TBSkyen: Rating The Universe — reviewing Riot’s approach to lore creation and curation

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“In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded.” – Terry Pratchett

The state of League of Legends lore is perhaps best described as “spotty.” The drive for constant content releases — especially champions, who each demand their own compelling backstory — has forced a rapid expansion in the number of ongoing storylines and subplots, but has not always left the time and space and resources to follow up on or resolve them.

Riot has attempted multiple solutions to this problem over the years — from the long-abandoned Journal of Justice fictional newspaper to annual lore events — but alas, League has become littered with unresolved narratives and abandoned character arcs. (When did we last hear about the mysterious catburglar Caitlyn is ostensibly focused on tracking down? What does VI really stand for and is she Jinx’s sister, dammit?!)

Besides presenting frustrating dead-ends for lore buffs like me, it’s also a spanner in the works for League of Legends’ development as a product.

To make an apple pie from scratch, first you must invent the universe

To give an example, suppose that Riot does what the League subreddit has long been asking and puts thousands of hours and potentially millions of dollars into creating and developing cinematic shorts for the League universe. Then, three years later, they’ve introduced seven new champions whose lore and connections cause major plot holes in their old stories, or reworked champions so that their ability kits no longer match what’s shown in old stories. Worst case scenario is you end up with a situation where new champions can’t interact with or be connected to any other champions or their lore for fear of plot holes. Or, equally frustrating, you force the game to enter a DC Comics-like cycle of endless retcons and reboots to try and square the expanding roster of circles.

Lore development is a tricky subject in an ever-evolving media property, and it is not, perhaps, any great surprise that when Riot unveils fresh lore they prefer to keep it local (regional lore events featuring only characters connected to those places) and keep it personal (Shen, Zed and Jhin are connected, but their lore has not particularly involved fellow ninjas Akali and Kennen, or the other Ionia champions). They also prefer to keep it bookended; lore in League of Legends tends to happen in bursts, whether through a flurry of media accompanying new champions, or in major lore events like Burning Tides, which take place over a few weeks, resolve themselves and leave little lasting impact except through whatever in-game content was released through them (skins, champion updates, etc.). On a day-to-day basis, there is very little “story” happening in the franchise, very few connections present in the game connecting it back to lore and lore events passed.

That has created a notable problem where each burst of media release tends to become segregated to its own little moment in time. Event sites and showcases are created, released, and then once they fall off the front page of reddit, they promptly vanish into the ether, with Google the only convenient way of reaching them. And if you are a new player, not aware that these lore events happened, that those short stories and comics and cinematics are available to read and enjoy? Tough luck; you can’t google what you don’t know exists.

Reviewing the universe

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Enter, the Universe, a slickly-designed, feature-filled hub to unify all of Riot’s lore content in a single, easily accessible place — a place to enshrine and display like a museum the totality of the League of Legends mythos and give equal access for all to its treasures and secrets. This, at least, is the ideal to which the Universe aspires, according to product manager Justin Shull’s introductory article. Does the Universe live up to these lofty ambitions? Well, to a point.

Head to the front page of the Universe (what a sentence!) and you are confronted with a scrolling list of featured content. Scroll down and you are shown a section called “latest” tiled with images and titles of content. Scroll further and you find “trending,” then “featured champions” and “featured regions.” The site is visually appealing and the content on display of a high quality, but the browsing experience is taxing on your scroll wheel and disjointed. Content is put slickly on display with little to no context about what it is or why a reader might be interested. In fact, often it barely even explains what it is, putting the onus on the visitor to click through its sliding tiles to find out what “Visions of Demacia” actually means/

The section for Regions is similarly ambiguous. Demacia, Noxus, Ionia and the Void are all nicely displayed in the Regions section, but again without any indication of which champions or lore belong to it, or what one might find when clicking to explore it. Clicking onto the regions’ individual pages you are given a brief blurb of text describing the place, a loosely organized list of content associated with it, and a list of champions belonging to it. This story repeats in the Champions section. An alphabetic tiled list of champions appears with faction association underneath the name, but at 130+ champions released for the game so far, getting to any champion whose name does not begin with A, B or C becomes a rather exhausting scroll, with no option to organize the list by faction association, release date or character relationships.

Individual champion pages themselves are laid out much like Regions: a brief blurb of text and an option to read the biography and then loosely organized lists of associated content. Some champions have “art galleries”, some have lists of “concept art” and some have “featured images” and “featured videos.” Some champions only have single images on their profiles, while others have substantial amounts of content to explore, but common to all of them is that spending any amount of time exploring their pages requires a lot of scrolling. Very strangely, there is no option anywhere to view or download high-resolution versions of champions’ skins and splash arts – only the base splashes appear, cropped and darkened, at the top of each page. This is made even stranger by the fact that it omits content like Legendary and Ultimate Skins (which often have lore and content attached to them), and skin lines like Star Guardians, which have multiple videos and pieced of music (as well as a very promising, fan-run webcomic — forgive the self promotion) associated with their internal lore.

Finally, the search function. As it stands, it allows a user to search regions and champions and — that’s it. Regions and champions. None of the other content on the site (videos, art pieces, short stories, lore events) is searchable, not even by specific titles like “Shadow and Fortune” or “Get Jinxed.”

The League of Legends Universe, though a gorgeously presented, slickly designed hub site, has some serious flaws as a unifying, accessible archive. There is plenty of content available, and most of that content is high quality and worth your time exploring, but finding that content is frustratingly unintuitive. There is no simple way to simply browse the short stories, videos or music, and the site is despairingly sparse with guidance for its visitors about where what is and how to browse for it, leading to a lot of rather aimless, fruitless clicking and scrolling. The disparity of available content for each region is also notable: just like some champions have much more associated content than others, certain regions like Demacia and Noxus have (absolutely gorgeous) art pieces and music and writing associated with their pages, while Bandle City and The Void have little more than a blurb to their pages.

The Universe is a beta, and it shows. The problems of unequal content between champions and regions will likely be alleviated as Riot adds things from its substantial backlogs, and Riot is actively soliciting feedback for the site, but as it stands this is only the barest beginnings of a true League of Legends Archive. I encourage anyone who has read this article to go and give feedback, and offer suggestions for improvement. I happen to know that Riot’s hardworking internal archivists are working on tools to make this possible for Riot’s own employees (who, going by anecdotal evidence, are often as confused about the particulars of game lore as the general player base), and hopefully some of those efforts will rub off on the Universe.

But what is lore to League of Legends?

To pull the perspective way out wide: A coherent, engaging and accessible lore is crucial to League’s future as a franchise. If it is to become a lasting cultural landmark, like Star Wars or Pokémon, then like Star Trek before it, that survival is contingent on an audience that knows, understands, and, most importantly, engages with the stories that the game is trying to tell. With Riot both slow to follow up on its story threads and notoriously unwilling to license its IP for outsiders to expand upon, they must make major strides toward consolidating their lore into a unified, understandable whole.

Personally, the thing that strikes me the most about the state of League of Legends’ lore is how little narrative fan art it produces — how few stories its fans tell about its universe. Its page on Fanfiction.net boasts barely over 3,300 submissions, which is certainly a lot of text, but it is eclipsed by, among many others, the following franchises:

  • CSI New York (10.6K)
  • Super Smash Bros (11.8K)
  • Thunderbirds (3.5K)
  • Inception (3.9K)
  • The 2009 Star Trek reboot (13.6K)
  • Left 4 Dead (3.4K)
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians (69.9K)
  • How To Train Your Dragon (14.8K)
  • Resident Evil (11.8K)
  • Law and Order SVU (14.8K)
  • Final Fantasy X-2 (3.5K)
  • Devil May Cry (5.4K)

Now consider that League of Legends boasts almost 100 million monthly players, 100 million people who are exposed to its stories, voice lines, aesthetics, universe and merchandise. And yet it’s beaten out by three different versions of CSI (main series, New York and Miami), Final Fantasy X-2 and the limited sub-genre of Buffy the Vampire Slayer crossover stories (4.3K) for the number of times people were inspired to attempt to use its world tell their own stories. That’s concerning, especially for a game with more than 130 characters and several novels worth of lore and backstory and character conflict already published for consumption.

Now, fan fiction is of course a limited genre of fan works, and certainly some media are more geared toward encouraging it than others, but go on r/LoLFanart or deviantART or even Riot’s own recently launched Fanart Showcase and the story repeats itself: for all the fan art that’s being produced, almost none of it concerns itself with League of Legends’ lore. The overwhelming majority of pieces are about, “Here’s this champion looking cool/badass/cute/sexy/beautiful/scary,” but the lore, the relationships, the character arcs, the quests, the motivations — these things are noticeably absent.

You may ask: Why is this so important? Surely if the gameplay is good and the balance patches don’t break everything, then the lore is just gravy! Well, that’s rather like saying about Star Wars that if the lightsaber fights are cool then who cares if the story is terrible (a mindset that the prequels proved disastrously wrong). If the gameplay is good, then League as a property will last for exactly as long as it takes a game with better gameplay to come along. But if the stories are good, if the characters are compelling, if people can find mirrors of who they are in the characters on their screen, then League of Legends will have a chance to go down in history as more than just a 2010s pastime.

Plus, seriously, I can’t be the only one who wants a League of Legends anime. I mean come on, Riot, it’s so perfect for it.

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