esports scene is only getting bigger. More than 200 million people streamed the 2018 World Championship final, which saw Chinese team Invictus Gaming sweep European counterpart Fnatic aside to clinch a maiden triumph. That shattered all records for esports viewing figures, and it eclipsed almost every traditional sporting event of the year too.
An Open and Exciting Competitive Scene
The leagues in China, Korea, Europe and North America are all extremely strong, while there are some up and coming minor leagues too, ensuring the game has global appeal. There is no one dominant team, as Unikrn’s League of Legends odds on upcoming tournaments highlight, so the scene is open and interesting. The 2019 Worlds will be held in Paris and it will be fascinating to see if the tournament can maintain its colossal viewing figures in Asia while also picking up more western streamers.
None of this would be possible if LoL was not such a great game. It works as an e-sport because it is fun, accessible and easy to get into, but it also contains an extremely high skill ceiling. That means players are constantly challenged and they never master it, so they keep coming back for more.
It has a worthy competitor in Dota 2, but LoL is more popular, arguably because it is brighter, easier to get into and more fun to play among newcomers. The games are shorter and the action is more frenetic, and it has done a great job of maintaining a strong and passionate community, which helps it improve on an on-going basis. LoL is surely one of the greatest games of all time, and there is every reason to think it will be around for many years to come.