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Why LoL’s Free-to-Play design carries the eSport to victory

By on January 9, 2014

This is a guest post from Dennis Redley.

If there was one thing that defines how far the video game industry has come, then it has to be the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship Finals. Over 32 million viewers tuned in online to watch a team of Koreans grab the $1 million cash prize, with 8.2 million diverse viewers watching simultaneously at peak. This momentous event was held in nowhere else but the legendary Staples Center, filled up to the last seat. It’s no surprise – tickets were sold out only a few minutes after the sale started weeks prior.

Doing Free to Play Right

League of Legends (LoL) is a curious case in the video game industry. Driven by its free-to-play model, the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) has evolved from a brave independent venture into a prized top-tier title. Riot Games, the developer of League, employed the ‘free to play (F2P)’ business model but made one crucial decision – not selling power.

This business strategy has been done many times before. Most commonly found on mobile consoles and in massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), the F2P strategy is usually coupled with optional purchases that grant advantages in different aspects of the game. Be it extra in-game currency, special access, or instant power, these advantages have plagued many games preventing them from being a balanced and fairly competitive game.

This is where Riot Games’ League of Legends comes in. The game utilized the F2P system with its in-game store selling only cosmetic items. There is no significant advantage being exchanged for real money. Essentially, LoL is a game that’s open to all; where everyone is on a level playing field regardless of their means.

F2P and eSports

Straying away from the ‘freemium’ model common among apps, League devoted much of its resources in marketing the game as an eSport commodity. Because of its openness to new players (back in the time when the only other ‘free’ MOBA game was the subscription-based Heroes of Newerth), Riot Games banked on the eSports scene to skyrocket its already sky-high title. After making a splash in the World Cyber Games and in hundreds of small and huge e-sporting events, League of Legends is now the world’s most-played game.

Some would argue that the success is all pure marketing genius. However, many would agree that Riot Games’ clever implementation of its “anti-pay-to-win free-to-play” model paved the way for world domination. Presently, the game is continuing its tradition of offering high-quality cosmetic merchandise such as ‘ward skin’ and community-suggested content. The game manages to attract players that truly enjoy playing it competitively, steering the game more towards the ‘hardcore’ rather than the ‘casual.’ Still, the beauty of the game relies on its easy and free access; the choice between casual play and competitive play is available and distinguishable.

Fun Before Finance

It’s no wonder that games that are starting to enter the eSports scene follow more or less the similar game framework. Take a look at HiRez’s Smite, and Blizzard’s Hearthstone. Both are titles bubbling under the eSports radar. Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2), a free-to-play game from Valve, has established itself as a legitimate international eSport. DOTA 2 only sells costumes and banners in its shop.

“When a game costs nothing, you will get more people to play it,” said Michael Poropat from Competitive Gamer. “Even if they don’t enjoy playing the game, you have opened the door for the possibility that they may enjoy watching it.”

The free-to-play model perfected by Riot Games demonstrates how putting the fans and the gameplay first are the keys to a cash cow title. Designing a game with blatant power-selling items removes the possibility of becoming a fair eSport. And right now, being big in eSports is being big in the entire video game industry. Developers should be able to note how players pay tenfold for a game that is free-to-access, free-to-play, and free-to-enjoy.


About Dennis Redley

Dennis Redley is currently taking courses on game design in United Kingdom. Aside from spending hours playing Dawngate and Bloodline Champions, Dennis likes to build his online portfolio as a video game and technology writer. He has memorized How2Become’s H2B a Game Designer, proudly. Tweet him @dredleyone.