Gotta Go Fast: The Evolution of League of Legends Game Pacing

Coming back to League of Legends after a break of five years is a strange experience. After playing virtually nothing else from 2010 to 2013, I burned out on League gameplay in the biggest way imaginable, and while I continued to follow the competitive scene by watching the professional teams on Twitch and YouTube, I didn't play a game of League myself for almost five full years. That's a long time to be out of the loop and I was grateful that my account wasn't deleted due to inactivity over that span. Many of the champion skins that I have from 2010 and 2011 are now pretty rare - can I get a shoutout for that Silver Kayle skin on a champion I never play?

Anyway, the point is that I essentially leaped from the beginning of Season Four in 2014 to the beginning of Season Nine in 2019 without experiencing any of the intervening steps along the way. I was therefore uniquely positioned to discuss the changes that had taken place to the gameplay over that span of time. What I found was that a typical game of League of Legends was noticeably faster in 2019 than it had been back in 2010 or 2013. An average game of League typically lasted about 30-35 minutes back when I had been playing in earlier seasons; at the beginning of Season Nine, the average game time had dropped to something more in the area of 25 minutes, and if that doesn't sound like a big difference, it most certainly was. The laning phase in particular ended much faster in these new games, almost always finished by the 15 minute mark. I've gone back and watched my old YouTube videos, and it wasn't unusual for the laning phase to last until the 20 minute mark, or even the 25 minute mark in those earlier eras. In Season Nine, the teams would be contesting Baron Nashor by that point and getting ready to push into the enemy base for a climactic ending to the game.

So what happened to change things? Why are the League of Legends games so much shorter now? I'm not exactly breaking new ground by pointing this out, but the designers at Riot Games have systematically made changes to the gameplay to engineer a faster pace and more decisive finishes. There's far more gold in the game and items are cheaper than they used to be, causing champions to hit their key items faster and snowball games harder. Damage has been increased across the board, faster than defensive itemization can keep up, resulting in faster and more conclusive teamfights that end games more readily. In every respect, Riot has been pushing the gameplay towards faster, shorter matches of League. There's a reason for this, which we'll get to in a bit. First though, let's walk through some of the changes that have been made over the last few seasons and explore how they've herded players into consistently speedier games.

Map Changes

Summoner's Rift has undergone a number of changes over the last five years that work together to funnel more gold into the hands of players and snowball games to faster conclusions. Let's start with some of the most basic changes: the addition of more neutral monster camps. Each side of the map added the Gromp camp which was not present back in the classic era of Seasons Two and Three. Having another neutral monster camp presents another source of income for the junglers, or later on for any champion who might happen to be walking past the area where the camp spawns. Even though the Gromp is the camp worth the lowest gold amount, obviously having four "small" camps on each side of the map as opposed to three "small" camps is a noticeable increase in total jungle income. Then there's a second added camp in the form of the Rift Scuttlers that move about on the river. The Rift Scuttler scales up very quickly in gold value throughout the game, starting at 70 gold and exceeding 100 gold by the 10 minute mark, creating yet another source of income. In fact, the scuttlers are so valuable that they commonly serve as another source of conflict, with both junglers frequently contesting the initial spawn of the scuttle crabs. If there's a fight, then the winner will score kill gold and have more money in their pocket; if not, whoever claims the uncontested scuttler will also have more gold to spend. Either way, it's more money than what was available in earlier game versions.

The Rift Herald is another addition to the gameplay that works to speed up each match. It creates an objective on the map prior to the appearance of Baron Nashor for teams to fight over, and the side that scores the Rift Herald gains a powerful tool for pushing over towers. Back in earlier versions of League of Legends, winning a midgame teamfight would often mean claiming a tower. If your side wins the same midgame teamfight and has the Rift Herald in tow, it's easy to claim two towers while the other team is reviving, sometimes three towers. I routinely see inhibitors falling prior to 20 minutes thanks to the Rift Herald in Season Nine, which was exceptionally rare back when I was playing earlier. This is not to say that the addition of the Rift Herald is a bad thing - I think it's good to have another objective for teams to contest on the other side of the map from the Dragon spawning area - but there's no avoiding the fact that it does speed up games by a clear margin.

Speaking of the dragons, the creation of the elemental drakes a few years ago created the opportunity to add additional bonuses to champions that help to further accelerate winning teams further ahead. The Infernal Drakes are the best example of this, with their percentage bonus to attack damage (AD) and ability power (AP), and the amount of that bonus was increased even further in Season Nine. The current bonus is 10% additional AD and AP for the first Infernal Drake, up to a maximum of 24% with three stacked dragons of that type. But the other dragon types are useful in their own fashions too, whether it's the Mountain Drake making it easier to kill towers and Barons, or the Ocean Drake providing health and mana sustain to keep pushes going longer, or the Cloud Drake for faster movement around the map. If everyone in the game is moving faster, well, that's the most basic way possible to have shorter games! Dragons also spawn faster than ever before, every 5 minutes as opposed to every 6 minutes, creating more opportunities to stack up these champion bonuses and make it more difficult for a losing team to stall out the game. Should a game reach the 35 minute mark, the addition of the Elder Dragon provides another way for a leading team to polish off their opponents. The Elder Dragon + Baron combination together is almost impossible to stop; the days of CLG EU stalling out a game to 70 minutes with endless wave clear are long since dead and buried.

The Baron buff itself was also changed as compared to earlier seasons of League. While it still grants 40 AD and 40 AP to champions, the health and mana regen that the Baron used to provide have been replaced with an aura that buffs nearby minions to make them much stronger. The current Baron buff makes it very difficult to stop pushes into the enemy base, especially with the cannon minions which remain outside of tower range and continue to take potshots at structural defenses. Clearing the buffed Baron minions is an arduous task and it's far harder to stall out a Baron push than it used to be. For that matter, the minions themselves do more damage in Season Nine than they used to, and the cannon minions spawn more frequently. They start appearing in every other wave after 15 minutes, and in every wave after 25 minutes. Minions with higher damage, often buffed by Baron Nasher, contribute to this general trend of games coming to a conclusion in shorter times.

Finally, there are other map additions that increase movement from place to place. The Speed Shrines that appear after killing the Rift Scuttlers are the most obvious example, providing a miniature Ghost effect for friendly champions that move through the center of the river. (It's a little like the speed shrine on the old Dominion map - who out there remembers Dominion?) The addition of the Blast Cones allow players to hop over walls instead of walking around them, adding more mobility that doesn't require Flash or individual champion abilities. The net effect is the same thing that we've been seeing again and again: faster movement leading to shorter games. No one step is huge on its own, but the net effect of so many small changes to Summoner's Rift is unmistakeable. And the changes to the gameplay go far beyond the map itself; let's look next at some of the changes to runes and itemization added over the course of the last few years.

Item and Rune Changes

Changes in itemization have been slow moving over the last decade of League of Legends, but they've been trending in the same direction: more stats at lower gold cost. Although the context of what the numbers mean on an individual stat obvioulsy depends on the wider framework of the gameplay in that particular patch version, I'll provide some examples here to demonstrate. Note that it's difficult to find exact numbers on League of Legends items from years and years in the past, so a lot of this is coming from my own memory. Let's start with the most basic item that adds attack damage: the Long Sword. For a very long time in the earlier seasons, this item had the same price: 400 gold for +10 AD. At the beginning of Season Nine as I write this, the same Long Sword costs 350 gold for +10 AD (12% cheaper for the same benefit). That makes a real difference, and as the base item that most AD items build out of, this cheaper price for more AD flows through to everything else. How about the BF Sword? It traditionally cost 1800 gold for +50 AD (36 gold per 1 AD), and in the current patch version that's been reduced to 1300 gold for +40 AD (32 gold per 1 AD). At the upper end of AD itemization, Infinity Edge used to cost slightly over 4000 gold for completion, and while it has slightly different stats in the current patch, the total cost for completion is now 3400 gold. All of these AD items are slightly cheaper and faster to build than they used to be.

With that overview in mind for some of the AD items, what about the stuff used by casters going the AP route? Thanks to my old Annie Guide from Season Two, I have exact numbers on some of the AP items from seven years ago. Catalyst previously cost 1325 gold and now it costs 1100 gold; Rod of Ages cost 3035 gold and now it costs 2700 gold. While the numbers are slightly different on the health, mana, and AP granted by these items, the same trend holds true here that we saw with the AD items. (Technically speaking, Rod of Ages grants less health and mana as compared to before, but has a new "Eternity" unique passive that grants back health and mana which previously did not exist.) I distinctly remember that completing a Rod of Ages before the 20 minute mark was considered to be "good" back in early League versions. Now the expectation is that a Rod of Ages needs to be finished by 12 or 13 minutes or else it's considered to be "late", and the item has fallen out of favor for this very reason. What's the point of buying an item that needs 10 minutes to stack up to the full benefit when roughly half of all games are wrapping up by the 25 minute mark?

However, the larger problem isn't the price point of the same items that existed previously. The bigger issue with itemization comes in the form of newer items that overload stats at cheaper price points. For AP casters, the biggest issue at the moment is Luden's Echo, which provides 90 AP, 600 mana, 20% cooldown reduction, and the "Echo" wave-clearing unique passive on spellcasts, all for a price of 3200 gold. This item is way too good, far in excess of what champions could get for that same price point in earlier patches, and therefore pretty much everyone builds it at the moment. For bruisers, Trinity Force has been packed full of more stats than ever and at a reduced cost (it's currently 3733 gold whereas it used to be over 4000 gold). In the jungle, the various enchantments allow champions to become far more powerful than the old Madred's Razor and Wriggle's Lantern ever allowed. In particular, the stat most affected by these item changes is probably cooldown reduction (CDR), which seems to be everywhere nowadays. Traditionally, CDR was relatively rare and limited to a handful of items in each role, mostly support and AP items along with a handful of tanky stuff like Glacial Shroud. Now everything seems to have CDR on it; the stat is present on everything from Ancient Coin to Sheen to Lost Chapter to Caulfield's Warhammer to Warmog's Armor to Duskblade. With so many items having cooldown reduction, everyone gets to use their abilities more frequently, again helping to speed up the pace of the game.

Then there are the changes in itemization that reduce the need to spend gold on consumables. At a basic level, the presence of Refillable Potions and Corruption Potions, each of which regain their charges upon return to base, are a way for players to save money that would otherwise be wasted on health potions. The savings from picking up these items at the start of the game or on the first trip back to base are significant. The biggest gold savers are in the support role though, as the poor support players back in Season One had to purchase all of their wards individually 75 gold at a time. There were no Sightstones back then and none of the three support items that provide wards for free after completing their individual quests. The addition of the trinkets also contributed to these gold savings, granting every player the ability to place wards on the map for free, or else to remove enemy wards with the sweeper at no cost once per minute. This is certainly a lot cheaper than needing to pick up the special pink wards at 125 gold apiece, or an Oracle's Elixir at a big fat 400 gold cost! So players don't have to purchase health potions any more after getting their initial refillable item, and they don't have to spend much gold on wards; the game won't even let them pick up more than 2 vision wards at a time under the current rules. Supports have way more money to invest into items and everyone else hits their key items faster since they're not spending their money on consumables.

Finally, let's take a brief look at the subject of runes. I use the term "runes" only because that's what League officially calls them, although they function more like the old masteries than the old runes. The old rune system was terrible, a forced process of grinding that required players to spend huge amounts of the old influence points in order to get runes or else suffer in-game penalties to their stats. That whole setup was painful and antifun for everyone other than the high end users that had time to grind out dozens of different rune page setups, and I'm very glad that they scrapped it entirely. However, the new runes result in far more stats than the old runes, and in particular far more damage than what used to exist in earlier versions of League. One case in point: I recall that running a full AP rune page would cause a champion to start with about 35 ability power, and that was considered a lot at the start of the game. The full AP rune page was kind of a gimmicky thing and only used for early game killing power, not the sort of thing that anyone would run very often. Now at the start of Season Nine, I can run a "normal" set of adaptive force runes along with a Doran's Ring and start the game with the same 35 AP. What was once an excessive, gimmicky early game setup is now practically the norm in terms of damage.

The keystone runes in particular offer far more than anything that was available under the old runes. Conqueror translates 20% of damage against enemy champions into true damage, and it can be repeatedly refreshed when used by melee champions. So much for tanks and their ability to stack up armor and magic resistance, now everyone else to have true damage. Electrocute adds 30-180 damage for hitting an enemy champ with three attacks in succession, along with its own AD and AP ratios, with Comet doing the same thing at lower damage for a single spellcast. Grasp of the Undying deals damage equal to a percentage of your champion's max health, heals for 2% of your champion's max health, and permanently increases health by 5 HP. Unsealed Spellbook allows the player to trade out their summoner spells on cooldown for other summoners, thus unlocking additional abilities when your Flash or Teleport or whatever would otherwise be on cooldown. All of this stuff is very powerful and it mostly adds more damage to the game above and beyond what would normally exist. (The defensive stuff is typically more than outweighed by the offensive stuff.) Even the non-keystone runes have a lot of power built into them, like Demolish taking down towers faster or Coup de Grace dealing 7% more damage to champions below 40% health or Transcendence granting a flat 10% more CDR or Cosmic Insight allowed champions to push past the 40% CDR cap to reach 45% cooldown reduction. You could argue that having so many strong options in the different rune trees balance one another out, but that doesn't offset the total increase in champion power level for the wider game as a whole. The total phenomenon is what I would call "more of everything", and that's a good transition into the next section that I want to cover.

More of Everything

Playing a game of League of Legends in 2019 as compared to playing the same game in 2010 feels almost like experiencing an exaggerated caricature of the original product. Everything has been souped up in one way or another to make it bigger, badder, faster, and more "extreme" than its predecessor. I could start with the graphics, which have been immeasurably improved over what I was experiencing when I first started playing League. Summoner's Rift looks vastly better, the minions and monsters look like actual threats instead of polygon blobs, and the champion models have been updated and polished to make them look much more realistic. Try looking at the above images of the terrain on Summoner's Rift and the old versus new Baron Nashor for some basic examples of how the visual look of the game has improved over time. The artists at Riot Games do oustanding work and they've consistently updated the graphic appearance of the gameplay to keep pace with evolving technology.

But as I've been emphasizing throughout this report, the gameplay under the hood has been accelerating alongside the visual heft. There's much more gold available now, for example, above and beyond the examples that I've already cited. The introduction of Turret First Blood gold added a big chunk of money to the first team to take a tower, to the point where it was worth 600 gold (two full kills) at one point. The designers toned that down at the beginning of Season Nine, only to replace with with other mechanics that provided even more gold generation. The introduction of Turret Plating on the outer towers provided a huge sum of gold to champions who were able to push over towers in rapid fashion, 160 gold for each of the outer four plates taken plus additional gold for destroying the tower itself. If all of the tower plates are taken along with the bonus for Turret First Blood, it's currently worth more than 1000 gold. That's the equivalent of three champion kills or close to ten full waves of minions, an enormous sum of money to hand out in the early stages of the game. There was nothing comparable to this in earlier versions of League of Legends.

Season Nine also dialed up the bounty rewards given out for ending enemy champions kill streaks. Whereas in earlier seasons this bonus was capped at 500 gold, and then only in the rare cases where a "legendary" opponent on an 8 kill streak was finally downed, the new bounty system goes up to 1000 gold reward and gets triggered much more frequently. I've seen the full 1000 gold bonus on someone with as few as 3 or 4 kills in succession, which is much, much more common in normal gameplay. It's also possible to pile up a bounty reward without even going on a killing streak, just from farming efficiently or picking up a lot of assists. In theory, the bounties are supposed to provide a better way to mount comebacks for teams on the losing side, and that can happen if a team that's leading the game goes and pulls some boneheaded decisions. More commonly though, the new bounties simply inject massively more gold into the game all around, as ending one bounty then immediately places a bounty onto your own head for the other team to claim. There's more variability in the gameplay based on who kills whom in a teamfight; a triple kill on a lategame carry like Twitch or Kog'maw can suddenly put 2000 gold into their pockets all at once and spin the game on its head in an instant. In practice, however, it's much more common for the teams that are already ahead to get further ahead, snowballing their early game leads into stomps that only last 20-25 minutes. The bounties aren't really turning around a lot of games, they're simply giving everyone more gold in their pockets.

Then there's the issue of sustain. Whereas in classic League of Legends there was a real need to manage health and mana as resources, in the current version of the game there rarely seems to be a situation where players find themselves out of these resources. There's simply more sustain in the game in general, removing much of the need for the traditional healing supports like Soraka and Sona. Teams pick Soraka now because of her ability to silence and root opponents, not to be a healbot in bottom lane. Champions have higher base health and mana regeneration than they did previously, plus there are all of the refillable potions available in the stores, plus free biscuits for the supports, plus Smite now restores health for junglers, plus the Ocean drakes add sustain, plus there's the honeyfruit available on the rivers... You get the point. Mana costs are also lower across the board, which is particularly easy to see on some of the older champions. Blitzcrank was somewhat infamous for only being able to use his Rocket Grab twice before he ran himself out of mana back when he was released, and many players would open with a Sapphire Crystal for higher max mana because his base mana was so low. I also remember Lux being highly limited in how often she could use her Lucent Sigularity pool (her E skill) because it cost 130 mana and even as an AP caster that would run her out of juice pretty fast without blue buff. Obviously no one starts with a mana crystal on Blitzcrank anymore, and Lux can spam her stuff just fine even on the more limited income of a support without running out of mana very often. The gameplay is simply more forgiving in this regard, with abilities costing less mana on shorter cooldowns and meant to be used a lot more often. It's as if everything has been turned up to a higher speed setting in the options menu.

It's also useful to look at the other game modes out there aside from Summoner's Rift. While the 3 vs 3 gameplay on Twisted Treeline doesn't seem to get much attention from the community, it's an example of a game mode that Riot designed to produce shorter games than the ones on the default map. More popular is the Howling Abyss used for the ARAM games (All Random All Mid), which consists of only a single lane and typically produces games that last about 15 minutes. I've never liked ARAM mode because the winning team is usually decided by what everyone randomly rolls in champion select, and there isn't much room for strategy with the single lane setup, just tactics. Still, it's clear that this shorter, faster game mode is highly popular with the League community. The URF (Ultra Rapid Fire) mode is even more popular when Riot breaks it out for a limited time once or twice a year, and I still don't understand why they don't make it a permanent option. Finally, the most recent map that Riot has been testing is called Nexus Blitz, and it's another game mode intended to be played in shorter 15-20 minute games with various wacky gimmicks taking place like the champion showdowns in a closing ring of fire. There's a clear common theme to these other game modes: shorter, faster games with smaller and more limited setups. There's nothing in the works to create an 8 vs 8 map on a wider scale, for example; everything in development is exactly the opposite (RIP Magma Chamber). It's quite clear what direction the designers are trying to take the gameplay.

As a last point, games are often shorter because the rules have been changed to make them shorter. Case in point: when the game launched in 2009, a losing game could only be surrendered after the 25 minute mark. That was lowered to the 20 minute mark where it stayed for a very long time, and now the rules have been changed to allow post-15 minute surrenders, although they have to be unanimous before 20 minutes. Riot is tacitly permitting, if not officially endorsing, the quick abandonment of losing games so that players can queue up again for another match. I understand that this is a big deal in Korea where a large percentage of the players are dialing in from PC Bangs where they pay on a per-minute basis, but it still makes me a bit sad to see it.

Conclusion: Not Better or Worse, Just Faster

After walking through all of the many reasons why League of Legends gameplay has gotten faster over time, I want to stop here and clarify an important point: I am not suggesting that the gameplay is worse off as a result of pushing the games to be faster. The old League gameplay was often clunky and tedious, and anyone who was around back in the early days can testify that there were a lot of problems. It was often difficult to spot some of the champion abilities visually (Cho'gath Rupture and Gragas barrel being particularly notorious examples) due to their wonky hitboxes, the overall game balance was much rougher, and there were too many laughably overpowered champions on release. Riot hated the concept of support champions when they first emerged and resisted making gameplay changes to accomodate them, thus resulting in long months where 0 CS supports were forced to make due with gold/10 items and function as wardbots with little to no gold to spend. There was no way to queue up for specific roles, and in fact Riot deliberately fought against the concept of having roles at all long after it was obvious from competitive play that they were an inherent part of the gameplay. I have no desire to go back to any of that stuff, or to return to slow, clunky games where champions were always running out of mana and where far too often things dragged out to 50 minutes without a conclusion.

But there is a tradeoff to be made from speeding up the gameplay across the board, and I do think that having so many bite-sized games loses something in the process. Far too many of my games nowadays are over after the first 20 minutes, and I do miss some of those long, tense games where both teams knew that the first one to make a mistake around Baron would be the one to throw away the victory. I've had exactly one game out of about forty of them hit the 50 minute mark since coming back, and it was so much fun when we finally managed to crawl our way across the finish line and emerge with a win. I'm hoping that I'll get a few more of them before I'm said and done with this game, whenever that might be.

I can answer one question though: while it takes a full page to chronicle *HOW* League of Legends became a faster game, it only takes two paragraphs to explain *WHY* League became a faster game:

That's the list of revenue (not profit) generated by the top Free to Play games in the world in 2018. League of Legends shows up in third place on the list, and $1.4 billion is unquestionably a lot of money. However, that was down from $2.1 billion in 2017, and even down from the $1.7 billion that League pulled in back in 2016. Dropping 50% of your revenue in a single calendar year is a disaster in financial terms, and the big Chinese money backers at Tencent must have been furious with the game's 2018 performance. There was a clear reason why League took such a big hit in 2018, and it came in the form of the breakout hit Fortnite that took North America by storm last year. These financials make it obvious that Fortnite was siphoning away much of the League audience, and it's easy to see why since they share so much of the same young and male player demographic. When I put together my Complexity article on this website several years ago, I wrote this prophetic line: "The game that does surpass League eventually will do so by being simpler and easier to play than League. Less complexity, not more." That's exactly what happened with Fortnite, which is basic enough to pick up and play that millions of people are playing it on their mobile phones. I always knew that the next game to top League would be something simpler and completely different in execution, even if I had no idea what form it would take.

If you're Riot Games, what then is your response to Fortnite? The answer is shorter, faster, more "arcade-ish" gameplay that mimicks the popular battle royale shooters. And thus even though League has been moving in that direction for some time, the trends have been accelerating at the start of Season Nine. Riot is feeling the pressure from Fortnite and doing what they can to try and retain their player base in order to keep those revenue numbers up. (They're also making more expensive skins and selling more loot boxes than ever before, practices that I find highly distasteful. Blech. ) It's interesting to be on the opposite side of this dynamic, having been a part of League's early period when it was in its growth phase, and now coming back to the game as it begins to settle into the decline phase. League of Legends is going to be around for a long time yet to come, however it has likely already passed its peak userbase and will inevitably go through a long process of decreased players. Will Riot manage this gracefully, as Blizzard has so often done with World of Warcraft, or will the whole project collapse and burn at some point? It will be fascinating to watch and see what happens.

In the meantime, I hope that you enjoy your own games of League, whether they be fast or slow. Thanks as always for reading.