League of Legends is one of the biggest games on the planet, with a massive roster of champions, big-budget esports tournaments, and regular balance patches. But even this mammoth game is prone to stumbles, and one of these played out in the public eye recently. Riot Games released its annual cinematic trailer for the game, and instead of the usual champion showcase, the star of the video was an empty version of the game’s map. Fans’ disappointed response was so loud and sustained that Riot had to pull a very public mea culpa.
Riot has set a tempo for League of Legends that fans have come to count on. The year starts with a preseason, during which the developer makes experimental changes. Throughout the year, Riot polishes these changes and tries to create a stable competitive environment for the eventual Worlds tournament. The preseason also historically starts with a cinematic that shows off players’ favorite champions getting into all sorts of epic battles and struggles.
he 2023 cinematic, “The Brink of Infinity,” was an exception. This year, Riot released a video of a butterfly flitting through the Rift, with a voice-over composed of various champion quotes. The fan response was immediate, overwhelming, and viscerally negative. Fans’ fury led them to bring up long-standing grudges that weren’t even related to the cinematic, like the slow pace of visual updates for old champions, a lack of new game modes, and the conspiracy that League was entering a maintenance mode.
On Jan. 13, Riot responded to fans’ feedback with an eight-minute video. The video’s main promises included a 2024 “champion-led” cinematic, new game modes and events, and continued investment in League’s tech. One of these game modes, a 2v2v2v2, is already in development. But the quagmire Riot finds itself in is far more complicated than just one cinematic, and the boiling frustrations that led to this particular explosion haven’t been fully resolved.
League of Legends is, at this point, more than just a game; it’s the backbone of an entire entertainment franchise. It’s sprawled out into other games — Legends of Runeterra, the upcoming fighting game dubbed Project L, an in-development MMO, Riot Forge projects, in-client visual novels, and mobile port Wild Rift — as well as other mediums, like Netflix adaptation Arcane and the novel Ruination, and live events based around the above.
It is, in and of itself, not a big deal for a company to miss a date on an elaborate project — especially in these COVID times. For many Riot fans, the sin comes from a perceived abandonment of League’s foundation: League of Legends itself. Champions like Shaco and Corki still prance around the Rift with no canon lore and desperately dated graphics. Ashe, a prominent character in League and its marketing materials, received a total overhaul to her graphics back in 2015 — and now she needs another one, standing next to contemporary champions.
League’s massive roster pool is a strength because of the sheer variety and depth it offers, but it’s also a huge drawback, since sub-communities form around each of the 150-plus champions, and their resentment quickly festers. If you’re a fan of Quinn, Jarvan IV, Shaco, or Anivia, you could be years out from ever seeing them updated. Many of the fans disappointed by the cinematic have mentioned that they were hype for their boy Aatrox to show up — and he was due to do so in an earlier version of the cinematic that didn’t ship. Now, these Aatrox aficionados feel like they have to go back in the queue for a chance at some crumbs.
Riot wants the League IP to continue to grow at the rapid pace it currently enjoys thanks to the success of spinoffs like Arcane and Riot Forge. League is a monumentally difficult game to get into on PC, and the mobile port Wild Rift is still fairly complex. League of Legends is also a famously toxic game, stuffed to the brim with salt and fury. On the other hand, my mom both watched and enjoyed Arcane.
But can Riot keep this outreach going while also maintaining League as its core product? The Universe site, a promising place full of fantastic lore, is out of date and seemingly forgotten. League fans clearly want more effort put into League of Legends, judging by the intense and disappointed response to “The Brink of Infinity.” Riot wants to have it all — both the rapid growth and also the investment in League’s core narrative, lore, and fandom. So far, the juggling act has fallen short, and Riot is at risk of further outcry if it can’t serve its core audience while searching for new fans.