25th February, 2016

Dominion: Where It All Went Wrong

League of Legends has always had multiple game modes for players to choose from. There’s the classic 5v5 Summoner’s Rift. The dark and mysterious 3v3 map Twisted Treeline, the popular arcade style of ARAM and the recently retired capture the point style map of Dominion. Now that the only remains of this once loved map are memories and a summoner icon rewarded to those that played it regularly it’s important to realise that this is something we’ve never really seen before – The retirement of one of the permanent game modes.

Dominion was released in 2011 as a trial of a new game mode for League of Legends. At this point, there was no ARAM so Dominion offered something that neither the 5v5 or 3v3 game modes did – a new objective. Its player base quickly grew with Dominion gaining lots of hard-core players as well as groups dedicated to only playing their champions on the Crystal Scar. It had regular competitive tournaments with prize pools of over $1000 and it replaced co-op versus AI as the place for players to practice their newly acquired champions.

Unfortunately, this success was short lived. In the later years, Dominion became a quieter place full of only the loyal Dominion fans who had to endure long queues and games full of bots to play their favourite game mode. There was much speculation about the future of this game mode even as early as 2013 until in 2016 Riot released an official statement stating that they are going to shut down Dominion for good.

“We haven’t been supporting Dominion, and we’ve trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle where the queue isn’t large enough to warrant major attention, but falls prey to bugs and periods of imbalance from the introduction of new champs and items (which then drives down the size of the queue, and so on).

“In the absence of our attention, matchmaking and game quality in Dominion varies wildly based on daily engagement. Because of how matchmaking works, the longer someone looking to play Dominion waits in queue, the wider the pool of potential foes the matchmaker can pull from — with such a small population, Dominion games can match up widely divergent skill levels after long enough queue times. Unhealthy queues that force players to endure long waits with fluctuating match quality ultimately creates an overall poor experience — one we take responsibility for.”

Where Did It Go So Wrong?

While the official Riot statement suggests that the long queue times and poor match making is to blame this isn’t entirely accurate. Dominion wasn’t born this way and its early success shows that this game mode had potential to rival the player base of the popular ARAM. The real problems that Dominion faced have been visible for some time and yet these complications remained unsolved. Dominion was neglected by Riot and eventually had to pay the full price of its 5 year old life.

Bots Everywhere

lol dominion bots

Dominion has an extremely large population of bots. It’s quick game mode and low population made it an easy way to farm experience and IP with little risk. This made it a safe haven for bots and unfortunately ruined the game mode for the real players. What fun can it be when you play on a game mode based around team fights when half of your team is only doing the bare minimum to avoid being auto-reported for being AFK? While this was only a real problem at the lower MMR it prevented any new people from playing Dominion. As the loyal older population started to move on there was never a younger generation of Dominion fanatics replacing those that left. The population eventually shrank to a size so small that queue times became ridiculously long. This led to more people quitting and this feedback loop eventually led to a 28 hour Dominion Queue.

Soul Anchor Sucked the Soul from Dominion

dominion soul anchor

When trinkets came into the game in Season 4 Riot knew they had to add something to the Crystal Scar. Their answer was the Soul Anchor. An item which would instantly revive you from your death and grant you a movement speed buff. Think that sounds like a good idea? It wasn’t and it’s no coincidence that since that item was added the player base for Dominion shrank dramatically. This free revive opened up additional summoner spell choices (as players no longer needed revive) which clearly weren’t balanced for the game mode.

Additionally this item would give a player three revives throughout the game which takes away one of the penalties for the ultimate mistake: death. When your champion dies this is supposed to allow players to push forward and take objectives while you are powerless to stop them. What the Soul Anchor actually does is give you another life as well as a speed buff – this means that not only can you quickly reach where the team fight took place but you can actually win the team fight because you have full health and mana whereas your opponents are probably still wounded. Being punished for winning a team fight was not a fair mechanic and players quickly moved onto other game modes.

Punished for Playing Well

lol dominion victory

Did you know that Dominion has a rubber banding effect? If your team was down by 50 or more nexus health (which is very common) then your respawn times are significantly shorter than the other teams. This only punishes the team that is currently winning. The absurdity of this situation is that you don’t actually want to get too much of a lead in Dominion or you could face a comeback from the lesser skilled opponents. Rather than allowing skill to decide the game Riot decided that if you are losing you should be given a helping hand. Imagine this in any real sporting example and you’ll quickly realise that Riot didn’t think this decision through.

This mechanic along with the Soul Anchor led to dying not being feared as much as it is in other game modes. While in Summoners Rift a death can mean the end of your game, in Dominion a death doesn’t particularly matter because you’ll be back alive soon anyway.

Dominion Wasn’t Balanced

It’s difficult to balance over a hundred different champions for one game mode – balancing them all for a completely different game mode as well is impossible. Riot had to make a decision: Would Summoners Rift suffer because of Dominion or would Dominion suffer because of Summoners Rift? Considering Summoners Rift is their core game mode and has a world championship which offers the winner $1,000,000 the decision is pretty clear. Unfortunately meant that Dominion was never really given a chance after its initial launch.

Champions like Le Blanc, Fizz, Nidalee, Lee Sin, Braum and Pantheon were regulars on Dominion because their kits were simply too strong for the fast paced team fighting that Dominion offered. While there is little Riot could have done about this (without hurting their core game mode) it was certainly one of the biggest killers of Dominion and it’s probably why we never saw ranked dominion.

We Never Saw Ranked Dominion

A large chunk of the League of Legends player base don’t play normal. The thrill and excitement that Ranked brings cannot be matched in any normal game mode. The feeling of climbing a ladder (or falling down it) makes each game worth playing and normal Dominion simply didn’t offer this. Unfortunately, a ranked Dominion would then need to have a sizeable player base, good balancing and some support from Riot which just isn’t possible. Ranked Dominion would have potentially extended the life span of this 5 year old game mode, it would have also highlighted some of its serious flaws.

lol dominion map

Disappointingly with the addition of regular ‘arcade’ style game modes (which has its own team taken from Dominion) Riot just couldn’t find the time to give Dominion the support it needs. Without regular balancing and a ranked queue the game mode has been doomed for quite some time. Similar to that of a much loved pet that has fallen terminally ill, Riot decided it’s best to pull the plug and let the game mode leave League of Legends peacefully rather than have a prolonged and drawn out death. 

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