Riot Games totally rewrote the rulebook when it released the ground breaking multiplayer online battle arena title League of Legends back in 2009. Gaming aficionados Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill were frustrated with developers that ignored fans and quickly flitted from game to game in pursuit of profits. They set out to produce a title that could enjoy unprecedented longevity by nurturing a community of gamers on an ongoing basis, while updating the game regularly to maintain players’ interest.
The idea was met with considerable scepticism from various industry insiders, but LoL is celebrating its 10th birthday this year and it has proven to be an overwhelming success story. It is the constantly most watched game on Twitch and YouTube, and it has legions of passionate fans spread across the globe.
The game is going from strength to strength and it now generates more than $2 billion in revenue on an annualized basis. The game’s net worth is estimated at a colossal $15 billion. There are a huge range of websites dedicated to providing League of Legends updates, the social media buzz it generates is tremendous, a number of blue chip companies sponsor teams and tournaments and betting on matches is huge.
A One-Game Studio
Nowadays Riot Games, which started off in a small LA apartment shared by Beck and Merrill, has 2,500 employees spread across 24 offices worldwide. It is owned by Tencent, one of the world’s largest entertainment companies, which pulled off a real coup by acquiring a 93% stake for $400 million in 2011. Riot Games is an economic juggernaut, and it is also a one-game studio.
If LoL were to suddenly die out, Riot Games would be totally redundant. It has no other titles and the entire team is dedicated to maintaining the success of this one game. So just how likely is LoL to fall from grace?
There are many reasons to think that it will remain supremely popular for at least another decade, if not longer. It is free to play, so anyone can join in the fun on almost any PC. Yet it is also a huge economic success story due to the in-game extras that Riot sells, and this allows its expert team to continually tweak and improve the offering.
A Large and Loyal Community
It is backed by the commercial might of Tencent, but there was no leadership change when the firm took over and the vision remains the same: respecting the community, listening to its feedback and catering to its demands. The multiplayer aspect is huge: friends love playing LoL together and it has built up a large and loyal community of fans over many years.
But the biggest driver of LoL’s popularity is its enviable position as the world’s most popular esport. The 2018 World Championship Grand Final attracted 205 million viewers, utterly shattering any previous esports records. It outstripped the Super Bowl, Wimbledon, the Masters, the NBA Finals and many more popular sporting events in viewership numbers. Its popularity as a spectator sport continues to grow.
To be successful an esport needs to be easily accessible for newcomers and come with a high skill ceiling. LoL ticks both of those boxes. It is bright and visually arresting. The characters are exciting and easy to identify with. It boasts crisp mechanics and it is fun to use the abilities on offer.
Yet it takes a huge amount of graft and flair to master some of the champions, like Cassio, Irelia and Yasuo. It can be thrilling to watch the leading professionals lock horns with one another on Summoner’s Rift. Viewers aspire to be that good, and they enjoy learning from the exploits of the leading lights.
Climbing the Ladder
Players are desperate to climb the rank ladder, as it provides a tremendous sense of achievement and shows that the pros are not too far off. Gamers are invested in the system and they do not want to see all their hard graft come to an end. LoL players are always given something new and interesting to work towards, be it a new rune or unlocking a new character, and this keeps them coming back for more.
The MOBA genre also works perfectly as an esport. Epic Games is desperately pouring money into trying to crack the world of competitive gaming with Fortnite, but it is much harder for viewers to follow battle royale games unfolding, due to the huge range of perspectives. LoL features contained action and it can be easy to follow and thrilling to watch, hence its success and longevity.
The MOBA genre has thinned out recently, as Blizzard decided to stop supporting Heroes of the Storm and Heroes of Newerth ran out of steam. LoL has just one major rival left in Dota 2, and it is the clear winner in the popularity stakes.
Dota 2 may make its professional players richer due to the eye-watering prize pools on offer at The International, but more fans watch LoL and interest is higher, meaning the potential for larger sponsorship deals and a bigger economy around it.
LoL had first mover advantage, as it was released four years earlier and already had a huge community of loyal fans when Dota 2 was released. Players did not want to abandon LoL when they were already good at it and invested in climbing the ladder.
LoL is also sleeker and more colourful than Dota 2, the gameplay is much more accessible and it is easier to play. LoL effectively streamlines the MOBA experience, whereas Dota 2 is more complex. It can be far more overwhelming and punishing for newcomers, while games take longer to play out.
A Long and Healthy Future
Both are great games in their own right, and they are both major esports along with CS:GO, but LoL is the clear market leader thanks to its accessibility. It boasts massive leagues in South Korea, China, Europe and North America, and international tournaments attract a great deal of interest.
That points to a long and extremely healthy future for LoL. The esports scene is extremely professional and it is becoming more organised all the time. The success of the 2018 Worlds shows just how much interest there is in the game, and how great the potential is in markets like China.
It boasts a huge community of streamers, it continues to attract new gamers each year due to the free model, and Riot keeps LoL alive with a steady supply of updates and patches, meaning the game keeps improving. It is a living organism, growing in dynamism each year, while the pro scene is flourishing. LoL has not yet hit its peak as an esport, so there is every reason to think for at least another decade.