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In this new position at Los Angeles-based Riot Games, Needham will lead the organization under which all of Riot’s esports titles and operations will now be unified.
Needham spent two years as Riot’s global head of esports, and he previously was managing director of Europe and head of the League of Legends European Championship (LEC) .
“As we head into 2022, we’re placing our biggest bets yet on esports to deliver the most connected, immersive experiences for the millions of players worldwide who love our games,” said Nicolo Laurent, CEO of Riot Games, in a statement. “John Needham’s leadership and vision for our esports business has helped us grow our fandom exponentially over the past few years. It’s why I’m excited to formalize a major division at Riot Games, with John reporting directly into me, to support and drive our big, bold swings that make it even better to be a player.”
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The promotion elevates Needham to be one of the senior-most executives within Riot Games, now reporting into Laurent along with Riot’s four other presidents: Shauna Spenley, president of entertainment; Scott Gelb, president of games; Ryan Crosby, president of publishing; and Dylan Jadeja, president of enterprise.
“I am really humbled,” Needham said in an interview with GamesBeat. “It’s a bit daunting. But now I’ll start with the bigger picture of what’s happening at Riot Games. Our ambition, our vision, as a company is to become the 21st-century entertainment company, deeply rooted in games.”
He added, “So games will always be the core of our company. But what we want to do is expand the experience of being a player at Riot to esports. And now entertainment with the launch of Arcane (a Netflix TV series). With esports, it started as really an engagement tool for the games division to keep players engaged in League of Legends when they weren’t able to play the game. But over the past four or five years, we’ve actually proved out that esports can be a sustainable business on its own.”
Within Needham’s governance will be 11-year old industry pioneer League of Legends Esports (LoL Esports), the rising shooter esport Valorant Champions Tour (VCT), Wild Rift Esports (which concludes its first global tournament on Sunday), and multiple other games under a new Organized Play umbrella at Riot Games (Teamfight Tactics, aka TFT; Legends of Runeterra, aka LoR; and future games).
While League of Legends esports is not profitable yet, Needham said that the company has grown esports revenues 70% a year in the past four years.
“We have continued to grow viewership. I just saw numbers for Worlds this year, and it is by far the biggest most-viewed Worlds we’ve ever done, which is really exciting,” Needham said. “We’ve made great strides and continue to grow fandom around the LoL esports.”
On top of that, the company has launched Valorant and Wild Rift esports.
Needham said that the company will further professionalize esports, driving toward making its leagues and team ecosystems sustainable. That means that Riot wants esports to hit breakeven results but also have the teams and athletes hit sustainability too.
“My mid-range goal for esports is that we break even and then we take anything above breakeven and flush it out into the ecosystem,” Needham said. “One of the bigger challenges we have right now, as a business, is that salaries for our professional teams and our leads are growing exponentially. And our revenues aren’t keeping up with salary growth. So we’re trying to find ways to make our teams better economically, in a big way.”
He added, “We’re on a great trajectory as we are 11 years into the sport. And I would say in the next three to four years, we will be sustainable. Again, not just for Riot but for the teams. And when you look at other sports like the MLS, they still talk about themselves as being a growth sport. The NFL took a very long time to get to profitability, like 40 years. So I feel like we’re ahead of where normal sports would be and it’s purely because we reach this Gen Z Millennium audience that’s just really valuable.”
The new Riot Games esports structure being established by Needham has been informed by a combination of traditional sports leagues and governing bodies as well as Riot’s company-wide goal to innovate around and ultimately define the future of gaming.
Needham plans to bring a new strategic and operational focus across the multiple esports and leagues, extend Riot’s esports’ impact into complementary entertainment and gaming categories, and create and shape viewing and content platforms for the future growth of its esports audience.
To that end, Needham recently green-lit a multi-million initiative known as Project Stryker, an innovative initiative to increase capacity of Riot’s esports content and events with a centralized broadcast model anchored by Remote Broadcast Centers (RBCs) strategically located around the world.
Three years in the making, these RBCs will increase capacity for Riot Esports content and events while lowering operating costs, ensuring top-tier quality and consistency across all esports productions, and built for scale as the volume of Riot’s live esports broadcasts continues to grow. The first center will come online in Dublin, Ireland, in early 2022.
Needham recently promoted several key executives to new positions and has begun a search for a new Global Head of Organized Play. Riot said that Whalen Rozelle will be head of global esports operations (while staying in his role overseeing the Valorant Champions Tour for now; Naz Aletaha will be global head of LoL esports; and Leo Faria will be global head of Wild Rift esports.
Riot Games’ just finished its League of Legends World Championships in China, and it is starting the Valorant Champions kick off in Berlin in December.
With Valorant, Needham said he wants to surpass the viewing audience for rivals such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. He also said he wanted Valorant to continue to pave the way to be more diverse, accessible, and inclusive when it comes to both its player base and audience.
“We’re going to continue to invest in that,” he said. “And with Wild Rift, I think we’re going to have an even more diverse audience. And we’re going to need to even do more tournaments around certain groups of our fans in those games to serve them.”
As for difficult geographic territories like China, Needham said the company “totally respects Chinese policies,” and it has to work within regulations around the world. In China, youths under 18 now are limited to playing three hours a week. That is making it harder to make sure the younger esports stars are still being cultivated in China, Needham said.
To date, Riot’s global esports partner roster includes Mastercard, Verizon, Mercedes-Benz, Bose, Unilever, Red Bull, Spotify, Bose, Louis Vuitton, YouTube, Twitch, Cisco, Amazon, Coca-Cola, and State Farm. Red Bull, Verizon and SecretLab are among the first global partners to support multiple titles or events within Riot’s esports portfolio, an opportunity that will be more readily available in the years ahead. Through activations known as “drops,” Riot is delivering brand benefits directly to fans at events.
Under his leadership, the sport of League of Legends has experienced rapid maturation with continued investment in infrastructure and broadcast capabilities needed for long-term growth, digital products, and measurement standards (e.g. AMA).
LoL Esports’ two major international events — The World Championship and Mid-Season Invitational — have hit record viewership and seen growth in fan engagement and value, with some of the most recognizable global brands signing partnerships.
Needham said that the company misses seeing fans in person at large live events. He said, “We’re desperate to get back to that. But we’re only going to do it and we’re not in control here. We’re not in the driver’s seat. COVID is in this case. We’re only getting to do it when we’re very confident that it’s safe for everyone involved, for participants and our players and our staff working the event. And we haven’t gotten there yet, frankly. So hopefully next year, we’ll get back to live events with an audience.”
Needham joined Riot in 2017. He previously served at roles at Microsoft, including running Lionhead studio, and he held positions at Cryptic Studios, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Telemundo, Gazillion Entertainment, and Sony Online Entertainment.
As for the favorite buzzword of the moment — nonfungible tokens, or NFTs — Needham said the company has been approached about creating them. But the company hasn’t engaged with a partner yet and has numerous discussions going on, he said.
“I want to make sure with NFTs that we do it in a way that delivers value for fans for the fans who invest in NFTs,” he said.
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