When last I visited Riot and got a sneak preview at all the unique goodies the champion team had been cooking up, I have to admit that Akali slipped under my radar. Not that I didn’t see her — she was on the screens of many of my past associates, practicing combos and recording footage for her launch assets. But compared to all the other new and exciting things I saw, she seemed a little ... basic. She flipped around and did assassin-y things, but overall tame.
I clearly wasn’t paying attention.
After taking the world by storm and driving Twitter thirst-crazy following her announcement earlier this month, Akali’s impending rework is everything League fans didn’t know they wanted. Unlike a “balanced” prework Irelia or a competitively-viable prework Aatrox, there was no mystery around why Akali of all champions was receiving an update. Akali’s kit had always stuck out, even when point-and-click assassins were very much in vogue, because of how simple it felt. Fast forward years later when we have all sorts of unique flavors of murder to choose from, “dash directly to your opponent 3 times in row” doesn’t really inspire excitement.
Even so, it wasn’t until that slick 40-ish seconds of assassination and adorable ramen-munching in Akali’s teaser trailer that we understood just how far League could take the ninja fantasy. Once I got past all the bells and kunai-shaped whistles however, and spent time watching what Akali can actually do, my hype began to decelerate. For better or worse, this rework is a big turning point for Riot — but if you’re not worried about what Akali brings to the table, you’re not paying attention.
Youth and skill
Before I break down Akali’s rougher edges, credit where it’s due: this may go down as one of Riot’s best years with respects to the artistic quality and visual design of new champions, ever — and that’s considering Kai’Sa and her incredibly convenient boobplate-symbiote came out right in the middle of it. Splash, particles, animations, skins — you name it. Riot’s art team has been putting in overtime and the results are indicative of a group of not just talented individuals, but driven ones, with Akali’s breathtaking suite of new skins and models sitting atop them like a jewel. I really can’t stress it enough. I watched Akali’s trailer at least a double-digit amount of times to soak in the raw style and kinetic majesty present in her animations.
Designed by the notorious Bradford “CertainlyT” Wenban (father to some of League’s Most Wanted in Yasuo, Kalista and Zoe), Akali not only clears the complexity bar for champion kits set by her predecessors. She blows right past it and sets an entirely new record somewhere out in space. This has been CertainlyT’s M.O. since the day Darius released over six years ago to an unsuspecting, soon-to-be pentakilled public. He’s a designer that doesn’t care for your traditions, even less your opinions, and no matter how many passives or lines of text need to be on the kit, nothing’s off limits if it’s in service of a truly novel and unique experience. It’s a legacy as daunting as it is impressive, and while he’s a figure of undoubted controversy, Riot can’t ignore the results his process has produced.
It’s along this axis of novel experiences taken to their extremes that Akali can be considered a resounding success. Like Yasuo slicing abilities in half with a samurai’s agility, she’s the best representation of what it means to be a Ninja that LoL’s ever seen, daring other MOBA’s (and a certain bullet deflecting cyborg) to do better. The swinging kama, tumbling in and out of invisibility at blinding speeds, dancing between targets, the sweet tattoos — she’s got it all. I’ve been a high level player of League of Legends for almost a decade, and when researching her via footage on the Public Beta Environment, I had to actually watch certain clips and sequences in slow motion for the first time ever to actually process what was even happening. While few of Akali’s mechanics are truly new in isolation, the methodical combination of them is both elegant and terrifying. Make no mistake: Akali is now the most complex and skill testing champion in the game. Her Q alone has four different outputs depending on range, energy and level! Four! But if the extreme popularity of Yasuo in every season has been any indication, we’ll be seeing people try (and fail) to strike from the shadows for years to come.
Don’t waste the anger
In theory, Akali’s toolkit is both interactive and fluid, presenting multiple opportunities for her opponents to react while countering with a wide range of options to outmaneuver her foes right back. It’s in practice that this narrative doesn’t quite hold. Akali’s gratuitous mobility paired with the extreme repeatability of her damage would be fearsome enough, but Twilight Shroud’s extended untargetability from champions and structures (CertainlyT’s latest mad science) combines to make an experience where Akali holds all the cards. Telegraphing does exist with her Lee Sin-styled Shuriken Flip but is immediately blanked by Twilight Shroud’s immediate invisibility. This often turns your ability to fight back not even a question of reaction speed, but if your champion even happens to possess an ability with cast times fast enough to complete before she disappears. (Here’s a tip: trying to Garen ult an Akali usually won’t go the way you want it to.) The result is a mix of the worst parts of Master Yi and Fizz combined — not their damage, but the absolute loss of control. Basic attacks or abilities canceled. Commands not completing. The feeling that your game just straight-up isn’t functioning. It wasn’t fun on those champions, and the clarity sacrifices made for Twilight Shroud’s uniqueness feel like an overall step backward for League.
That would be bad enough, but breaking a rule as fundamental as “turrets should be a safe zone” (without extreme coordination at least) usually comes at a cost that seems entirely absent from Akali’s repertoire. For as long as he’s demolished the rules of game, CertainlyT’s high moments usually are accompanied by some form of intended counterplay, no matter how narrow they may be. Yasuo can shut down entire team compositions with Wind Wall, but powerful melee champions make him look like a joke. (Have you ever seen a Bear Stance Udyr casually stroll past Wind Wall and beat the living shit out a Yasuo? It’s extremely cathartic.) Warwick tracks prey at sonic speeds across an entire map while out of combat, but some champions (like Ezreal) can put him in combat frequently enough to end the chase. Even Zoe — League’s latest balance hangover — can pull off some of the most powerful YouTube-highlight level one-shots from off the screen assuming she can land another skillshot to set it up.
As much as I look, I can’t figure out what folks are supposed to do against Akali other than toss your least-valuable teammate in her path and hope she’s appeased with your tribute. Even the traditional non-answer of “just CC and kill them when they go in” doesn’t apply unless you happen to be packing a world war’s supply of non-targeted AoE CC and nukes to finish the job. Even if she doesn’t release at a particularly powerful win rate, it feels like too many times the answer to “What could we have done?” or “What should we do?” will be “Don’t be in a game with Akali” and “Wait until it’s time to surrender.” I know there will be many out there that say, “But she’s an assassin! This is her job!” and that’s true — but failing to build meaningful counterplay into your complex super-ninja feels negligent in contrast with the meticulous care placed on the Akali player’s experience. Fun is a zero-sum game, but the degree to which the scales are tilted away from the playing-against case feel inconsistent with Riot’s values at the bare minimum.
Doing things differently
Akali’s reckoning doesn’t just end with a few tower dives and surrender votes. Just as her character has left behind the Kinkou order, Akali’s development hints at a deeper shift in Riot’s creative process under-the-hood. For years, champions have had to answer one simple question: in a world of over a hundred champions, how will this one fit into the game long-term? It’s not an unfair thing to ask — we’ve seen many examples throughout League’s history where champions felt like copies of one another, like Lucian and Graves or even old Akali and Diana. But the way that question is answered these days seems to be different.
Previously, the oft-bemoaned buzzword “strategic diversity” was levied as the reason for champions to be made. Simply put, each champion could earn their spot on League’s roster long-term by bringing something no one else did. Thus champions like Poppy were given anti-dash zones, Kled’s ultimate was made to give absurd movement speed for anyone who follows and Zac was reworked to kidnap entire teams ... the list continues. Some of these ideas have worked better than others, but the issue was that for some champions the burden to provide a unique strategic niche got in the way of actually developing compelling gameplay.
Let’s take a look at a few of Riot’s most popular champions over the last two years: Jhin, Kai’Sa and Pyke. While these champions certainly have strengths, weaknesses and a bunch of special mechanics, (like Kai’Sa’s evolution or Jhin’s four shots) they don’t exactly bring anything new on a strategic layer. Long range poke, mixed hyperscaling damage, a support with pick potential — there are other champions you can play to mimic the roles of these well enough when compared to truly one-of-a-kind abilities like Shen’s Stand United or Tahm Kench’s Devour. Instead, it’s the extreme care put into the feel and fantasy of these few that take them over the edge. People play Jhin over Caitlyn because the fourth shot and Curtain Call just feel awesome. Kai’Sa displaces Vayne into a different dimension because she feels better.
Despite Riot’s wealth of talent and knowledge in game design pointing in favor of tradition, the results are hard to deny. The more time invested in pursuit of the best Jhin, the best Pyke and now the best Akali trump any concerns about “Why should I pick this champion in an nth dimensional esports chess match?” You’ll play Akali because she’s a ninja that murders people and she actually requires investment to master, not because she might have a conditional knock-up or something to make her a few percentage points more or less optimal in certain situations. Instead, 2018 Riot seems entirely happy to let the players figure it out over telling them what to do with the things they make.
If the champions I mentioned are any indication, Akali will become a best-selling draw for tons of players to re-engage. Hell, there’s not a single person I know that plays League that isn’t excited to at least try Akali a few times. But embracing this new direction does have potential for long-term consequences. Like I mentioned earlier, Diana was released only to be called “better Akali.” Now, unless you just really like Diana or her numbers happen to be higher, why in the world would you ever play Diana when you could play new Akali? The cycle threatens to repeat itself. Who knows? For all of my misgivings about how fair she is, I’m certainly excited to ruin some folks days with the new hotness — but if not carefully managed, Riot could find themselves adding old champions to a never-ending rework backlog just as quickly as they hit projects like Akali out of the park.