League of Legends cemented its status as the world’s most popular esport over the past year by racking up far more Twitch viewing hours than all of its rivals. The 2018 World Championship final attracted a remarkable 205 million viewers. By contrast, the Super Bowl could only manage 98 million. “LoL’s” rise to prominence has been phenomenal and it continues to go from strength to strength due to the quality of its fast but intensely strategic team play. It will go down in history as one of the most important games of all time and its net worth is estimated at a cool $15 billion.
Yet its origins were extremely humble. League of Legends was the brainchild of students Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill, who bonded over a love of video games during their time at the University of Southern California.
They shared a mutual frustration with game developers that did not listen to fans and flitted too quickly from game to game as they chased profits. Beck and Merrill wanted to create a game with longevity that could nurture a passionate community over a prolonged period of time, but they lacked the capital.
After graduating, Merrill took a job at U.S. Bank and Beck worked for a consulting agency called Bain & Company. Neither were satisfied with corporate life and they wanted to turn their passion for gaming into a living.
The duo lived together in a small apartment in West Hollywood, with gaming rigs prioritized over furniture, and played multiplayer titles like StarCraft, Warcraft 3 and EverQuest together. They decided that they could cater to masses of gamers like them by creating a title that would keep communities alive via add-ons and tweaks rather than releasing endless sequels.
Riot Games was born in that West Hollywood apartment and the duo set about recruiting some like-minded industry insiders to turn their dream into a reality. They secured the services of Steve Feak, a designer and developer who had previously worked on Defense of the Ancients (Dota) All-Stars. StarCraft’s Aeon of Strife introduced a thrilling multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre and Dota – which began life as a MOBA modification for Warcraft 3 – built upon that.
Beck and Merrill were huge admirers of these titles and they spent a lot of time on relevant forums, so they raided the Dota community for talent when setting up Riot Games in 2006.
The title they created was initially called Onslaught, replete with a heavy metal soundtrack and crude graphics. The formative studio took inspiration from the Asian gaming scene, where titles were often released on a free to play basis and developers turned a profit by charging for in-game extras.
In order to maintain an even playing field, it refused to charge for upgrades that other players earned through skill. Instead they decided to sell skins that allowed players to personalize the gaming experience, and set about creating a game worthy of their ambition.
Meetings with publishers convinced them that the industry gatekeepers were too tied into a regular cycle of releasing games and abandoning them in favor of the next big thing. Beck and Merrill decided that Riot would need to become a publisher as well as a developer if it was to fulfill its goals of revolutionizing the gaming experience.
They eventually managed to raise $1.5 million from angel investors and family members and the game they were working on evolved into League of Legends. The offering became more polished and that allowed the duo to win over capital investment firms, securing an eventual $8 million cash injection in order to improve the game. One of those investors was Chinese firm Tencent, one of the world’s largest tech companies.
The Birth of League of Legends
League of Legends was finally released in 2009, three years after Riot Games was founded. Players are known as Summoners and they control champions with unique abilities that team up to battle rival outfits, with the aim of destroying the opponents’ Nexus. Champions start of weak and progressively gain skills and experience as the game progresses.
It was released on a free to play model and the studio continued to tweak it based on feedback from the nascent community that sprung up.
Within two months of its release, it achieved 100,000 concurrent players. The hit became a phenomenon and the studio had to work around the clock to ensure the servers could handle increasing demand. Further capital funding was devoted towards fixing glitches and refining the gameplay.
It was a roaring success and it scooped a clutch of awards. In 2011, Tencent paid $400 million for a 93% stake in Riot Games. “Riot is going to remain completely independent,” promised Beck at the time. “There are no redundancies, no layoffs, no synergy fishing, no leadership change. Nothing is going to change other than they’re dramatically increasing their holding in the company. They see this more as an investment in a partner.”
Nevertheless, it made Beck and Merrill fabulously wealthy. Many of the publishers they were frustrated with have fallen by the wayside, but Riot Games has gone from strength to strength by flipping the script and focusing on one game. In 2011, Ernst & Young named Beck and Merrill Entrepreneurs of the Year. By 2014, more than 67 million people were playing League of Legends per month. Two years later that had risen to 100 million and it has maintained its popularity on an on-going basis.
The burgeoning world of esports is a major factor behind its continued success. It is the most popular title in the competitive gaming scene and leading lights such as Faker are multimillionaire superstars with huge social media followings.
In The World of Esports
Fans now pack into stadiums to watch their heroes do battle on Summoner’s Rift and tens of millions of fans stream big tournaments from across the globe. The World Championship continues to set new records for viewing numbers and that has fueled a huge rise in LoL’s popularity. Betting on LoL tournaments is also a huge business and you will find a huge range of markets at leading esports wagering sites like Unikrn.com.
Dota 2 is a key rival on the esports scene, fueled by the eye-watering prize pools at its biggest annual tournament, The International. First person shooters such as CS:GO and Overwatch are also massive in this world, and battle royale titles like PUBG, Fortnite and Apex Legends are muscling their way in. But the industry is rapidly growing and LoL remains the top dog by a considerable margin.
The game generated revenue of $2.1 billion in 2017, an increase of $300 million on the previous year, and it continues to grow into an economic powerhouse. It has spawned spinoff books, music videos and documentaries, while LoL merchandise is now a huge industry in its own right.
Riot Games now has 2,500 employees spread across 24 offices worldwide, and it is the jewel in the Tencent crown. The studio continues to take player feedback on board and tweak the game, so its popularity is likely to endure long into the future and it has a great chance of remaining the world’s leading esport.
Images: Riot Games.