First, I want to talk about what makes a champion design interesting, from the perspective of both spectators and players.
I’m drawing on a few studies, so for background reading, consider:
I have not read either of these papers in a reasonable amount of time, but their terminology and basic ideas will permeate my thoughts.
Let’s start with the idea of what makes a — competitive — game fun. First, we want to focus on what makes the game fun independent of any extrinsic reward function. For example, most games can be made fun by establishing some sort of arbitrary goal and small goals to achieve along the way. See Cookie Clicker for a perfect example of a game which is fun not through gameplay, but through itemized rewards. I argue that what makes a game fun, especially over a period of a large number of games, is a sense of meaningful choices. However, what those choices are can vary wildly. However, I’ll be focusing on one in particular: the ability to make meaningful in-game decisions about when and how to use your abilities.
Let’s give an example: you’re playing Elise and you’re ganking a lane. You can either walk in in person mode, try to land the long-ranged stun, follow it up with your ranged burst, then switch to spider mode to close the gap and finish out the gank, or you can start in spider mode, rappel into the gank, use your Q for damage, then switch to person mode to land the easy stun.
Since your Spider damage is based off of % missing health, while your person damage is based off of % current health, leading with person mode does more damage, at the expense of having a harder to land stun. On the other hand, leading with spider mode is more assured, but leaves you without Rappel should you need to disengage.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have pre-rework Skarner. Your only gameplan is: pop shield, run at them, and hope you can get onto them. Oh, and flash if you have it.
Obviously, plenty of people — yours truly included — enjoyed pre-rework Skarner, so play versatility isn’t the only way you can make a game fun, but then we come to the second part of the game: spectators.
The enjoyment of spectating LoL for most people is predicated on knowledge gaps. Consider the excitement of watching LoL:
When it comes to fights, the excitement is less notable for a lot of champions:
This is because Trundle and Jax both have very straightforward gameplay: jump on a target and attack them until they die.
Other champions are capable of creating excitement through a knowledge gap. You know about what happens in a Trundle v Jax fight, but what about Lee vs Ezreal? Does Ezreal manage to kite Lee? How does Lee use his safeguard to efficiently gap-close? Does Lee pull his dragon kick off in a way that helps him? And so on.
It is precisely this that I am focused on: champions with non-probabilistic uncertainty of kit strength. Yes, when Ashe fights Tristana, there is uncertainty in the fight: will somebody get a lucky crit? But it’s not particularly interesting uncertainty, because you can’t see anything about it. On the other hand, champions like Lee Sin or Elise leave you guessing as to what the player is going to do next, which creates excitement for spectators, awe in allies/opponents, and satisfaction in successful execution for players.
Now, don’t mistake this for mechanical ability. Often, it would be expressed through mechanical difficulty, but it can also be decision-making of other forms.
I’m not going to try and rate these champions, but here’s a list of champions — in alphabetical order — with a lot of interesting choices.
Brand’s abilities all interact with each other in interesting ways due to his passive, so you have to choose which effects you want: a spread of his flames, a stun, or extra AoE damage. Unfortunately, the Q effect is so crucial that you will rarely go for anything else, but the conceptual idea is good.
Elise forces a number of interesting choices, but central to them is this:
I think Graves is a very well designed ADC. He has low range, which prevents his teamfight ability from abused, but he has a lot of choices as to positioning. He can use his dash for safety, or he can use it for Attack Speed, and the more unsafely he plays (attacking more), the faster his dash comes up.
Jayce is in a similar position to Elise, with a bunch of extra melee-only abilities that open him up to more focus.
Nothing about Lee’s kit is particularly good, and he doesn’t scale well into the end-game. But he has so many tools to make plays that the gap between an alright Lee Sin and a great Lee Sin is huge.
Lulu has interesting interactivity between her E and her Q, and also choices to make about how to use her W (buff an ally or CC an enemy) and ultimate (ult a squishy to protect them or ult a tank to help initiation?)
Renekton has to choose which abilities to empower, and makes up for less straight up damage or tankiness than most bruisers, but less CC than most tanks, with some mobility
Thresh has a lot of tools. None of them are the sorts of tools that will net a kill, but it is obvious when a play is made. He has 3 abilities that are highly skill dependent. If you can’t land hooks, the skill is pretty hard to use well. If you use the box at the wrong time, it has almost no effect. If you use the lantern poorly, it will be a long time before you can use it again. Flay can be used to help with an initiation or to deflect an enemy initiation. Aside from Flay, all of these skills have long cooldowns, which means that using them poorly has a cost.
I think Tristana is the best designed reset character. Her reset is not like Katarina’s or Akali’s or Kha’Zix’s, where it will allow you to put out a ton of damage, but it does allow her a lot of mobility and repositioning, and can lead to a lot of outplay potential.
The important part about these abilities (and others not mentioned here), is that using them successfully is not about landing skill shots, but about using the skills to their greatest impact. Sometimes, these decisions even involve masking what your actual intent is. Basically, when watching a Lee Sin dash around — and I do see Lee Sin as the epitome of this style of kit — you can see from the results he get and from the reaction of the enemy team whether he outplayed the other team, or simply made a simple play, and that gap in results leads to excitement in competitive play.
Mattias “Gentleman Gustaf” Lehman is a gaming and esports nerd who has ranked as high as Diamond 1 in solo queue and Diamond 3 in arranged 5s.
You can see his other work here: