How did Riot Games manage to create a worldwide phenomenon? From Dota to League of Legends, we’ll look at the history of one of the most famous video games of all time. Take a seat and be prepared for a trip down memory lane.
Welcome to Summoner’s Rift!
Even just a couple of decades ago, who could have imagined 100 million people connecting at the same exact time just to watch someone playing a video game? When I was a child, in the late ’90s, this would have been unthinkable. Don’t get me wrong, I loved playing video games then (and I still love them now). I started at the age of 6 or even younger, back when PCs were bigger than a oven and Minesweeper Flags was the best form of entertainment ever. I remember begging my mother to let me stay at home instead of going to the beach because I wanted to play Crash Team Racing.
While I loved playing video games, I hated watching my sister playing. It was always “Is it my turn yet? Let me play!” and most of the time we ended up arguing, fighting over who should have played first… I lost every time.
Anyway, things have changed a lot since those days. Today, people love watching gamers, especially when the best of the best are playing League of Legends: 100 million people cheered over team DAMWON smashing Suning during the 2020 World Championship. There is something magical and catchy about watching esports. There’s hype and energy, watching the pros doing things you will never be able to (if only I had the skills…).
Watching other people playing video games has never been so satisfying.
But what is League of Legends?
League of Legends was created by an American video game house named Riot Games, which was founded by Brandon Beck and Marc Merril in 2006. It belongs to the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre. It’s a free-to-play online game in which two teams compete with the goal of conquering each other’s base.
Usually the map is divided into three lanes (top, mid and bottom), surrounded by a neutral area referred to as the jungle. Player can choose different roles with their own playing styles, choosing between a wide range of tanks, fighters, brawlers, assassins, mages, damage carries and supports. The 5-person team composition is based on the lane you’ll play in: a 1-1-2 structure, with a roaming jungler who works as a surprise factor to help get kills and objectives, has proven to be the most efficient strategy over the years.
In order to win, you must destroy the defensive towers situated in each lane and work your way through to the enemy base, called the Nexus. To accomplish this, you are helped by NPC units called minions, which spawn in waves from both bases and march until they begin clashing with the enemy wave. The first team that destroys every tower on a lane gains access to the enemy Nexus.
There are 154 champions characterized by different abilities that can be upgraded during the match by killing enemies, NPC units or assisting your teammates. Players need to strategize individually and as a team based on whom they’re facing as a lane opponent or enemy team as a whole.
During the game you’re able to buy different items using the money collected within the match to temporarily boost your character’s attributes. Every item is different and fits better on different champions based on the match situation.
A bad start
This is more or less League of Legends. I know it sounds a bit complex at first glance, but believe me when I tell you that once you start playing, you end up sucked into a black hole: it doesn’t matter if you die 47 times every game, you just want to keep playing.
League of Legends wasn’t always the hit game we know today, especially in the early stages. The producer Jeff Jew himself called it “a bad game” because no one wanted to play it. It was only during the final stages of production, when the staff members started to play just for fun, that they realized something was working after all. Perhaps this Riot Games title could be successful after all.
Brief analysis of its success
Since October 2009, about 160 billion hours have been played in League of Legends. “Every day about 22 million players from 145 different countries play League of Legends, this means about 100 million every month, more than 1% of the world population: League players all together would make up the fifth largest country in the world.” And it’s become a huge spectator sport as well. Even if we only consider the World Championship Series finals alone, the spectator count, adds up to hundreds of million of views. Some of the data reported in the documentary “The Origins of League of Legends” (2019, Iwerks & Co – director Leslie Iwerks), gives us a vague idea of how deeply Riot Games has revolutionized the world of gaming, creating an extraordinary worldwide phenomenon.
While Riot’s game is the most successful MOBA ever created, it’s not the first one. There were other titles like StarCraft and Dota that acted as founders for the esports scene. However, it’s undeniable that League of Legends made esports the huge industry it is today.
The history of League of Legends
Most of us can’t tell a story about how meeting someone at summer camp changed the course of our lives. Brandon Beck and Marc Merril can, though. They met at a summer camp back in the 2000s.
They hit it off because they had things in common, as they were both from Los Angeles and deeply passionate about video games. When they started playing on a custom map for Warcraft III known as Defense of the Ancients (aka DotA) together, they drew inspiration for what would become their multi-million-dollar company.
The thing they enjoyed the most playing DotA was the chance to play together in a team of five for the first time, which required both technical skills and tactical coordination. While they enjoyed this team dynamic, they recognized that the game was extremely slow paced, and the lack of matchmaking often created unbalanced teams that made the experience frustrating for the players.
They started Riot Games in 2006, in West Los Angeles. They wanted to answer one main question: “How can we create something that lasts more than 30 minutes?” The basic idea behind this thought was to create a title with no ending at all, entertainment people could pick up at any time, over and over again. At the same time, they didn’t want to create something niche: they aimed for worldwide appeal.
League of Legends began to take shape.
During the course of the following year and a half they designed forty champions and their respective lore: archetypes of history, legends and fairy tales reinterpreted in a pop-fantasy key—somethingin which all players could immerse themselves.
In October 2009 they were ready for the first release of League of Legends, but they had to make a major decision first: free or paid?
The choice wasn’t easy: on the one hand, it’s hard to get a wide audience to pay for a game from a new studio. On the other, how would they survive after spending the prior three years without earning a dime? At the end of the 2000s, only Asian games were free-to-play, and they didn’t have a great reputation amongthe gaming community. Many regarded them as rich people’s games, since they adopted the pay-to-win formula, meaning the more money you spent on them, the more you could progress.
Beck and Merril decided that they would have never “sold power” or in-game progress, even if making League of Legends completely free would have meant losing millions of dollars.
Their issue with monetization was solved on November 19, 2009, when after working 110 hours a week for six weeks, the first version of the in-game “shop” was launched. It would allow players to purchase champions and a wide variety of skins for each of them using a proprietary League of Legends virtual currency named “Riot Points“, while a two-week rotation of champions kept the game free to play.
League of Legends in Europe
The game’s success was not overwhelming at first, but its popularity kept growing,and soon stabilized on an excellent trend in North America.
However, the situation in Europe was a mess.
Riot Games had decided to outsource the management of the European servers to make the game accessible to everyone, but that proved to be a fatal move. They realized that the EU team was lacking the passion that moved Riot Games America: League of Legends was slowly dying there, and the servers were often down, preventing players from accessing the game.
Some hardcore fans felt they had been “abandoned” by the company. The growing tension reached its climax on a Friday night when French servers collapsed and no one was there to restart them all weekend. Players had to wait until the following Monday to be able to play again. Their loyal customers became angry to the point Riot Games realized it was time to step in, ending the deal with their French partner and founding Riot Europe.
Until that point the North American market was 18% larger than the European one; three months after the dissolution of that outsourcing agreement, the European market had grown to be 9% bigger than the American one.
The beginning of League of Legends esports
Beck and Merril at Riot Games had clear ideas of what they wanted to build since the beginning. They introduced a ranking system that showed the statistics of the best players, encouraging people to play more and to improve: they wanted League of Legends esports to become a thing. League of Legends would have become successful in electronic sports, no matter how wearisome it could have been.
The game’s first competitive season was indeed an experiment: they organized sporadic tournaments, which lasted up to one or two days, enlisting teams unknown to the public. The final of the first worldwide championship tournament was played during DreamHack in Sweden, 2011. What better place to test League of Legends as an esport than the largest LAN party in the world? The event, which was won by team Fnatic, was watched by 400,000 spectators and offered a prize pool of 100,000 dollars. The huge success was the proof that League of Legends clearly had the potential to become an esport mainstay.
However, being popular in America and Europe could never be enough for true esports fame.
Conquering the East Asian Market
Riot Games‘ eyes fell upon South Korea, which had thus far been considered the heaven of video games and esports in general. Stadiums built specifically for the purpose of hosting gaming events, Internet cafes all around the cities and high-speed connectivity make the country a paradise for any video game player, and League of Legends couldn’t be excluded from the party.
To give you an idea of how big online gaming is in South Korea, around 200-400 video games are released every day in the country, and almost all of them are free-to-play. There were so many different titles at the time that if creating something new was difficult, getting noticed was even harder. Being number 1 in Seoul would mean being recognized by the most important esports market in the world.
League of Legends was released in Korea in 2012, and it entered the most popular video games top ten just six days after its launch, peaking after only three months, when it reached the top spot in May of the same year.
But why did people enjoy playing League of Legends so much? In those years, the gaming community was looking for social competition, strategy, speed, mastery, and rewards. League of Legends was able to offer all of that, while receiving constant positive feedback. This meant that it was attracting an ever-increasing number of new players.
League was seeing a lot of success, but League of Legends esports was still disorganized.
The League of Legends World Championship
“Esports improves the player experience. You have something to aspire to, the players enjoy watching the game, this is our perspective that justifies the investment.” Brandon Beck
In 2011, Riot Games decided to go one step further, creating the League of Legends World Championship Series, an official series of seasonal tournaments, with regular playoff events and a world final.
Three years later, they conquered the Seoul World Cup stadium, where forty thousand people attended the World Championship. Imagine Dragons entertained the public with a live concert: fires and drums accompanied “Warriors” echoing in the stadium. It was a real show for a real worldwide audience. This has always been the aim of Riot Games: to recreate the same atmosphere of hype and amazement that characterizes football and its matches.
How League of Legends has grown
Years have passed, but League of Legends is still among the top played games, and it’s the most followed esport of all time.
According to the data reported by Esports Charts, “a unique analytical agency collecting all information about esports, streaming and providing actual fact data,” League of Legends was the most followed esport in 2019, with 137 million hours of views.
Even for Newzoo, the ACV (Average Concurrent Viewership, or the average number of simultaneous viewers) in 2019 was significantly higher than in previous years, with a growth of 22% year on year, an increase in viewers on Twitch and Youtube of + 40%, and an ACV of + 44% during each turn of the LCS, compared to the +20% recorded in 2017-2018.
Remer Rietkerk wrote:
“The ACV growth from 2018 World Championship to 2019 World Championship is as follows:
- Finals: +60%
- Group stages: +51%
- Semi-finals: +41%
- Quarter-finals: +30%.
As you can see in the chart below, 2019 had the highest ACV across the board, except for day five of the group stage.”
In March 2020, League of Legends recorded a player share of 43.1%, with 123 million hours watched on Twitch, against 15.8% of CS: GO’s player share and its 66.5 million hours watched.
A bright future
These data prove that it doesn’t matter how much time has passed since League of Legends was first released, about ten years ago: players still enjoy it, the community is still growing and Riot Games‘ title is still able to hold its position at the top of the charts around the world. The history of League has shown the world how a game can survive for a long period of time, retaining solid growth. The mounting audience the game has gathered thanks to the world of competition built around and within it proves the value of League of Legends esports, and esports in general. Perhaps watching a League of Legends championship will become a more expected and “normal” moment of every day life, just like watching any traditional sports match.