League of Legends: The Recipe to Its eSports Success

League of Legends has observed unprecedented success in the eSports scene, rising to become the most watched eSport in the world. Last year, the NBA playoffs’ viewership rose to 4.2 million viewers; League of Legends has observed 3.9 million concurrent viewers, putting it right up there among real sports.

To what does it owe this success?

Speaking with the Riot Games team at E3 2012 offered me some insight into the secret recipe: one gallon of low barrier to entry, two cups of ongoing development, a dash of unique flavoring, and one heaping tablespoon of balance testing.

Riot’s Blake Shuster explained the various factors that contribute to LoL’s low barrier to entry. “Champions do exactly what you think they’ll do,” he said. The game‘s unique setting blends character archetypes from all genres of fantasy, from gun-totting pirates to necromantic mages. Every champion has a distinct visual flavor that translates into its mechanical abilities — the vampire siphons life force; the dual-pistolero sprays bullets everywhere; the martial artist strikes with a flurry of blows. It’s all very intuitive.

The game released in 2009 with 40 champions and currently has 99 to choose from. New champions take four to six months to develop, and the team sees no end in sight for its growing stable.

In order to ensure balance among such a large pool of characters — a must in any competitive eSport — Riot has three teams devoted to testing the game, with one team of professional players dedicated to playing the game in order to test balance. The developer also keeps a pulse on its community, looking to its forums for feedback.

In order to prevent new players from being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of champions to choose from, LoL introduces the characters slowly, ten at a time. Every week, the roster of ten free champions rotates, and players have the option to permanently unlock champions with either in-game or actual currency.

The game’s free-to-play business model may serve as the crux of LoL’s success, eliminating the $60 buy-in fee that other eSports like StarCraft 2 impose. “We want people to be able to access the game without worrying about money,” Shuster said.

While LoL has established itself as the leading name in the genre, upcoming titles from AAA developers like Valve’s Dota 2 and Blizzard All-Stars will seek to dethrone the MOBA king. Nonetheless, Riot isn’t concerned.

“I think we’ve really set the bar,” said Shuster. “We’re focused primarily on providing the best experience for our players. We don’t have time to worry about the competition.” He went on to explain how the upcoming Season Two Championship is currently Riot’s biggest focus.

Scheduled for October 2012, the championship will offer a $5 million prize pool, which is perhaps the biggest testament to the game’s success.

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