Many years ago (around 2013-2014), Riot’s budding champion update team formed and was extremely productive, if a little unfocused. In what we’ll call the “Pre-Sion” era, artists and designers alike were kicking off projects left and right in an effort to figure out both the team’s identity and priorities for what would no doubt be crucial to League’s continued modernization.
During this era, many gameplay updates were released with “some” visual support, while many more visual updates released without significant (or any) gameplay changes to go with them. While players appreciated updates to any content and were generally happy, internally this sort of “wild west” approach to champion updates were making it near-impossible to align developers around the champions that needed the most love. Updates that weren’t complete-package overhauls were largely discontinued, with Sion being the first real proof-of-concept for what a team of this scope could do to one of League’s biggest eyesores. The results spoke for themselves — and the Sion update, marrying large-scale gameplay, narrative and art changes would become the new law of the land.
Four years later, Riot’s done a fantastic job of cleaning out their update backlog. Galio, Urgot, Aatrox, Sion, Taric, Nunu, Evelynn — it’s hard to capture just how many of League’s “worst” champions have gotten their due (and then some). As I’ve covered in this series before, Riot’s changed tactics as “problem” champions dwindle in stock to instead focusing on champion fantasies they can enhance to the fullest extent — Irelia and Akali as prime examples.
So what does all of this recap have to do with Ezreal?
Ezreal’s champion update (if you can call it that), on its face, is largely forgettable. Long-time veterans of his outdated model will notice a change; but given the Prodigal Explorer’s limited upscaling, it’s not impossible to imagine that a non-zero amount of players will even know something changed. I’ll still be covering what has changed, of course - but the story here isn’t really about Ezreal. It’s that this sort of change is happening in the first place.
Zooming in on the task at hand, let’s take a quick look at what’s actually being done here. Most of the work is being put into Ezreal’s presentation — meaning lore, voiceover, particles, etc. His new characterization is another fascinating example of Riot taking cues from how a champion has grown with players over time. Like Dr. Mundo’s original intent as a hulking menace taking the backseat to being a playful, muscle-brained goof or the community’s interpretation of Taric as fabulous (when he was just a boring, shiny Paladin), Ezreal’s pre-conceived cockiness doesn’t come from his character so much as the folks that play him. With four skill-shots, a powerful blink and a global laser, some of League’s biggest plays have been made on the slippery marksman. It makes sense to embrace Ezreal’s ability to live on the edge and pull out spectacular outplays as an intrinsic part of who he is and embrace Riot has.
Gone is any potential read of Ezreal as inquisitive or perceptive. He’s now every high-school slacker coasting by on natural talent, with overconfidence in spades. This works well enough. While the sometimes-cliched nature of his new voiceover makes him sound like every Han Solo wannabe you’ve ever seen, there’s a flexibility to having Ezreal’s character so surface-level. In a world where Riot focuses a lot on short, high budget cinematics and short stories to bring Runeterra to life, Ezreal becomes someone you can envision ... well, just about anywhere. He’s archetypal in his thirst for adventure that having him crop up in events around the world is easy enough to swing with very little setup, and promises to add a little spice or comic relief wherever he goes. It’s still hard to tell exactly how much people care about League’s narrative, but Ezreal’s a perfect fit for their new bite-sized chunks.
New as well is Ezreal’s essence flux, now marking targets hit that, when consumed, refunds mana and deals a burst of extra damage. While subtle, it gives Ezreal a surprising amount of extra depth for a kit so nuanced. Previously, Essence Flux was a husk of its former self. Today’s players may be shocked to learn that it used to heal allies, buff their attack speed, hurt enemies AND reduce their attack speed. Over time, Riot chipped away at the ability until the wholly-unexciting-but-functional version remained, and while played clamored for a replacement, it was a tough sell to say he really needed it given his strength and popularity.
In that light, the new version of the ability seems like a no-brainer; something that very likely had been in Riot’s pocket for many months in anticipation of his visual update to actually release. Beyond that, there’s not much to say. It adds a brief amount of telegraphing and tension to Ezreal’s core loop, but the real win is that it’ll feel like an actual button you want to press. A small note I really like: Essence Flux refunds the mana of the ability that pops it, which plays perfectly with the difficulty-curve-to-mana-cost ratio of his abilities. Q’s the easiest to proc it with, but refunds the least mana, while R gets the biggest benefit from the mana refund, but is significantly harder to hit. It’s not much, but sometimes when mechanics design lines up cleanly like that it’s worth giving the team a little pat on the back.
So looking forward, what’s next for Riot’s updates? Despite the small degree of change, the visual updates, to particles and splash arts alike still take the same amount of time to produce as a normal one would, so it’s hard to say confidently that a rapid fire of smaller updates could ever become the norm. What is worth nothing, however, is that the amount of design cook-time and playtesting cycles necessary is reduced significantly, which can often be one of the more costly expenses in development. After all, artists can’t continue work if design isn’t settled and if the kit’s still being ideated on, some work can’t even begin.
This means that while Riot’s champion updates will continue perhaps with the same intensity and scale were used to, there is room to work on characters that function near-perfectly on a kit level but desperately need the glow-up. Kayle and Morgana have been confirmed for a future release, and while Kayle’s identity crisis demands lots of attention, Morgana’s as powerful and functional as ever — likely a candidate for the mini-update on display here. Thinking it over, some other champions I could get excited for would be Amumu, Malphite and Veigar — each powerful, functional champions with iconic abilities and dated looks (to this day, still over 50 percent of players can’t accurately identify Malphite’s head on his model). Given the ever-raising ceiling of Riot’s incredibly talented artists, any champion update would be a delight, but the thought that this new chapter could be an excuse to set those talents loose a little more often is reason for everyone to be excited.