As a League of Legends player with a 3-year background in World of Warcraft, I was accustomed to the general idea that the visible player population of a game can be dichotomized into casual and hardcore. In WoW, it’s easy to see this distinction: the hardcore players have the best gear, the most current achievements, and oftentimes the flashiest mounts. These players understandably belong to the top guilds with name recognition on their servers and beyond. Now that I’m a few months into my League career, I’ve noticed that my experience doesn’t reflect any such division in the population.
It would be fair to say that, at level 27, I haven’t hit LoL’s ‘endgame’. The players I get matched with can be from anywhere in the leveling process as long as the system believes we as a 5-man unit have a 50% chance of beating our opponents. My conjectures on ranked play are based on extrapolation of my own experiences as well as hearsay from my level 30 friends.
No Visible Difference
Perhaps the most significant reason why I haven’t noticed a distinction between player types is that there is no avatar visibility in League of Legends. Players rotate through champions on a game-to-game basis and even for those who have one “main” that they stubbornly stick to regardless of team composition, there is no means for them to visually customize that champion and make it “their own”.
If you notice the avatar “Billy” uses in the header image, it’s one of several generic choices that every single League of Legends user has access to. These avatars are displayed prominently in user profiles, the contact list, and the game setup lobby, but not the champion select lobby or anywhere in-game. Avatars only reappear in the post-game lobby, and only in a very tiny version sitting next to each player’s name.
Avatars are not rewarded for reaching various milestones in the game. What Riot Games did provide to its high-ranked players at the end of Season 1 was a forum medal based on rank and an exclusive skin (Victorious Jarvan) for one champion to the top 3% of ranked players. In addition, any player who participated in at least 10 matches during Season 1, ranked or unranked, was also given an exclusive skin (Judgment Kayle).
Even with skins, visibility remains a problem. Skins are not displayed to anyone but the player in the champion select lobby and are tied to specific champions, of which there are currently 85.
No Functional Difference
On top of impressive gear models, the superior gear worn by hardcore raiders in WoW also confers better stats than the lesser gear of casual players. This is true even in WoW PvP, where each season of gear is progressively stronger than the last. The closest League of Legends comes is the Rune system, which has 30 slots (one unlocked at each level) and three quality tiers that are unlocked at level 0, 10, and 20. In other words, the runes used by a level 20 summoner are identical to those used by a level 30 summoner; the level 30 summoner just has ten more of them. Once the level cap is reached, there is no more progression. Given the same champion, there is no statistical difference between a high-ranked player and a low-ranked player.
Part of the reason hardcore WoW players are so visible is because they are in constant contact and contrast with casual players. The visual impact of a top-tier raider on an elite mount is greatest when to that raider’s immediate left is a mid-leveled player in an aesthetic mismatch of gear with the most commonplace of mounts. This is precluded by the League of Legends gaming model:
On the one hand, LoL’s matchmaking system likes to group players of narrow level ranges together in order to protect new players from going up against seasoned veterans. While this has the overwhelmingly positive impact of keeping completely imbalanced matches to a minimum, it would also prevent the “ooh”ing and “aah”ing at high-ranked level 30 players even if they were given very visible rewards.
On the other hand, highly-rated players tend to stick together in premade groups. This is done partially to avoid the random less-than-awesome player but more generally to maximize team communication via voice services. The matchmaking system would then only be able to match them against other high-rated premade teams. Thus those players that encounter elite players are themselves in the process of trying to achieve that status. While high-ranked achievements may still be impressive, they are not lofty, unreachable dreams to the community that experiences them.
Do they Exist?
This brings me to the inevitable question: Do hardcore LoL players exist? I believe the answer is yes, but with a qualification: the hardcore LoL community does not exist. There are players that own every single champion and know the ins and outs of each of them. There are players that have mastered both Summoner’s Rift and Dominion, able to intuitively adjust their skill progression and item build order to fit any theoretical scenario. These are definitely hardcore players – perfecting 85 champions alone would take ages, but being able to account for every single variable that can possibly arise during the interaction of 10 humans is a far more difficult task. The difference is that they exist in small pockets, rather than sprawling organizations. I know the names vodka, Ensidia, DREAM Paragon, and Blood Legion as the best WoW guilds in the world. I couldn’t tell you the name of even one of the top-ranked League teams of season 1.
Looking at the points I discussed earlier, I would go a step further and say that in the current structure, it is impossible for a hardcore LoL community to exist because there is nothing to distinguish hardcore players from their casual counterparts. In WoW, hardcore raiders can compare gear and achievements and say “Hey, we finally downed that boss too!” There’s a sense of shared experience and friendly rivalry that comes from someone sharing your prestige. In LoL, players can compare ELO, but as I’ve witnessed on the forums, that tends to elicit far more negative reactions: “My rating is low because I’m always matched with bads.” “Your rating isn’t impressive at all. Mine is much higher.” There is no shared experience by nature of random matches, so points of prestige serve only as powderkegs for heated argument and competition.
Does League Need a Hardcore Community?
The next question to ask is if League has any need for a hardcore community. My opinion is yes and no. League is a great game, but unless I’m playing with my friends from out-of-game, I don’t feel like I’m playing with people. I remember “that one Anivia” and “the other team’s Shen”, not the players behind those champions. For all I know, the Normal match queue is secretly the “Hard” AI difficulty with randomly generated usernames and faked “real world” variables such as lag-outs and (flawlessly well-programmed) dialogue scripts. In other words, I really want League to add some community tools – guilds, for starters. “Man, ‘Shaco’s Box’ always play the best assassins” is something I’d love to catch myself saying eventually. Successful implementation of a community tool will automatically create the hardcore community, which I don’t feel would contribute to the game any more than the non-hardcore community.
Does Riot Think So?
I believe they do, in an indirect and very business-standard way. Riot’s main goal is to keep people playing the game. To that end, they release a new champion roughly every two to three weeks for people to enjoy. Observe the price tag: a steep 6300 IP. Why such a high price when a normal game typically nets around 100 IP? Because Riot needs an incentive to keep playing for players who already have every single champion and no longer need to purchase runes. Let’s do some math:
A normal game gives 100 IP. The first win of the day bonus is 150. That’s 250 IP for one match a day. In two weeks, that’s a total of 3500 IP. For three weeks, it’s 5250. 6300 is higher than both, specifically 28 more matches across two weeks or 11 across three weeks. For the sake of argument let’s split the difference: 18 days, 18 first wins (4500 IP) and 18 more matches (1800 IP). Averaging two matches a day requires a fair bit of dedication, since one missed First Win bonus incurs a 1.5 game penalty. Say you don’t play on weekends, so you miss 4 days in the cycle. Those 36 games go up to 42 (3 games per day). Or, more likely, say you only play on weekends (counting Friday). Depending on where the cycle falls, you’ll have six or nine days of play. That’s 54 games in 6 days (9 per day) or 50 games in 9 days (5.5 per day).
No matter which option you look at, players will have to be dedicated to make the 6300 mark. They must be willing to play every day around the same time, as to not lose their first-win bonuses, or they must be willing to invest disproportionately larger amounts of time for each day they skip.
What I haven’t mentioned is, of course, Riot Points. For 975 points (~$7.50), players can simply buy a new champion and forego this significant time investment. Think about who’s more likely to spend money on the game – hardcore players or casual ones? All other factors held constant, the player who puts in one or two matches a week will be far less interested in putting down real money to buy a new champion. As a result, I think it’s fair to say that the rate of new content is geared more toward retaining hardcore players than expanding the player base. From the opposite direction, 85 champions is really a lot to process as a brand new player. New additions are only a source of more confusion.
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League’s next steps need to be geared towards the formation of cohesive communities in-game. The game is great – I don’t think I’ve seen any real complaints aside from the perennial raging over balance. I’ll follow this article up with one detailing possible changes Riot could make and the ramifications of each.
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