League of Legends popularity thorugh the years, statistics and viewership. The reasons why it is so high and the most played eSport. What is Riot doing right? What does League has that other games don't?
League of Legends popularity through the years
Riot doesn't like releasing numbers, so this graph I made has both official numbers and conservative estimations. Some sources say that the real 2019 monthly playerbase was 115 million, which could be true, but I went with the lowest number for the sake of the argument.
As you can see League of Legends popularity peaked in 2016 with 100 million players, then went down but became stable at the 80 million mark. This makes League of Legends the most popular MOBA and Riot one of the most successful companies.
But League has been going down lately?
When Fortnite, PUBG and APEX legends came out League's popularity decreased, but then it stabilized and today is in great shape. Let's check League of Legends interest over time in google searches:
As you can see League of Legends has maintained its popularity, peaking in October for the World Championship.
How does League of Legends maintains it's popularity?
1) Free publicity: League of Legends has a huge fanbase and together with fans comes content creators, they publish videos of themselves playing the game all the time. This is free publicity and is something other companies don't have.
Streamers keep the game alive, even if you're not playing you're going to be thinking about League of Legends because you probably watch your favorites personalities climbing the ladder or playing with friends. They will inspire you to log in, keeping players in a virtuous cycle of watching/playing League.
At all times it is usual for League of Legends to have more than 160.000 spectators watching live on Twitch, and more than 23 million followers. This replicates in other streaming platforms such as Youtube, Mixer and Facebook with numbers a bit lower but in the same order of magnitude. PandaTV, the chinese streaming platform, has viewership numbers way bigger than the platforms mentioned.
This is a huge competitive advantage for League of Legends because they don't have to pay for publicity. Other games would have to pay millions to have 160.000 spectators watching 24 hours, for League it's free.
Just think about youtubers talking about how they are paid +$10,000 -conservative figure- to play a mobile or desktop game just once, and we all know how authentic those gameplays look.
2) The game never ends: With near 150 champions and less than 10 maps, you simply can't 'beat this game' or get all the possible achievements.
This is an old pic from killping.com. Notice the old Irelia and the still old Udyr too.
League of Legends's economic model is better than story driven games:
Unlike in story driven games you can't beat League of Legends, and even if you try to get all the achievements, you'd have to get rank 1 and even then there is more stuff to do, just watch TFBlade 'conquering' every server, Dopa doing the same and Faker getting more World cups. This game is endless.
Only to play every single champion in the game you would need 100 hours if you took 40 mins for each game, and we all know you can't master a champion by playing it just once, unless the champion is Garen.
3) The great variety of champions League of Legends has: I know I just talked about this, but this is really important, Riot has a competitive advantage.
To put this into perspective, as of this post's date, the closest competitor is Dota2 with 117 champions. Overwatch has 31 and Heroes of the Storm 88. This is by no means coincidental, Riot has made an incredible effort in releasing champions quickly despite bugs, despite balance and despite everything.
Surely not all champions are very different, but you will still get a variety that other games can't provide. You might not like all the champions, nonetheless the most likely is that more than one ends up suiting you, and the same champion that you did not like ends up being your friend's main. There is a champion or a playstyle for all kinds of players.
4) The game constantly evolves: You might or might not like patch updates -most likely not-, the fact is that you get them at least twice a month, you simply can't stop learning, the meta changes not every season, not every month, but every couple of weeks.
New champions get released, the map gets updated, they buff or nerf champions, change items, release new items, fix bugs and most of all: release new bugs. This keeps players and the community constantly adapting and learning. Or as Kha'Zix would say: "Change... is good".
If you take League of Legends as it is right now, and stop changing it. I assure you that the quantity of players would drop dramatically. This is what happened to other games that have grown stale, I would name them but I can't remember them since that's what happens when something stops evolving, people forget.
5) LoL is free to play but not pay to win: There are players that pay huge amounts of money to win in some games, these players are a tiny minority with pockets big enough for a company to deliver (EA I'm looking at you), but also big enough to enrage the community and affect games in the long run.
League of Legends opted for selling skins, cosmetics that do not affect your ability to win, but make players happy and buying.
League of Legends is so cool that they made a deal with Louis Vuitton for them to design skins, Qiyana True Damage is one of the results that came out of this association. Riot's ability to partner with big fashion firms talks loudly about it's influence, imagine newer companies even dreaming about something like this.
Riot also makes tons of money -as Phreak would say- by selling merchandising and tickets to their events, this takes us to the next point.
6) Competitive play: League of Legends ranked mode attracts more players than it enrages, or probably does both. Despite having a really bad reputation thanks to toxicity, people seem to still like it.
Climbing the ladder feels so good, it gives you a sense of accomplishment, a signal that you are improving as a player, just playing really well feels like a craft that Riot rewards. It requires tons of effort and commitment to do something as simple as going from Silver to Gold -for a player that was stuck in silver, not for those of you who got it instantly and went to diamond in the first month of playing League-. The same applies to higher divisions, you just can't keep doing the same and expect results, you have to improve in order to climb.
I got this from esportstales.com
As you can see most of League Legends players are in the Bronze to Gold ranks, Silver being the most popular with 37% of ranked players in this league.
League of Legends ranks give you status:
Hai, a professional LoL player in his day to day.
I know how this sounds and I don't think a diamond player is better than a bronze player in any way but playing League. Nevertheless for some strange reason the fact of the matter is that Diamond+ players, which is the top 2% of players, do get some status for being good, this is so extreme that some players are willing to pay others to get elo boosted "just to get the diamond frame" or that Challenger players can live of just playing and streaming the game.
Would you watch a Gold rank youtuber playing League? Probably not, unless he is extremely entertaining.
Tons of young gamers right now are playing with the intent of improving, climbing and even getting to challenger. After reaching that point, if you're good enough, professional teams will notice and consider you to play for them. You could start a career path that today is very profitable and a real/established option.
7) Competitive scene: The same way soccer and football teams have fans that fight and banter about supporting their teams, League of Legends has fans that love their teams and would pay to watch them live.
Riot made sure the competitive scene thrived early on, for example, back then when the first World Championship was disputed in Phreak's basement -that's a twitch joke, it was disputed in another basement-, there were 1.6 million viewers watching live stream the event. Fnatic -the winners- already had some support and that only grew with time.
TSM is another team that made the competitive scene more popular and professional gaming a real possibility, their fans were so adamant that jokes about shouting "TSM TSM TSM" in situations that have nothing to do with TSM started:
And who are those TSM guys? TSM is one of the first teams to make a kind of reality show about their competitive gaming lives, and at the same time they were dominating the North America LCS.
Season 3 TSM
Going back to the Worlds viewership, I made a graph to show you how popular is the LoL Worlds Finals compared to the Super Bowl:
Aclaration: I'm comparing LoL Worlds Finals unique viewers -not concurrent- against Super Bowl's concurrent viewers.
Despite the aclaration, League's viewers numbers are pretty impressive. While the Super Bowl's viewership is almost entirely US based, LoL viewership is from all around the world, with China making for a big part of it. The fact is that an eSport final event with around 10 years of existence is already rivaling a sport final event with more than 50 years.
To compare with other eSports, Fortnite's World Cup had a total viewership of 81.8 million, which is a big number too for it's short existence.
League of Legends was the most popular game in the second decade of the twenty-first century, from year 2010 to 2020 dominated the MOBA genre and the online gaming industry. Accident or not Riot figured the formula to keep a playerbase interested. The freedom to create content and business around the game denied Riot from the possibility of getting the whole cake, but gave the company an opportunity to get a piece of a way bigger cake.
Will League of Legends keep being so popular 10 years from now? I think probably yes, Riot might not be a company that fixes more bugs than it creates or has a clean code base, but they know where to place their resources and keep their game relevant. In the case Riot is not as popular as now I'm sure other Riot games will do well. TFT, Valorant or others will keep Runeterra alive.