Video games have grown exponentially over the past decade. From niche spots at shopping malls to massive stadiums packed with throngs of screaming people, their presence is now undeniable. A lot of their success can be attributed to a few games, one of which is League of Legends. The Wikipedia entry for League of Legends states, “League of Legends was generally well received upon its release in 2009, and has since grown in popularity, with an active and expansive fanbase.” The statement is accurate, but it doesn’t say just how massive, or unlikely the growth of League of Legends has been throughout the years. When Brandon “Ryze” Beck and Marc “Tryndamere” Merrill first conceived of the game around 2007, they could never have imagined that their game would explode the way that it did. As of 2016, League of Legends boasts over 100 million active players worldwide. League of Legends is a massive game, but they didn’t start off that way.
The two co-founders, Brandon Beck, and Marc Merrill met when they attended the University of Southern California. Roommates, they quickly bonded over their passion for games. However, they didn’t think about making a game from the get-go. After college, the two worked office jobs but quickly became dissatisfied with their lives. In an interview with Polygon, Beck mentioned that they had gone to live together in Los Angeles, and it was in their home that Riot Games was created. Their furniture hadn’t even been put up yet, yet their PC’s had already been set up, ready for them. Beck states, “You’d walk into our apartment, and there’s pretty much no furniture anywhere, nothing on the walls, picture frames that haven’t been put up yet. And two massive gaming rigs at two desks that formed a little 'L.' That was just the thing we liked to do together at the time."
Frustrated that developers would put up games, and drop them quickly without engaging with their community, the pair wanted a game that would go the distance, with developers that would constantly tweak the system and consult with their community. They were inspired by “Defense of the Ancients”, a custom map created by Steve “Guinsoo” Feak for the game “Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne”. Feak was the first person they recruited, and together they began to create, and refine League of Legends. They didn’t want to follow the western video game industry, making game after game, but instead took notice of some Asian video game designers, who made completely free-to-play games, but charged for perks within the game itself. With all that in mind, along with funding from various venture capital firms, League of Legends was released on October 27, 2009.
League of Legends quickly gained steam. Week by week, Riot Games saw their game grow, hitting 100,000 people within two months. The demand was there, and Riot Games had to rise to meet this demand. They raised more funding, noticeable from the Chinese company, Tencent, which later became the distributor for League of Legends in China. All their funding went back into their game, tweaking for their rapidly increasing player base. Characters or “Champions” had to be tweaked, graphics were to be updated, and gameplay had to be refined. Most of Riot Games’ early years were spent finding out what was good for their players and found their footing quickly, along with realizing something incredible about their game. People weren’t just interested in playing League of Legends. This was the rise of esports.
Fans of League of Legends were organizing tournaments right from the release of League of Legends. While the esports scene was much less established than it is now, Riot Games had to eventually acknowledge that the fans increasing demand for competitive play. The idea of competitive gaming was not strange to Riot Games, as both Merrill and Beck had seen esports tournaments for games like StarCraft. However, they never envisioned that League would strike a niche within esports as well. Nevertheless, Riot Games created the first League of Legends World Championship in June 2011. They attached the event to an already established esports event, DreamHack. Already boasting several esports tournaments with games like Counter-Strike, and Dota 2, League of Legends was amongst proverbial giants within the still fledgling esports industry. However, Riot Games were stunned by the viewership of something that they hadn’t taken that seriously. Over 1.6 million people watched the broadcast, with 210,000 concurrent viewers during the final matches of the championship. It was then Riot Games realized that this was something that League players adored, and it was then they began to put a lot more focus towards expanding the esports scene.
Riot Games didn’t want to let third-parties control their tournaments. They wanted to be able to take control of every facet of their league and create events that were high quality. From this desire came the League Championship Series. Formed in 2012, the LCS is a fully professional league, run by Riot Games. With a regular schedule and salaries for their players, the league emulates other professional sports leagues, like the NBA, or the NFL. The LCS is set both in North America and Europe, with counterparts in Southeast Asia, and Korea, all under the Riot banner. While there have been hiccups, noticeably an incident in 2012, where a game had to be completely rescheduled due to technical issues, the League of Legends esports scene has grown steadily. In 2017, the official world championship gained a following of 60 million unique viewers and was supported by famous artists like Jay Chou and Against the Current. The total purse for the competitors was a staggering 4.5 million. A lot of eSports' massive presence on the internet can be attributed to League of Legends, and this has given many opportunities to people around the world.
From 2013 onwards, League of Legends took the throne of the most played video game in the world. Millions of people played League every day, and when they weren’t playing, they were watching. On streaming services like Twitch.tv, and YouTube, the game commonly ranked amongst the top in hours watched. Through this growth and dominance, Riot Games continued to refine their game, with a massive map overhaul in 2014.
Their business model has remained largely the same despite all the gameplay and graphics changes, charging money for cosmetics changes or Skins. Riot Games decided early on in production that they did not want any transactions to affect gameplay, wanting everyone to have an equal footing.
Riot Games also launched a merch store in 2014, selling merchandise, posters and apparel to their consumers. The store remains active today, selling everything from onesies to a board game, Mechs vs Minions, that was released on October 13th, 2016.
Today, the game is nearly unrecognizable from it’s initial launch in 2009 to its current state in 2018. There were 40 available champions available at launch, compared to 2018, when there are 141 champions. Even now, champions are still getting modified. Warwick, one of the first few champions to be released in 2009 was given a massive rework on the tail-end of 2017, changed graphically and gameplay wise to better fit with modern standards.
Riot Games has shown a propensity for adapting itself, and it doesn’t seem they'll stop anytime soon. But, this doesn’t mean that they’re unwilling to try new things. Their newest champion, Pyke treads new waters as a support, however, rather than healing and helping his team, he helps by assassinated the opposing team and sharing the gold received from the kill.
Not everything has come up roses for Riot Games and League of Legends. The company has dealt with its share of controversy over the years. In 2013, Riot nearly went through with a rule denying pro players the ability to stream other games besides League of Legends. A massive uproar occurred, and Riot quickly repealed the change. Their reputation took a hit and it showed that Riot, despite all their success was not infallible. Around 2016, Merrill found himself in hot water when he waded into a heated debate over League’s update timing, or patches. Founder of popular esports organization Team SoloMid (TSM) Andy ‘Reginald’ Dinh complained about the timing of patches, calling them ridiculous. In response, Merrill took to Reddit, unprofessionally calling the owner out. Unsurprisingly, the post drew outrage from various owners and pro players alike. Merrill quickly backpedaled on his comments and vowed to improve their communication and relationship with pro teams. This debacle dented Riot Games' reputation, and it wasn’t the last. In 2017, then Lead Riot Games member, Sanjuro spoke on the League of Legends Discord Channel (Chat room) about then banned twitch streamer, Tyler1. He stated some very controversial opinions about the streamer, mentioning that he would “die of a coke overdose or testicular cancer.” Riot quickly acted, firing Sanjuro, and publicly apologizing. Despite all their successes, Riot Games has still had some failures.
At present, League of Legends is finding its throne under attack. For the first time in several years, League faces fierce competition in terms of player count. Overwatch, created by Blizzard Entertainment managed to oust League of Legends from its top spot in South Korea PC Cafes. Fortnite, developed by Epic Games has capitalized on the Battle Royale craze, becoming a cultural phenomenon for children and adults alike. However, it doesn’t seem like Riot is too worried. Recently, the North American esports league was franchised, with several NBA franchises attempting to buy in. Riot Games has also expanded to nearly 2500 people around the globe. There are League of Legends servers all around the world, the most recent being a Japanese server launched in 2016. Professional players now receive Visa’s as athletes, and even scholarships to various schools simply to play League of Legends. The behemoth that started from two students in an empty apartment nearly a decade ago is still going strong, and it does not look like it’s slowing down anytime soon.