Riot taught me League of Legends (and now I'm teaching you)

League of Legends is a humbling game.

I'm sitting in a cool room, the lights just low enough to keep my eyes comfortable as they dart from corner to corner on my monitor. My right wrist is an achy mess, resting on the table to support my fingers, which are always moving.

But I'm calm. I'm collected. I'm about to lose my goddamn mind if I can't get away from this tower in time and — crap, it's over.

I die and can lean back for a moment, waiting to spawn.

League of Legends, as it would turn out, can be addictive. I rush to fill my inventory with new powerful items and health potions as my respawn timer ticks down, and by the time my character pops up at my team's home base I'm already clicking away to get her back in action down the middle lane.

This is the third or fourth time I’ve played the game, but luckily I’m in the best place to learn.

Riot employees passing through peek over my shoulders as they walk to other cubicles, eyeing first the designer instructing me through my game and then me, as I break into a nervous sweat. I’m not a Riot employee and I get unusually excited every time I kill something. These people have to be wondering what I’m doing here.

Riot Games teaches League of Legends — its one and only game — to new employees, and also offers crash courses to the families of those who work for them. Learning to play, and love, League of Legends is a large part of the company’s culture. It’s rare they invite the press into this process, but here we are.

I feel like I’ve infiltrated some secret club where I don’t know the rules.

This is my first time playing a MOBA, any MOBA, in a serious way. Lucky for me I’m being taught the basics at the offices of a company that has created what may be the most popular game of all time.

Muscle memory

Chris Cantrell, associate producer for creative development at Riot, put me through my paces as I settled into one of Riot headquarters' many play rooms, a cozy bank of computers nestled into a glass-walled cube decorated with numerous plaques celebrating the champions of Riot's in-house tournaments.

Education starts simply: The first thing players do is choose a champion, the character they will control in combat. There are currently close to 120 different champions to buy, but players can pick from a limited pool of free champions which rotate regularly. You can pay for perpetual access to as many champions as you’d like, or put some money towards skins that change how those characters look. Codes for free and limited edition skins are huge hits at shows like PAX, but these only change how the characters look, nothing else. League of Legends is the rare free-to-play game that doesn’t hide needed upgrades behind a paywall.

Each champion has four main abilities — one of which is their most powerful ultimate ability — and most have one passive ability. Cantrell explained that some earlier champions didn't have this ultimate ability, but over time the team realized that playing a hero without a super special powerful attack "just wasn't fun."

As it would turn out, I would come to be a huge fan of these ultimates — just don't do what I did and spam them whenever you could. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Champions’ four abilities are mapped to the Q, W, E and R keys, where your left hand will sit during your matches. Most keyboard users rest our fingers on WASD when we sit at our gaming PCs. League of Legends is spoken in the language of QWER. You have to retrain your muscle memory from years of shooters and RTS games to play well.

It began to feel like a shopping simulator.

This is how basic, and how different, it can be to play MOBAs. Everything from your hand position on up has to change if you’re coming from any other genre.

The D and F keys give you access to your magic, or Summoner spells, which can do things like help you move faster or heal. Both of these I did frequently, and also messed up frequently. I'd power-run in the wrong direction or not heal quickly enough. I made a mess of my first few games, but my teachers were patient. They were used to seeing people rid themselves of the skills of other genres, and slowly pick up the skills of League of Legends.

Each ability has a cooldown period, which means after its use it takes time to recharge, although you can buy items to lessen the amount of time this takes. Items can be purchased at your team's base with gold, and can actually do pretty much anything, from granting speed boosts to bolstering attack strength. As for gold, that is automatically accumulated at a steady pace as you play, and sneaking in the final kill on enemies will also fill your wallet.

You can also shop after you've died and are waiting to respawn, maximizing your time and ensuring you can jump right back into the action with buckets of awesome new stuff. There is a command that teleports you back to your base to heal your character or buy more items. It began to feel like a shopping simulator.

Cantrell agrees that this emphasis on shopping can sometimes get to be a little too much.

"That's why we have a recommended tab, and every champion has a different set of recommended items. But then, after that, if you want to, you can go to ‘all items’ and sort them by what you need based on what type of character you're playing."

Every match I played under Cantrell's instruction focused around this action, this constant need to get better items to do more damage to earn more gold to get better items to do more damage. You don’t earn persistent levels, nor unlock more powerful weapons; you have to build your character from scratch every round.

Which is an interesting dynamic. At the end of each match the character as you’ve built is essentially dead to you. And you will die often in League of Legends. The goal is to learn how to stay alive for as long as possible. This is a zero-sum game; your death makes the enemies more powerful. Making a mistake and dying doesn’t just hurt your team, it helps the other team gain levels. This is why new players are treated so harshly online; constant death leads to a numerical advantage for the other team, a condition called being "fed." If you die often, or die due to stupid mistakes, you’re "feeding" the other team.

All of this — the champions, the abilities, the gold — feels overwhelming. It is overwhelming. The design of the game can feel unwelcoming. I started another match.

I understood why so many of my friends spent so much time on League of Legends as the day continued. I wanted those awesome boots. I wanted the best sword. I wanted all the health pots. Your items help turn your character into a killing machine, and a well-built character can mean the difference between death and success when fighting another champion.

Players post optimal builds online, the best combination of items that will work together to buff your stats to do different things. Characters who want to kill others will be built very differently from a character who needs to survive as long as possible while holding off the attacks of the other team. My coworkers at Polygon have talked about keeping their smartphone open to the best builds, so they can peek at a cheat sheet while they play to know what to buy.

More Rioters pass in and out of the room with cans of soda and paper cups of coffee, eyeing me as they walk by. I’m taking notes. Cantrell comments that I’m doing an excellent job at the game so far, that it looks like I’m comfortable with the mechanics. I have no idea if any of this is true, but I shrink in my seat a little bit, still incredibly anxious.

I notice the employees hiding grins as they leave the room again, peeking sidelong at me as I celebrate winning a match against bots with a small whoop.

Your minions and you

During my first match I was startled by a row of small creatures, marching past me in single file to the enemy towers. These are called minions, and they are your best friends. Minions are expendable, but they're invaluable for whittling down enemy towers and giving players some breathing room to take down other champions.

Towers, the automated defenses sprinkled around the map that can kill you in a few shots, are tough to take down alone. Your minions are helpful — oftentimes my team would let the minions eat slowly away at the towers’ health, only to swoop in for the finishing, gold-collecting blow. You earn gold and experience by attacking the enemy’s minions; building up your characters by attacking minions or the other enemies on the board is called "farming."

"What's nice about minions is they'll run up and help you push your characters forward, making it so that when you're trying to attack a tower, it actually gets a lot easier," Cantrell explained. "And they're very useful in the game for going up in level and for getting experience and gold."

These minions will continuously attack towers, and the towers will in turn shoot back at the minions. I wandered hesitantly into the range of a tower surrounding by my minions ... and nothing happened. So I shot the tower. And immediately, the tower shot me. And I died.

Dying is bad, But it’s the only way to learn. This is why playing against bots for as long as possible is so important; you’ll find the game much more welcoming when you learn how to not die on your own time, not against other human players.

Experienced players will often say that the best way to avoid abuse for being new is to not be new, and the best way to do that is to learn the game, and your champion, in bot matches. I was dying often, in many ways, but I was being new in a way that wouldn’t hurt others in the game.

Besides, I was in a good place to learn, and Cantrell was about to explain how to kill the towers.

You worry about those towers...

There are only three lanes: top, middle and bottom. The top and bottom lanes snake around the top and bottom of the map, respectively, while the middle cuts right through the center. Players will take a role in the game and call out the lane they’ll handle and attempt to control, making their way towards the towers.

League of Legends is played almost exclusively on a single map called Summoner’s Rift. This is the game’s baseball diamond, its soccer pitch. This is why changes to the map are such a big deal in the community. Summoner’s Rift has three lanes, and those lanes are dotted with towers, those controlled by you and the opposing side.

The towers.

"You want to defend your towers while trying to destroy your enemies' towers," Cantrell explained when I asked what the point of all this was. I had my gold, my items, but what was I working towards? What was my endgame?

"You have a Nexus,"  he pointed to a glowing circle of power on my end of the map. "They have a Nexus," he moved his finger to another glowing circle on the other end of the map. "Destroying that is the point of the game. If you can do that before they destroy yours, you win. And that's true of all the different versions — we have a three player map and so on, but in order to get to that Nexus, you have to push down lanes. That's it. Three towers are the innate defenses that both sides have. They're set up on the way to the Nexus."

You control the lanes, you destroy the towers, you move into the base, and you destroy the Nexus. Easy, right? Soccer is just kicking a ball into a goal, after all. This is simple stuff.

I began my bootcamp by running straight into the towers, only to get zapped. I had to stop running-and-gunning; my usual way of tackling games that put a weapon in my hand. Time to slow down and smell the minions.

The towers protect the lanes, and the lanes lead to the enemy’s base. Get too close and they’ll kill you, and quickly. You have to learn to hide behind your allies, and take shots at the towers to wear them down as you hold the enemy champions at bay. It’s a constant struggle to balance everything you need to watch, and react to the opposing side’s play, and above all not die.

Cantrell explained that it's a delicate balancing act when fighting around towers. Delicate is right: you can't run by the tower and if you attack anything on its team within its range it will shift its focus to you. The trick is to allow the tower to target your minions, and then focus your fire on the tower while it’s distracted, while keeping an eye out for the enemy champions.

League of Legends is a game of inches, and it takes time to realize that every mistake on the part of your opponent must be punished.

League of Legends is a game of inches, and it takes time to realize that every mistake on the part of your opponent must be punished. If you find yourself out of position you can expect a quick death. You have to know how to attack the other side when appropriate, and also have a plan to run to safety as needed. This is why proper use of items is important; if you’re duking it out with an enemy champion and they have a more optimized build, even by a few percentage points, they’re likely to win. Every advantage, no matter how small, helps.

I wanted so badly to bust through each area while ignoring these towers, but it’s important that you destroy them one by one. This is part of League's push-and-pull tactics, the ebb and flow, or sometimes tidal wave, of champions walloping each other's strongholds in order to win. The more towers you lose, the closer you are to defeat. If you want a quick and dirty way to see who is winning a match, just find out which side has more towers. They’re winning.

And the end of this line is something called an Inhibitor, a glowing structure that spawns super minions, which can fly down lanes and attack opposite teams' towers and ...

I'm getting ahead of myself again.

Drinking (and speaking) the Kool-Aid

I have been at Riot HQ for half a day. I smell pizza, buffalo chicken, the faint twang of beer and the comforting, heavy scent of coffee. Rioters were milling around the studio, wandering past my tiny glass-walled arena.

Amid talk of recent movies and real-world happenings, I hear strange names being thrown out. I pick up words like "mid" and "gank." I'm told that for everyone here, League of Legends isn't just something they work on, it's a way of life.

Everyone at Riot Games plays League of Legends. Lawyers, accountants. It's mandatory — and now I’m part of the club. Employees don't have to be good at the game, but they have to play. There’s probably a janitor in this building somewhere that could kick my ass. Every third computer had LoL up and running on it as I walked through the offices. The building is steeped in League culture. No matter who you are, no matter what you do, you play.

I’m playing as Jinx and Cantrell is explaining how Jinx is played. She's a glass cannon, a marksman, an ADC, and I am so completely confused. Some of it I can work out from context clues, but other pieces of lingo are completely opaque.

I'm being told about ganking, leashing, jungling, and finally I throw my hands up in despair.

"It's almost like this other language, and I forget it because I've spoken it for so long."

"It's almost like this other language, and I forget it because I've spoken it for so long, but if you were to start speaking Japanese to me, I'd be like, ahh!" Cantrell said. "But, you know … it is similar to that."

Every champion has different strengths and weakness, different special abilities and roles in battle Jinx, for example, can get some of the most powerful items but will also die very easily. That’s a glass cannon. Powerful on attack but easy to take out.

She's a carry character, which means she’s likely to get the most kills on her team, but she needs a support character to serve as her bodyguard as she racks up gold to get better items. There are a handful of different supports and carries and marksmen and assassins, among others, in League's cast of characters, and part of the challenge in figuring out which role you're the best at and how best you can use those skills to complement your team. ADC means "attack damage carry," which are now called Marksmen.

The enemy, or your team, will sometimes abandon their roles and positions to take down an enemy champion while they’re in a vulnerable spot, and this move is called "ganking." Knowing when to move out of your lane to tip the scale of battle and take down an enemy champion or two comes with experience; you have to understand the rules before you begin to subvert them. Characters without a lane, who farm and gank as needed, are called "junglers."

Pro tip: If you are a League of Legends newbie, top with Garen. It’s an easy role when you’re learning the ropes, he hits hard once you learn his combos and he’s hard to kill. He has skills that make it easy to retreat if needed, and you don’t have to worry about mana as his attacks don’t consume it. Choosing Garen and typing "TOP" before the match begins is a good way to almost look like you know what you’re doing.

Death is not the end

Every round of LoL starts players at level one. Leveling up happens throughout the game as you make kills and gain experience. You earn points to power up your abilities as you level up and knowing which order to power up those abilities is also a crucial skill. It’s different for each champion, and even for different roles when using those champions. Remember, every advantage counts, and not knowing how to maximize these systems is what’s contributing to my death.

"It happens. You're going to die," Cantrell said, "and that will become, hopefully, not the only way as you get better, but you'll die a lot."

Another piece of advice from Cantrell as I constantly bit off larger pieces than I could chew, going straight for champions and towers instead of being patient: "Keep running," he said.

Keep running, keep playing. You’ll die, but you’ll learn to die less. Play conservatively at first. I ask Cantrell about the pacing of the game, why it's designed to move so quickly. I feel like I have whiplash, or motion sickness of the mind.

My fingers are cramping, and all I can think about are those damn boots that will allow me to run away faster, which I still need something like 3000 gold to be able to afford. Cantrell compares LoL’s pacing to that of World of Warcraft: In Blizzard’s MMO, you spend hundreds of hours developing a character that you carry for your game’s entire lifetime. In LoL, you have to build your character from scratch during every round, learning the best way to do so as you pour hours into the game.

"In World in Warcraft, you spend six months leveling up your character to max level and buying items you're really excited about and going through and playing," Cantrell explained. "Similar to that, in League, you do that whole experience in every sitting — you always start at level one and you get the fun experience of leveling up your champion quickly. And then you can pick a new champion and do the whole thing over again, or the same one if you want to keep practicing."

league of legends
league of legends

Putting practice into play

I'm told I’ll be leaving Cantrell’s instruction and playing LoL with other Rioters within the company at the end of the day, and I freak out.

Before he throws me into the deep end, after a whole day dealing with me yelping and swearing, I tell Cantrell about my first solo LoL experience, in which I jumped into PvP only having lightly read up on tactics and was immediately burned, both on the map by my opponents and off the map by the strangers I was playing with. Abuse was hurled my way and I couldn’t seem to do anything to help my team.

I had slammed my laptop shut and retreated in tears. Maybe I was horrible at it, and maybe I wouldn't do well in a team setting.

"It's player driven" he said. You have to learn how to play with others, he told me. There’s no other way forward. "It's just, it's not like it's designed into the game or like, hey, you have to team up or you don't get these bonuses. It's more like, if you don't use teamwork, you're probably not going to win."

The trick is to wait until you know what you’re doing before you play with and against other people, and team up with people you know. It’s a process, and jumping directly in will end badly. But there’s no way around it: If you want to play LoL, you have to be comfortable with other players.

It doesn’t take long for my future teammates to arrive, all smiles and very excited to play with me. Erik Reynolds, Daphne Karpel, Matt Manarino and Jessie Perlo — a communications lead, a corporate marketing associate, a member of Riot’s creative writing team and a PR coordinator — settle themselves down at other computers surrounding me and immediately guide me into my first game. I feel like the room has gotten a little warmer and blurt out my apology for what I already think will be a crappy performance. This is another tip I picked up: Let everyone know you’re learning, what you’re comfortable with and promise to do your best.

"We all die together!"

The level on my own account is still super low, so Perlo lends me one of her secondary accounts. This way, the League of Legends matchmaking tool will stick us all together and not skate over me. I feel nervous and a little sick and I can’t tell if it’s my desire to not look bad in front of these Rioters or the enormous cup of coffee I drank. This doesn’t feel like a friendly game, it feels like being on the ice with a group of professional hockey players, and being given a stick. It’s an intense sensation, both exciting and scary.

We settle in and join up to the servers. Reynolds makes a comment about matchmaking and it comes to my attention that we’re going to be playing against real people. Real people somewhere else in the world.

My palms start sweating.

"Don’t be nervous!" Perlo tells me. "You’ll die a lot and that’s okay. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just part of the process."

"Seriously, it’s not a big deal," Karpel adds just as we finish picking our champions and the game starts up.

"We all die together!" Perlo adds.

I’m still freaking out.

The first game goes great. We put on a good fight and I find myself running support back and forth between the mid and bottom lanes, covering Perlo and Karpal. I find I’m really good with a champion I randomly selected named Lux, who has the power to snag enemies in a whirlwind of energy and temporarily pin them in place — just long enough for another teammate to sneak in a hit.

I begin to regularly execute this attack when it’s available to me, and my teammates compliment me on my aim. We do well working together, using our abilities to overwhelm the enemy champions, knocking them out of position and taking advantage of them when isolated.

But the second match is a complete and utter trainwreck. Still sticking with my homegirl Lux, I get in the way one too many times like a dumb idiot — running in front of towers, taking potshots at other champions when I just shouldn’t, and generally making the sort of mistakes that the other side knows how to exploit. We lose, and afterwards Manarino tells me to not be so hung up on taking down champions.

"That comes after," he tells me. "Don't worry about killing champions during your first games, worry about killing minions first. Killing champions is just going to get you killed, because there's a complexity in killing champions."

Manarino takes off — important writing to do! — and the remaining members of my bootcamp squad take on an ARAM mode game.

This "all random, all middle" mode is infuriating and initially makes me ill. In this mode, everyone is assigned a random champion and you’re thrown onto a map with just one middle lane. From there you have to smash down enemy towers and just plow straight ahead to the Nexus, but all of us are served up champions we are unfamiliar with. I find myself as a brawny guy with a hammer that needs to fight close-up; I’m better at long-range, so this is already going poorly.

"Killing champions is just going to get you killed."

The worst part about ARAM is the push. We get trounced in inevitable team fights and lose quickly. However, I now have a small handle on a champion I would have normally not picked. This, my teammates explain, is often the best way to learn new champions — just grab some friends and jump into ARAM. The stakes are low, and it’s more likely other players are just as new to their champion as you are. You only have to worry about one lane, so matches are bloody and allow you to fight often and test your abilities.

We finish our last game for the day and I’m prepared for some smiles, some chatter about how fun that was and then to hear them whisper about how much I suck as LoL as they walk away. None of this happens.

I’m complimented by how well my training went as my day comes to a close. They tell me I’m a quick learner, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how much I’ve picked up in a short period of time. It certainly helped to be in Riot’s office, surrounded by the people who make the game. But I now know how the game is played, how to handle a few champions and a few roles, and I can watch and understand matches. I know a bit of the lingo, and am now a competent player, if not a proficient one.

Want to know something cool? If this is your first time reading about the guts of the game, you probably learned a fair amount as well.

The sun begins to set but still nearly blinds me as I step outside. I’ve been in a computer lab all day, after all. My fingers are dead. I walk out into the balmy Los Angeles evening feeling accomplished. Proud.

I've been told that, to get into the MOBA genre, you need to start with League of Legends. It's simple to learn, my friends tell me. Simple, but it gets challenging. Relaxing, even.

I believe them.

Images: Riot Games