League of Legends: Secrets of the League

Maybe it’s the soothing reassurance of the announcer that echoes in the background, as tower after tower falls and your team slowly advances on the enemy’s base. Perhaps it’s the thrill of a perfectly executed combo thrown down by 5 people all at once, creating a synergy of attack and defense to give your team the hard earned advantage in a game that’s already clocking in at an hour-plus. Or it could just be the bright colors and free stuff…that’s what we’re here to find out.

For whatever reason that hasn’t been nailed down by the scientific community yet, League of Legends is rapidly becoming one of the most popular video games of all time, and is currently enjoying the daily membership of over 32 million players worldwide. Here’s why we think gamers keep “laughing out loud” about “LoL”.


Back in 2004, my friends at the time got addicted to a popular Warcraft III variant called “DoTA”, or “Defense of the Ancients”, for the uninitiated. I tried it once or twice, but being an avid fan of the Tower Defense genre up until then I quickly decided the clunky battle system and rudimentary item selection just wasn’t for me. It was a successor to the Aeon of Strife map from the days of StarCraft random custom map pools, and upon original release was not exactly much to write home about. The controls were rough, pathing was awful, and the monster/mob AI was outright dumb if you compare it to the releases of this era.

The original MOBA

Today, they come from China, South Korea, Europe, America, and Brazil to play against one another in a new genre of PC gaming known as MOBAs, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas. These types of competition pit 10 players against one another in an all out brawl of 5v5 destruction, and through an isometric view they are able to control one character who contributes to the war efforts in one of three different lanes, known as “top, middle, or bottom”. MOBAs as standalone titles started making a major appearance in the past two years, with Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends leading the charge and former Blizzard developers feeding the wind at their back.

Valve announced DoTA 2 shortly after these two titles took off, and Blizzard themselves even decided to jump in the pile with their own title, “Blizzard All-Stars”. Every one of these options are and will be completely free of charge to play on the day they release, so what does this say about the model, and more specifically the types of games which can profit off of it?


Korean MMO’s have been sticking to this method for years, and so far all they’ve shown is massive gains for a minimal amount of input on behalf of their programmers. The formula relies on simple, addictive concepts which can be applied to a wide variety of different gamers, any number of which might be in the mood to try out your latest work.

Last June, League of Legends posted a record shattering 1.3 billion hours of total playtime from its users, and they were only measuring over the course of a year. That’s more than World of Warcraft, Diablo 3, StarCraft II, and Call of Duty on Xbox and PC…combined. This growth is unlike anything that has been seen in the industry before, and could potentially be the main reason why so many developers are eyeing the free to play model as a viable way to earn money in a new digital landscape.

Like Rovio and Zynga before them, Riot has discovered a truth in the distribution network that hadn’t existed up until the recent era of instant-on access and incredibly fast download speeds; people LOVE free stuff, especially when they only have to click a little bit to get it. Whether it’s the entire game client of League of Legends, $25 in real chips at an online casino, or the chance to level a character to 20 with no strings attached in World of Warcraft, the act of allowing people unlimited time to try out what you have to offer is usually all it takes to get them hooked. After that happens they’ll be spending cash faster than they knew what hit them, and as someone who’s personally dropped $10 on League (after about 225 hours of gameplay), I can say that the allure of boosting your character on payday isn’t always as easy to deny as you might think.

(And for those of you out there who are shaking your heads saying “oh I’d never pay for a game that’s free to play already, why would I spend money on useless virtual items or experience gains”? To be honest I didn’t understand it either until I decided to immerse myself in the genre, and after awhile for some reason the idea of it starts to make a strange sort of sense.)

There are games in South Korea which take this concept to extremes, actually requiring users to fork over credit card information if they want to advance to the later stages of the game and finish the raid/boss content with their friends or family. This is somehow a wildly popular idea over there, which could also explain why LoL quickly overtook StarCraft II as the most played title in the region in just a few months without more effort than it takes to flick a crumb off your jacket. To put things in perspective; League racked up a total of 1.3 billion hours played in 2011 (the number one spot), whereas StarCraft II only clocked a measly 163 million in return. Granted StarCraft is a much more intense game which can go in shorter bursts of about 20-40 minutes at a time, but just because something is more difficult and requires a higher level of concentration, doesn’t always mean that curve is going to translate into success.

Korean MMO’s are notorious for ripping off intellectual properties for profit

For now, both games are playing friendly with each other while they share the screen at the majority of MLG (Major League Gaming), and IPL (IGN Pro League) events, but there’s no saying how long that friendly rivalry might last. The prize pools for League keep getting bigger to compensate for the swelling viewer numbers, and 2 years on StarCraft II seems to be getting less and less attention from the listless fans who have experienced the disappointment of a quick grand finals at a 3-day long event.

E-Sports and Streaming

So what is it that puts the “League” in League of Legends? From the very start Riot made it clear they intended for this to be a competitive game, but I don’t think they could have predicted just how seriously players would eventually start to that idea to heart. E-sports managers immediately descended on the leaderboards to find the most consistently successful and highest ranked users to form their eventual teams for their sponsors.

Riot came straight out of the gate with a $100,000 prize for the top teams in the world to compete for in season one, culminating in a World Championship Finals at Dreamhack Sweden in June of 2011. And to give you an idea of how quickly the game grew after nearly a quarter of a million people to tuned in to watch the match, in May of 2012, just under one year later Riot CEO Brandon Beck announced that season two would be laying down over five million dollars in cash, ready and waiting for literally anyone in the game who was willing to sit down and play for it.

MLG and LoL; a match made in heaven

Right now advertisers are having a more difficult time than ever before reaching that coveted “18-24 young males” group who tend to have a bit of upstart cash and are generally reckless with the way they spend it. Because no matter how frivolous the purchases themselves might be, the reason marketing firms can’t seem to penetrate this demo with much success is they also spend far and away the most time researching products online before they actually buy something. Young males in this generation are incredibly internet savvy, and can belong to any number of communities or forums on the net that they can go to whenever they need advice on where they should spend their hard-earned paycheck. So whether it’s something as simple as a mousepad or complex as an HDTV, this means they take the necessary hours to compare specs, read reviews, and even check out various aspects of the companies they plan to buy from before ever leaving the driveway for a store, if they do that at all.

Streaming on services like Twitch and Ow3nd.tv have become the preferred way to tune into the latest games for the day, week, or month, and always make for a solid option whenever you want to get the lowest latency and highest quality possible while you watch. All it takes is a few clicks and suddenly you’re on someone else’s desktop, watching how they play and learning their methods with a notepad in one hand and your mouse in the other. The benefit of watching professional players practice is you can take what they do with you into your own games, mimicking their builds to suit your own needs, and possibly even discovering entirely new ways to play the game that even the pros themselves don’t know about. Because the people watching these personal and tournament streams are predominantly members of that impossible to reach demo, advertising dollars have flocked to the new medium, giving them everything they could want to produce great content.

The team ‘Curse’ has plans to open a Beverly Hills gaming mansion that they will stream from 24/7 on 8 separate channels, complete with personal staff, pool parties, and a private gym that is being designed to “change the public’s opinion about the average pro-gamer”, according to their chief manager and CEO. He predicts the house should attract the attention of “an estimated 500,000 viewers per day, directly targeting the competitive gaming community and fans.” A recent survey seems to back up these claims, showing that the average e-sports tournament was garnering more interest than the Rose Bowl and NBA All-Stars game together.

And with this kind of cash up for grabs, it’s no wonder why the people behind it are so dedicated to making the playing field as fair and balanced as possible.


Riot has been absolutely stellar in their support of the game, which only helps to bolster community faith in the brand and keep players coming back for more. Every few weeks we are treated to a new champion to choose from, and non-stop updates are always coming in from the background to provide subtle balance tweaks and bug fixes that continue to hone both the gameplay and technical problems down to a near zero.

Often during the later stages of production, Blizzard likes to hand their games over to some of the top pros in the world for the late-alpha early-beta stages of production in order to test every corner of their build to make sure there’s nothing in the game that can be easily exploited or overused. For the never-ending process of balancing a competitive title, professional gamers are sort of a holy grail to the devs; people who are willing to play the game all day for free, and will likely be doing so at the absolute echelon of their craft. Some players have called Riot the “golden child of Valve and Blizzard” in this regard, taking the best qualities from each company and applying them to their own philosophy as much as they can during what are usually the most uncertain financial years for upstart gaming ventures.

Considering Riot recently signed a distribution deal and partial partnership with Tencent Holdings though, a Chinese company responsible for a messaging service and gaming distribution platform with over 300 million active users subscribed to its database, it’s not likely they’ll be worrying about revenue streams anytime soon. The plan has been valued at around half a billion dollars, and for an indie company who were working out of their garage just a few years ago, that sum is definitely nothing small to sniff at.

But what is it that actually makes them so damn valuable? Where does the real money lie in this massive pile of people who didn’t pay a cover charge to get in?


Several weeks ago the servers went through some maintenance that would eventually expand their capacity and decrease wait times, but much like a highway that’s being worked on to decrease traffic the next morning, a few lanes need to be shut down in the night before which backs things up.

People waited anywhere from 20 minutes to over five hours to log their characters into the server, and once they got in they didn’t dare leave unless they absolutely had to. This is the kind of following that has spawned in the wake of the Free-to-Play bomb that went off in fall of 2009, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing. Every game publisher and developer who is active would kill to get even a fraction of the numbers that League is pulling right now, and it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been a game in history up to this point that has achieved what Riot has in such a short three-year span.

A common sight during weekends

Even though they’ve been given such a gracious stock evaluation, you can’t really put a price on what Riot has right now. Millions of players who love your guts out isn’t something you just get over night, and it’s clear they worked long and hard to create a staff who can be dedicated to their base as much as they have in the past couple years. And as much as they love the developers–they love the game they made that much more, and after calling myself a member of “The League” for about 6 months now, it’s not too hard to see why.

The Trenches

We had been keeping an even score for what felt like eons at that point, although it had only been just under an hour. For each kill, a death, and for every stun, a knockback. Mirrored members of two different teams battling for the exact same goal, clicking and tapping furiously against one another in an all out brawl to the death (and eventual respawn). I was playing Janna, my “main” character who is known for being a raw support, one with few other redeeming qualities other than her incredible ability to keep surrounding teammates alive and fighting. I’ve always enjoyed support classes whenever I get into RPG-type games, i.e- the person responsible for turning your health bar green, and so once I picked her I knew I’d found the perfect fit.

We are neck and neck with the other team, and I’m following mine who is running in pack formation, barrelling down the center lane with buffs and upgrades coming out of both ears. After you hit the late game with items that have both Passive and Active spells attached the chaotic nature of people’s personal preferences start to collide, usually in some kind of destruction derby involving magic and mayhem. We’re attacking the front, and as expected two summoners break off into pattern to divert attention away from the center on the flanks while we farm out minions in the middle. We see a cluster of them appear from the fog into vision on the left (weaker) side, and without hesitation the left player baits them out while the right player regroups with us and the assault continues.

We take the middle tower through one final push and start hacking away at the device which lets them spawn reinforcements behind it, but by this point they’ve realized they were set up and are now charging back in full force towards us and our thinned out numbers of backup. And then, like a choreographed ballet, in unison we all took positions and let loose with everything we had. Every ability, every spell, every item and every potion had to be triggered with surgical precision one after the other, unwilling to waste any cooldowns or mana on missed shots or unnecessary heals during these tense and manic portions of the game.

Shields here, tornados there, I was throwing out every piece of the pie in this last ditch effort to take down the castle walls and keep my squad standing for as long as they were willing to pick up an axe or a wand. Soon enough we heard the first of five announcements from the skies above: “An enemy has been slain!”, as their tanked up Cho’Gath evaporated off screen.

Our Yi was seen dashing from the scene of the crime, blood stains on his shirt and sword with a few angry friends in tow. I laid down another tornado in their direction and pop my Ultimate, a spell which throws all enemies backwards and heals everyone on my team that’s caught in a certain radius. Instinctively everyone huddles in close for the recharge while the enemy regains their balance from my double-disrupt combo, and revitalized once again we target a damage dealer, Caitylin, to wipe her off the mat with two swift kicks from our synchronized boot. The announcer chimes in again: “An enemy has been slain. Double Kill!” The Yi who had brushed with death moments prior is now back in the fray, getting up close and personal with a slowly dwindling number of champions who are being backed into a corner of their own base as we press on.

Their Alistair gets a solid headbutt off on our Teemo, and he goes flying into range of a turret which takes out half his health in under a second with two shots. I rush over to throw a shield, but by now Katarina is already gunning down on him with blood in her eyes. She leaps in to deploy her own Ultimate, a 360-degree flurry of knives which means death for anyone caught in her trap, but at the very last second I’m able to get a knockback off, throwing her away from the intended target and straight into the hungry mouth of our Kog’Maw.

At the end of the fight our team had 5 players standing above 5 dead bodies, and the chat was going insane with “woulda coulda shoulda” themed trash-talk. “Ace!”, chimes the announcer, with enough detectable shame in her voice to make the fact that we killed all of them at once sting a little more. The final score was 60-55, and overall we had tallied just under 1 kill per minute for an hour straight. We finished taking down their base, and clicked past the “Victory” screen to get to the general chat. Of course now with both hands freed up players immediately started going into why they won or lost, who was responsible for either, and what they might have done differently if ‘this that or the other thing’ had happened.

For winners eyes only

Which leads me to why I think this game is so freakishly popular across the board; there’s an obvious passion behind all of this, and from personal experience I can tell you it comes from a place of feeling like you genuinely contributed to a collective victory in one way or another. This generation doesn’t play nearly as many sports as it used to, and we don’t have any real wars to fight for our individual countries, but just because multiplayer games are taking over time that used to be a day of basketball at the park or a year spent in the draft, doesn’t mean that same desire for competition and domination ever completely died out.

Despite what you might think about the game, the people who play it, or the corporate entities which sponsor it; there’s no denying the immense impact that free to play MOBA’s are having on today’s gaming landscape, or the influence they’ll leave behind for titles yet to come.

Chris Stobing

Chris Stobing is technology and video game writer from San Jose. Living in Silicon Valley for almost 25 years has given him a passion for anything with a power button, and when he's not playing Battlefield or Starcraft, you'll find him hitting the slopes in Tahoe, or cooking up a storm for friends.

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