League of Legends released in October 2009 as an “original” spin on a popular Warcraft III mod, Defense of the Ancients. Only a handful of characters had been released at that point, with lore mostly revealed through in-character developer blogs. Even then, the world of Runeterra seemed expansive, as more champions trickled into the roster to elaborate on the barebones narrative Riot Games had created.
Since its release, League of Legends has now become a massive intellectual property that not only includes the PC version of the MOBA, but mobile games and transmedia like the hit television series Arcane. But as the IP continues to branch out to other creative mediums, the overarching narrative of League of Legends has become increasingly difficult to follow.
In September 2014, Riot Games announced it would be massively overhauling the previously established League of Legends lore. This heralded new changes not only to League of Legends, but to the very foundation of Runeterra and all subsequent lore as well. This involved scrapping the Journals of Justice which had, at one point, canonized a relationship between an employee’s original character with the champion Nidalee. The new canon allowed Riot more flexibility in the form of future content, which has since appeared in short stories, comics, and champion creation.
Even as the first series of major changes began to roll out with a reintroduction to the Freljord — a mostly inhospitable country set within the far reaches of Runeterra governed by barbarian tribes — it was clear that updates would arrive infrequently. Sometimes these updates would only leave even more loose ends; as newer and grander threats to the world of League of Legends were introduced, some champions and nations went without significant lore updates for long stretches at a time. As it stands, champions like Shaco don’t even technically exist within the current canon.
Thomas “Riot Wilkingham” Cunningham, Senior Manager of Narrative Editing for League of Legends, elaborated in an email interview with Polygon about why some of these changes take longer than others. “When a new Champion enters the roster, they can bring with them awesome new details about the world,” he said. “Sometimes our team spends years weaving those details together. Sometimes, a Rioter sees a really cool opportunity at the very last minute, and we come together to make it happen. It’s about remaining flexible to opportunity while staying committed to what’s come before, and always striving to delight our players.”
This doesn’t mean that the lore in League of Legends has become easier to parse by any stretch of the imagination. Things have become even more complicated when factoring in the introduction of transmedia, such as the comic Lux, which was made in collaboration with Marvel (yes, Marvel Comics), or the more recent video game Ruined King: A League of Legends story. Lux provided new information about foundational lore changes for the nation of Demacia, which reframed the once “goodly” country as a fascist ethnostate, and elaborated on the backstory of the champion Sylas. Ruined King, on the other hand, takes place in this sort of amorphous space between the Bilgewater: Burning Tides event (which was a series of short stories and a champion rework for Gangplank that occurred in 2015) and The Ruination event that occurred in 2021.
If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. League of Legends continues to see massive overhauls and lore reworks in intermittent periods. Sometimes a short story is released when leading up to a major event, or to even tease an entirely new skin line (cosmetics made for individual characters that sometimes come bundled with their own story) that has nothing to do with the League of Legends canon.
Even the official “Universe” website features a tab dedicated to alternate universes like the Star Guardians, Odyssey, and perhaps the most well-known skin line in League of Legends, K/DA. This doesn’t account for the other alternate universes introduced through skin lines not popular enough to warrant their own dedicated webpage; the Warring Kingdoms alternate universe, for instance, is effectively a League of Legends and Romance of the Three Kingdoms crossover. Within 2021 alone, a total of 31 skin lines were released, either expanding on already-established alternate universes, reworking some of them entirely, or creating completely new ones.
With the introduction of Arcane, the widely successful animated series set within the world of Runeterra, the lines between the hard canon of League of Legends and alternate universes have become increasingly blurred. Since the material doesn’t deviate a significant amount from what players have already gleaned from the slow trickle of new information about Piltover and Zaun (two opposing technology-focused nations in Runeterra), there have been discussions among fans about whether or not Arcane is canon or would become canon to League of Legends. For example, the origin stories for Jayce and Viktor, a pair of research partners turned rivals, are wildly different from their original incarnations.
“Their stories and their designs in Arcane are intentionally different from the Jayce and Viktor you see in-game, specifically to fit the show. So, it’s unlikely that we will make major changes to League of Legends’ Jayce and Viktor to match 1:1 with Arcane’s,” Cunnginham said when asked if any of these changes will eventually be consolidated into the game’s canon at large. Based on his response, Arcane and League of Legends will mostly remain separate entities, despite the existence of Arcane skins within the game.
Cunningham’s response also doesn’t account for titles like League of Legends: Wild Rift or the card game Legends of Runeterra, which also exist within their own separate canon. Character interactions within Legends of Runeterra, for example, are dictated by card placement. Despite the inclusion of a story mode, branching paths make it difficult to discern what the real outcome of any scenario actually is. While it’s confusing, it’s also fun, at the very least — and it leads to conversation and speculation among the community at large. This could be part of Riot’s plan to keep people invested in the world of Runeterra and champions they’ve no doubt come to love over the nearly 13 years that the IP has existed.
While League of Legends has continued to remain an expansive and extremely profitable intellectual property, its foundational lore remains lacking as continual rewrites occur. Riot Games has already announced that it plans to create even more alternate universes in 2022.
The company shows no signs of slowing down, with an upcoming MMORPG and fighting game in the works. As League of Legends expands, it feels as though possibilities are endless, but ultimately tangled in amorphous creative decisions that make its canon increasingly confusing. It’s hard to say if the narrative of League of Legends at large will benefit with this ever-evolving storyline. One thing is for certain, though: Content will keep coming, even if it might take five years for a major plot point to see any kind of resolution.