A look into the history of a company that created an eSports icon, and a glance towards its mystery-shrouded future.
If one single game has shaped the eSports phenomenon for the past decade, it is League of Legends.
Close to ten years since its debut in 2009, 27 million different people still sit down every day to play League of Legends. At the last tally, 81 million individual players tackled the game every month. Meanwhile, an industry of its own has grown up around the title, with devoted websites, professional teams, specialist coaches; and even lawyers and therapists who serve the game and its audience.
But what about the studio behind a game that has made almost a billion dollars in a single year?
Back in 2006, game developers Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill set up their own indie outfit in Los Angeles, with little idea that they were laying the foundation of a cultural and commercial phenomenon. Two years later, they announced League of Legends: Clash of Fates, at the same time securing themselves seven million dollars of investment. With that kind of backing in place, it became clear that Riot Games had the potential to grow into a games industry titan.
The following year – having dropped the affix ‘Clash of Fates’ – they debuted League of Legends. It’s not wildly unusual to see a studio make it big with their first release; but that is typically because the developers behind the brand bring with them years of experience making other successful games: However, that wasn’t the case at Riot.
The studio’s CEO Beck previously worked as a strategy consultant at a management company, while President and CMO Merrill served as a corporate marketing executive at a media firm.
Neither are roles you’d normally associate with the particular breed of creativity and technical work that making a game involves. But Beck and Merrill brought something different to the table; something that is undoubtedly key to League of Legends’ success. When it came to business acumen and marketing knowhow, they were much more experienced than your typical game dev.
Indeed, it was under their management that Riot started to branch out, taking the lead with shaping what live eSports could be. From organising tournaments to producing immense events, the pair turned Riot from a game studio into a competitive gaming powerhouse.
Curiously, though, when it comes to other releases, Riot has made rather modest progress. Aside from a lone mobile title and a handful of understated experiments in arcade design, Riot’s only other significant release isn’t even a video game. Instead, their second most popular title Mechs vs Minions is a brilliant, vast and complicated board game – set in the League of Legends universe, of course.
That may all be about to change, however. A recent official blog post from Beck and Merrill explained that they had both moved away from designing games over the years. Organising tournaments, managing a company with 2,500 staff and keeping the business thriving had given the pair less time to get their hands dirty being creative. Longing to return to actually building games, Beck and Merrill oversaw a restructuring at Riot, with other long-serving Riot staffers taking over managerial duties.
Shifts in company structuring, of course, are rarely of interest to the people that play those studio’s games. However, in the case of Riot, in announcing the reshuffle Beck and Merrill dropped a fairly explicit hint that they have another full-scale project on the way.
“We are thrilled to be able to have a great team of such capable leaders and look forward to working with them to finally put the “s” in Riot Games,” the pair wrote.
The company that conquered the world with a game, it would seem, is ready to expand beyond League of Legends.
And if their next project is even half as popular as their debut, there’s every chance eSports has another giant on its hands.