Can Riot’s Upcoming League of Legends Fighting Game Succeed Where Others Have Failed?

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Can Riot’s Upcoming League of Legends Fighting Game Succeed Where Others Have Failed?

Originally announced in 2019, Project L is an upcoming fighter developed by Riot that, despite lacking a release window or even an official name, has been at the forefront of discussions in the fighting game community (FGC) for years. There is a relatively simple explanation for its spot in the limelight: it’s set in the world of League of Legends, a title whose player count, viewership numbers, and tournament prizes far exceed anything found in even the most popular fighting games. Some see Riot’s involvement as something that, for good or ill, could fundamentally alter the nature of the scene forever. If it ends up a runaway success, its design elements and monetization scheme would likely be emulated by others attempting to capture a similarly large slice of the pie.

Beyond its attachment to League of Legends, there are more than a few reasons that Project L is worth keeping an eye on. For one, it’s being developed by Radiant Entertainment, who previously worked on Rising Thunder, a beginner-oriented fighting game that was a great gateway into the genre for those who found it. Speaking from personal experience, its simplified inputs and streamlined design made it easy to get past the mechanical complexities that make these games initially intimidating, helping me see enough of the appeal to journey deeper. Unfortunately, Rising Thunder was never fully released due to the company being acquired by Riot, making it difficult to extrapolate how this previous approach would have worked in the long run (although there is a freeware Community Edition that the studio has since made available).

Another boon for Radiant Entertainment is that it’s headed by the Cannon brothers, who have been key figures in the FGC for years. The two co-founded EVO, a mega-tourney that is essentially the Super Bowl of the genre, and created the well-known fighting game forum Shoryuken, which was an important repository of information for years. However, perhaps their most significant contribution came when Tony Cannon crafted GGPO, an open-source middleware that can dramatically improve the quality of online matches. GGPO uses something called “rollback netcode,” which, through clever programming, can mask small drop-offs in internet connectivity to make bouts feel far more fluid than those using traditional delay-based netcode. After Cannon lobbied for Capcom to implement GGPO, rollback netcode has since caught on in most new fighters and has dramatically improved the quality of matches played online. All of this to say is that the people leading development on Project L are deep in the weeds of the genre, having made several huge contributions to the space. While none of this is a guarantee that their entry will pan out, it is still encouraging nonetheless.

What we’ve seen of Project L itself is also promising. Its cast, which is made up of well-known characters from League of Legends like Jinx, Ekko, and Ahri, seem to sport unique mechanics that will hopefully provide a broad range of play styles and make matchups feel distinct. For instance, Ahri is the only character shown so far with an air dash, meaning she has access to exceedingly quick aerial mobility. Ekko can re-position quickly by snapping backward through time, leading to unique setups. Despite being relatively early in development, the art style is colorful and sharp, conveying these novel powers and abilities.

If there’s one aspect of its core gameplay that may be off-putting to some, it’s that it is a tag fighter, meaning you swap between two different characters during matches. This style isn’t loved by everyone, in part because it can lead to somewhat chaotic and overwhelming situations where multiple characters can be used to enable brutal scenarios. Additionally, these titles can sometimes be more of a time sink because they require learning more than one cast member. While I usually don’t gravitate towards tag fighters, the most recent development trailer showed a variety of slick combos and seemingly complex offensive sequences which were only possible due to this setup, which helped convince me of the appeal. They showed off ways to fluidly switch between characters, resulting in elaborate sequences that imply a high skill ceiling. We also saw a way to escape combos, and there was noticeable push-block while defending, meaning there may be a decent balance between defense and aggression. Additionally, the game’s creative director showed off the variety of movement options, making it seem like there may be a lot of depth regarding positioning, a hallmark of many of the genre’s best outings. While it’s impossible to say anything definitive until we get hands-on time, its core systems look intriguing thus far.

However, there are two major points of concern: its monetization and how its mechanics will try to appeal to those not usually interested in fighting games. These topics have defined conversations over the genre’s future for years, and some believe that if Project L is popular, its implementation of these ideas could become the new norm. For monetization, most genre entries are currently full-priced releases, with DLC characters eventually added after launch. By contrast, Radiant has said their title will follow League of Legends’ lead and be Free To Play. The only notable F2Ps in the space I can think of are Multiversus and Brawlhalla, both of which are platform fighters and thus frequently perceived as “separate” from more traditional offerings

While the F2P model seems likely to bring an influx of players, many implementations of this kind of monetization are predatory, encouraging pseudo-gambling over items or the like. While free up-front, these titles can often feel more expensive than their premium counterparts. For instance, it’s possible that individually purchasing the entire launch roster of Project L could cost more than the standard $60 that big-budget entries charge. While we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, as nothing specific has been announced about the game’s F2P system, some fear that if it’s a fiscal success, this model could become standard practice throughout the space.

To be fair, the genre’s current monetization systems aren’t exactly stellar either, as DLC will frequently be released very close after launch, with new characters costing between $6-7 each. An extreme case was Street Fighter V, which launched with only 16 characters but then added a whopping 29 more that went for $5.99 when purchased individually. While it’s common for bundles or re-releases to offer the full cast at a decreased cost, there is certainly room for improvement with the current model.

The other central concern about Project L is it could be another case of a fighting game failing to balance approachability and complexity. In recent years developers have been trying to find a way to maintain the nuances and intricacies that define these titles while paving the way for newer players, hopefully becoming the first breakaway success that manages to bring in massive numbers like MOBAs or shooters. In an ideal world, this easy-to-pick-up, difficult-to-master entry would let newcomers get in and quickly understand the genre’s central appeal while still ensuring layers of depth for a more dedicated audience.

However, attempts at striking this fabled balance have been relatively mixed, resulting in many games that arguably curtail skill ceilings while also failing to onboard genre neophytes successfully. For instance, DNF Duel, another title based on an enormous existing gaming franchise, featured easier inputs, removed cross-ups, and generally avoided more complicated systems. Unfortunately, its player base quickly disintegrated, going from a peak of 12,000 concurrents on Steam to a 24-hour max count of only 100. While that outing had many problems besides its lack of depth, it was also based on a high-earning series from a different genre that attempted to appeal to those outside this space’s core audience, making it an interesting parallel to Project L.

At this point, many oldheads perceive modern fighting games as “dumbed down” and less interesting than previous offerings because they are designed with newcomers in mind. While I think much of this is nostalgia, and many of these people conveniently forget the awful balancing and jank that existed in these older titles, it is true that most modern entries are trending towards removing complexity. One way developers have attempted to cater to a new audience is by offering “simplified inputs” for special moves, meaning they don’t require stick motions like Z-inputs or half-circles. Another way they are streamlined is by giving combo routes more lenient timing. Some have complained that these changes make certain powerful maneuvers too easy to perform and thus overly spammable, such as invincible reversal Dragon Punch attacks going from a Z-input to a more reliable single-direction input. Others have said that making combo timing too straightforward makes it so that everyone performs identical optimal combos because there’s no risk-reward between performing a basic, lower-damage route versus a deadlier but more difficult sequence.

Radiant has promised that Project L will have simplified inputs, which has made some worry it will turn out like DNF: Duel or other recent entries that lack flair at higher levels of play. Personally, I think that the ideal solution is to have an option for easier inputs but for challenging inputs to be available for additional reward. However, I think the most essential element is for these titles to maintain depth in their general system mechanics, adding more potential layers to decision-making and having numerous movement abilities. While many have complained about last year’s Guilty Gear: Strive for “being too easy” compared to previous outings, its Roman Cancel system is an excellent example of balancing complexity and approachability. It allows players to improvise and be creative while also tethering multiple techniques to a single resource in an easily digestible way. Similarly, while Dragon Ball FighterZ uses simplified inputs and was designed to pull in Dragon Ball fans who may have never picked up a fight stick, its movement is intricate enough to create many avenues for expression.

The good news is that what little we’ve seen of Radiant’s game seems to indicate there are many ways to maneuver, and they’ve specifically called out having a suite of movement options as a key design focus. Additionally, its tag system appears as though it could enable tricky setups, potentially creating a sizable skill ceiling where veterans can create hard-to-perform but rewarding offensive sequences. While we still don’t have much to go on, considering the development team’s experience with the genre and their statements about the importance of balancing depth and beginner-friendliness, I’m hopeful that they understand the assignment.

However, although simplified inputs can make these entries more approachable, I believe the single biggest stumbling block with the genre is that they have been criminally bad at teaching newbies. Sure, fighting games are inherently complex, frequently taking a lot of practice and knowledge to grasp. However, this learning process is far more difficult than needed because few games successfully teach players how to play them. Almost all of my understanding of these games has come from reading wikis, forum posts, and Discord channels instead of through in-game tutorials. While something like Mortal Kombat 11 does a great job introducing many complicated topics, I’m still waiting for a novel solution to onboarding that reacts to your play. Perhaps something like an in-game coach that analyzes habits and offers suggestions to improve would be highly beneficial. Another great feature would be something like what’s provided in Guilty Gear XX: Accent Core Plus R (yes, that’s the real full name), where you can enter a replay and then take control of a specific scenario, your opponent’s previous actions reenacted so you can attempt a different approach to the situation.

Although I wouldn’t be surprised if Project L has a low skill floor and high ceiling, I will be impressed if it can do something that almost every other fighting game has failed at, revealing what you don’t know and helping you learn. While I’m not sure this is the one missing piece for this genre to “fully break into the mainstream,” at the very least, I think it would be cool to get additional people in the door. I would love it if more players could reach the point where the appeal finally clicks, and it becomes clear why so many play these games with such fervor, folks gathering from around the world to compete and watch the best. While all that pressure may be too much to put on the shoulders of any one title, I’m interested to see if Project L can help more people experience the joy of fighting games.

Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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