Is League of Legends Dying? Here Are the Facts

League of Legends, LoL, dying, facts
Supposedly, it’s been about to die for years. Is it really that simple, though?

Is the Biggest Video Game in History on Its Way Out?

League of Legends has gone from humble beginnings in 2009 to being a global phenomenon, the pioneer of the esports industry, and a truly household name in gaming. There have been some rumors that the game is in decline lately, but what’s really going on? Read on, and discover the real facts regarding the past and present of LoL, and hints about it’s possible future.

Where Do the Rumors Come From?

Back in the period between 2014 and 2016, there were rumors that League was on the ropes, that it was in decline and would soon fade from the scene, pushed out of its space by other emerging MOBAs. These rumors were founded on primarily one thing: Riot Games had stopped releasing player count data during that period; it was only in late 2016 that we learned that the player base had in fact nearly doubled since their last official press release, to a staggering 100 million players monthly. (Source: Forbes Article)

Since 2016, there has been another dry spell regarding official information on the size and activity of the League player base, and once again, the rumor mill has started to churn. But how much of it is based on reality? I found, via the Wayback Machine, a hint from Riot that the player base, as of 10/19/2017, was “100+ million” (Source: Wayback - Riot - Our Games), while other numbers reported were closer to 80 million. (Source: UnrankedSmurfs)

There is nowhere that I have been able to find even a hint at player figures for 2018, so my analysis is going to be based almost entirely on data from 2017 and earlier.

Hasn’t League Grown Over the Years?

League of Legends came out of nowhere, with a model that many people, at that time, would have said was a scripted recipe for failure. “Let’s make a game with a ridiculously high skill ceiling, almost no in-game storytelling, and a freemium business style.” Back at the end of last decade, no sane person would have given even close to even odds on such a plan working out, and yet here we are, nine years later almost to the day, faced with the undeniable evidence of LoL being a smash hit.

It turns out, there was a massive market for pure, competitive, skill-based gameplay, and operating almost completely alone in the space didn’t hurt, either. LoL saw 100,000 concurrent users for the first time within months of its release (Source: Polygon Interview) (for comparison, some of my favorite online games have been around longer, and have not hit that milestone yet), and now has regular concurrent player counts estimated to be in the vicinity of the 3.5 million mark, based on some counts. All in less than a decade.

That is growth on a nearly unprecedented level. That’s five doublings and change in less than ten years. But as any fifth grader could tell you, there is no way that kind of growth is sustainable, which leads us to the most commonly publicized numbers for 2017 (~80 million). If accurate, what could have caused such a drop in player base?

What Exactly Is An “Active Account”?

These numbers, according to Riot, reflect “active accounts”. From the LoL forums, I was able to gather that means “accounts that are not banned that have played at least one match within the previous month”. That seems a little loose to me, but it’s a fair metric.

Is Alt Falloff Responsible for The Reduced Player Base Numbers?

This leads us to one possible conclusion of many, that the change is due to alt falloff. League of Legends, like any online game, has difficulty getting accurate data for player count because of "alt accounts”, “smurfs”, or whatever they happen to be called in your particular gaming circle. Basically, at least some portion of accounts in any online game, even active ones, are effectively dupes. But you can’t even farm honor with an alt, or transfer goods.

This means that, except in cases where a banned player is trying to sneak their way back into the game, there is very little or no benefit in maintaining an alt account actively (and people who use it for those kinds of deceptive purposes rapidly get banned again, because of course they learned nothing from their prior mistakes). So alt accounts usually fall off the active roster fairly quickly (or become the new “main” account).

Or Maybe It’s the Ban-Hammer?

Don't make me hit you with the banhammer!

If you check out the news at Riot Games lately, you’ll see lots about cheating and toxicity, and what they are doing about it. While I was unable to find any hard data at all regarding the number of account bans that have been implemented in any game year, it would not surprise me to learn that at least some of the player drop was due to the more vigorous application of the ban-hammer in recent years. And really, do these players getting booted count as a loss for the game?

Not only that, but a player who earns a bad reputation is going to find people refusing to play with them, even others like themselves. And as we all know, trolls have big appetites, and if you don’t feed them, they die fast. Even if a player doesn’t get banned for bad behavior, they are likely to wander off after being shunned completely for long enough.

Is It Just That League Has Competition Now?

The days when LoL reigned alone in the MOBA space are long, long gone. In the past several years, a number of games have come out to take a chunk of the fan-base of the genre for themselves, and this will naturally have had some impact on League, since it was once the only player in the field. In addition, many games that are nothing like traditional MOBAs but cater to some of the same aesthetics of play (such as Fortnite, for example) have come out recently, and made a name for themselves.

Not only that, but while League of Legends is still the reigning king in the esports arena (which it was largely responsible for launching), many of these new games have come to share that real estate as well. All of this means that LoL would naturally go through a bit of a stabilizing process, as its market matured and it had to deal with real competition for the first time.

So... Is League Really Dying? Not at All.

If there has been a decline in the player base (and that issue does, in fact, remain in doubt; only Riot insiders know for sure), it is likely due to a combination of all of the factors above, and represents a shift in the online game market, rather than the demise of a giant. Remember, even using the lowest numbers that I could find, League is still by far the biggest online game in the world, having an average concurrent player base equal to roughly half of the total player base of WoW. League may be settling, but it isn’t dead.

That said, League faces some challenges moving into the next decade if it is going to stay dominant in the space. Riot is going to have to focus on their core values of providing great gameplay and a good work environment if LoL is going to see it’s fifteen-year mark. Given their history, I don’t think that will be too difficult.

How Will the New Player Experience Will Shape League’s Future?

My undercover experiment to assess League with a fresh set of eyes.

New player experience is going to be one of the keys to ensuring the continued growth of League, so I decided, for the purpose of this article, to do some underground research. Despite being an experienced LoL player, I made a brand-new account, and tried to approach the game as if I were a completely new player, attempting to leave all of my old prejudices and loves regarding the game behind. I kept this experiment rather short; I only went through the tutorial and played on Co-Op vs AI match against bots on Intro difficulty.

Nevertheless, I learned a lot has changed regarding the forward-facing elements of the game for new players in the years since I played. Some of these changes are good, some of them are not so good, but I believe that valuable keys to League’s future can be gleaned from both. Read the next section if you want all of the details of my brief trip to newbie land.

The New Tutorial: Awesome Yet Broken

One of the things that old players will remember is the tutorial in the Howling Abyss. This tutorial taught players the barebones basics of the game, holding their hand the entire way. This tutorial had its flaws, but it was a great way for new players to ease into the skills needed to become a League of Legends contender. The new tutorial fixes some of the issues with the original tutorial... and creates a few others.

First, I want to talk about what the tutorial does right. It takes place in Summoner’s Rift, which feels more logical to me, since the Rift is the most popular map in League, and where the vast majority of games, both casual and pro, are played. It also gives players the opportunity to play a fairly wide variety of heroes, switching midgame merely by walking up to them on the field of battle. This too is good, in its way.

The other two missions at provided some overarching objectives; in the second one, you were supposed to learn to upgrade your abilities as you leveled up, and in the third one you were to learn about upgrading items. Each of the missions was an abbreviated version of a real match on the Rift, which I felt added to their value, but utterly failed as tutorials in that they don’t appear to actually teach the game.

All semblance of hand-holding... or indeed, instruction at all... appears to be missing. If I were not already an experienced player with a firm grasp of the game, I can say with certainty that I would have wiped out during the first of the three tutorial missions. There was no explanation of anything; not how to move, not what my objectives were, not how to make use of my abilities... nothing.

Riot would do well to either add a simple pre-tutorial tutorial that explained the core concepts of the game in a quick fashion, or at least the basic controls, or to integrate these features into the current tutorial matches. I can imagine new players now quitting a minute or two into the first tutorial mission, simply for having no idea how to proceed with the game.

What About the First Match?

This part at least was real; I have never played Darius in my life.

I don’t have a huge sample size to work with here, because I only played the one game (so far; I may actually take this account further), but the sample does have the advantage of being completely random. I was paired with four players, and posed as an ignorant newbie during the matchmaking phase. I chose to play Darius during this match, and then I decided to test the “toxicity factor”. I started the match by asking where I should play.

Now, in my experience, this is the sort of thing that would get me flamed hard in Ranked play (where I spend most of my time normally). Immediately, a player running Miss Fortune in bottom lane piped up and said, “Why don’t you come bottom with me? I’ll look out for you.” I gamely went down to bottom lane, and then the really amazing part began.

Because I was trying to pretend to be someone who didn’t know the game, I ran through all of the things that seem to set people off if you do them in Ranked play. I poke-stole Miss Fortune’s creeps, I overextended myself a couple of times and picked up a death or two (yes... against intro-level bots), and just generally tried to make myself look like an incompetent goof. Through all of this, my bottom lane partner was patient, instructive, and friendly.

I imagine that these people I was playing with were probably newish players (unless they are doing experiments like me, who else plays intro-level Co-Op AI games anymore?), but they were all friendly, polite, and graceful, and seemed genuinely eager to help me up my game. I hadn’t seen that kind of spirit in the Fields of Justice for quite some time. And if that’s the kind of people who are just coming into the game now, League isn’t poised for death, its poised for exploding in a really good way.

Conclusion

League of Legends is not a perfect game, but it has grown to be the beautiful monster that it has for good reasons. While Riot Games is going to have to step up their game as the years go by (and really needs to retool the current tutorial system), don’t believe the nay-sayers. All of the evidence points to LoL continuing to be a massive, even dominating, presence in online gaming, esports, and the MOBA space specifically, for a long time to come.

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Hailing from the barren wastelands of Massachusetts, this grizzled grumbler has spent his entire life neck-deep in gamer culture, and will happily talk about any and all geekery, any time.
Gamer Since: 1988
Favorite Genre: RPG
Currently Playing: Siralim 3
Top 3 Favorite Games:Dungeon Defenders, Guild Wars 2, League of Legends
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