NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 13:  Jamelle Jimenez, George Krstic, Moby Frank, Mark Yetter, and Curtis Churn speak at the Tribeca Games Presents The Craft And Creative Of League Of Legends on November 13, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Tribeca Games)

League of Legends and the problem of online communities

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Early last Friday, just before the opening remarks of “Tribeca Games Presents: The Craft and Creative of League of Legends,” I sat next to a young man named Will, who told me he had come all the way from Daytona Beach, Florida. I asked him if it was a business trip; this was the first time Riot and Tribeca Games had ever put on an event like this. There were a few hundred people present; it’s not the sort of thing I would expect fans to pilgrimage over. “No,” he said. He seemed shy about it. “I just didn’t get a chance to go to Blizzcon this year. So, I figured I should make it out to this.”

The events are hardly comparable, though. “The Craft and Creative of League of Legends” is focused more on the design and art side of games. Many of the attendees work in the gaming industry, or aspire to. It’s this second group that Will falls into, I learn. “Do you want to be a designer, or an artist?” I ask. Will is noncommittal—he doesn’t know what he wants to do. He just knows where he wants to do it.

A busy-looking dude stops in front of us mid-stride. “Is that your homemade poro?” he asks, pointing down at the stuffed animal sitting atop Will’s bag. (Poros are little horned puffballs in League of Legends, sort of a cross between a goat and a cotton ball.) Will perks right up.

Riot prefers to talk about their “community”

The guy is from Riot, the company that makes the game we were all here to talk about. “Wow, this is awesome,” the guy says, tweaking the horns. Will mentions that he’s actually sent two of the stuffed animals to Riot HQ, in Los Angeles. He then pulls out a card, Hallmark-style but with the Riot Games logo printed on the front, a fist punching viewer-wards. It’s a thank-you card, for all of Riot. Will’s got a stack that he means to hand out to every Rioter he sees.

This one takes it gracefully. He thanks Will, shakes our hands, and leaves to do whatever he needs to do, which is probably a lot.

This is the sort of dedication that Riot, who has only released one game—albeit a very, very popular one—inspires in fans, even if the company itself would avoid calling them that. Riot prefers to talk about their “community,” who they never miss an opportunity to praise. The lounge, where there’s a break between each panel for attendees to get food and water, is also bedecked in fan art, with various interpretations of some of the 128 characters in League of Legends. The portion of the wall for concept art, made by Riot’s actual team, is maybe one fourth of the art on display, and it’s not clearly differentiated here.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 13: Shannon Berke, Evan Monteiro and Josh Singh speak at the Tribeca Games Presents The Craft And Creative Of League Of Legends on November 13, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Tribeca Games)
NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 13: Shannon Berke, Evan Monteiro and Josh Singh speak at the Tribeca Games Presents The Craft And Creative Of League Of Legends on November 13, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Tribeca Games)

This is a weird stylistic choice. Riot has some truly tremendous talent working for them, as the first few panels of the day demonstrated. The first real panel after the opening remarks concerns the recent redesign of one of their older champions, a pirate sort named Gangplank. The panel, which featured a character artist, a game designer, a sound designer and one of Riot’s senior writers, discussed the creation of a complex history and motivation for Gangplank, along with new character art drawn from sources as diverse as 19th-century Russian realism. Being walked through that sophisticated process was, for me, the highlight of the day.

The low point, on the other hand, might be the “Sharing Player Stories” panel, a display of Riot’s self-congratulatory branded journalism. (Full disclosure: Kill Screen’s parent company Kill Screen Media Inc. has produced content for Riot, separate from my coverage of this event.) While the previous panels—the art demonstration, in which one of Riot’s 3D sculptors recreated the model for a champion live, on stage—peeled back Riot’s curtain and showed how the developers of the most popular game in the world, well, develop, “Sharing Player Stories” turned the focus off of Riot, previewing two films focused around fans of the game. “Love and League” follows several couples who play League of Legends together—that’s pretty much the elevator pitch. “Live/Play” focuses on League of Legenders with interesting stories, and gets a little closer to compelling material; one of its subjects, in the preview, describes being shot at during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, before returning to reinforce how much League of Legends de-stresses him.

A more frank discussion of these issues would have been a lot more interesting for me

After the previews, Riot’s film producers came out to talk about the films. Creative challenges mentioned here were always framed in positive ways; how could the filmmakers choose just a few stories, for example, from Riot’s global fanbase? This felt disingenuous, because while Riot surely loves their fans wholeheartedly, they’ve also spent an enormous amount of time and effort in recent years trying to improve the more toxic elements of the community. Take the Honor Initiative, whose explicitly stated purpose was to encourage more positive behavior. Take their new questionaire for players with inappropriate names, which uses questions lifted directly from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. A more frank discussion of these issues would have been a lot more interesting for me, and I imagine for the rest of the League community as well.

The “Sharing Player Stories” panel was the second to last of the day. The last one, a musical demonstration of some of League of Legends’ orchestral loading screen music, was beginning soon, but the crowd already seemed smaller and drowsier than the high pitch of excitement from earlier. In between cosplayers in pastel wigs, I noticed Will, holding his homemade Poro in front of him like a dowsing rod. He looked a bit glassy-eyed. I wondered if his flight back to Daytona Beach would leave tomorrow, or whether he’d stay on, through the weekend, once he had run out of thank you cards to give out.

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Lead Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Tribeca Games
Event Name: Tribeca Games Presents The Craft And Creative Of League Of Legends