By Sean Cabot
“League of Legends” is a free-to-play multiplayer online battle arena game that, since its release in 2009, has gained a massive influence in the burgeoning field of Esports.
Over 100 million people viewed its 2019 championship, and its brand and characters have expanded into comics and pop music.
It only makes sense that the combination of immense popularity and an expanding in-game lore would lead to a television tie-in. But considering the lukewarm reception of many video game adaptations, and just how little story was actually in the game to begin with, there was much to be skeptical about here.
As someone who used to play his fair share of “League,” however, Netflix’s new #1 show “Arcane” not only impresses, it confounds me with how good it is.
Of the game’s many regions, the show is centered on the steampunk metropolis of Piltover, a city founded by scientists to isolate themselves from the wars between mages, and Zaun, a polluted slum on the city’s underside.
The series follows two Zaunite sisters, Vi and Powder, who struggle to survive by venturing to the upper city to steal from its noble families. But when gang boss Silco’s attack on their father ends in disaster, the two are separated for years – Vi being arrested, and Powder being taken into Silco’s care.
Several years later, Caitlyn Kiramann – a city enforcer, releases Vi to bring down Silco’s operation. This mission ends up bringing Vi and Powder – now an unhinged bomber going by the name “Jinx,” into conflict.
This plays out in parallel to the story of scientists Jayce and Viktor, who are developing technology that allows those born without magic to harness its power, despite the resistance from the magic-averse government.
These two plots twist and intersect in fascinating ways, showing how eight legends of “League” earned their reputations. And the most surprising thing about it is how genuine the story feels.
The champions of “League” have only ever been superficially characterized. Vi’s hotheadedness and Jinx’s mental instability didn’t feel like traits possessed by people so much as they felt like excuses for quirky catchphrases.
But in “Arcane,” those traits are treated seriously and form the backbone of a well-written story of broken trust and the cost of ambition.
In fact, all the characters are phenomenally written. Even the most contemptuous antagonists have fascinating nuances that make them just as human as the heroes.
Be warned, this show is an emotional gauntlet with a haunting gut-punch of a finale.
Don’t worry if you’ve never played “League.” As a player who was interested in these specific characters long before this show existed, I can safely say it may actually be better without intimate knowledge of the game.
Though if you’re a longtime fan, there’s a lot of great follow-through on many obscure details of the game’s lore.
Performances are also strong across the board, particular highlights being Jason Spisak’s Silco, Ella Purnell’s Jinx, and Hailee Steinfeld’s Vi, continuing her streak of excellent voice-over roles from 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”
And speaking of “Spider-Verse,” one more thing it shares with “Arcane” is a gorgeous art style thatblends its source’s distinct aesthetic with buttery-smooth 3D animation. The six years “Arcane” spent in development are visible in every frame.
This does wonders for the action scenes, but not only was the show far more subdued and character-driven than I expected, the animation was no less beautiful during its quieter moments.
If anything the violence is notable for how ugly it can get.
“Arcane” stands alongside obscure gems like “Gungrave” as one of the greatest adaptations of a video game to television ever achieved. All that it does well is done so well I scarcely have time to list all the examples.
But my highest praise is this: it makes “League of Legends’” story feel real. And that is truly