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League of Legends is a decade old, and it has become a cultural phenomenon, a rare achievement for any video game. It is an esport, a community, and a fantasy world. But for most of the past decade, it has only been one game. Until this week. Riot Games put the “s” back in its name on the 10th anniversary of League of Legends with announcements of new games, films, and animated series.
Riot announced League of Legends: Wild Rift for mobile devices and consoles. It is taking Teamfight Tactics, Riot’s take on Auto Chess, to mobile devices on iOS and Android in early 2020. On the PC, Teamfight Tactics will get a new content drop called Rise of the Elements. Riot is joining the free-to-play strategy card market with Legends of Runeterra in 2020.
The tactical PC shooter codenamed Project A will launch in 2020. Riot is also making an animated League of Legends show, dubbed Arcane, for 2020. Project L is the code name for a fighting game (from acquired developer Radiant Entertainment). Project F is the code name for a project that lets players traverse the world of Runeterra with friends. And League of Legends Origins is a feature-length documentary by filmmaker Leslie Iwerks, available now on Netflix.
That’s a lot of stuff. And in one fell swoop, the Los Angeles-based Riot Games got rid of the putdown that it is a one-hit wonder. Rivals loved to use that to belittle Riot, which has had phenomenal success with League of Legends, which still has 8 million concurrent players daily. I talked with cofounder Marc Merrill about this week’s big announcements in an interview.
I asked him if he was familiar with Clay Christensen’s popular 1997 business book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. It’s about how so many legendary companies had both failed to foresee disruption and how they were unable to follow up a big successful business with a second new business, mainly because all of their new efforts paled in comparison to the standards set by the first venture. Given the opportunity cost of assigning staff to a new game compared to assigning staff to League of Legends, it almost always made sense to support LoL.
“That’s something we’ve thought about a lot,” Merrill said. “From our perspective, League of Legends was always viewed as a proof point for the broader company’s thesis. It was always step one for the company. It proved far more successful than we ever expected. It was always our intention to expand. As the world of gaming has evolved, it has continued to evolve around the approach that Riot has of having a long-term direct relationship with players and creating incredible experiences for them that start with games that are much more than a game. We are excited to now be able to start doing that in some other genres. We learned a lot over the last decade.”
Brandon Beck and Merrill started the company in 2006, and in 2009, they launched League of Legends, taking lessons from successful Asian free-to-play game companies like Nexon. League of Legends was one of the first phenomenal Western successes in free-to-play PC games, where players happily pay for items such as new champions, emotes, and skins via microtransactions.
Riot made the game into a seemingly eternally renewable franchise by issuing more items for in-game purchases that made the game seem fresh. This business model enabled Riot to hire a staff of more than 2,500, not counting contractors and build what would eventually become famous as one of the best places to work.
But Riot’s strength in League of Legends also seemed like a weakness. In a decade, it had never successfully launched a new game. Some developers left in order to work on new games, such as the teams that founded studios such as Singularity6, Phoenix Labs, Ganymede Games, Vela Games, and Frostkeep Studios. Enemies such as Blizzard’s Overwatch League and Epic’s Fortnite chipped away at Riot’s audience. It seemed like Riot was getting lazy and too comfortable and that League of Legends was doomed to a slow decline.
Worse yet, an investigation by Kotaku uncovered hidden bias and a culture of sexism against women at Riot, where only one in five employees was a woman. That story shattered the company’s self-described image as a great place to work, and it revealed a dark side to success. That only seemed to further suggest that Riot was a place where success was leading to hubris and a fall.
In the past year, Riot responded to the sexism scandal with some wrenching changes, a greater focus on diversity, and doubling down on its identity as a great employer.
“We shared a lot of progress about living up to our values of being this great place to work,” Merrill said. “Every Rioter cares about the company. People are excited to show other people what they have been working on.”