Understanding Riots approach to casual and competitive play.
Recent years has brought out a number of interesting changes to the game. The surprising changes to jungle objectives, the current standings of the pro scene and also the recent debate over a sandbox game mode all contribute well to this. All of these features seem to complicate the concepts of the game being a competitive and skilful environment and seem to come across as the game simply being toned down to match the interests of its not so competitive fan base.
Let’s address the elephant in the room.
In recent Reddit debate and disgust, the concept of Sandbox mode seems to be angering a lot of the subreddits subscribers, including pros, personalities and my own. Riot recently released a statement expressing the concerns that a sandbox mode breaks how they see the professional scene and its way for improvement. To try and hit the argument as lightly as possible, the mainstream argument against riots official statement expresses that in the competitive world of sports, being able to train is crucial. This experience in sports helps to improve individual play and helps to develop possible strategy without actually gaining experience from the competitive matches. For the majority of us fans, this is a no brainer for sandbox serving this purpose. Why Riot don’t want to include this as a feature at the present seems to bring up a number of conclusions for people. Some say they can’t monetise it whilst others believe they are trying to keep the game at casual levels without the game being too catered for the pro scene. But wasn’t the typical view that Riot were catering more towards the pro scene anyway? Let’s explore.
Some recent evidence to show making the game more casual is with buff timing changes. Patch 4.12 saw the introduction to pressing tab and seeing buff timers of dead buffs witnessed by the team. What people had to do before was type to time buffs in order to manage when to contest or provide buffs in the game. What this feature did to us is provide some form of quality of life as it shifted buff times to a new field of info, cleaning up chat to communicate better and find information better. It also didn’t provide global timings, so there was still some counter play around controlling dragon, baron and your sides buff timings. However it somewhat decreased skill level between players as that was once criteria that showed that one player was better than another by having more awareness around game objectives.
The next major change was the introduction to global dragon and baron sounds. Patch 5.14 introduced the system of global Dragon and Baron sounds. No matter if you had vision of the objective; the announcer shouts that it has been killed and the buff timers are updated. This is very casual as it allows the player base to not even be punished for not warding key objectives as the timers update anyway. However it’s not to say if you allow the enemy team to take control you won’t be face rolled by Baron and Dragon buffs. But the point is the team that secures a blind objective isn’t rewarded either as the other team knows when it will next spawn, allowing them to contest it, which damages competitive strategy at the top levels and in ranked play. So it seems that in these changes to buffs and objective control, the game is allowing more casual players to get involved with the game rather than allowing competitiveness to succeed in the largest eSport at the moment.
But 5.14 isn’t the start of global objective control. A few patches before this, there was bug that was sounding global Dragon noises when the Dragon was killed. This was changed to making the noises if you hovered over it in the fog of war, but Riot had decided it was better to implement it as an actual feature.
With the growing help to make timings easier in league, I fear the possibility of a summoner spell timing system. This is purely my speculation. Looking at the ways Riot have helped to make the game easier, I believe a possible target for change is summoner spells could help to make this more of a reality. When the changes to objective timers came in, they came in with a surprise. I believe the same principle can be applied to help bring the skill level of players a lot closer by removing more calculations from chat into a visible timer somewhere. By showing a timer of enemy summoner spells means that casual players can calculate when they can make a big play easier than before. This is one feature the better players do now just like the buff timings and by removing this gap means you make the player base shift closer once more.
Casual play also has a strong appearance in the game at the moment. League of Legends is currently in a state of fun and lore inspired events. With recent additions to its lore team, Riot are finally approaching its lore after years of neglect. This helped to inspire the Freiljord events a few years ago and now the Bilgewater event. These two big events resulted in new champions, whether they were reworked or released, skins, designs to the ARAM map and profile pictures to unlock. This theme transitions into holidays like Halloween or summer with themed skins, pictures to earn and release of champions like Kalista with a spooky theme to follow. Not to mention the success of game modes like One for All, Hexakill and the most popular U.R.F mode (to name a few) that saw two seasons of it being introduced. So within the past few years these content pieces have not been short and there are many more and interesting themes to come out in the near future. However I do believe Lore should not impact professional training by disabling Gangplank, as it may hinder the ability to play with that champion during the playoffs and possibly worlds.
What about the eSports side of things? League of Legends is the most popular eSport that exists at the moment, beating viewer and active player number of its rivals Counter Strike, DOTA2 and StarCraft 2. However League of legends isn’t the highest rewarding eSport. An article by ESPN shows that Leagues worlds 2014 prize pool $2,130,000, Smite 2015 $1.3million Dota2 2014 $5million. This goes further as leagues 2015 worlds’ current prize pool is still $1million whilst DOTA 2 has gone further to $18,223,007. This is quite shocking really considering League is being dwarfed in prize pool whilst being the biggest eSport at the moment. So it suggests that Riot isn’t spending its money on prizes for its game but is spending it elsewhere.
Where is the competitive money being spent then? Historically the LCS introduced playoff prizes in each region, the typical lay out was 1st taking $50,000 2nd taking $25,000 3rd taking $15,000 and 4th taking $10,000, meaning there’s $100,000 in split prize pool for each split of the Riot controlled regions continuing to this day. Also Riot pay a salary to organisations for their players and coaches and it’s believed that players that are contracted for a year are payed around $40 – $50k. Whilst worlds 2014 prize pool was in total $2,130,000 and MSI was $200,000. Adding all this together means that riot promoted events and major region prize pools adds up to around $3.5million on their major competitions, which still is nowhere near DOTAs prize pool just for its big tournament. This means that Riot despite having all of this money earned still don’t invest as greatly into its eSports as smaller eSports do. However Valve is generally a bigger company then Riot and Riot don’t do crowd funding, which helps to boost prize pools helping to inflate the difference between these two prize pools. Although these numbers are still huge in comparison and may suggest Riot doesn’t invest that far into the professional scene as it should do.
From the looks of things, Riot seems to be heavily investing on how the game should be played by continuous short time frame patching with QoL and balancing. This forces games to be played in order to improve as they said in their statement. The changes to the game help to bring competitiveness by forcing players to continually adapt to the game whilst also removing some of the ‘harder’ features to appease the casual players of the game. This means that Riot don’t want to create a sandbox mode as they believe it would be worthless by the behavior they are putting into the games continuously changing landscape. But these changes in some way arms its progress as there's no room for a meta to grow. As for the casual fan base, they are making it better as it naturally forces people to be better at the game as the resources are provided to them with constant content of skins and chromas, with lore events and fun game modes. So where Riot proceeds to in the near future may help to make the game more competitive, depending on QoL changes and whether or not Riots’ philosophy changes to allow for a replay system/ sandbox system. But one thing I strongly believe is that Riot need to invest more into its prize pools to help the development and desire to succeed in the biggest eSport at the moment. It seems not enough for just how huge the game is now and is arguably one of the best times to deal with it whilst the casual aspect is in a stable position.