Why League of Legends Is The World’s Greatest Game

leagueIn 2003, I was a very serious WarCraft III player. If I recall correctly, I have over 5,000 one-on-one ladder matches logged on my Battle.net account. I watched replays every day and even did some highly amateurish commentaries myself. It’s interesting to note that some of my first-ever “internet game design articles” were WarCraft III design/strategy analyses for sites like wcreplays.com.

As a huge fan of that game, I was actually pretty skeptical of this new mod that came out called DotA that everyone was crazy about. Partly, this was because it was designed by just “some guy on the internet” who took an existing game and swapped some stuff around (as opposed to building something new from the ground up). Also, it was because I had huge respect for the designers at Blizzard at the time. Overall, I think it was coming from a good place: I always believed in design, and being a young early-20s dude (who had never encountered designer board games), it made some sense that I would believe that the Blizzard people were the best game designers in the world and kind of idolize them.

Now, looking back, I kinda think Blizzard was really not all that unlike the “some guy on the internet”. They, too, were just taking existing stuff and molding it around into something that seemed to kind of work for some reason. So ultimately, I think I was mistaken for not giving DotA more of a serious look at the time.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been playing and closely following League of Legends. I won’t go easy on the game – it certainly has huge problems, many of which I expect never to get solved. But with that said, today I’d like to tell you about why I think that it’s the best thing that exists for people interested competitive strategy games.

 

Point 1: Fundamentals of DotA-likes

Most videogames have a distasteful, childish theme, are too random, have too much stuff, are inelegant, and rely far too much on vestigial Dungeons and Dragons design tropes. League of Legends has all of these problems, but unlike most games, that isn’t all there is to it.

The basic thing that makes League and other DotA-likes better, on a fundamental level, than things like Street Fighter, StarCraft, Super Smash Bros or Counter-Strike is the embracing of structure.

The fundamental bit of structure in DotA-likes is the lane concept. These games have three lanes, two long ones on the ends and one short one in the middle, and waves of “minions” are pushing up against each other. Players can come and push these lanes forward and backward manually, applying “pressure” to that lane.

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This is kind of the core mechanism to these games. It might not sound like a whole lot, but… it’s something of a scaffolding for strategy, in a world where it’s only a minor over-statement to say that every other competitive videogame can be boiled down to “Dungeons and Dragons Boxing”. While most games are a “deplete the hit point bar contest”, in DotA-likes there is strategic “axis” that exists on the fundamental level. Choosing to push one lane over another allows for “sacrifice” plays; trading a tower in one lane for a tower in another, and so on.

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The large scale of the map and the fact that players can’t just “be anywhere at any time” is another quality that makes League, despite being real time, into something of a strategy game. It’s true that in a team-fight, things happen at lightning speed and so players can only react. But when you’re at the base and choosing which lane to move to, you have time. As you’re moving to the top lane, you have a good, solid five to ten seconds to consider whether changing course and going to “mid” lane. These kinds of decisions are large-arc strategy decisions and the game gives you time to make them.

That’s something I think very few competitive strategy videogame developers realize: the human brain requires at least a couple of seconds to make decisions. League allows for that, despite seeming like, and sometimes being, a “fast paced” game.

 

Point 1 Continued: Execution In DotA-likes

Another element to the DotA-likes: execution is limited. I believe the major reason that League completely overtook StarCraft as the popular digital strategy game is the fact that it limits execution, and StarCraft does not. In StarCraft, there’s kind of no limit to how many commands you can issue, and the more you do, the better. If you can micro each little marine independently away from a swarm of banelings, then you should. That’s something you can drill, so you should. I’ve talked before about the inherent problems with execution, but StarCraft and other RTS games are truly ridiculous. Never before or since have human beings been asked to execute so much so quickly.

League, on the other hand, has you controlling just one avatar, who has four abilities, two rare-use “Summoner Spells”, and maybe a simple active item ability or two. I personally still think this is too much, but whatever – the point is, it’s capped pretty harshly.

Another way to express the capped-ness: I can’t just “kick ass execution” my way out of every problem. One of the last big videogames I got really into was Team Fortress 2. In TF2, I don’t really have to “work with the team” or “make good strategic choices”. That’s because I was really, really good at aiming and dodging. I was so good at aiming and dodging that I really didn’t give a crap what the rest of my team was doing. I would just pick Soldier class, or Demoman, or Heavy even, and just… kill the entire other team. Made a horrible strategic decision to invade at the wrong time, and now it’s 5v1? No problem, I’ll just kill all five of them with crazy good execution.

That shit really doesn’t fly in League. I mean, you can out-execute, for sure, but the degree to which execution matters in League is way less. Assuming similar stats/levels and everyone has full health/mana, it’s extremely rare for one player to just “out-execute” himself out of a 3 on 1. Even taking a 2 on 1 is like a comical event when it happens in League.

In fact, one of the biggest things that I’ve struggled with in League is this weird concept that I can’t just rush into every encounter. I have to turn some fights down!? That concept is so alien to me after playing various D&D Boxing variants for the last 30 years. But it’s true!

Now I’m not saying that execution isn’t a huge problem in League. It is. Last-hitting is… it’s just mind-boggling to me that that’s still in the game. Allowing players to “steal” Baron/Dragon with a completely random smite-war (basically have two players hit a button when they hear a sound, whoever does it first wins – that level of random) is really bad, especially after Heroes of the Storm showed a perfectly good alternative. And generally, games kinda do get decided somewhat by team-fights, which are… well, some good old fashioned D&D Boxing. But all of these problems are worse – far worse – in basically every other videogame.

 

Point 2: Riot Games is Blizzard 2.0

Producing and maintaining good strategy games is extremely costly. One of the reasons I was really into Blizzard back in the day is that they kind of started the whole concept of an online videogame that was going to get real, serious support in the form of balance patches and other updates. That’s part of why Blizzard dominated that sphere for a decade.

There’s not a huge list of companies who have the resources and the will to treat games this way. Many big competitive games just get launched and maybe a bug fix patch or two and that’s it. I think that’s a complete waste of time – why bother going to all the trouble of making a game just to leave it to die on the vine?

So Riot already is in this small category. Not only are they in that category, though, but they have an unprecedented amount of resources, with League becoming the most popular game of all time. Not only that, but this is happening in the era of metrics and data. Riot has access to an insane amount of user data that no one had access to ten years ago, and they have the money to hire the people needed to process it.

I’m not acutely aware of what happened with Riot Games between the years of 2009 and 2013 or so, but as League took off and became mega-successful, Riot definitely did a whole lot of hiring. It seems like, from what I can gather, they hired a lot of young people – mostly super well-educated people in their 20s and early 30s.

Around that time, it seems like there were some changes. Stuff started getting “updated” more, and the new character release schedule cooled off a lot.

Soon Riot was talking about completely overhauling their map (Summoner’s Rift). They’ve since done so. They also completely redid their HUD. They also completely redesigned characters like Poppy, Sion, Fiora, not to mention numerous more-minor-but-still-significant champion redesigns.

And that’s the really amazing thing about Riot that makes them basically Blizzard 2.0. They aren’t afraid to delete stuff. They took the old Sion, as an example, and said “you know, we know there are people who are fans of this thing as it is now, but we are making the design call to say that overall, it would be better if we changed it, despite that fact.” I mean, to me it’s obvious that in order to make progress, you have to piss some people off, but very few developers are willing to actually do it.

Here’s another example. Watch this video and “Get Hype”:

That’s Riot’s much-hyped Team Builder feature which they launched in 2013. Are you excited about using it? Well guess what – Riot just outright deleted that feature.

Did that anger people? Yes, big time. But they did it anyway, because overall, the game was better without it. They could have kept it in and just had their new updated Champion Select (which is fantastic, by the way) and kept Team Builder. It would have been redundant and strange, but I also think most developers would have taken that route anyway.

One reason that Riot “gets away with” doing the right thing, even when it often means deleting features that players like (Gasp!), is that they are fantastic at communication. Here’s what Blizzard patch notes look like. Here‘s what Riot’s patch notes look like, for comparison. Way more clearly laid out, and not only that, but there’s lots of explanation throughout. I love reading patch notes, and seeing their world-class patch notes was one of the things that really converted me in the first place.

It doesn’t end there, though. Riot releases a video discussion YouTube talk show episode for every patch to help explain it. Not only that, but they also have a podcast where they talk even more about why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Riot, more often than any other company in a similar position, has the courage to make the right design calls, and they take a completely unprecedented level of care to make sure that you understand why they are the right design calls. For that, they get my thumbs-up.

 

The Competition

I consider the competition to be stuff like fighting games, RTSes and FPSes. I think I’ve already talked a bit about how League is fundamentally better than those just by being a DotA-like: has a bit of a strategic spine, capped execution, etc. I would like to take a moment to compare League to some of the “runner-ups”, however.

  • DOTA 2 – This is probably the second most popular of the DotA-likes. If League didn’t exist, I would probably be playing DOTA 2. However, I rank League far ahead of DOTA 2 because League seems more designed. Riot seems to have both more ambition (it is much more different from the original DotA), yet also seems to have more of a steady hand. They seem to better-understand that what “seems awesome” wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing to have in the game. Riot’s philosophy just strikes me as more well-grounded in understanding what the game is really about. DOTA 2 just seems like a few steps toward D&D Boxing. (Also, matches are longer, and I already think League matches are too long!)
  • Heroes of the Storm – Speaking of match length, the one thing I like about Heroes of the Storm is that matches are shorter. Heroes also gets rid of a lot of the ugly “masteries” chaff, which is nice. With that said, though, Heroes is much, much less of a strategy and more of a big brawl. The ability to move quickly around the map plus smaller maps overall means that position just really doesn’t mean as much. Further, the hero design in Heroes strikes me as weak in comparison to those in League.
  • Puerto Rico / Other Euro-Games – These are some of the best games that have ever been designed, rules-wise. They are also some of the most-designed, in that they stray furthest from D&D Boxing. However, I don’t think any of these games – at least, as they exist now – could stand up to the kind of pressure they would receive if played by hundreds of thousands of people competitively across the globe. They’re just too solvable, and as it is, they get exactly ZERO in support from the developers. Sadly, board game designers almost never patch their work.
  • Outwitters / Other Turn-Based War Games – Outwitters in particular ranks very high for me overall, but it similarly starts to break down with high level play. The level of support for Outwitters is also sadly pretty low.
  • Chess/Go/Other ancient abstracts – I mention these not because I think they’re contenders for “best games of all time” – I actually think they don’t even come close. The short answer is that these games have no hidden information and are essentially just hard calculation contests, but read more about my views on them here.

Conclusion

In conclusion, League of Legends is the best for two simple reasons:

  1. It embraces the DotA-like design pattern, which on a fundamental level is (I would add “sadly“) the best, most modern attempt at modern strategy game design
  2. Riot Games is seemingly run by a bunch of young, intelligent, and courageous developers who represent the “next generation” in game design

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To be clear, I think we can and will do a lot better than League of Legends. I mean, hell – League itself is getting “better than League” by big leaps every year.

Please don’t get me wrong: the game is horribly oppressive to get into, with hundreds of items, champions and special abilities do (I’ve been playing for almost 3 years and I still don’t know what all of these God-damn items are). Designer David Sirlin says that the game should be “auto-rejected” because of the fact that you have to play a bunch before you gain access to the “real game”. This is based on a really terrible “runes and masteries system” that needs to be removed as soon as possible. The theme is kinda along the lines of something like that of Mortal Kombat – violence-glorifying, sexist and immature, to put it lightly.

I could go on about the problems with League. But the two circles – “has the insight and bravery to make positive design changes” and “has the resources to implement them” rarely overlap as much as they do with Riot.

In fact, you could say that this article is more of an endorsement of Riot than it is of League itself. Indeed, I feel like Riot is kind of like some young visionary who got saddled with fixing, I don’t know, the water infrastructure of the United States or something. I feel like they’re digging themselves out of a huge hole. Indeed, on their forums and even in blog posts, the programmers talk sometimes about the game’s old “spaghetti code”. I think there’s a lot of “spaghetti design” still floating around as well.

But the point is, they’re trying, and they’re trying really hard, and you can witness the results of their attempts. It’s really exciting to watch this game grow – and by grow, I don’t mean just “add more crap” (although that is also happening). I mean grow as in get better. I look forward to their patch notes, and, ultimately… I also just really enjoy the game, which is something that I can’t say for very many games these days.

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  • Jake Forbes

    Great analysis of the game and Riot. I’ve had minimal experience with League and am a novice at Dota2 for a couple of reasons: 1) The toxicity of chat in a game that all-but requires it, and 2) the degree to which split-second reflexes are a constant demand for expert level play. Riot has done a great job at addressing the first point over time, but the second point is just inherent to the genre. True, as you point out, it’s nowhere near as demanding as SC2. Still, a great deal of success at these games boils down to reflexes, which is a learned skill, but also one that comes from rote practice, which is frankly a luxury of youth. It’s also a trait that has more in common with sports than designer games. Would you consider that sort of physical/muscle-memory training to be a positive contributor the the game’s virtues? Would the perfect clockwork game you aspire to have such a physical demand?

    I’m very excited to try the “finished” version of Sirlin’s Codex game (quotes because he is the rare designer who does patch his games) because he’s taking a similar design root as League (Warcraft 3) and allowing for asynchronous play.

  • I don’t think the physical/muscle memory stuff has any place in strategy games, really. We’re trying to measure the quality of your decision-making, so really anything else – how many US State Capitols you have memorized, how big your arm muscle is, or how locked-into-your-hands your build order is – is just getting in the way of that. A perfect clockwork game would have the lowest possible degree of physical demand.

  • Jake Forbes

    That’s good to hear, as part of me worried that your Quixotic pursuit of the platonic game (which I totally admire) would lead to a Most Dangerous Game/ Battle Royale type scenario, which definitely requires some athleticism to excel at. Although if the combatants are just pawns and the real players never have to get their hands dirty…

  • Max Hospadaruk

    Great article – I think it’s easy to get the idea that you don’t like most games (many don’t understand the idea of criticism and appreciation not being mutually exclusive) when reading some of these design articles, so it’s great to read a whole article about what great game designers *are* doing right (without pulling punches on what they could be doing better.)

    The comparisons with so-called “runner up” games are particularly interesting to me – my friends and I play a lot of that breed of more-designed board games (not sure eurogames is still a term that carries much weight, given the resurgence of the medium in the states and elsewhere) and I definitely agree with you that they kind of inherently suffer from the problem of being “too solvable, ” as well as having little or no after-release support (with some notable exceptions of designers releasing eratta’d cards that can be printed online, or major design changes accompanying “expansions”).

    I’d love to know your thoughts about some of the so-called “living” card games coming out right now; games like Netrunner, Doomtown, Ashes. Though the physical medium means they may never be able to reach the level that a videogame could, with ongoing support from developers (and with the absence of many of the toxic practices of “collectible” games) They seem to me like ripe ground for some of the most interesting and intentional game design around.

    Netrunner in particular, with intentional, non-videogame-style asymmetry and a heavy element of hidden information allowing bluff making/reading, seems very tough to “solve” competitively like you might Puerto Rico or other board games. These hidden information elements, as well as the deckbuilding component, also mitigate the problems with randomness in card games that games like magic especially suffer from (given that good bluffing can allow you to “represent” a much better draw of cards than you actually drew).

  • Be sure to check out Overwatch. If fixes most of TF2 problems and adds some elements found in MOBAs, but without all the usual noise.

  • I reckon I hate the uneven playfield and forced grind stuff even more than David Sirlin does – so this game is a complete non-starter for me to even play until they remove that garbage. The long game lengths, 100s of items and unnecessary complexity that adds little to no depth also put me totally off this and DOTA2, which is probably why Heroes is the only one of these lane pusher games I’m even willing to try.

    If Riot is indeed as good as you say they are, then eventually I guess they may get LoL to the point where it could be enjoyable, but until then – it’s a complete LOL to me.

  • I don’t know if I can ever go back to an FPS again. The degree that execution matters in those is just too high. Unless someone made one with like 100% auto-aim, which I know no one will do, and maybe slow movement or something, I can’t imagine really giving one a serious shot again.

  • Of the games you’ve mentioned I’ve only played Netrunner. I’ve also played some other things that have been called LCGs like Dominion. In both cases, the games are both way too random and also way too reliant on new content to really work. I would describe them as wide, not deep. Also I think customization is something that has no place in a strategy game.

    With that said, they’re definitely better than CCGs. I also do appreciate that Netrunner embraces structure a bit more than MtG.

  • That’s why it’s so good. Outright execution-defying “cheats” are integrated into the game as hero skills, so execution doesn’t matter that much: your aim may be excellent, but the guy with auto-aim/wallhack/time rewind will beat you anyway. Position and tactical approach are deciding factors, and execution is only used as a tiebreaker. I found it really appealing, since I don’t want to practice twitch-skills anymore and want to win if my plan is good, even if I can’t shoot straight.

  • Huh, interesting. I’ll have to look into that. I’m also skeptical of why it’s even first person, and I’m a bit skeptical of Blizzard, but I will definitely give it another serious look on your recommendation.

  • SOAB

    I expected more knowledge about League, its history and the success of their practices (same for Dota) when writing
    an article about it. Riot are certainly trying their best and hard, but they really lack vision. The design philosophy for heroes and items are not very well executed, problematic to their very core, and heavily subject to power creep.
    They have been adding a lot of complexity while only adding a little depth. “Anti Fun” prevention is ironically more
    of a preventive from fun. The core game is very restrictive, progression is very linear and comebacks are nearly impossible after a certain lead. The balance is mediocre at best, and from a designers perspektive there were very little
    changes over the years that were non questionable. The jungle has been thrown upside down for at least 5 times,
    and laning phases chain you to lanes and always play out very similarly. Champions are largely replacable due to the archetype based design, you simply pick the better one of the same archetype, out of 6 archetypes. League focusses
    on execution of near meaningless mechanics to make small differences, and completely disregards macro actions,
    strategy and broad strokes of tactics. League is a very fun game that kept me playing for many years after I was one of the first in the beta – and a great introduction for Dota, while the shift took me 4 months, Dota is all around just such a way better executed, thought out and balanced game with a clear vision that offers so much more depth and options in every regard. I hated it at start after coming from League, but now there is no going back, its just a world of difference, although certainly not for everyone.

  • franklantz

    I think Riot is doing a good job, but I think you drastically underestimate the non-Riot factors that have contributed to the things you love about League. The things that make this game great are the result of a decade of organic evolution, the work of many hands: the professional game designers at Blizzard who cooked up the original mix of action-rpg and real-time strategy in WC3, the modders who tinkered with endless variants of this cocktail, the player community who voted with their time and attention, sculpting the game’s structure through billions of hours of dedicated play, the amateur game designers who guided this process through its evolution from Aeon of Strife to DotA to DotA All Stars.

    This is the process that produced the DotA-like design pattern that you admire – an incredibly messy, largely-decentralized, unpredictable, emergent process. The fact that the greatest competitive game in the world is the result of this process should prompt you to re-evaluate your opinion of these qualities, not dismiss them as “spaghetti design”.

  • The main thing that I love about it is actually a Riot factor: their willingness to delete stuff. That didn’t come from WC3, Aeon of Strife, DotA or anything else as far as I know. The list of companies who routinely delete their own work – especially when working at this scope – is probably in the single-digits.

    I don’t think I will take the fact that it is the greatest competitive game in the world to mean that “incredibly messy” has to be a re-evaluated from its status as a bad quality. It makes sense to me that in this point in game design history – the pre-theory era – the best thing would still be a super messy thing, because we are just knocking around in the dark and something seems to have kind of worked. League is good *despite* the messy design.

  • franklantz

    Seems like your theory rests on the claim that LoL is significantly better than DotA2. My theory is that from almost any reasonable perspective LoL and DotA2 are basically identical – they are both DotA variants. I prefer LoL to DotA2, but I think it’s absurd to inflate the subtle details that distinguish them from each other and dismiss the fundamental qualities that unite them and distinguish them from every other game.

  • I don’t understand this comment at all. FTA:

    “In conclusion, League of Legends is the best for two simple reasons:
    1. It embraces the DotA-like design pattern, which on a fundamental level is (I would add “sadly“) the best, most modern attempt at modern strategy game design
    2. Riot Games is seemingly run by a bunch of young, intelligent, and courageous developers who represent the “next generation” in game design.”

    So… it does not at all rest on the idea that LoL is significantly better than DOTA2. It is based on two things: League is a DotA-like (i.e. it has some semblance of a core mechanism beyond just D&D Boxing), and it’s run by Riot, who have shown unprecedented amounts of courage and design philosophy.

    LoL and DotA could be, as games, basically equally good and my point would still stand.

  • franklantz

    If League and DOTA2 are equivalent, then why is the main thing you love about League a Riot factor? Why are you endorsing Riot instead of League itself?

    If League is the greatest game, and was the result of a non-Riot game design process, what’s your argument for emphasizing the greatness of this process at the expense of the process that actually produced the great game?

  • Perhaps I should have named the article something about why Riot is the best, because, as it has been suggested, this article is more of an endorsement of them than it is League itself.

    I think that you’re right that “The DotA-like” is a remarkable design achievement that deserves credit. The thing is, I think it already gets that credit. E-sports are dominated by the things. I feel like people already understand that this general design pattern is superior to, say, the old RTS concept.

    What I don’t think people get is the Riot factor, and that’s really what compelled me to write this.

  • jimhatama

    Strange that you like Lol while you have all this articles abt games-drugs ? cause lol is prime exampl of theese. And while lol has some decision making its actually very light(simiilar to CS lanes) and it relies purely on contetnt numbers. Charachters while high in quantity actually use 3-4 types(like every new char is Dmg, support or tank) and abt 5 maybe 6 mechanics that just mashed together to create new char ( like evade dash, throw atk, AoE, pull atk, stealth). Itemization is pretty non existant compared to Dota

  • I disagree that League is a prime example of games as drugs. First off, it’s a competitive game. That alone means it’s much less of a drug thing than something like Candy Crush or Fallout Shelter. I disagree that it’s light on decision-making.

  • DukeZhou

    My only comment will be that humans (and automata) will almost certainly be playing tic-tac-toe, chess and go long after nobody remembers League of Legends.

    That said, I love high-level games in nearly every genre. Still, it’s probably going to be the most fundamental types of games that are the longest lasting and most widely adopted.

    Part of the reason I tend towards fundamental, abstract games, at least as a designer, is that the determination of “greatest” is subjective. One prefers this game, the other that game, and both have a strong case. But with Chess and Go, it’s not subjective, it’s purely mathematical, and that’s the reason these types of games are both extraordinarily rare and generally quite ancient. (There are many modern variants of these two “Ur” games, and even “chess” needs to be understood as simply the most popular form of a family of mechanics.)

    Another way to think about it is that when you’re working with high-level games (graphics, large sets of mechanics, etc.) it’s akin to high-level computer languages. This is to say that there’s a sub-structure your program runs on top of (I say program because all games are algorithms, whether in electronic form or not.) Games that are commonly thought of as combinatorial are more akin to working at the BIOS and operating system level. While most programmers will never go near that in the course of their careers, everything they do depends on that fundamental work.

  • Hugues Pedreno

    Great Article ! As a Game Design Teacher, I tend to use the same arguments about why LoL is such a nice game ( and why my students should also play other games ). But I started to played HotS recently, and I find it relieving to see that most of the core toxicity made by LoL has disappeared in the Blizzard game. And I didn’t touch HotS in a year. I feel like Blizzard changed a lot of things and started to use the Riot Method a bit more, for the benefit of their game. I wonder what you would think now of HotS ?

  • Here’s my thoughts on HotS vs. League: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uat5bYXHy70

    But about the toxicity: I think they “fixed” the toxicity in HotS in two ways:

    1. Not allowing all-chat (probably a good move)
    2. Not really requiring much “team work” or depending on team mates in general. This one seems bad to the extent that we value team work. (I personally am skeptical of the idea of team games in general, but that’s another topic.)

    Thanks for reading.