When it comes to lag, League of Legends developer Riot has been talking a real big game lately — saying they're building a huge lag-killing network, and improving North American players' experience by relocating League's servers. They made good on the latter promise this week, and holy cow has it made the game better.
Earlier this month, Riot announced that it was planning to relocate its central NA servers for League of Legends from their original home in Portland, Oregon, to Chicago, Illinois.
The move was largely strategic; League of Legends first came out in 2009. The game itself and Riot were both much smaller back then. Six years later, League has amassed tens of millions of players, and the game's original infrastructure has struggled to keep pace with its astronomical growth.
Moving the NA servers to Chicago, then, was simply meant to improve people's connections on an aggregate scale. While Riot admitted that a fraction of the North American audience would see a slight increase in their ping times (pings being the system by which you can measure how fast data travels from a player's computer to and from the game's servers), the move was expected to improve ninety per cent of the NA player base's experience in-game.
The server move was finalised this Tuesday when Riot flipped the switch to turn on the new Chicago servers. And while it's still early days, players' responses have been overwhelmingly positive. When I asked players how their games were doing post-move, most confirmed that their ping times did indeed decrease — and decreased drastically. Other players chiming in on a Reddit thread reflected similar experiences. At worst, people with lower pings said that they didn't notice much of a difference in League's actual performance, even though their pings did go down.
The one major exception to this rule is for players living on the west coast, who've seen an increase in their ping. While Riot said that "the vast majority of NA players under 80 ms ping", players in California and other West Coast states have reported ping times of 90 or 100-plus.
While increased ping might be an unfortunate reality for a slice of players who've gotten the raw end of League's new deal, it's still an easier problem for Riot to solve than the one they just handled with the Chicago move. Paul Della Bitta, the general manager for League of Legends' North American sector, explained to me in an interview over the past weekend that the game's much-hyped "Riot Direct" network work by establishing numerous point-of-presence locations that funnel any traffic in their immediate vicinity straight to the game's servers — thereby eliminating excessive middlemen to reduce lag as much as possible. The company is still planning to add more PoPs in the future, in addition to the ones it already has set up in NA:
All Riot has to do to improve players' lag in a particular area of the country is continue to expand this network of PoPs, which the company is already planning to do.
I should also note that while professional League of Legends players weren't happy with the server move when it was first announced, some of the pros criticising Riot for placing an increased burden on them might have been a tad misguided. The professional players were upset because they're all based in the West Coast, meaning they'd see an increase in their pings when playing on the game's normal network. But Riot's Paul Della Bitta told me that pro League teams already have special access to a private network known as "tournament realm," which essentially guarantees they won't be practicing for official League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) games with crappy ping or other types of lag.
As far as I can tell, the benefits of League of Legends' server move this week far outweigh the minor downsides I just mentioned. But what are the benefits, exactly? Let me speak from my personal experience playing League this week.
I live in Brooklyn, New York, and have played almost every single game of my League of Legends career there. As you can see on the map above, New York was one of the first places to get a PoP location, which helped reduce my and any number of other players' lag from "annoying or borderline unplayable" to "occasionally frustrating but mostly playable."
Prior to the move, my pings for League games were normally somewhere in the range of 80 to 110, or maybe 120 on really bad days. Since the new servers went live this week, my ping has consistently been around 25.
That might not sound like a huge difference — 80 or 90 ping is totally still playable, despite whatever gripes West Coast players have had over the past week. But speaking from personal experience, the difference is really remarkable. League has always run well for me. But it hasn't always run very well. With my new ping, my gameplay experience suddenly feels so much smoother and far more responsive than it was before.
It's difficult to show this visually, since the absence of lag is really just the game working as it's intended to. It's only when stuff stops working that you can really notice lag having an effect on the game. In dramatic cases, it might cause characters to jump around in bizarre ways, like in this clip, where a momentary uptick in lag, combined with other glitches, cost four champions their lives:
At its worst moments, lag can make League unplayable for the people suffering from it. Instead of being able to monitor the action (and respond to it) in real time, a player dealing with major lag problems will instead see a slow-motion slideshow. More often for players with my previous ping times, the game will simply move a tad...slowly. Or it might start stuttering on occasion. Minor issues, sure. But remember how insanely competitive and difficult to master League of Legends is. Succeeding in the game requires one to master delicate timing and positioning of their character and his or her abilities, knowing just the right moment to dodge or fire a specific spell at an ally or enemy, and being able to execute on your knowledge and instincts.
I've play hundreds of games of League of Legends at this point, and let me tell you: there is nothing more infuriating in League than being in the middle of an intense team fight, pulling ahead of your opponents, and then suddenly having the game freeze up on you right when you're about to nail the last skill shot necessary to finish them off. It's all the more annoying because moments like that became such a regular occurence that almost nobody believes you if you try to gripe about lag costing you some awesome outplay.
The minute I started playing League on Tuesday night, I could feel a difference. I've been playing a lot of ARAM games in League recently — ARAM being a special game mode that assigns all ten players in a match with a random champion, making it much sillier and more unpredictable than normal games. Whenever I was assigned mechanically complicated champions that require lightning reflexes and instantaneous responses times to land tricky skill shots, I wasn't as intimidated by the prospect of playing them anymore. I played one game as a tricky assassin champion known as Fizz, for instance. Fizz's main abilities center around him jumping in and out of combat quickly enough to land a hit before his enemy has a chance to respond, meaning an effective Fizz player needs to be very quick on their feet (or fingers, I guess?) to use him to the best of his abilities.
I'd only played one game as Fizz beforehand, and faceplanted so hard when trying to pull off his jump-in, stab, then quickly-jump-out combo that I pretty much swore off assassin champs entirely afterwards. Playing him with my new 25 ping, I wasn't just pulling off effective combos for the first time. I was actually having fun while doing so.
As an always-online game that pretty much only offers team-based multiplayer, League of Legends lives and dies by Riot's ability to prevent lag from impinging upon its gameplay quality... or ruining it entirely. Seeing how well the developer pulled off this latest lag fix, I can't help but be optimistic about the game's future.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna go back to practicing with my handful of assassin champions.