The past, present and future of League of Legends studio Riot Games

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The past, present and future of League of Legends studio Riot Games

Phil Kollar @pkollar

The story of Riot Games is a list of things that shouldn’t have been possible.

It’s the tale of an extremely difficult, user-unfriendly game reaching untold heights of success. It’s the story of a company that has remained committed to listening to and interacting with its fans even as it at has grown exponentially. More than anything, it’s the story of two best friends who liked playing video games and decided one day to make their own.

Riot is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, but to really know how one of the world’s biggest development studios got started, you need to go back to Los Angeles in the early aughts. You need to find two University of Southern California business students who formed a bond unrelated to their studies.

When Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck first met at USC, they were taking classes that led them to careers at banks and investment firms. But that wasn’t what they bonded over. For them, their real passion was video games — especially multiplayer-focused games like StarCraft and EverQuest.

For a short while after college, Merrill and Beck went their own ways, following the career paths people expected of them. Beck worked for Bain & Company, a massive consulting firm, while Merrill got a job at U.S. Bank. It didn’t take long for the two to become dissatisfied with their business jobs, though, and to feel the pull of something else, something that would take them back to Los Angeles and back to each other.

"We lived together in a little apartment in West Hollywood," Beck says. "It was actually there that Riot really kind of began. 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."

As the two friends fell deeper into the world of gaming, they found themselves splitting time between playing games and passionately defending or complaining about said games on internet forums. They grew frustrated when it seemed like the developers of the games they loved weren’t listening to fans like them.

Over time, they got to thinking that maybe they could do things better. This was the beginning of the studio that would create one of the most played video games in the world.

A new approach

Of all the problems that Merrill and Beck saw in game development, one stood out: Developers were abandoning their games and the active, passionate communities attached to them far too quickly.

"We were frustrated when developers would stop supporting us and the communities involved with the games we played," Beck says. "They felt pressure to move on to something else. We were like, ‘Yo, we don’t need another SKU. Stay here. There’s some obvious improvements that could really make this ecosystem last for a long time, and we love playing in it.’"

In particular, the duo spent a lot of time with Blizzard games such as StarCraft and Warcraft 3. Blizzard stuck with both of those titles through expansion packs, but as the beloved studio eventually shifted to other projects, the communities stayed active, both in the core game and in player-created add-ons. Two of those add-ons — StarCraft’s Aeon of Strife and Warcraft 3’s DotA: Allstars — introduced the precise type of character-based, high-action, high-strategy gameplay that Merrill and Beck wanted to spend more time with.

When Beck and Merrill finally decided to start their own game development company, the first person they recruited was Steve "Guinsoo" Feak, one of the designers who helped update DotA: Allstars. Feak, Beck, Merrill and a few other additions from the DotA: Allstars community became the earliest staff members of Riot Games in 2006. The studio got to work creating its first game immediately.

That game, in its earliest forms, is barely recognizable as what people today know as League of Legends. [If you don’t know anything about the game or how it works, check out our beginner’s guide from 2014.] It used the same genre structure — a new style that Riot would come to call "multiplayer online battle arenas," or MOBAs — but it was a rough sketch of what the team was going for. It even had a different name at the time: Onslaught.

"It was terrible," Merrill says of the first name, laughing. "We had a metal [music] track. The minions were like little undead things at the time. We went through a lot of iteration, and it was just bad."

Nonetheless, Merrill and many at Riot were proud of their initial work. The team traveled to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in 2007. It took what Merrill calls "our crappy demo" built after four months of work. At the show, Merrill and Beck pitched the game to various publishers. The meetings didn’t go well, but they helped Riot figure out something it hadn’t yet realized about its relationship to traditional game publishing.

"Originally, we planned to just be a game developer," Merrill says. "We didn’t plan to build a whole publishing business. As we started to meet with publishers, we realized, ‘Wow, we can’t hand the keys to the kingdom to these guys.’"

After these meetings, Beck and Merrill came to believe publishers were too tied to a regular publishing cycle. When the publishers they met with talked about the game Riot was making, they talked about a regular, physical, retail release. They talked about an intellectual property with the potential for sequels. They talked about something completely removed from the vision Riot Games was pursuing.

The team at Riot wanted to create an online, multiplayer-focused game that would keep growing, changing and evolving indefinitely. And it wanted to make that game free, funded by optional microtransactions. In 2007, traditional game publishers had barely heard of such a model, much less considered it viable. Those publishers were not interested in what Riot proposed.

The Riot team returned to its Los Angeles home base and went back to work. Merrill and Beck shifted away from publishers and focused on raising venture capital funding. And in mid-2007, Riot dropped the edgy leanings of Onslaught and changed the title of its first game. Now it would be called League of Legends: Clash of Fates.

Into the spotlight

Though it had already been alive and at work for a couple of years, Riot in 2008 stepped into public view for the first time. The company announced League of Legends: Clash of Fates, launched a pre-alpha version of the game and cut a deal with Chinese mega-publisher Tencent to handle the game in that territory.

As with so many elements of Riot’s biography, it was rare (if not unprecedented) to cut a deal with a foreign publisher this early in the studio’s existence. But Beck and Merrill were already starting to think about the global potential of League of Legends. Unlike North American publishers, Tencent seemed to understand the studio’s goals.

"They were doing a good job in China on a bunch of dimensions," Beck recalls. "We just felt like they shared a lot of our philosophy."

Riot continued to expand. Merrill and Beck focused on hiring based on passion and culture more than experience. The growing team (lovingly referred to by Merrill and Beck as Rioters) worked fast, but not without some bumps in progress. In mid-2008, Riot took the backend technology platform it had spent the first years of its life creating and dumped it.

"That was not a fun experience," Merrill says. "We were set back by a long period of time, which is part of why we ended up scrambling to put together our own platform to then go into launch. This meant that when we started to scale up, we had even bigger scale challenges, because the platform wasn’t designed to handle the scale we were doing."

In order to hit a targeted fall 2009 launch, Riot rushed through creating a new backend. It took shortcuts that the company would have to deal with for years, such as building the launcher on the problem-prone Adobe Air system.

Before pushing League of Legends out of beta and into its full release form, there was one other thing Riot needed to dump: the subtitle. Merrill, Beck and team had soured on Clash of Fates and the idea of having a subtitle at all.

Initially, the team thought the subtitle would be useful to denote future "content drops" that could be themed in goofy ways. They wanted to have "acronym fun times," according to Merrill. After League of Legends: Clash of Fates, there would be League of Legends: Wizards, Thieves, Fighters (a.k.a. LOL: WTF). Or League of Legends: Pirates With Ninjas (LOL: PWN). Before launch, the team decided this subtitle-based naming convention was too cute by half.

"We were trying to be clever, and it wasn’t good," Merrill says. "Then we were like, ‘That’s dumb. We’re just going to always evolve the game, so who cares?’"

In late October of 2009, following six months of beta testing, League of Legends launched. The game was totally free-to-play, and Riot had ambitious plans to keep updating it, adding to the list of 40 playable champions available at launch. It was something quite different than anything mainstream gaming audiences had seen, and no one could have predicted what a success it would be — least of all Riot itself.

Building the plane while flying

"We didn’t set out to build a game that we thought a lot of people would be pumped on playing," Beck says. He’s not just being coy either; the Riot co-founders openly viewed the type of game they were in love with as an extremely hardcore niche.

"It’s super competitive and uncompromising on that deep mastery curve," Beck continues. "It would take a real commitment to get any enjoyment or value out of it. The idea that a lot of people would be pumped on that kind of experience was certainly something we didn’t predict."

Yet within two months of launch, League of Legends hit its first major milestone: 100,000 people playing the game concurrently. Rioters gathered and popped open champagne bottles to celebrate, even as they worked nonstop to make sure the game and its servers could scale to accommodate these numbers.

The numbers didn’t stop growing, though. Week in and week out, every time Merrill and Beck got an update, more people around the world were playing League of Legends. Riot’s first title was a hit; more than that, it was quickly moving into the realm of a phenomenon. If the studio wanted to keep up with the demand, it would need to grow quickly.

With this in mind, Riot raised another round of venture capital funding in 2009, including some money from the studio’s Chinese partner, Tencent. Riot quickly poured all of that money back into the studio, expanding the team, fixing bugs and technical problems with the game and building in new content as quickly as could be managed.

Merrill refers to the years following League of Legends' launch as "the 'building the plane while flying' experience." When Riot launched the game, team members knew League would grow and change over the years, but the developers weren’t sure in what ways. Maybe they would need to go back and add a single-player campaign? Maybe players would want more maps, more modes, more variety than the initial experience could provide.

What Riot discovered was players had an insatiable appetite for more of what was already there — an extremely tightly designed, hard-to-balance, impossible-to-master showdown between champions on a single map, Summoner’s Rift.

"It was all about pouring everything we could into that competitive experience to make it as good as it could possibly be," Beck says. "We’ve kind of been in a reactionary mode. Just like, 'Holy crap. The game is getting really big, and we have to keep up with the demands of our players.' And, 'Oh my god, it gets a lot more complicated when there’s all these different versions in all these different languages, and there’s server farms in every part of the world, and we have to keep up with it and deliver, and every patch gets more complicated.’"

Riot spent much of 2010 and 2011 finding its footing with League of Legends, learning the rhythms that worked best for creating new content and keeping the rocket running even as its trajectory grew endlessly higher. During this time, the studio also realized some surprising things about how people consumed its game.

As it turned out, gamers didn’t just enjoy playing League of Legends. They also really liked to watch it.

The rise of esports

Merrill and Beck had spent years playing StarCraft together. They knew that esports existed for competitive games like this. They had even considered starting their own esports league prior to creating Riot. Beck says they would have called it "the Ultimate Gaming League (UGL)."

But even just five years ago, the esports scene was significantly less developed and more unproven than it is now. When Riot released League of Legends, it had no real plan for esports and no idea that people would want to play the game professionally.

That changed fast.

It started with fans organizing tournaments. By the summer of 2010, the League of Legends esports scene grew to the point that Riot had to embrace it. The studio announced what it ambitiously called "Season One" of competitive play. Riot grafted the Season One Championship onto Dreamhack Summer 2011, a general esports event that also included Counter-Strike and StarCraft 2.

"I remember we had something like 20 folding chairs and, without knowing if anyone would watch, decided to stream the games," Beck says of the Season One Championship. "We ended up getting over 100,000 concurrent viewers, which just blew our minds. It was there we realized this was something League players loved and started to really take it seriously."

Beck, Merrill and a growing esports staff at Riot came up with a huge plan: Rather than letting unorganized third-party tournaments be the focus for League of Legends esports, Riot wanted to run its own leagues. This would include creating high quality competitive broadcasts weekly and coming up with a yearlong schedule of professional League of Legends gaming.

Put another way: It would take a lot of money, and also a lot of mistakes.

The biggest of those mistakes came only a year later, during the Season Two World Championship in October 2012. The group stages before the finals took place at L.A. Live, an outdoor space in downtown Los Angeles. Riot thought it was a cool, unique venue; the developer blocked off the streets and set up enormous outdoor screens so that the huge crowd of live viewers could see the action. It was sunny and hot, but the crowd didn’t seem any less enthusiastic.

Then something unthinkable happened. The Chinese Team WE was up against Counter Logic Gaming Europe. The two teams were 50 minutes deep into an extremely competitive match; CLG EU had a small advantage, but it was still anyone’s game. Until it was no one’s game. The venue’s internet connection went down, booting both teams from the match.

"The servers were not local," Beck explains. "We didn’t have a version of our entire servers that we could bring with us at the time back then."

It was impossible for Riot to rebuild the game, so CLG EU and WE had to start over. And then it happened again. Eventually, Riot gave up and sent the audience home without finishing the series.

"The amount of anguish that we felt — we totally just shit the bed for all of our players," says Beck.

However, Beck says this experience taught Riot an important lesson about the esports world: It always had to have a "plan C" prepared, a backup to the backup for the worst case scenarios.

Over the last five years, both the esports scene in general and Riot’s approach in particular have matured, but only alongside a steady stream of new problems to solve. In just this past year, for example, several teams were controversially banned from Riot’s North American League Championship Series, and Merrill wandered into a heated online debate with the owner of one of the LCS’ most popular teams.

In that latest blow-up, Team Solo Mid owner Andy "Reginald" Dinh criticized the structure of Riot’s esports organization. Merrill responded openly on Reddit in a controversial post, suggesting that Dinh wasn’t paying his players enough. The post was soon shared all over the League community, with many fans calling out Merrill for his accusations and for dodging the criticism presented by Dinh.

"[Dinh and I have] had a lot of discussions behind closed doors," Merrill says of that incident. "I spoke from a place of passion when I carried on a private conversation in a public forum. I often fail to appreciate how far League has come. We’re at the helm of this massive thing, and there’s so much attention and amplification being put onto it. I’m still getting used to it."

The numbers game

Getting used to League of Legends’ success has been a process for years now, and it’s included many steps — starting with shoring up the business end of the game. By 2011, League was an undeniable hit pulling in plenty of money, but Merrill and Beck no longer wanted to be beholden to a wider group of investors. In the start of that year, the co-founders sold a majority stake in the company to Tencent.

"Financial investors oftentimes have a shorter time horizon in terms of thinking about return on investment for themselves," Merrill says. "Our perspective was that it was better to manage one shareholder that’s super aligned with our long-term goals than having a different investor base that may have different goals."

The deal has worked well for Riot. Given the game's success, Tencent lets the developer operate with complete independence. Beck says that most of the employees at Riot have probably never met anyone from the studio’s Chinese parent company.

Cutting out any concern about pleasing investors allowed Riot to buckle down and focus on making League of Legends better. It also led to Beck and Merrill creating what many praise as a great place to work.

In 2013 — the same year that Riot relocated to a massive, state-of-the-art headquarters in Los Angeles — Business Insider awarded the developer the number four spot on its list of the 25 best tech companies to work for. It appeared just a few slots lower than Facebook, and the publication touted a 100 percent approval rating for Beck.

According to Merrill, this all goes back to Riot’s core philosophy about hiring and about game design, the thing that pushed him and Beck to found the studio in the first place: It’s all about the players.

"We aspire to deliver on the obligation we feel to players," says Merrill. "When we let them down, it feels really shitty. That’s one of the things that really drives and motivates all Rioters."

Riot’s co-founders place all of the company’s success on the shoulders of League’s players. Beck calls them "evangelists." He says it’s those players who introduce new people to the game, who promise them that it’s worth pushing through the tough learning curve. It’s those players who make the game worth it.

"Our players have stuck with us with this incredible loyalty that really challenges us every day to feel like we earn it," Beck says. "They’ve helped create this community where all this fan art is shared, and there’s all these people to hang out with and there’s all these phenomenal streams to watch with the advent of streaming. It’s all that stuff that our players have built around us that’s allowed this happen."

The "this" that Beck refers to is League of Legends’ unrivaled success, a victory that’s quantifiable. In 2014, the last time that Riot publicly gave out player numbers, it stated that 67 million people were playing each month. Now, seven years into the game’s life, that number has surpassed 100 million.

Despite releasing that figure alongside this story going live, Beck and Merrill claim to hate discussing numbers, which they say is why the company hasn’t provided any for the last two years.

"It’s hard to parse, but at the end of the day, those things don’t even feel real," says Beck. "The coolest thing is actually when we’re at the live events and get to meet fans face to face. Only then does it start to feel real. Otherwise, they’re just numbers on a screen all over the world."

Indifferent or not, those numbers keep climbing.

What comes next

One recurring joke you’ll hear about Riot Games if you spend time with its employees or others who know them is that it should be called "Riot Game." In 10 years of existence, the company has only put out one title: League of Legends. It’s an odd state to be in, but Beck believes that "one game" doesn’t tell the whole story.

"We’re in a different era now," he says. "The reason you haven’t seen a company grow up and not ship anything else in 10 years is because that is a little crazy. But for us, we feel like we’ve put a League of Legends 2 and a League of Legends 3’s worth of time and effort and focus into League since it launched. It remains an enormous priority for us."

Merrill recalls a list that Beck, himself and other early members of the company made back when League of Legends was in beta – a huge rundown of all the features the developer intended to add to the game. Over the years, that list has been whittled down but many elements remain, and Riot is dedicated to making all of them a reality. The company has publicly discussed some additions — like replays, a new client, sandbox mode and in-game tournaments — for years, and they’re still not ready yet. Merrill promises they will be, in time.

But on the other side of the room, Beck also promises that he is committed to "putting the ‘s’ in Riot Games." The studio has ballooned from its lean beginnings to over 1,000 employees, and while the majority of this group is focused on League of Legends, some of the staff toils in secret in the highest security building on the studio’s campus: the research and development group.

Most Rioters never get to see the inside of R&D. When we ask if we can check it out, Merrill and Beck laugh. Somewhere in that building, small teams are working on projects that each could be the next big thing from Riot. Many of the projects in R&D will never see the light of day — such as a League of Legends-themed digital card game, news of which leaked from a hacker in 2013.

At the time, Merrill said of the card game simply that Riot is "always working on a variety of new ideas for League and beyond." He doesn't care to add much more when we ask him about it for this story.

However, Beck confirms, at least, that whatever Riot does next may not necessarily use the League of Legends IP.

"We’re prototyping," he says. "We’re thinking about both options. Some experiences really need to be realized in different universes, and some experiences would be fucking awesome in the League universe. We’re being flexible."

Whatever the setting for future games, Riot continues to pour a ton of resources into developing League of Legends as a fully-realized universe. In the early days of the game, the developer hadn’t hired full-time writers; a designer might spend a couple of hours throwing together a paragraph-long bio for a new character, with very little care given to where and how it fit into the greater world.

Now, the company has fully rebooted the game’s backstory, bringing on writers and a full team called "Foundations."

"Foundations is artists and storytellers who are helping us define our world," Merrill says. "In League, we can only expose players to so much story, right? Because of the frenetic, moment-to-moment pace of the game. It’s not the kind of game that lends itself to telling a story. But the deeper our stories are, the richer the experience feels, the more interesting the characters are, and so on."

Outside of whatever mysterious future products not connecting to League that Riot may or may not be working on, the company is making a big bet on worldbuilding. It believes that even in a game almost entirely devoid of traditional narrative, creating a well-defined, tightly-knit story and set of characters will improve things.

Right now, that story is most explored via long text pieces on League of Legends’ website, but Riot is hoping to do more soon. Beck says the company is looking at computer-animated film as one area to expand.

"Historically, the CG has been limited to that sort of fight porn that exemplifies the moment-to-moment gameplay in League," Beck says. "But over time we want to use CG as a medium to tell rich, deep stories."

Riot’s future may also lie in expansion. Earlier this year, the developer acquired another company for the first time — small indie developer Radiant Entertainment, a studio working on a Minecraft-esque survival game and a fighting game. Beck says the Radiant purchase made sense because the two companies shared similar values.

"I think this type of match is extremely rare," he says. "I wouldn’t expect to do many acquisitions like Radiant, but we’re open to it."

Riot’s ascendancy to the top of the games industry would have been impossible to predict 10 years ago. Even five years. Beck says he didn’t even realize this trajectory was possible. So perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to try to guess what the company will do next, or where it might be in another 10 years. For now, Beck and Merrill seem plenty busy just trying to please the giant, rabid group of fans the studio has already earned.

"Yeah, they have strong opinions," Merrill says, pointing to the endless stream of criticisms directed toward him and the company at large on forums and fan communities like Reddit. "But it just reflects that they care, which we understand. We have been in those seats. Brandon and I were the dudes on the message boards passionately advocating for particular things."

Now that they’re in charge of their own studio, Merrill and Beck have a promise to the League community: They’re not going to turn away or stop listening, even when being criticized. And they’re not going to abandon the game, even a decade into the company’s life. For the foreseeable future, League of Legends is here to stay.

Photos: Trevor Toma
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