Will League of Legends start to decline soon?

League of Legends’ possible bubble

This is the worst time of the year for someone like me to be writing: Worlds is over, but Season 4 previews haven’t really hit the PBE yet. There’s three weeks to be hitting ranked to try to get Season 3 rewards, but I spend a lot of time writing about trying to win ranked anyway, and with few changes occurring it’s simply a quiet time as far as theories and advice goes.

So, now’s a good time for me to do some speculating on where League is right now and where it is headed. It has been four years since it released; challengers like Dota 2 and Smite  have since released and another, EA’s Dawngate, is in beta, and yet another, Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm (previously known as Blizzard All-Stars), is in the works. The MOBA space is large and in charge, possibly the largest competitive genre, possibly larger than MMOs. It used to be that World of Warcraft and MMOs were the default games du jour, the game that everyone played, used to play, or knew someone else that played it.

League feels like that game now, and World of Warcraft certainly doesn’t. Of all the MOBAs, it probably still has the largest presence. Dota 2 is very very large, but it’s hard to measure just how many people play it worldwide; 555,000 are playing it right now, but how many users do they have? Russia alone plays much more Dota 2, and China may as well. But since most readers here are American and non-Russian European I’ll guess that League is bigger.

World of Warcraft still has 7 or 8 million subscribers. Next month it turns 9 years old. It was always an inevitability that it would change and that its base would gradually shrink until the servers close. One day that will happen for League, but it is still a very long way away. But to many, the technical point of the death of a game isn’t the important part—it’s when the game begins to decline. And for League of Legends, that point might be happening soon.

World of Warcraft’s point of decline is somewhat debatable—the peak was either in vanilla or the first expansion, the Burning Crusade, but most agree the decline definitely happened by the time Cataclysm, the third expansion, had been out for long. For some, the second expansion Wrath of the Lich King, or some point during it, is when the decline happened. That expansion released four years after WoW’s initial release.

That is where League is right now.

Of course, League of Legends and World of Warcraft aren’t the same thing. They aren’t entirely the same genre, and they don’t even use the same monetary model. But it is precisely this point which makes it more alarming. WoW still can charge 15 bucks a month, even with its fewer subscribers. For League, it’s not as clearcut. Do players spend an average of $15 a month on it? Riot is privately owned by Tencent in China, so it’s hard to tell how what the money flow is like. I’m not suggesting they’re in trouble---but I wonder if the beginning of League’s decline is around the corner.

Consider the following:

  • The American Express Serve deal
  • Coke Zero’s sponsoring of smaller Esports leagues, and the fact eSports doesn’t make money for the company
  • The controversial decision to sell Limited Skins
  • Season 3 Worlds’ failure to eclipse Season 2 Worlds
  • Fewer champions are now released
  • There are fewer markets to expand into now that there are servers in North America, Europe, Turkey, Brazil, Oceania, Korea, Southeast Asia and China; the market is getting saturated with League right now
  • The player base is perhaps increasingly becoming full of people who don’t want or need more runes, pages, champions they can’t purchase with IP, or (most importantly) skins
  • The leak of LOL Supremacy revealed it was for a card game, which is an entirely new revenue source

I may be jumping the gun on Season 3 worlds. It’s not Riot’s fault it wasn’t as interesting and fun of a matchup. Still, pay attention to whether Season 3 Worlds’ numbers get mass released in a press release, the way it did for Season 2, or if they do, what the comparison is. And look at the few estimates we have seen. Was Season 3 as big a step of growth for eSports as they hoped? 

Esports is a tough nut to crack. Why keep at it if they lose money on it? Is it really only because they hope it won’t lose money but gain it later? I would imagine they are doing the Magic: The Gathering model. If bright-eyed young people want to succeed at it they’ll drop money on the game and get hooked—the money (hopefully) comes back, just not in a way that they can quantitatively prove or track. It has probably worked. But sponsorship deals, the Limited Skins decision, the saturation, the attempt to make a card game, it adds up. They need to figure out other ways to make money. Skins might be the only consistent source right now, and that only lasts so long. Same with expanding into foreign markets—Japan might be next but how large can that be, when competitive gaming isn't popular there? Africa? More of Europe and South America?

And, there are more and more players who have all the champions and runes they want or need. This will be easier to catch up to as there are fewer champions released and the legitimate pool used in eSports is minimal.

Sterility and what the bubble might mean for Season 4

The forums and Reddit fill up with the same complaints over and over again. In Dawngate (which, I admit, has a long way to go), you can click button to say which roles you want in champion select, even if it's blind, non-draft pick (which is all it has so far). If you’re the support you can actually get the most gold, and it’s not in an overpowered way! And there’s no stale vision fights, where the person with the most gold wins simply because they can buy more wards. Each person gets one free ward with a 180 second cooldown. That’s it. There is also only simply “power” and “mastery” for offensive stats, which is shared by both physical and magical champs, hopefully reducing balance complexity. The map has two lanes and is more symmetrical. Their Baron Nashor (the Parasite) has a circular area. In fact, most who have enjoyed Dota 2 or Smite at all find support to be more fun there too.

My point is, there have always been challengers looking to provide something new and different, and now we're at the point where there are challengers that are basically trying to be like League but better, as Dawngate, despite its new ideas, is more of a League clone, a "we have something similar but better" game rather than a "this game is different." One of the WoW clones that WoW borrowed a lot from was Warhammer Online. In it, features like auto-grouping or quest-shading on maps made it much easier to get quests done. Somewhat soon after that came out,  WoW did it. Did Warhammer beat WoW? Did Rift? No, it was too big to beat. Warhammer is shutting down soon, in fact. But Warhammer Online came out in September 2008…right before Wrath of the Lich King.

In League, you notice the same things over and over again. Support can’t carry or kill (or can only kill early, but hopefully doesn't), and it's the least popular role by far. Champions with high CC and/or mobility are the strongest, until their ratios are nerfed so hard or tweaked so frequently they become average/decent (Thresh, Nautilus) or unpopular and unplayable, especially at the pro level (Alistar, Jayce). This is why so many of the original champions had to be reworked, and it's still an ongoing process. Fighting in pregame chats ruin the game beforehand. Masteries and runes are hardly exciting because the same ones are almost always the best.

The strongest items are quickly discovered (Black Cleaver, Warmog’s, Runic Bulwark, Crystalline Flask, 13 pot start, Red Elixir, Blade of the Ruined King, Spirit of the Elder Lizard) and then nerfed. Plenty of new or retuned items are useless and never a good buy if you're playing at the most optimum level (see in no particular order: Black Cleaver, Ghostblade, Eleisa's Miracle, Wriggle's Lantern, Shard of True Ice, Executioner's Calling, Wit's End, Mikael's Crucible, Sword of the Divine, Atma's, Banner of Command, Zeke's Herald, Guinsoo's Rageblade, Runaan's Hurricane, Zephyr, Ohmwrecker, Maw of Malmortius, Frozen Mallet, Mercurial Scimitar). Stabs in the dark! The item remake was, on the whole, a failure. While it isn't completely and horribly imbalanced now, the limitations of the item set are about the same. The best thing they did was remove Heart of Gold and introduce Sightstone, but they feel like drops in the bucket. Check out some of this old stuff. Some are brought up, like Spirit of the Ancient Golem and Tri-Force, then there’s a level that is finally acceptable (though who knows, maybe they’ll never get Triforce down pat), somewhere in the second half of the season. That is, the best items are consistently the best, but at a rate that the balance team can live with.

Season 3 definitely made improvements. Sightstone was nice, the machete items are nice, but the game feels essentially the same again soon enough. Part of League’s design choices when it was first made had very, very long-lasting ramifications, the kind it would be almost impossible for them to have seen. Now they feel perhaps that they’ve programmed themselves into a corner. A new symmetrical map would be nice. Item overhauls would be nice. The role queue IS nice, but when will it hit ranked? How well will it work? Will it be enough? If it works out that would be very good news indeed, and I can then say I told you so with my petty, slight bitterness. With the inconsistency of their champion designs and their pigeon-holing of champions into certain roles, it really might best if they made item sets that can ONLY be purchased by the jungler, and another for the support, who are both selected by team consensus before the game (or, at the very least, can only be currently selected by one person at a time). The other three can buy all the damage and take all the cs they want, because people rarely complain about being top, mid, or ad, even if they don’t want or like those roles.

I am not an expert on the game. I think I know more than the average player. I heard about League when someone from Riot’s PR team contacted me on Facebook back in 2008 and waited ten months for my late beta invite. I’m invested in MOBAs. I’m invested in League of Legends most of all. But if next season turns out to be as small of a difference as Season 3 was to Season 2, that investment will probably drop dramatically. And I’d wager I’m not the only one that feels that way.


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