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PAX Prime 2013: Riot Games' Whalen Rozelle on LoL Season 3

Patrick Mackey

I was really excited to step into Riot's press room on Friday at PAX Prime. We had just finished the first series of matches of the day, and it was pretty exciting to talk to people about the matches yet to come. But I don't think anyone was more excited to talk about League of Legends' e-sports scene than Whalen Rozelle, or RiotMagus as he's known on the internet.

As the senior e-sports manager at Riot, he's tasked with making sure that events run smoothly, and I took the opportunity to ask him about the format for Season 3 -- especially improvements over Season 2 and the lessons Riot will be taking into Season 4.

Champion and update timings

Although he isn't directly involved with the development of new champions, Rozelle had a lot to comment on regarding the impact of patches in Season 3. I asked if he thought that the rapid pace of champion releases made it hard to create a stable competitive environment. "We think that if you're going to be a top player in League of Legends, you really need to adapt," he explained. "I think that's part of what makes our scene what it is -- the best players learn to survive in a changing environment." But then he added, "When we get around to the World Championships, we do want to slow down so that we have a more stable environment."

He was quick to point out that Riot has been slowing down its champion release cadence already, though. "We really do want to give champions more of an identity. We don't want people to just churn and burn through a champion that they play for only two weeks." He argued that with the game's new media such as comics and intro cutscenes and events, Riot has really stepped up its effort in that area, and he was pretty proud. "I really love the new Lucian intro," he said.

PAX Prime 2013 Talking with Riot Games' Whalen Rhozelle about LoL Season 3
Tournaments and format

As a really competitive player, I think double-elimination tournaments are the best way overall to simultaneously create a "fair" tournament that is impacted less by seeding and still has a dramatic finish (Swiss draft is probably better for figuring out who is actually the best, but at the cost of drama).

I asked Rozelle about his thoughts on the format, and his answer was kind of surprising. "It's really all about the viewers," he explained. "We want to create the best balance between something that is fair for the players and something that a fan can follow." It's definitely true that a double-elimination bracket is difficult to read unless you're familiar with tournaments, and while I believe that the complexity is worth it for a more fair tournament, I also understand a lot better now why Riot still uses its format. As Rozelle put it, "A lot of our format is done for readability. We don't want fans to have to study on how to read a bracket to enjoy the games."

Weekly league formats

I love the current league format for LoL mostly because there is something to watch all the time. However, I mentioned to Rozelle that I had trouble catching matches because it seemed as if there were just so many of them. "That's actually a really common point of feedback, actually," he told me. "Oddly enough, there were actually more games in Season 2 than in Season 3 if you count them, but it doesn't feel that way."

Rozelle explained to me that because the games happened so frequently (rather than a huge burst of games at a single major event), a lot of people felt overwhelmed. He also told me that Riot is looking into some potential solutions such as recaps for people to catch up in Season 4 or possibly even lengthening the season itself. "We want to let fans be fans and create an ecosystem that really allows them to do that so we can get out of their way."

PAX Prime 2013 Talking with Riot Games' Whalen Rhozelle about LoL Season 3
Season 3's mechanical changes

Of course, I had to ask the hard question: "How do you feel the Season 3 balance changes have affected the pro metagame?" He admitted that he wasn't a designer, so he couldn't really give me the best answer, but he thought that games were much more fluid and dynamic in Season 3 and that teams were fielding more wildly diverse compositions than they were in Season 2.

He believes League should have a certain kind of tempo, such as a fairly stable laning phase followed by a teamfight phase and so on, and that kind of match flow is what people expect when they watch the game. He also admitted that sometimes fans and even pro players tend to overreact a bit to big changes and that things tend to work out.

Getting new blood in the scene

Rozelle was really excited about the success of the Challenger program. "Cloud 9 is such a great example of an up and coming team," he said. "In spring, we had our set of LCS teams, but there was always someone new waiting in the wings. There's always someone gunning for a spot to compete on the big stage."

He did express some disappointment about the impact of the Challenger matches, which generally include lesser-known teams that have risen through the ranks. "I don't think those matches get enough recognition," he said. "Those teams really show that they have the heart to compete, and some of their matches are really great."

Still, he told me, "The team is looking in 2014 to support Challenger far more than we did this year. Our focus is going to be fleshing out the entire ecosystem." He emphasized the importance of community tournaments like MCS and giving them the support that they need from Riot. "E-sports is an aspiration. There's a defined path to go pro. It's hard, but it's there and we want to give people that chance."

PAX Prime 2013 Talking with Riot Games' Whalen Rhozelle about LoL Season 3
Lessons learned and the future of LoL e-sports

"I think that Season 3 has been a huge step forward," he said. "The league system and Challenger have created a much better competitive ecosystem." I asked whether there will be any changes to the formats for the next season. "We won't make any drastic adjustments like we did in Season 3, but there has been a lot of community feedback and stuff we've seen, so we will be making some course corrections."

Rozelle was very enthusiastic about the overall success of the format. "We're really satisfied with how the LCS has gone. It's our first season, so there have definitely been some mistakes, but it's been a great format for building a strong competitive environment that's going to last decades. That's our goal."

He also emphasized how important the lasting appeal of the LoL tournament scene is. "It's not about throwing a couple of grand tournaments; it's about building a sport. It's about building a system that can last a long time."

Massively's on the ground in Seattle during the weekend of August 30th to September 2nd, bringing you all the best news from PAX Prime 2013. Whether you're dying to know more about WildStar, The Elder Scrolls Online, EverQuest Next, or any MMO in between, you can bet we'll have it covered!

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