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League of Legends is about to become a better game by learning from sports

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"Players are treating League as a sport, so it's okay for us to design it as if it were a sport."

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How do you improve a game that's been around for six years and has become a mainstay of the esports scene? How do you take something with tens of millions of players and actually make it better? Those are the questions Riot Games has been facing down with League of Legends, its incredibly popular multiplayer online battle arena game. But for the first time since the game's launch back in 2009, Riot has a very ambitious plan to make things even better.

At the core of that plan is the first of a series of major updates to League of Legends planned for 2016: the new "champ select" system. Rather than queuing into a game and competing over what role to play with whoever you get randomly matched up with, champ select will have players queue into specific roles that they want to play. It's a more polished version of the "team builder" mode that Riot introduced to the game a year ago.

"the root cause of a lot of issues in the game itself always started in champion select"

"We used that system to do a lot of research on MOBAs in general and the match-making process," says Riot's lead game designer of social systems Jeffrey Lin. "We found a lot of interesting things. If there was a role conflict or a position conflict in champion select, and you didn't go into the game getting exactly what you wanted, it was actually 15 percent more toxic no matter what happened in the game itself.

"We found that the root cause of a lot of issues in the game itself always started in champion select."

Riot's initial implementation of team builder mode was a first step toward fixing this problem. With team builder, players could select a champion to play as, choose one of four positions (top, mid, bottom or jungle) and choose one of six roles (assassin, fighter, mage, marksman, support or tank). From there, it would hook players up with a team matched to fill out all the other roles.

But by giving players that much control over what they wanted to play as, Lin and Riot discovered that queue times skyrocketed. Players had to wait far too long to get connected with a team and placed into a game. Lin stumbled upon a solution to this problem unexpectedly while talking with the developer's huge esports team.

"We found out a little bit more about esports and League of Legends as a real sport," Lin says. "In basketball or soccer, people look up to pro players in a specific position. It's like, Michael Jordan, he was a guard. Little kids now grow up saying, 'I wanna be the best guard in the world.' We wondered if it was possible for League to build an aspirational path where the positions are like those in real sports."

Sure enough, in League of Legends' ever popular (and lucrative) esports scene, players are often known for their specific roles. For example, look at SK Telecom's Faker, one of the most beloved players on this year's League of Legends world champion team. He's praised for his skills as a mid lane player specifically. That's what he plays in every game, because he knows the ins and outs, every detail, every important little point about that role.

league of legends champ select

While Riot was concerned about taking away any creative freedom from players, what it realized looking at team builder was that it was OK for the game to have specific roles. It was OK to encourage players to master specific roles.

Lin puts it another way: "The positions in every single game should be defined, because that's a part of the game itself."

Enter the new champ select system, which will be implemented in League of Legends early next year. Now players will select two positions they're comfortable playing, between mid, top, bottom and jungle. That's it. Once they get into the game, they'll have one of those positions assigned and can choose any hero accordingly, working with teammates to create a strong party make-up.

Why two positions? Riot says that's simply the amount most people learn.

"you actually master one or two positions only"

"We find that as you get more and more skilled, you actually master one or two positions only," Lin says. "On average, in the entire population, they generally only play about 2.2 positions. They really specialize. And within each position, they only have a handful of champions that they would call their mains. Given that data, it makes total sense. Players are treating League as a sport, so it's okay for us to design it as if it were a sport."

That speaks to the hardcore, dedicated League of Legends fanbase, but what about new players? Whereas team builder was limited to higher-level players who already had a lot of experience, Lin says that champ select has been tested with completely new players from the start. As such, any player will be able to use champ select in the game's blind pick mode as soon as they begin playing.

Beyond champ select, League of Legends has a huge number of further updates planned for 2016. Lin likens it to rebuilding the game from the ground up.

"If we had a second chance to make this game, what's our take on these ideas and systems today?" he says. "It was really a rallying call for all the teams to try something new this year and push new features and systems."

Champ select will be the first major update for League of Legends in 2016, and is planned to hit the game early in the year. A new crafting and rewards system and other updates will follow later in the year.

Listen to this story — and many more — in the episode of Minimap, Polygon's daily news podcast, below.