Over the past decade, strategy game League of Legends has come to be defined by Summoner’s Rift, the three-lane battlefield where its lengthy matches take place. But that could soon change. This week developer Riot Games launched a new ten minute mode, inspired by faster-paced games like Fortnite. Called “Nexus Blitz,” it’s the first of many new experimental modes Riot plans to introduce over the next year. And depending on feedback, each has a chance of becoming permanent. The plan represents a new tactic for the developer, and it’s arguably the first significant attempt Riot has made at attracting and retaining new players.
League of Legends is a multiplayer strategy game that has spawned a robust competitive e-sports scene. You play in a five-person team, choosing one out of 141 possible champions. Like most roleplaying games, there are mages, marksmen, tanks to soak up damage, assassins, and hybrid types. You fight against the enemy team and the first to get to the other team’s base and destroy the nexus, a large dome that’s protected by turrets and minions, wins.
With so many enemies running around and turrets that will deplete your health, League requires both coordinated strategy with your teammates and individual skill with whatever character you’re playing. It’s also very involved: a single match can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to complete. As the game has aged, Riot has been looking for an experience distinct from the main Summoner’s Rift map, which is very spacious and filled with places in the jungle to hide from the enemy and pick them off one by one, or ARAM, on the icy Howling Abyss. It’s great for those who understand the intricacies of League, but it’s daunting for newcomers.
That’s where Nexus Blitz comes in. It takes place on a much smaller, more crowded map where there are only two lanes and a small amount of jungle. Since players are constantly running into each other, they’re forced into more fights. And the pace of the game, with its constant random events, means that it usually ends by around 15 minutes. You can also surrender at eight minutes in, if it seems like a victory will be impossible.
One of the big problems with League for lapsed players is that it’s constantly changing. When returning players log on after some time away, the landscape is virtually unrecognizable. Dragons in the jungle have changed, and so have the game’s largest monsters, which naturally means strategy and gameplay have to change to adjust. Champions are also constantly tweaked. Old favorite champions, that were already mechanically demanding to begin with, like the dagger-wielding assassin Katarina or the self-cloning sorceress LeBlanc, have been reworked so that old players have to relearn them again.
And if you’re an older player that has grown up with the game but now have to contend with the demands of work and family life, popping into a 30 minute or hour long game just doesn’t feel realistic anymore. Things get even more challenging if you want to enjoy League competitively.
In contrast, Nexus Blitz feels like a breath of fresh air, even for current players. It comes with random events with different buffs if you win, like a cannon you can hop into to send you wherever you’d like to arrive on the map. As a way to prevent games from dragging on too long, the game’s outcome can be decided by an event called “sudden death,” that starts when a match hits the 18 minute mark. The event produces a large nexus minion, and the team that kills it first wins.
“We’ve been trying to meet everyone’s needs for a long time”
“Nexus Blitz is our first large-scale attempt in a while to acknowledge the different experiences players are looking for out of League,” says senior game designer Jo Graylock. “We’ve been trying to meet everyone’s needs with Summoner’s Rift for a long time, and that has a lot of challenges.”
League as it is right now demands a lot of time and commitment to learning the massive amount of in-game details, optimal item sets, and even the precise mechanics of hitting a minion so that you can earn its gold. Champions dish out different amounts of damage that Riot adjusts every two weeks in an ongoing attempt to balance the game. So the true pros are also mathematicians who have calculated the best items to purchase, when to return to base and buy, and who to team up with to assassinate a player at the more opportune time. It’s a lot to take in, and almost too intimidating for newcomers who might be eyeing the game, or for returning players who have to relearn the basics.
I started playing at the tail end of 2015 (after trying the game once in 2013 and quitting immediately) and the only reason I’ve endured the incredible learning curve, and the toxic community is because I already had a built-in community of gamers that I knew and enjoyed playing with. We were friends in real life, so even if I played horrendously in the beginning and everyone let me know it, I forgave them for saying that and they forgave me for leading the team to a loss and most of them continued to play alongside me. Fast forward a few years, and I’m ranking as a high silver, trying to go for gold, which isn’t exactly great, but it means I’m an average player now.
But communities are built on people and as people quit the game, it loses its fun. That’s the context upon which Riot is introducing Nexus Blitz. It promises to be a short and casual game that anyone can pick up. It’s not guaranteed to become permanent, just yet, as the team of developers are still watching players’ feedback and waiting to make more last minute changes.
Even if Nexus Blitz does become a permanent addition to the game, it’s just the first of many new modes that League will be testing out. It feels like a new chapter for a game that only seemed to grow more increasingly complex with every patch. Casual and returning players are finally getting consideration with and that could seriously make all the difference for League of Legends’ future. Riot has refused to share its number of active users, but considering the game’s age and complexity, it’s safe to assume that League has lost its appeal to some.
“Nexus Blitz tries to create unexpected, exciting moments and wild teamfights,” says Michael Chu, a product manager at Riot. “It’s true that our veteran players will be using some familiar skills, and see a ton of nostalgic items, but we also hope that others see the mode as something refreshing and different even after playing many, many games.”
That’s likely the thinking behind some of the modes that resemble other, popular games. There’s a battle royale mode called “bardle royale” where a flaming circle spawns around the map, shrinking the perimeter that you can safely stand in until one team successfully kills the other. While Riot wouldn’t admit the mode was a direct homage to Fortnite, Chu did say that “it’s not a nod to any one specific game, but grabs ideas from many genres.” He pointed out that “push the cart,” where players protect a payload and charge forward with it, has been in first person shooters like Overwatch and Team Fortress for years. Chu explains, “With each event in Nexus Blitz, we wanted to create mayhem across the map: exciting high moments that everyone in the game would participate in. Many of them take inspiration from experiences that a lot of gamers would be familiar with.” In a similar vein, the sudden death event also seems reminiscent of the sudden death mode from the rapid-fire mobile card game Clash Royale.
Like any League game, the new mode still requires mechanical skill, so veteran players will do better than newcomers. How well you do also depends on the kind of champion you play. Melee champions have a natural advantage over ranged, lower health champions when it comes to staying alive on the small, close quarters map. That advantage is amplified by certain events that demand you get closer, like “king of the hill,” where you must stand inside a burning circle for a duration of time in order to capture it.
Riot’s experimental approach to Nexus Blitz meant “breaking some things”
In the end, does Nexus Blitz solve League’s problem? Player feedback from those who have been testing the beta has so far been enthusiastic, although there has been some criticism as well. One good point players have made is that games played on Summoner’s Rift usually start off slow-paced, as players first accumulate gold through killing minions in order to buy items that will grant them the power to kill enemy champions. These elements, like gold accumulation and complex items, can seem at odds with the fast-paced nature of Nexus Blitz. This critique suggests that League can’t be a ten minute game without changing some of its core mechanics and evolving into an entirely different beast altogether.
Riot’s response to feedback has been that it’s listening intently and Nexus Blitz is subject to a lot of change even now that it’s out of beta. Even the approach the team has taken to developing the new mode is different from how things were done in the past. As Chu says, “We have definitely taken a more experimental, rapid-prototyping style of development while working Nexus Blitz, which means breaking some things.”
An ever-evolving game on Summoner’s Rift is cool, but it’s also incredibly demanding for players who just want to log on after a long day and throw a few punches. If League is able to adjust Nexus Blitz enough to let it appeal to more players, it could attract a whole new crowd — and extend the game’s long life even further.