In October 2009, Riot Games — then a small, newly formed independent game studio in Los Angeles founded by USC roommates Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck — launched its first game: League of Legends.
Over the past 10 years, League of Legends (LoL) has grown into one of the world’s most profitable game franchises. With more than 100 million active monthly players, two professional esports leagues, multiple yearly competitive tournaments with purses topping $6 million and more than $1.4 billion in global revenue last year, the game is entering its 10th year with a considerable amount of momentum, but the team at Riot is pushing to expand its flagship brand even farther.
“This is a big moment for Riot because milestone anniversaries are a time to look back and reflect,” Merrill tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re trying to do that in a way that helps our audience to reflect on the journey we’ve gone through together.”
“Ten years is a long time,” adds Beck. “We certainly didn’t imagine what 10 years would look like when we were a small startup racing to get a game out as fast as we could.”
To celebrate the milestone, Riot is pulling back the curtain on a number of new developments. First, LoL, which has previously only been available on PC devices, will be coming to console and mobile platforms, as will the game’s spinoff “auto chess” mode, Teamfight Tactics, which debuted in June. There is also a new champion (LoL‘s playable characters) joining the fray. Senna, a support type character (champions who specialize in healing and providing temporary upgrades to other characters) who uses a rail gun and is the wife of Lucian, another champion in the game, is the LoL‘s 146th playable champion.
Outside of the main game, Riot also revealed an upcoming digital card game titled Legends of Runeterra, which is set to launch in a closed beta stage next year, as well as two new game projects tackling entirely different genres than LoL‘s multiplayer online battle arena. Project L, which was confirmed by Riot at this year’s annual esports fighting game tournament EVO in Las Vegas, is a fighting game set in the LoL universe, while Project A is an entirely new character-based tactical shooter IP that is “more mature and grounded” and has no connection to the world of LoL. A number of other game projects are also in the works, including Project F, which “explores the possibilities of traversing the world of Runeterra with your friends,” and a feature-length documentary about the rise of LoL‘s popularity from Oscar-nominated documentarian Leslie Iwerks (Recycled Life, The Pixar Story).
Meanwhile, Riot is also working on its first television series based on the LoL universe, Arcane, an animated show developed internally by Riot and animated by Paris-based Fortiche Productions, which has worked with the company on reveal trailers for its champions in the past.
“Arcane is one of these big, exciting endeavors for us,” says Beck. “Originally, League started off with a bunch of characters and we threw them together really quickly. Over time, players became really attached to the characters and we wanted to build more of a universe around them.”
Certain projects have been in development for upwards of eight years at the company, in various stages of creation, largely due to the demand Riot’s tentpole game created.
“We’ve been incubating a lot of these teams for a long period of time,” says Merrill. Over time, he says, “it’s become less of a trade-off of can we do justice to League versus other things. We’ve been prioritizing League as No. 1, hence why it’s taken a long time, but also growing to examine other media.”
While not a story-driven game, necessarily, LoL does feature a deep lore surrounding its characters. New champions are introduced in short animated trailers, given players a sense of their personalities and backstory.
“We found that there was a lot of resonance in our community for this type of storytelling. We started making more experiences in this space to see if the popularity would hold and if the demand was there,” says Riot’s global head of IP businesses and partnerships Jarred Kennedy.
“We have been, over the last few years, experimenting with what can longer-form epic storytelling look like. Animation felt like a natural way for us to deliver a fantastical world,” says Beck.
Kennedy worked with a creative team in L.A., which operates as a “traditional Hollywood writers room” and features writers who have worked on “major” television shows, to develop Arcane internally. “By independently financing the show, it gave us the creative oversight that we needed,” he says.
Like the game on which it is based, Arcane is aimed at a “14+” audience and will deal with some more adult subject matter. “It’s not a light-hearted show,” says Greg Street, head of creative development at Riot. “There are some serious themes that we explore there, so we wouldn’t want kids tuning in and expecting something that it’s not.”
Riot hasn’t begun discussions for distribution of Arcane yet, but Kennedy says he plans to begin conversations in the “coming weeks.” The show is slated to debut sometime in 2020.
“We’re absolutely building relationships in Hollywood,” Beck says.
The goal of Arcane is to ultimately expand the LoL brand into a multimedia experience. “Our hope is that people will watch the show, enjoy it and want to explore the world of League of Legends more,” says Kennedy. “Over time, there will be lots of ways for them to do that.”
“We started this world with a game, the game exceeded our expectations and our players said they wanted to see more of this world,” adds Street. “We really look to IPs like the Marvel Universe, but also things like Star Wars and Harry Potter. Obviously, we have years to go before we attain that level of success, but that’s what we aspire to be one day.”
With increased exposure comes increased scrutiny, however. Last year, Riot was the subject of a report by gaming publication Kotaku that exposed a “toxic” culture at the company and resulted in lawsuits filed against the developer alleging sexual discrimination and harassment (the suit was settled in August). In the wake of the controversy, Riot hired Angela Roseboro as its first chief diversity officer to head the newly formed diversity and inclusion initiative.
On Tuesday, as part of the slate of announcements celebrating LoL‘s 10th anniversary, Riot announced the formation of the Riot Games Social Impact Fund, a “non-profit engine to power continued global social impact.” Proceeds from a new in-game skin (purchasable cosmetic content for a player’s character) will benefit the new fund.
“Riot has always tried to be a great employer,” says Merrill. “Any time there is criticism of anything we’re doing — including as an organization, how we’re operating, if people feel included or not — we look at that as an opportunity to take a step back and reflect. This last year has been a great opportunity to reflect on that and bring in a bunch of outside help and say, do we need to get better? How do we get better?”
Riot has also been pulled into the recent growing controversy surrounding one of its competitors, Blizzard Entertainment. Last week, the Irvine, California-based developer caused a major stir when it issued a yearlong ban to one of its professional Hearthstone competitors, Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai, for voicing support of protestors in Hong Kong during an official live-stream interview. The company was criticized for apparently kowtowing to the Chinese government, and Blizzard president J. Allen Brack later walked back Chung’s suspension in a blog post on Friday.
While Riot, which is wholly owned by Chinese conglomerate Tencent, and its esports organizations were separate from the Blizzard controversy, the company was looked to for a response on the issue, given its prominence in the competitive gaming ecosystem.
“As a general rule, we want to keep our broadcasts focused on the game, the sport, and the players,”John Needham, global head of League of Legends esports, said Friday in a statement.
Merrill (who spoke with THR on Wednesday) offered his own thoughts on the issue: “We live in interesting times. There’s a variety of global brands that are embroiled in these situations. Because Riot is so global, and our player base is so global, we’ve had a variety of different challenges, maybe not as mainstream, around different sensitivities happening around the world. Our approach is to try to create incredibly high-quality entertainment and to nurture a very positive community that improves and creates the context for positive human interactions.”
Merrill and Brack credit their community’s engagement in LoL, esports and beyond as the major component of their company’s success. As part of the game’s 10-year anniversary, Riot is holding live events around the globe, inviting players to engage with one another and employees at the company (called Rioters) to celebrate the game that brought them together.
“The fun thing about building a game like this is that you’re building it with your players simultaneously,” says Beck. “What we shipped in 2009 was a tiny fraction of what League is today. Our players showed us how to play our own game.”
“We’re trying to pull together a global event that will hopefully do justice and pay homage to the love, passion and attention that League of Legends players all around the world have for the game,” adds Merrill. “That’s meaningful to us because Riot really cares about its players.”