Riot needs to start preparing an exit plan for “League of Legends.” But why cut the most popular game in esports? The literal face of an industry? eSports needs to continue to grow into the future and reach an even larger audience than it already has, and to do that Riot is the best placed to push the industry by winding down League and begin work on a new eSport centric game that can take the industry to the next level – a level not currently reachable even with League’s current popularity.
Just how popular is League of Legends in the gaming and eSports world?
Ask anyone today what the most popular competitive esports game is and you’ll most likely get the same answer – “League of Legends.” First released in October 2009, over the years LoL has become the defacto eSports title to watch. Here’s a few numbers to put things into perspective. When the first LoL World Championship match was broadcasted in June 2011, the show peaked at 1.6 million viewers. One year later, in October 2012, the second World Championships aired. The view count for this match exceeded 8 million viewers and in accruing those numbers, became the single most watched eSports event in history at that time. Fast forward to last year’s 2017 Season 7 World Championships and those numbers have risen to an astronomical 60 million people watching.
Of course these numbers alone don’t mean much by themselves. In order to get an accurate picture of what these numbers truly mean, let’s compare them to viewer counts of other championship matches in traditional sports. According to Statista, the number of viewers for the NBA Finals peaked at around 20 million viewers in 2016 and 2017. For the same years, baseball’s World Series saw an average of about 23 and 19 million viewers respectively. While the NFL’s Superbowl event saw even higher numbers at around 111 million during 2016 and 2017, it’s interesting to note that the numbers of viewers since 2010 haven’t shown significant growth – there was actually even a 7% drop in viewers from 2017 to the most recent 2018 Superbowl.
Looking at these numbers, it’s clear that Riot Games and all of the people in the community who make League the juggernaut that it is in the realm of eSports have done a fantastic job popularizing it. More and more people are watching the game and in doing so, eSports is beginning to move from occupying this small obscure spot in western subculture and moving into the cultural mainstream. As a longtime fan of gaming and eSports, this brings tears to my eyes. If you would’ve told me as a kid that gaming and eSports would have the world-wide popularity it has today, I wouldn’t have believed you. Tell me that people would one day get paid to play games? I would’ve straight up asked what you’d been smoking.
So League of Legends is popular. It is the the top dog of eSports. But that doesn’t mean it is the best game. The most playable game. The game that is best suited to push the future of eSports. There are in fact a couple of fundamental problems with League of Legends that inhibit it from reaching a greater audience. If one of the goals for companies behind eSports is to maximize audience, I think its poster child needs to be something that doesn’t have these weaknesses. Let’s look at two which are actually quite similar in nature.
Problem #1 – Scoring
If you look at traditional sports, most of them are really easy to understand. Bring somebody who has never watched basketball in his life to an NBA game, I bet you he/she will be able to understand the core concept of the game in no more than a few minutes. You put the ball in the basket right?
Now with League, this isn’t exactly the case. Someone who has no idea how League is played will have a hard time following the game. There’s too many smaller objectives that each have make slight impacts on a team’s chances at winning the game but do not necessarily guarantee. For example, it’s entirely possible for a team to win a match of LoL without having a higher kill score, a higher number of dragons killed, or even a higher number of towers destroyed. In short, there isn’t an obvious scoring metric that gives you any indication as to who is ahead except possibly gold. In the case of gold, the score is usually pretty close except for cases where the match is entirely one-sided, and even then doesn’t necessarily mean that the team with the higher gold count will win.
Problem #2 – Game complexity
“League of Legends” launched in 2009 with 17 playable champions and every couple of months they add a new one. As of the time of writing, this number has reached 142 if you include Pyke. Considering each champion has 4 abilities and an additional passive ability, that’s a whole lot of stuff to remember to be able to fully comprehend what you’re watching. Throw in the fact that there are a ton of items, some of which have active abilities on top of their passive stat buffs, and you’ve got yourself a game that only gamers understand. Try explaining what’s happening in some of the plays in the below video to someone who’s never played League.
Ultimately, what I’m suggesting is that since Riot has developed a solid brand name and gained a lot of experience from essentially building up much of the esports industry standards, I think it’s time they apply these assets to developing a new game that doesn’t share the same weaknesses of LoL. I’m not saying they should shut the game down right now, but instead work on developing another title that can run concurrently with it before ultimately surpassing League as the esport to watch. This time, the focus should be developing something that has the potential to be a major esports contender due in large part to it’s accessibility. They should be trying to create a game that anyone can just jump in, watch, and follow without having to invest the hours upon hours of gameplay that LoL does to be able to do the same.
If Riot doesn’t start doubling down on this soon, it’s quite possible that another company could come in and take up their place as the most popular esport. Given the recent $100 million that Epic Games has announced to be reinvesting into prize pools for competitive Fortnite play, it’s clear that they are very serious about transforming the game into a major esport contender. Add in the fact that Fortnite has regularly been making headlines for shattering all sorts of viewership records, and it becomes obvious that Epic Games has created something that Riot can’t simply ignore.
Once again, yes, eSports is growing. Riot is indeed leading the pack right now. But the gaming and esports industries are both volatile – what’s big today might not be what’s big tomorrow. A lot of hungry newcomers are vying for the top spot. Still, Riot has the experience and the business know-how. If they know what’s best for them, they should start leveraging these advantages in building a superior esports title.
For their own sake and that of moving the industry into the future, Riot needs to take what it has learned from League’s success and start looking beyond.
Featured Image Credit: Riot Games