Meg “Megito” Kay asks an important question. Is Riot Games’ recent approach to champion design in League of Legends leading to a lack of personality?
On March 26, League of Legends released a trailer for the newest addition to its champion roster. This trailer featured a cute yet unnerving doll, imbued with the soul of the woman who sewed her. Immediately, the community was rife with theories as to what this new champion design would look like, and what her links would be to the wider world of League’s lore. Would she be the scorned lover of the Ruined King, Viego? Was she somehow related to Isolde, the mysterious seamstress who had been teased in a leak from a data miner earlier in the year?
When Gwen’s champion model was finally released, however, the community was divided. She was not the creepy, animated doll that many players had been expecting. The unnerving atmosphere of her initial trailers had culminated in an in-game model that was remarkably similar to many of League’s existing champions. A slender, pretty, pale, humanoid female.
Parts of the community were instantly enamoured with Gwen’s design- with fan art, fan cams, skin design concepts and general outpourings of love coming almost as soon as the champion was released.
However, there were others who were disappointed with the repetitive nature of Riot’s designs. Reddit threads began to emerge criticising how similar she was to Riot’s default female design. Although much of the outcry died down after the first few days of Gwen’s reveal, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there is a percentage of Riot’s player base that has become tired of the similarity in its champions.
Riot’s champion demographics
In order to understand some of the issues surrounding Gwen’s release, we must first look back to Riot’s recent champion design history. In 2020, League received five new champions in its roster. Those champions were, in order of release, Sett, Lilia, Yone, Samira, Seraphine, and Rell. Although initially, these champions share little in common, from playstyle to lore, a closer examination reveals a common truth that runs throughout each. They are all conventionally attractive and youthful-looking, with perfect physiques and generally eurocentric features.
This in itself is not an inherent problem. If this design is the design that consumers find appealing, then logically that Riot will continue producing it. That’s a simple economic choice, and ultimately Riot Games has to function as a business first. Creating beautiful champions is not an issue, but the slow homogenisation of League’s champion pool is. Where once League was full of Void monsters, cute furry Yordles, and sinister creatures from the Shadow Isles, it is slowly becoming more and more homogenised to a beauty standard that simply doesn’t apply or hold and relevancy to a large amount of its player base.
Riot has not released a non-humanoid champion since the middle of 2019, when Yuumi, the Magical Cat, joined League. There is an argument to be made for Lilia as a non-humanoid champion with her centaur-esque design, but a large part of her champion model is that of a ‘pretty’ human female. The last time Riot released a more ‘monstrous’ champion design was all the way back in 2017 with Ornn- and even then, Ornn is a far cry from the Cho’Gath’s and Dr Mundo’s that were on the initial roster of champions released alongside League’s original launch.
Official response from Riot dev to champion design
In the responses to a Reddit thread for Gwen’s release, head designer Ryan “Reav3” Mireles confirmed that the Riot team would no longer be focusing on creating monstrous champions. He explained that this was down to the relatively low pick rates and popularities of these champions.
What does this mean for League’s champion diversity?
But what do these changes in design philosophy mean for League as a whole? Is every champ we see from now ongoing to be a simple carbon copy of Gwen, Sett, and the countless other attractively humanoid champions for which the game has become so renowned? The answer to that question entirely depends on one thing- League’s adherence, or lack thereof, to its lore.
League of Legends takes place in the fictional continent of Runeterra. A world separated into factions and cities, each champion has their own unique origin from a place somewhere in the Runterran world. Much like real life, Runeterra is an incredibly diverse place- except unlike real life, that diversity involves giant beings made of shadow (Thresh) tiny furry mech-pilots (Rumble) and anthropomorphised rats with crossbows (Twitch). The fantastical nature of League’s lore is inherently built to encourage character diversity.
However, the lore is not important to a large majority of League’s player base. The fact that the surrounding story of the game is completely irrelevant to the game itself means that the majority of League’s player base will have played for multiple years without ever knowing the backgrounds of their favourite champions. This is part of what has driven Riot towards more pretty, humanoid, champions. Players do not care about where and how a champion fits into League’s universe. They want a champion who is aesthetically pleasing, easily cosplayable, and has a wide variety of opportunities for skins.
Take the Yordles, for example. Hailing from the fictional world of Bandle City, they are cute, furry creatures with a kick-ass attitude- and we haven’t seen a new Yordle since the release of Kled, all the way back in 2016. They’re a key and well-loved part of League’s lore, yet they’ve been largely ignored in the past five years of champion releases- because ‘cute’ as a design feature just doesn’t move enough champion sales to make it a justifiable avenue for future champions.
In a Riot developer stream at the start of 2021, Reav3 confirmed that League would be seeing a new Yordle in 2021. However, it might just be a case of too little, too late for those who want to return to League’s days of diverse champion releases.
What can Riot do regarding champion design?
Ultimately, if Riot wants to make people care about non-human champions, then they also need to make people care about their lore. Particularly now that each new line of skins comes with its own alternate universe, the original world of League is left with little integration into the actual game itself. There have been attempts to bring the lore to the fanbase in a more accessible form- with Riot releasing a comic book alongside Marvel detailing the story of Lux, one of League’s most popular champions.
In a game like League, which is so focused on skill, it’s undeniably difficult to incorporate elements of the story without taking away from the gameplay experience. However, Riot has seen great success in both their cinematics and the aforementioned comic series- currently, the majority of League’s cinematics sit at above five million views. The most viewed has over 92 million views.
Character design doesn't need to be wild just different
The fact of the matter is that Riot doesn’t even need to be making a ten-headed, snake-skinned Eldritch monster to be breaking the mold with their game design. Champions like Singed, Illaoi, Annie, Gragas, and Taliyah are all humanoid champions with interesting designs and unconventional body types. They’re creatively designed, interesting, and they much better represent the body types of an actual group of humans with diverse skill sets and fighting styles.
Rather than just being conventionally attractive, their body types and faces tell part of their stories as champions. Singed, the experimental chemist is thin, pale, and bent double from years working with dangerous chemicals bent over a darkened laboratory table. Illaoi, the warrior priestess, has arms the size of tree trunks for carrying the sheer tonnage of her god’s stone idol. Annie’s tiny, childish form, contrasts the sheer force of her magical abilities, and perfectly displays the traumatic duality of a child given the power of life and death that many adults struggle to bear.
This is the way to make people care about champions that are not ‘pretty’. Give them a story that matters, and then do the work to promote that story in a way that players will genuinely care about. If that means releasing fewer champions, and making each release something truly special, with its own highly-produced cinematic, then so be it. However, with the personalities of champions being essentially irrelevant to League’s gameplay, it appears as though aesthetics will continue to be the main priority for champion design heading forward.