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Riot’s new games are League of Legends’ best asset (and biggest threat)

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From one MOBA to a gaming empire

League of Legends - Swain splash art Riot Games

Riot Games has completed a banner year, capped with a massive, multi-million dollar esports tournament and the announcement of a slate of new games. The League of Legends universe has never been so developed; the company is releasing a lore book about the vast fantasy world it has built over the years. There are metal albums, a K-pop group, a Marvel partnership, a hip-hop single, and the makings of a magical girl universe.

There’s just one problem with Riot’s success so far. All of this content threads back into the core game, and League of Legends is no longer big enough to contain the ambitions that Riot has for the franchise.

Riot’s solve: more games, including two set in the League of Legends universe. Riot’s gamble is that creating more entry points into the IP will get even casual players invested in the lore.

Loads of Lore

At one point, the lore was a silly addition to the core League of Legends game. There were newsletters from in-universe reporters that shared dating gossip and fun facts. It took the better part of a decade for Riot Games to evolve League’s lore past a series of vague, eternal mysteries. In fact, there was a total reboot that changed the entire concept of League of Legends.

Now it has lore that’s legitimately worth reading, in a collection of genres ranging from Lovecraftian horror to knights and banners fantasy to pirate power struggles. Riot is clearly banking hard on this lore; it continues to invest time and effort into cinematics, hologram concerts, comics, merchandise, music videos, short stories, elaborate animations ...

It doesn’t matter how many comics and stories and epic tales writers can spin. The bulk of the storytelling and information remains in League of Legends itself. Why invest in a massive fantasy epic in a universe that exists as an ancillary limb to a competitive esports title? Why pick through info across YouTube videos of in-game interactions? Why not just… read a book?

That’s a problem that needs to be solved before Riot can support things like, say, an animated show delving into the world of Runeterra.

When one game isn’t enough

Here’s the thing about League of Legends that perpetually dogs the game throughout its myriad attempts at reinvention and expansion: it’s not accessible, and it never will be. The game has over 140 champions, each of whom have unique abilities and use different items. If a player isn’t used to a top-down strategy game, they’re usually instantly lost.

Add in the fact that League is a competitive game that puts you on a team with four other people, all of whom are invested in winning, and before long League of Legends can become a nightmare carousel that eats up free evenings and ruins friendships.

So, two characters like Swain and LeBlanc might have some fun lore interactions that reveal a lot about their dynamic and the greater history of Noxus. They might chat in a game of League of Legends. That’s a genuinely cool experience, but what if I don’t hear it because I’m trying to focus on laning? It’s hard to balance competitive concerns with in-game lore at the best of times. When a new player is trying to wrap their head around 10 champions with totally unique abilities on top of concerns like last hitting, dragon control, and avoiding jungle ganks, it’s impossible.

League of Legends - Kha’zix splash art
Kha’Zix is a popular League champion with a tough kit to master.
Riot Games

A wider foundation

Non-League of Legends projects, like “Project A”, an in-development hero shooter, are ways Riot can expand its reach into a new audience ... but they’re also risky. At the League of Legends 10-year anniversary event, many of the projects shown off fit neatly within the Riot wheelhouse of Runeterra.

There’s a League card game, Legends of Runeterra, and an untitled fighting game. There’s the growth of Teamfight Tactics, the Auto Chess-inspired autobattler. Maybe you’re not interested in learning how to grapple with League of Legends’ camera and massive pool of heroes. But with a larger range of genres, it’s easier to bring players in on a new project like k-pop phenomenon K/DA or the magical girl alt-universe Star Guardians.

Some of these games have been in development for eight years as Riot figured out how they could co-exist among titles like Hearthstone, but they’re dramatically more accessible. Polygon’s Charlie Hall, who has never partaken in a game of League of Legends in his life, considers Legends of Runeterratoo good to ignore.”

There’s an obvious drawback to these more accessible titles, though: time in the day.

Lux, one of the starter Champions on Legends of Runeterra. Image: Riot Games

Feasting upon yourself

There are only so many hours in a day, so much room on a hard drive, and so much attention that any one person can have for online games. League of Legends fits comfortably into a schedule if someone cares to make it fit, but what about League and Legends of Runeterra? What happens when players have to choose between Riot’s products ... and what if the crown jewel of League is tarnished by these new titles?

Even with all of these new entry points, the League canon is still endlessly elaborate and spans thousands of years of in-game time — not to mention the decade of revisions, retcons, and increasingly elaborate additions. Part of the reason Riot has been able to get so experimental and discard so much canon is because of the fact that the core game would be untouched by these changes. What happens when there are multiple interactions across several genres of games that have to be monitored and kept up to date? How do you tell stories across such an elaborate framework?

At some point, will the entire structure collapse under its own weight? League of Legends is a valuable IP, and it remains to be seen whether spinning it off in so many directions takes it further or kneecaps the property. After waiting for years to find out the answer to mysteries like “what happened to Katarina’s dad?”, I’m excited about the current era of League lore. I’m seeing stories march forward and work towards conclusions for the first time I can remember. From here, it’s just a matter of making that sustainable … which, with plans as ambitious and varied as Riot’s, is easier said than done.