“Neeko feels the same as other champions,” was my first response to looking at Neeko’s abilities and watching PBE footage (an echo chamber of nearly-identical video uploads with lots of exclamation points, the shame of which is now forever etched onto my search algorithms). I felt this very strongly, and yet I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why. I figured I couldn’t write a single sentence and submit it as an article, so I set out to actually investigate my feelings to see if I was on to something or if this was another step into the eventual “old man shakes fist at cloud” that inevitably occurs when you’ve played any game for a decade.
Here’s what I came up with.
Neeko is League of Legends’ 142nd released champion — a fact that makes me feel super old as I type it. You don’t get to maintain a roster of playable characters rivaling the original Pokémon without learning a few things, and Riot’s secret to success in this endeavor is largely tied to the importance they place on a champion’s identity.
Identity’s something I’ve talked about at length in these articles — and whether it’s a champion’s strategic identity (what makes them better suited to certain gameplay situations), thematic or aesthetic identity, Riot tries to give each individual in the game’s roster some way of standing out. They’ve been doing this for a long while, so it should be easy, right?
Not exactly. Forgoing for a moment, all the hard work it takes to actually make these things exist, Riot faces more unique challenges in this regard as time moves on. Simply put — new champions have no guarantee that their identities will resonate (or even be well-liked). Compare this to champion updates, where even once-unpopular characters like Urgot or Aatrox have a legacy or associations designers use to inform what space the new creation could or should occupy. While reworks are compared against their previous iterations, new champions are compared against the all-time greats. Folks that didn’t want to pick up the new Akali or Swain likely didn’t play the originals, so in terms of their prospective champion pool, there’s no loss.
Each new champion though? That’s a potential new main. A potential favorite ... and a potential disappointment.
With this weight on Riot’s shoulders, ever more burdensome with each release, the bar for innovation creeps higher. Stealing summoner spells! Support-assassins! And more relevant to this discussion: shapeshifters. Come see the amazing Neeko: become your teammates! The pressure to bend more rules and search for the truly unique or mind-blowing wow factor is palpable. I don’t mean to ridicule or poke fun here, either. This latest trend in Riot’s design department has led to some of the freshest and most unique mechanics and experiences League has ever seen. This innovative arms-race, however, is not without risk.
In their search for new frontiers, champions start to feel similar to roguelikes or Hearthstone’s Tavern Brawls: adding or breaking rules with interesting drawbacks. Pyke’s “roam and earn tons of kills as a support, but you don’t get to build defensive items” is akin to a hard-mode for average players. It’s exciting to have experiences that don’t just test our mechanical prowess, but instead make us rethink just how well we know the game. In this regard, Neeko lives up to the hype. Just how well do I notice how other players act? Path toward brushes? Do I know that well enough to mind game opponents in the heat of the moment? Neeko asks the player and their opponents to confront this knowledge — often passively stored or glossed over while focusing on other things entirely — and that, in itself, is exciting.
I mentioned that this style of high-concept design has risks. Generally speaking, characters that seek to warp how you view the game (or crucial segments of it) trend towards kits with less mechanical complexity to balance. When figuring out what form to take as Kayn five minutes from now or just what the hell Ivern is even supposed to do, it helps to not have to go through a Yasuo-level skill check after you start to put the pieces together. Neeko follows suit with a set of abilities that wouldn’t feel out of place eight years ago — AoE Q, line missile root, massive AoE nuke/stun. The pieces individually are easy to handle because the concept itself is intended to be the tricky part.
The issue, as it has manifested on Neeko, is when the functional kit that’s meant to ground the player ends up mattering way, way more than the special sauce it was served with.
Let’s examine the ultimate. I’ve never been one to join the crowd of “wtfriot omgbbq so OP,” but in the immortal words of my long-time friend and born-again Riot designer SmashGizmo: the ability does everything but your taxes. Shield, slow, massive damage and scaling, stun, low-mid cooldown — and that’s before you factor in that the first half of its wind-up is disguised with Neeko impersonating someone else. Conceptually, I’m cool with all that! Rewarding Neeko for gettin’ a good mindgame off and going behind enemy lines works for me. The issue is that she just doesn’t really have to.
Aside from partially obscuring the ultimate, Neeko’s kit doesn’t interact with her transformation ability in any way. Her range, her ability to chain CC and blow up targets like some Annie and Amumu hybrid are why you pick her. Zoe had this sort of issue, too. Stealing summoner spells barely sticks out compared to her off-screen one-shots, but unlike Zoe, Neeko’s copycat ability is exactly the thing that’s supposed to make Neeko stand out.
Bluntly: Neeko is a chameleon/shapeshifter that doesn’t need to tap into that to succeed. There will be moments where you do it, and I’m have no doubt that your games will be more fun when you transform into Teemos or Heimerdingers, but there doesn’t really seem to be much of a point to it. It feels like Leblanc’s Passive (which, amusingly, Neeko straight-up has on her W) set to distract from all the actually powerful stuff she’s doing, producing highlight clips every now and then. She’s perfectly effective without it, and for what her concept promised, I’m a little disappointed that it’s not integrated strongly enough such that she can (and will) win some percentage of games in which she never transforms at all.
I want to reiterate: this stuff is hard. The calculus and chaos that brings new champions into League is a tough and arduous process. It’s not always a win — though as I say this, I have no doubt that Neeko is selling well and that folks are having fun shapeshifting across the rift. Unimpressed as I may be with Neeko’s execution, you have to admit that there’s a certain humor in having a literal chameleon blend in with the crowd so easily.