There was a loud bang, like metal falling on top of metal. Then nothing. I wanted to ask my teammates what the hell it was. A few minutes later, I heard it again. Then again. Something is here, I thought, dread creeping into my mind. Something is coming.
Another ominous clang. The sixth or seventh time, I finally saw what it was: a giant ogre-like monster glaring at me from across the battlefield.
He had sickly gray skin, so pale that it almost appeared light purple at certain angles. His lower jaw was studded with what looked like a large set of artificial metal fangs, and he was holding an enormous axe. Who is this guy? I wondered, taken aback by his enormous size. Before I had time to think, there was another clang.
“IS THIS WHAT PASSES FOR WAR?” the monster bellowed as he charged at me.
He picked up so much speed that the air around him burst into flames. I shot at him once with my rifle. It didn’t do much of anything. I turned around and started to run in the opposite direction, but he was already on me. The impact from his charge left me reeling. As he began to swing his axe over his head for a crushing blow, my teammates finally showed up.
Four of us went at him in unison, attacking him with everything we had. He just wouldn’t stop fighting. Or screaming at us. “COWARDS!” he’d thunder. “NOTHING...WILL...STOP ME!”
Even hen his health bar finally inched past zero, he still didn’t stop. Instead he dropped his axe, tensed up his arms, and roared into the sky. Then he started punching us ferociously with his gigantic fists.
We eventually killed him...again. His knees finally buckled and he fell heavily, taking a rattling gasp of breath as he reached one arm out shakily. He rolled over and lay prone on his back. This time, he didn’t get back up. I’d been sitting at my desk the entire time, but the ordeal of taking down this brute left me panting for breath.
“What the hell was that?” I finally asked my teammates.
“Oh, that’s Sion,” one of them responded.
That was how I first encountered the scariest thing in League of Legends. Sion: The Undead Juggernaut.
Sion is a champion like any other in League. What separates him from the 124 other playable characters is that he is absolutely terrifying to play against—especially when you’re new to the game, and especially when he’s in the hands of a formidable player.
The clanging sound, I came to learn, is a global effect that’s triggered whenever he uses his ult—the most powerful ability in a League champion’s arsenal. Sion’s ult, “Unstoppable Onslaught,” makes him charge forward while steadily ramping up his speed.
Positioning is always crucial in League of Legends—the difference between standing a few inches to the right or left can decide whether you live or die. Seeing a giant lunging at you with uncontrollable speed is one of the most profound, “holy shit” moments in the game as a result.
It’s not just a “holy shit” moment, though. There are plenty of those in League. The assassin Rengar will often jump out of nearby bushes in games and instantly kill you. Evelynn, meanwhile, is almost always invisible, which makes playing against her an exceedingly unnerving experience. The ghostly wraith Nocturne even has a global sound effect for his ult the way Sion does—he whispers the word “darkness” in every other player’s ear and makes their entire screen turn red for a moment.
These are all unsettling and often surprising. But they’re not really scary. Sion is frightening because his ult instills ever-mounting tension in his opponents in an ingenious way. Particularly if you’re not laning against Sion, the periodic clanks that echo across the map work similarly to the rippling water in those classic scenes from Jurassic Park. It’s a sign that something big is coming, a warning that you should do your best to prepare for imminent danger.
His passive ability “Glory In Death,” meanwhile, reinforces that frighteningly formidable sense of his character as the undead juggernaut by literally giving him another life—however brief—after death.
Seeing him come back from the dead after you’ve exhausted your health and energy just trying to kill him once feels eerily similar to those scenes in horror movies. You know: the ones where everyone sits down to catch their breath after they think they’ve killed the bad guy. And then he jumps in through the window, still wielding his chainsaw, and angrier than ever.
I’ve become increasingly familiar with Sion as I’ve played more games against him. But the feeling of dread has never really gone away. It’s just changed. Now, instead of trembling in confused fear like the children in Jurassic Park, the dread of meeting Sion feels more like that scene in the first Lord of the Rings movie when the whole fellowship is trapped in the old dwarven tunnels and facing a horde of angry goblins. When Boromir sighs: “They have a cave troll.” That scene might be a thrilling action sequence for the audience rather than anything genuinely frightening. But how do you think Boromir and all his allies felt in the moment?
The fact that Riot managed to make a character like Sion is no small feat. Online multiplayer games like League of Legends aren’t a predictable outlet for horror. There’s a simple reason for this: if a game designer can’t account for what ten different players are going to be doing, or where they’re going to be doing it, they can’t easily structure gameplay to have the pacing and tension required to make horror games feel like horror games. But they managed to with Sion.
What makes the champion even more impressive is the fact that he wasn’t always this way. Until very recently, Sion looked, played, and sounded totally different. Like a far more standard macho brute in spiky medieval armor. Instead of growling like a nightmarish, unstoppable force of anger, he spouted clichéd lines about kicking butt in a voice that sounded like a bad imitation of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Here’s a direct comparison between the two, captured by the League of Legends site Surrender at 20 last fall:
Riot had to rebuild the champion from the ground up to make him the terror that he is today.
The developer is always tweaking its characters, always talking about reworks of the ones who’ve either fallen out of pace with the game or simply aren’t fun to play as. Given how masterfully they remade The Undead Juggernaut, it’s easy to appreciate why fans get excited when a League developer promises that, say, Urgot is going to get a “Sion-level rework.”
They’ve sight a high, high standard for themselves in their future work. Let’s hope they keep to it.
Screenshots via Surrender at 20