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How sound helps us follow League of Legends games

Audio clues help us navigate games as we play them. League is no different.

Riot Games

Ryan Thompson is a Ph.D Candidate in Musicology at the University of Minnesota. The following is an excerpt from his dissertation.

As of the close of Worlds this year, heralding the beginning of the game’s seventh season, there are 133 different playable champions in League of Legends. This large number creates a staggering burden of knowledge for new players. Processing which champion is currently using which ability to accomplish which specific task in the midst of a large teamfight with 8-10 players all in the same space quickly moves from the impractical to the impossible, especially if a player has little or no experience with some of the champions currently on the field. Most players don’t have access to the entire pool of champions, so it’s common to face unfamiliar champions, especially during preseason when balance is up in the air.

League of Legends organizes its sound into different semiotic categories to help address this burden of knowledge for both players and spectators. At a broad level, players can readily infer the basic functionality of an action from its sound category. As players gain more experience with the game, each sound effect within a given category is differentiated enough for players to specifically identify which skill or item has been used at any given moment.

One example of this is the set of sounds associated with items and skills used to augment a team’s vision of the map. All of the vision items/skills have a unique sound, but each of them contain a sound, that, for lack of a better term, recalls the sound of a match being struck – apropos to the idea of something that grants vision in a dark space. Some of these sounds are extremely closely related – for instance, green and pink wards differ only in their post-processing effects. The sweeper has a more pitched sound befitting the red laser visual accompanying the item’s activation. For the vision abilities associated with champions, it’s not a coincidence that both Quinn and Ashe have bird sounds associated with their vision-granting skills.

Healing spells are another common category by which League of Legends audio is organized. There is a clear exemplar for this category: the Heal summoner spell. Activating the spell plays the sound of wind chimes, referenced in every other healing spell. Soraka, for instance, has abilities that come the closest to the Heal sound effect, with both Astral Infusion and Wish having wind chimes as a major component of their associated sound effects. The use of wind chimes to represent healing is, of course, not unique to League of Legends -- it’s an RPG holdover. This only serves to establish the category more strongly in the mind of the experienced video game player. Visually, the color green is nearly always included as part of the healing domain (thanks again, role-playing games), but there are exceptions. Nami’s Ebb and Flow ability is a blue water effect, for instance. Every healing skill does make use of wind chimes, however, lending the aural gameplay feedback more importance than the visual.

Some domains speak not just to other members within the domain, but are in dialogue with other domains as well. In gameplay terms, a shield spell has an effect similar to a healing spell, and the ways in which shielding is represented in sound is quite similar to healing. Shields tend to have much less chime and much more wind, though the whooshing of wind is often (though not always) accompanied by a wind chime effect. Wind forms the primary element of each shielding sound effect. The Barrier summoner spell is the exemplar here, much like Heal was above.

The final domain worth mentioning is also the most broad-reaching one: combat-augmentations. While these differ wildly in specific effect (some cause attacks to penetrate armor, some cause an attack to prevent enemy players from casting their own spells etc), they all have the broad effect of improving a character’s attack in some way. Garen’s Decisive Strike, Irelia’s Hiten Style, and Talon’s Noxian Diplomacy are just a small sample of the complete list.

This domain is most clearly identified by the sound of metal clashing, though in-game each character’s sounds appear to be derived from the weapon they wield. It’s telling that Nidalee’s Takedown spell makes this type of sound despite the character having shapeshifted into the form of a cougar with no metal weapon to speak of – this is likely to help communicate the danger she presents with the skill active. New players who hear one of these sounds should take extra caution – they are often accompanied by a dive or a blink to the intended target.

None of these sounds are permanently set in stone. The game’s older characters (this season, it’s Talon, Rengar, LeBlanc, and Katarina) are constantly being reworked to better fit both the current artistic style and new emergent gameplay, helping to keep a now seven-year-old game feeling fresh. This reworking of older material happens on a regular basis, so even veteran players will always have something new to learn each season. The categories themselves have been refined over the years (compare last season’s stealth mechanics to this season’s, for instance) much like the game’s graphics and gameplay balance changes.

Esports continues to grow less niche and more mainstream. League of Legends continues to lead in this regard, as the number one most-watched game on Twitch.tv. Peak concurrent viewership for the League of Legends 2015 World Finals was 14 million viewers, and the total number of people who tuned in for any portion of the grand final match was 36 million viewers. Communication of gameplay information via audio, particularly communication directed towards novices and spectators, is a trend likely to continue as viewership becomes more important to a company’s bottom line. This is especially true of fast-paced competitive games. League of Legends demonstrates that the use of aural schemas to facilitate quick processing of what is going on in a very busy visual environment is a strength upon which future games can rely.