Riot’s Champion Design Tendencies
It’s hard not to be a bit overwhelmed whenever a new champion is released. It’s not that they’re uninteresting. On the contrary — they’re exciting, thought-out, visually appealing with deep fascinating backstories and they’re often entertaining to play. But, at the same time, they’re overpowered, have insanely stacked ability kits and have the potential to turn the meta on its head. That’s the Riot Games Champion design style in a nutshell.
After all, when was the last time they released a champion that had little impact on the way the game is played? When was the last time a champion release went “under the radar?”
A Look at The Champions
The only champion on the list that wasn’t horrendously overpowered upon release would have to be Ivern, the Green Father. Over the next three full years, Riot has released numerous champions that filled many diverse roles and categories, and every one of them came out too strong. Now, to their credit, they nerfed some faster than others, but the point still stands. Perhaps most importantly, they all had highly unique abilities that became incredibly valuable in casual, and especially professional play.
The trajectory of a new champion release is pretty much a cliché at this point.
The new champion is released on the PBE (Public Beta Environment). Players point out too many of the inherent flaws that said champion possesses. Riot ignores most of it and ships the champion in such an overpowered state regardless of feedback. It then takes about a week or two for the general public to start clamoring for nerfs because the latest champion has been dominating solo queue beyond measure. Riot responds by (mostly) nerfing their latest release to the ground.
They then proceed to fine-tune the champion on a weekly/monthly basis until the result is somewhat acceptable. And often, they don’t even manage to strike a balance, and it’s not for lack of trying. When you pack a champion with everything but the kitchen sink, it’s downright impossible to release nuanced adjustments and make them into a stable, consistent performer that’s not going to take over the game.
Every champion listed in the screenshot below (with Kayn and Ivern being the only two exceptions) completely re-defined the meta in some way, shape or form. We’ve seen just how much priority teams put on Qiyana and Yuumi. We all remember the days when Sylas, Neeko, and Pyke either had to be picked or banned in the first rotation (much like Pantheon and Qiyana are right now). Ornn was a staple pick in the top lane for the longest time, Zoe was — and still is — one of the most despised champions in the game, whereas Kai’Sa, Xayah and Rakan are still must-pick champions even years after their release.
There’s very little reason to play older champions as they’re simply more balanced and provide less when compared to any newer release.
This is far from a coincidence. Riot has a worrying tendency to imbue their champions with too many impactful abilities. And even if they release a relatively balanced champion, it’s only a matter of time before someone figures out an ingenious tactic and abuses said inherent champion power.
As a result, we got an untargetable support that can eventually one-shot enemy targets (Yuumi), a durable anti-mage who can single-handedly decide the outcome of the game by stealing enemy ultimates (Sylas), a Lethality-based support that can execute the entire enemy team (as if a pull, Camouflage, dash and a stun weren’t enough), a mage that can one-shot most targets without ever coming near them (Zoe), and so on.
And while these champions might be engaging from a spectator’s perspective, they’re absolute nightmares to contain in-game when piloted by a skilled player. If you’re worse than your opponent, then, of course, you’re supposed to lose, but the difference between your champions (i.e. one being horrendously overpowered and the other balanced) shouldn’t be as monumental. We’re not even talking about counter matchups or anything of such kind. Instead, we’re talking about champions that are often too strong regardless of their lane opponent and team comp. They function within a vacuum and are incredibly dangerous, no matter the setting or context.
The Debut of Senna
All of this brings us to Senna, Riot’s latest release that also happens to encapsulate the champion design tendencies of Riot Games perfectly. Now, it’s fair to say that there’s a ton to like about Senna. She’s a fascinating character that has deep ties with League’s lore, we’ve known of her existence for years, she’s an intriguing mix between a support and marksman. She is a champion Riot had in the pipeline for quite a while. They wanted to get this one right and — to a certain extent — they certainly did. But once you scratch beneath the surface, you start to notice that ever-present trend with each new release.
Senna’s Q is, at once, both a damaging ability but also a heal. Her W is a delayed snare that can target multiple enemies. Her E grants camouflage to both herself as well as her entire team (given that they enter the mist, that is). And her ultimate? A global skillshot that both shield allies and damages opponents, with the beam being wider than a standard Summoner’s Rift lane.
If you saw this ability kit on Reddit from an unknown user, you would probably think that it’s: a) a creative set of abilities; and b) disgustingly powerful, which means it would never see the light of day.
And yet it did.
And how Riot is going to nerf her (should the need arise) are immediately evident. They’re going to hit her E and limit the number of targets it can camouflage. Perhaps they’ll also shorten the duration of the mist itself as well if it remains powerful enough post-nerf. And they’re going to have a field day with her ultimate. They’ll have their hands full with the width of the ultimate, the shielding/damaging ratios, and maybe — just maybe — they might make it semi-global. Which, to be fair, it should have been from the very get-go.
These might sound like overly dramatic predictions, but they’re nothing out of the ordinary, and we’ve seen such deep changes on many prior occasions.
Galio can no longer flash while charging his taunt (W), one of his flashiest and most exciting “combos.” By the same token, his ultimate no longer provides damage reduction to the targeted ally champion. It was one of the most important aspects of his kit as it not only allowed for great “outplay” potential but also had direct ties to his lore and overall concept. By all accounts, the current Galio we have is a pale shadow of his former self and is ten times less fun to play.
The same thing happened with Irelia’s disarm and Akali’s micro-stun and turret invulnerability while shrouded, to name a few. Whenever Riot realizes they gave a champion too many tools, they’re not afraid to flat-out remove them, for better or worse.
And finally, let’s not forget Rakan. Upon release, he was spectacular. The speed at which you could traverse the Summoner’s Rift was nothing short of mesmerizing, and once those huge five-on-five team fights broke out, you could zip through the entire screen in a split of a second.
Xayah Stixxay and Aphromoo Rakan Insane Wombo Combo
Blink once and you’d miss it.
But after numerous nerfs and changes, you can no longer pull off such a feat. At least not in the way it was originally intended.
Now, no one’s claiming that Senna is an easy champion, or that she doesn’t have a high skill ceiling. There’s going to be a lot of skill expression between Senna players across League’s ranked ladder. But the fact that she can do too much at any point in time still stands. It’s also fair to assume that players are bound to find an ingenious way to squeeze out every bit of power from her overloaded kit through creative item builds and Rune choices.
It is an alarming trend, and one glance at Senna’s ability kit is all you need to get worried. In a way, we don’t know what’s worse. The fact that she’s bound to become a must-pick or must-ban kind of champion in professional play, or the fact that Riot is going to slowly (but surely) remove certain aspects of her kit as they realize that she’s downright impossible to balance.
The fact that each new Riot champion design finds a home within the world of competitive League isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, Riot’s standards and overall philosophy on how to design a champion changed over time, and that’s a natural thing. But if it comes as a result from an unhealthy design process, then no one will benefit.
If you take a break from the game (for whatever reason) and come back after a couple of months, there’s a good chance you’d find yourself playing a slightly different champion. I got Ryze in a game of ARAM a couple of weeks ago and thought, “hey, I know Ryze, no need to re-roll.” It didn’t take long before I realized that I couldn’t hit my combos because his W “Rune Prison” is no longer a snare but rather a 35% slow (that lasts 1.5s). Not much of a prison if it slows that much for that short of a duration.
It’s hard to say who’s getting the short end of the stick as well. Is it the casuals? The players who invest their time and money into the game and have been doing so for years? Or the professional players who must read through the bi-weekly patch notes like their lives depend on it.
Some speculate that all of this is happening because of profit. And, while there’s no palpable evidence that can back such a claim, it does make a fair bit of sense. A lot of people want to win and picking up the latest and greatest champions will probably give them a higher chance of doing so. Some will grind the Blue Essence, which is necessary to unlock these picks. Others, however, will shell out and buy them immediately upon release. Add in a potential skin or two (or perhaps one of those flashy Prestige Edition variants which scream “exclusivity”) and you’re suddenly spending a fair bit of money.
Be that as it may, the outcome is almost always negative, and it affects everyone involved. Now, no one’s against Riot making revenue. On the contrary, they deserve every bit of it after keeping the game free-to-play for so long. But they should, instead, be creating revenue through other avenues — ones that don’t affect millions upon millions of players who enjoy the game daily (or at least try to).
And yes, Riot always can nerf a champion to the ground with a swift hotfix, but that’s beside the point. Not all champions are created with the same goal in mind; therefore not all of them can have the same amount of power. Instead, it is the thought process that’s at fault here. It is as if Riot champion designers are doing things the other way around. They seem to be thinking of as many insane abilities as possible and then “trimming the fat” until the champion is relatively balanced, instead of designing from the ground up and then (with time and effort) reaching such a balanced threshold.
The champion design tendencies of Riot Games aren’t the end of the world, but they do complicate things considerably. It makes the game less fun and way less balanced than it needs to be. With such a humongous champion roster (that’s only getting bigger and bigger), Riot needs to make intelligent choices when it comes to champion design. They can no longer justify releasing overpowered champions and should know better after so many years.