When people talk League of Legends, they throw around a lot of numbers. 32 million monthly players. 5 million people playing concurrently. Viewers topping 8 million during the Season 3 World Championships. It all adds up to one thing: League of Legends is the most-played video game in the world right now, and not exactly by a slim margin.
So why do so many people not know anything about it? Most folks know that Riot Games' fast-moving tactical game is inspired - perhaps too weak a word here - by the Warcraft 3 mod Defense of the Ancients, and it somehow involves two teams brawling in an incredibly confusing arena. Most know that the game is free-to-play. But that's about it.
For those who want to finally get what exactly the game is about and how to get into it, I'm here to help. Here's what you need to know to understand League of Legends.
Let's start with the absolute basics. What in the heck is League of Legends?
Basically, it works like this: Two teams of five duke it out in an arena called Summoner's Rift. This is Summoner's Rift:
Each player takes one of 116 characters - called Champions here - into each match. Typically, they'll be controlling them somewhere between 20 minutes and an hour.
During that time, League works much like a team-based, competitive action-RPG. Each Champion has four activated abilities they can use to kill enemy Champions, minions, and buildings. In return, they get experience points for leveling up and gold to buy power-boosting gear.
Above: Here's what a standard team looks like. From the top, clockwise these champs' names are Kha'Zix, Leona, Fizz, Jax, and Varus.
How do I pronounce Kha'Zix?
Kha'Zix is pronounced like it's spelled, by which I mean however you damn well please.
So, this is an RPG? I can level up in the game?
League is a struggle to kill the most stuff, thereby getting your teams' Champions to be much stronger than the opposition. The more stuff dies, the more you and your allies level up and get more powerful.
How do you win?
The goal of a League of Legends match is pretty simple: Blow up your enemy's Nexus while protecting your own. The Nexus is the big building in each side's base with the massive diamond floating over it. Not too complicated.
Above: Protect/blow up this big thing.
But before you do that, you've got to get through a whole bunch of enemy...stuff. Obviously, there are the enemy player-controlled Champions, but there are also the AI-controlled minions that come streaming out of each team's base and the big, scary turrets that stand tall in the lanes.
There's a ton of lingo flying around here. Could you define some of this stuff?
Sure. League has its own language, and that's often a big turnoff for a lot of new players. Here're the basics that you'll probably need to know, broken down for easy consumption:
Champions: The player-controlled characters. There are currently 116 of them, with more coming every month or so. That's a lot, right? Like, man. So many.
Above: The Champion to the left is Nasus. He's a dog. To the right, Renekton. He's a crocodile. They're also brothers. Don't worry about it.
Lanes: The three open areas that run from one end of the map to the other. They're referred to as top, middle, and bottom. Or top, mid, and bot if you're feeling sassy.
Above: Welcome to the jungle.
Jungle: The areas between the lanes, filled with camps of neutral monsters that can be killed for money, experience, and buffs. It's confusing in there, but you'll figure it out.
Minions: The little dudes who run from one side of the map to the other. Minions are controlled by the computer, and there are four types: Melee minions with swords, caster minions with magic which they use from afar, cannon minions with big guns and a ton of HP, and super minions that only spawn once an Inhibitor is destroyed. We'll get to Inhibitors in a second.
Above: The stalwart minions, heading to their inevitable demise. Their types from left to right: Cannon, caster, caster, caster, melee, melee, melee.
Towers: Eleven per side, they tower over the lanes, shooting anyone who comes close. They do a ton of damage, so to destroy them, players typically want a group of minions to act as meat shields. Don't worry too much about the minions, dying is what they live for.
Above: The Nexus is flanked by two towers. Getting hit by both at the same time hurts. A lot.
Inhibitors: Each of the lanes has one, and when they're destroyed, the team that destroyed them starts spawning super minions from their base. Super minions have a ridiculous amount of HP and do a good amount of damage, so Inhibitors are rather important to protect.
Dragon/Baron Nashor: Big, scary monsters that hang out in the river running along the middle of the map. Killing them will get your entire team a bunch of money, and in the case of Baron, a really powerful stat-boost.
Above: Baron Nashor stares down a passing Leona.
Sounds awesome. How do I get started playing? What are some of the best Champions for beginners?
Ah, the big dilemma. How does one get into a game as complex and deep as League? Well, the best answer is to just start playing. Grab yourself an easy-to-play champion like Garen, Ashe, or Master Yi and take to the battlefield.
Garen and Master Yi are both melee fighters, but Garen is more of a tough to kill tank, while Master Yi jumps in, does a bunch of damage, and bailes. Ashe is great for if you prefer to sit back and shoot stuff from afar.
Above: Thanks to his relatively easy-to-use skills, Master Yi is a great place to start. Also, he's got a sweet sword and Sam Fisher goggles.
Okay, I picked a character. Any tips for me as I get started?
Some tips for your early hours with the game:
- Don't die. It sounds pretty straightforward, but consider that not dying is much more important than getting kills. Play it safe until you know what you're doing. Don't get too close to those towers until you've got minions to back you up.
Above: This is Lee Sin. Right now, Lee Sin is dead. Don't be like Lee Sin.
Hold on a second, what happens when I die?
You respawn at your Nexus after a certain amount of time, based on how long the game has lasted and what level you are. The respawn timer starts super low, just a few seconds, but can get up into the minute-plus range. However, you lose out on potential experience and money while you're spending time in the afterlife or walking back to your lane. That can be a huge problem for you, especially early in a match.
Fair enough. You can get back to the tips now.
Way to interrupt, dude. Moving on.
- Don't attack enemy Champions while you are in range of a tower, especially at low levels. Even if the tower is already shooting at a minion, attacking an enemy Champion will draw its Sauron-esque eye to you, likely leading to a quick demise. You'll learn pretty quickly how big the range of towers is.
- Focus on being the one to deal the killing blow on minions. Only those who deal the killing blow on minions and monsters get credit for the kill and the money that comes after. Learning to maximize your gold intake by killing minions is one of the biggest hurdles for new players, and the quicker you learn to do it, the better.
- Pick a champion and position and stick to it for a while. After you've played a couple dozen games with different champions, it's often best to just grab one and stick to it. Much like characters in fighting games, Champions have tons of little intricacies and tricks they can pull out to get advantages. Also, grab a position you like and play that.
But how do I know who to pick and stick with?
The beautiful thing about League of Legends is its flexibility. Any Champion can be good in the right hands. If you enjoy playing a character that many consider to be underpowered like, say, Heimerdinger, go ahead and get really good at him.
Above: Heimerdinger will beat you with a wrench. And turrets. And missiles.
A good player playing an underpowered Champion will beat a bad player playing an highly powered champion just about every time.
Do my champions have persistent stats, or do they reset every game?
Champions' levels, skills, and items are wiped clean after every game. That way, you can experiment with new ways to build each character every time you play. Think of it like a rapid speed sprint through any RPG skill tree ever.
Okay, carry on with your tips.
Back to it!
- Buy the Recommended Items. The Item Shop is super confusing at first, but fortunately Riot Games has laid out what they think are the ideal items for each champion in the Recommended Items section of the store. Go ahead and follow that for now. You can learn to switch up builds as you progress.
Above: Ignore that "All Items" tab for now. Stick to buying what Riot recommends.
- Don't bother trying to head into jungle early in the game. Before your account hits level 20, you don't have access to the appropriate Runes and Masteries to survive amongst the trees. Pick a lane and hang out there early.
- Play to have fun. League of Legends is notorious for its infamously unpleasant fanbase. It's getting better, but there are a lot of people who don't handle losing well. Don't be one of those guys. Pick a champion you like and have fun. Remember, you can't win them all. And that's okay. Play your position the best you can, and don't scream at anyone for having a rough game.
Wait, there are positions? So this really IS like a sport!
Exactly! Each team has five players, all of which have their own roles to fill. Generally, it's accepted that, in a standard game of LoL, there are five positions: Top laner, mid laner, AD carry, support, and jungler.
The top laner takes, perhaps a bit too obviously, the top lane. Typically a melee character with strong brawling abilities, the top lane is a place for brawlers and tanks to safely farm a bunch of items to get strong. Popular top laners right now include Renekton, Jax, and Shen.
Above: Fizz, on the left, is an incredibly popular mid lane champion. Malzahar, on the right, not so much.
Mid laners typically do their stuff in, uh, the mid lane. Typically caster-types with a focus on getting items that give their AP-based skills a huge boost, they act as the mages of the team, blowing up just about anything they can. Kassadin, Fizz, and Zed are some of the top picks right now.
Now, the bot lane is where things get a little confusing. Two champs hang out down there: the AD carry and the support. ADCs do a downright obscene amount of damage later in the game, but are crazy easy to kill in the early game. It's the support's job to protect them until they bloom into a wonderful, deadly flower. Caitlyn, Corki, and the newly released Jinx are popular ADCs, while Thresh, Sona, and Zyra are played quite a bit as supports.
Above: Popular jungle champion Zac kills a wraith to get some XP.
The jungler is the wandering helper of the team. He wanders through the space between lanes, killing the neutral monsters and popping up to secure a kill on an unsuspecting victim. People really love bringing Zac, Lee Sin, and Jarvan IV on tromps through the woods right now.
Okay, I've played a couple matches, and I've heard a ton of phrases thrown around by players that you haven't talked about yet. Could you define some more?
We've barely begun to scratch the surface of the lingo, my friend. Here's some more words/phrases you should be aware of:
Farming/Last hitting/CSing: Killing minions or neutral monsters. This gets you experience and gold. However, you only get money if you deal the killing blow to the monster. Hence, last-hitting. CS stands for Creep Score, which is a holdover from DotA and is simply the number of minions or monsters a player has laid down the last hit upon.
Abilities: Each Champion has four activated abilities and a passive. With each level you gain, you get one point to put into one of the four activated ones. Learning what the Champions' skills do is key to understanding the game on a higher level. Fortunately, they're all different enough that they're easily to differentiate.
AP and AD: Ability Power and Attack Damage. You get these stats by buying items with gold, which will improve the damage output and general stats of your skills. Attack damage also boosts the amount of damage autoattacks do, making it ideal for Champions who attack quickly.
Autoattacks: Assuming you're in range, your Champion will attack whatever enemy unit or building you right click on. For some Champions, this is a great way to deal damage. For others, triggered abilities are easier for blowing stuff up.
Runes and Masteries: When you level up your account by playing a whole bunch of games, you slowly gain access to more Runes and Masteries. The Mastery tree acts like a skill tree in most RPGs, while Runes are items purchasable by the in-game currency Influence Points that give bonus stats. Choosing the right Runes and Masteries are important for high-level play.
Above: Should you stick with League of Legends for a while, you'll get very familiar with the masteries screen.
Carry: A Champion that, figuratively, carries the team to victory. Typically, they're damage dealers that get a whole bunch of kills. Despite the AD carry's name, a carry can come in the form of any role.
Wards: A large part of League is knowing where your enemies are. Wards help with that by cutting through the fog of war and exposing a small segment of the map.
Above: Faithful Leona drops a ward to keep an eye on the Dragon.
Meta: Essentially, the current state of the strategy of the game. The meta defines which Champions fit in which positions and styles of play. Typically, teams stick somewhat strictly to the meta.
Where can I go to learn more?
Once you've gotten a handle on your first Champ, it's time to start branching out. If you're looking to learn new a new guy or lady, check out either Mobafire or Probuilds to see how more skilled players are playing their Champions. The two are a great resource for item builds and strategies. Reddit has a very strong group of League subreddits, and has some of the better discussions about the game around. Plus, r/summonerschool is a great resource for any questions you may have.
League of Legends has the biggest pro scene of any eSport around. Pro matches may seem overwhelming and confusing at first, but once you've got a grasp on the game, watching is one of the best way to learn higher-level strategy.
Right now, you can watch any number of pro tournaments (compiled nicely by Esport Calendar). The Korean Champions League contains some of the best teams in the world right now, including world champions SK Telecom T1. LCS matches may be better for English speakers, however, as it's fully supported by Riot and has some of the best production values anywhere in competitive gaming.
Or, you can watch pro players practice over at Twitch.tv. There's almost always someone popular playing practice matches. Check out Ocelote's, Dyrus, or Trick2G for the most entertaining and informative streams.
What are some classic competitive matches I can watch?
First one is Fnatic vs. SK Gaming at IEM Katowice:
Perhaps one of the most exciting matches of all time, Fnatic and SK Gaming put on amazing show earlier this year at IEM Katowice. After tons of back and forth and kills being traded on both sides, it came down to one thing: Who could kill the other teams' exposed Nexus the fastest.
At the end of the game, it looked like SK had it in the bag after slaughtering all but one member of of Fnatic. Unfortunately for them, that one surviving player was mid laner xPeke, whose Kassadin sprinted straight towards their Nexus, destroying it while masterfully avoiding the defenses of SK. That play, called a "backdoor" will forever be linked to xPeke. If there's one final moment in a game that could be considered an absolute classic, it's this. This is League's The Play, Immaculate Reception, and Miracle On Ice all rolled into one. Am I exaggerating? No, I would never.
Second, there's Curse vs. TSM Snapdragon at MLG Anaheim 2013:
If you're looking for a straight up slugfest between two amazing teams, Curse vs. TSM from this summer's MLG Anaheim championship is the match to watch. The two North American powerhouses may have taken a little while to get going, but once the kills started coming, they didn't stop. Team fight after team fight breaks out, with the scoreboard remaining even for much of the match. That is, until one team gets bored and starts going, as they say, H.A.M.
Curse vs. TSM has the added bonus of showing off two of Riot Games' best commentators in Joshua "Jatt" Leesman and Rivington "Riv" Bisland III at the top of their game. Riot has done a lot of work with their team of commentators and announcers to bring them up to the standards of traditional sports, and it makes these matches remarkably easy to watch, even for newer players.
Sweet. Thanks for all the fantastic information.
I know, I know. I'm pretty great. Seriously, though, the best way to learn how to play is to simply do that: Play. Grab a buddy if you can and dive in. Figure out how you like to play and practice at it. There's a reason people love League so much. Play enough, and you'll see it too.
Taylor Cocke is a freelance games writer living in Oakland, California. He's written stuff all over the place, and currently does a lot of work for Lol Esports and Red Bull. He's also written for Edge, Official Xbox Magazine, and IGN.