The League of Legends franchise has inexorably expanded over the past few years, growing from just being a MOBA to having a multiverse full of colorful takes on familiar characters — there’s a stand-alone RPG, a mobile port, a critically acclaimed animated show on Netflix, and a forthcoming novel. League of Legends itself is 10 years old, and despite these new additions, it has remained, at its core, League — a competitive 5v5 game that takes place across a map with three lanes and a jungle full of dangerous monsters.
On Wednesday, Riot announced that Andrei Van Roon, a veteran of the studio who has designed champions like Ziggs and Lissandra, would be taking on the role of head of League Studio. Van Roon will oversee production of League of Legends, its mobile port Wild Rift, and the auto-chess spinoff Teamfight Tactics.
As of 2022, the League franchise has dozens of characters spread across its mainline titles, each of whom has their own needs in terms of both technical maintenance and new content. Riot is faced with the daunting task of keeping things fresh, all while working on a title that has accrued a decade of various visual and technical debts. Polygon spoke with Van Roon about how League will grow in the coming years.
League of Legends has a two-week patch cycle; there’s consistently something coming out, even if it’s just balance adjustments or smaller changes. This cadence is popular with fans; Van Roon says it’s critical to both League’s success and to avoiding a culture of continual crunch.
“I found out fairly recently that before League launched, one of the requirements that Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck had was that they were willing to sacrifice quite a lot of other functionality to get the ability to patch every two weeks,” says Van Roon in a call with Polygon. He notes that the smaller patches also allow the developers to shift project timelines around with relative flexibility. “We’re not always going to get things right the first time — but we’ve got a bunch of chances to get it right, and a willingness to keep stepping into problems until we find out what the good stuff does look like.”
League has a roster of over 160 champions; there are nearly 80 ported to Wild Rift. While champions generally get freshened up with new models for Wild Rift, League of Legends on PC is where fans see major overhauls to champions like Udyr, Volibear, or Fiddlesticks. Champion updates are handled across three teams: There’s one group for Summoner’s Rift that handles the major patches and pre-season adjustments; one group of champion designers that overhauls old champions and recreates them from the ground up; and one group on the Skins team that does art and sustainability updates to bring older, janky characters like Ahri and Caitlyn into the modern era.
While it can be frustrating to watch older characters, like Rammus, languish with their old models and animations while newer, shinier champions like Nilah rock up, Van Roon says there’s a balance to strike when it comes to revisiting old, beloved champions.
“We have some groups of players who don’t want new stuff, they like the current state of the game, or they don’t enjoy new champions and want the older ones updated,” he says. “We also see some groups of players and regions who have hunger for new stuff. Meeting the needs of those different players is a balancing act. The other thing we see is an attitude of ‘I want more updates — except for my champions, go do something to the champions I don’t like and don’t touch my stuff.’”
Change is hard, and sometimes an update — even if it brings an old, dusty champion back into the mainstream — can scare away its old mains. “I think we’ve gotten better with our updates of preserving the core of what a player was there for in the first place. But we’re always going to miss for some particular players,” says Van Roon. In the meantime, League releases smaller, mid-scope updates to help old champions keep up. With a roster so large, it’s impossible to give everyone some love, but regular patches and multiple teams keep League afloat.
While other games change and evolve, introducing new modes or transforming their core concept, League is still played on a very similar map, and some of the game’s earliest champions still exist in mostly the same form. Limited-time PvE events, like Star Guardian: Invasion or Odyssey: Extraction, struggle with player retention, according to Van Roon.
“I think one of the reasons the idea is popular, and I share this feeling, is the idea of ‘I want to play my favorite champion in a PvE thing,” he says. “Sweet, that sounds great — but how much in a MOBA is the bones you want to build that experience on?”
Riot has experimented with adding things onto and around League, where playing games is just a way to unlock new chapters in a visual novel or get cosmetic rewards. As Van Roon notes, a 5v5 competitive MOBA isn’t the best avenue for storytelling.
Wild Rift has included more storytelling elements with its events and Guilds vs. Guilds feature, through which players uncover small-scale narratives and rivalries between champions. On PC, there are the big events — first Spirit Blossom, then the big Sentinels of Light event, and the recent alternate universe magical girl Star Guardians story.
“Overall, we’re still figuring [events] out, especially now that we have more places we can do storytelling than just League, and what stories to tell through League,” says Van Roon. “Like, how much we should do Act One introductions for characters versus how much should we try and conclude large epic plots? I think we’re seeing that the visual novel is probably something we shouldn’t be doing this often. It was great for Spirit Blossom, it’s a great tool to have in our repertoire, but it’s not something to lean on constantly.”
Riot will continue to support League of Legends, Wild Rift, and Teamfight Tactics, and the success of these modes can lead to interesting experiments; the comics, Riot Forge titles, and Legends of Runeterra are all proof of that. As the universe of the franchise continues to expand, there are more avenues for characters to appear and build out the world — and there’s room for surprises.
“A few years down the road, once we’ve got everyone’s favorite champions over and so on, but then we’ll want to explore — what does a Wild Rift-unique champion look like?” asks Van Roon.