Right now, League achieves engagement through gameplay. And there’s nothing wrong with this. For all that some of us like to complain about this mechanic or that set of balance changes, Riot does an excellent job creating a space where competition takes over your world. I don’t know about the rest of you, but the emotional highs and lows this game creates for me can be pretty intense. But at the end of the day, we are narrative creatures. We crave stories. Even if you’re someone who only deals with the gameplay (i.e. you’ve never looked at a lore page ever, read a game novel, or played an RPG), I would argue your experience is fundamentally tied to some kind of storytelling. Things along the lines of “Do you remember that time when I totally pwned some noobs?” or “Did you see that juke?!”—or on a more public scale, things like the League of Legends Top 5 plays. The gameplay experience itself creates storied events. This phenomenon is compounded when you take these events to a competitive level. You remember that time when Moscow5 took an AP Shaco mid (y’know, if you watched it…. ) or when your favorite team won at x tournament.
The problem with this kind of engagement is that it largely ignores all the world-building Riot has already done. If player interaction is all we were really interested in, there wouldn’t really need to be a Noxus or a Demacia. Heck, on some level we wouldn’t even need champions with distinct personalities. We could all play chess… or something. I think we tend to want something more, and we can improve on how already existing world elements can be included in the game experience.
A second problem is that this kind of player immersion doesn’t always stick on a personal level. Sure you might remember an awesome play you pulled off for a while, but in my own experience these stories tend to be overwritten by newer play experiences. After 1000 games, stories tend to blur. Contrast this with your favorite book or favorite movie (or heck, even your 10th favorite). I’ll bet you anything you can tell me more about the events in those experiences than you could your 10th best League game.
TL;DR? Narratives provide long term engagement (through memory & emotion) while normal gameplay does not.
Now, note that I did say “normal” gameplay. There is one big exception to this, which I like to call the pro-sports effect. Basically, when you make the play really skillful or for high stakes, these games become more likely to create generate their own stories. Everyone remembers when their favorite team won the Super Bowl or the World Series or whatever. This is part of the reason Riot has been pushing the professional scene. And more power to them! I think e-sports is a wonderful thing, and I hope more companies push the boundaries of where we can go with this. However, we are left with our 3rd problem with this model – exclusivity. Basically, players run the risk of becoming passive consumers of high-level play by a small percentage of the population. This is not a terrible thing; many industries (movies, sports, etc) are based off of passive consumption, but it’s a shame when you consider the interactive game medium we start out with. There should be a way we can encourage player involvement, either in the tournament scene or elsewhere.