A league of their own.
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League of Legends exploded onto the scene in 2009 as the start-up brainchild of Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck, poised to disrupt an esports market that would end up being helmed by two heavyweights--Dota 2 and StarCraft. The idea that a bunch of enthusiastic DOTA fans were responsible for what is now the game's biggest competition may come as a surprise to the uninitiated, but the humble beginnings of League of Legends can be traced all the way through to two college roommates essentially wanting to turn a Warcraft III mod into a standalone title.
Now, League of Legends is synonymous with esports and the MOBA genre. While companies like Valve and Blizzard were forces to be reckoned with in the pre-2010 era, there's now no question that Riot Games and its lone video game are essentially household names. Whether it's a new champion, a new in-game event, or Mid-Season Invitational which drew 19.8 million concurrent viewers last year, everyone who has even a passing interest in the game stops and stares.
Starcraft is often credited with the birth of esports but Riot Games were instrumental in ensuring that there was an appeal to translate to a mainstream audience. We're talking merchandising, booking out stadium shows, international gauntlets and tournaments pitting fan-favorite players against each other. We're talking sponsorships outside of the tech sphere, ranging from underwear to energy drinks. By drawing on the cult of personality that the League of Legends esports scene has built around some of its top players, Riot Games and the teams fielding these players have brought a whole new audience to the MOBA genre that other competitors have been unable to capitalize on.
Riot Games stepped onto the competitive esports scene around the time that Starcraft II was gaining momentum. However, where Starcraft II had to deal with a tiered release date in terms of the content like its various campaigns and the gradual integration of multiplayer accessibility, League of Legends exited a relatively short beta period with all guns blazing. And, unlike the model that was being relied on by Valve and Blizzard at the time, where second-party tournaments were the name of the game, League of Legends had its competitive esports nature in-built when it came to everything from matchmaking to the evolving meta that was governing the title.
League of Legends had its competitive esports nature in-built when it came to everything from matchmaking to the evolving meta that was governing the title.
Upon release, the title was praised by critics for its game design ethos and characters, which are now features of League that have taken on a life of their own in the form of ore codexes of a density that rivals established MMOs, cosmetic lines with accompanying music videos and original songs, and engaging in-game events created both for home enjoyment and for the spectator stage.
Outside of gaming, the fact that a MOBA has garnered Emmy nominations is impressive in itself. League of Legends has been nominated for mainstream accolades not necessarily for triumphs of design that are part of the gameplay mechanics, but for the wealth of creative material built by Riot Games around its existing product. From anime-inspired trailers to K-pop crossovers, League of Legends has consistently had its finger on the pulse of what's hot (and selling like hotcakes), and it's managed to execute on concepts like through said Emmy-nominated multimedia projects which have served to expand the title's reach beyond the gaming sphere.
In general, League of Legends has spawned a wave of competitors since it cemented itself on the MOBA scene. Arena of Valor is one such title that comes to mind, which ironically was fronted at the time by Tencent, who is now the majority shareholder in Riot Games. Mobile MOBAs featuring bad rip-offs of League characters were a dime a dozen on any online store, some more shameless than others. However, all these imitations really served to do was cement League's status as the superior product. There was absolutely no way for these other titles to execute on player-centric initiatives the way that Riot's product had: technical limitations aside, League of Legends was already more than just a video game at that point. It was an entire brand, from international tournaments to in-jokes to larger-than-life media personalities whose own identities were intrinsically associated with the game as a product.
Arguably, a lot of League of Legends' success came from them having the distance to observe their competitors before essentially pivoting away from what they were doing. Riot Games' original ethos with its title, which has persevered to this day, is a focus on player and community feedback. League was both competitive and casual play rolled into one, with Riot heading up every aspect of the commercial and competitive sides of the game as a unified product. Instead of waiting weeks for a patch in Dota 2 or Starcraft at the time, League players could expect patches as soon as the community saw a problem. The game quickly evolved and iterated, and even though it's gone through some huge design changes since release, these have always been done in consultation with the community, with the team at Riot happy to roll back anything that might not be working.
This rapport with the community would serve Riot Games well over the years to come, and the community itself would reap those rewards; many community initiatives born from the passion of fans turned into features that Riot would then implement into the League of Legends product. Things like detailed match statistics were first provided by OP.GG, which has now become LCS Stats. The original League of Legends wikia provided the framework by which Riot now deals with its interlocking lore and displays it. The League community was, and still is, full of people who managed and ran third-party infrastructure that eventually became critical to the influence of the game. The title inspired fans to not only consume it but also to contribute to it, including the now-famous example of Chinese region superfans doing their own illegal broadcasts before Riot officially taking them on board.
That being said, while Riot Games has grown in profile alongside its sizeable community, the company itself has also grown in notoriety. Current and ex-Rioters have spoken out against the company’s toxic corporate culture in the past year or so, which has led to victims coming forward about sexism, harassment, and toxic workplace attitudes. While the company has tried to make strides towards addressing concerns after immense public pressure. It’s not as simple as wanting to implement a diversity initiative at the company; just a few weeks after employees filed lawsuits stating that Riot is in violation of the California Equal Pay Act, there has now also been walkout in protest of the forced arbitration clauses in Riot employment agreements. Riot’s internal issues have started to bleed over into a lot of how League of Legends is covered in mainstream media and how it’s talked about, and this has definitely affected the perception of the esport in a way that it’s still currently recovering from.
While it's near impossible to set aside the recent reports when discussing Riot, League of Legends' legacy is a different story. It's obvious that the game helped put esports on the map for a lot of mainstream audiences before the explosion of titles like Fortnite and PUBG. From record viewership numbers on Twitch to hosting one of the biggest esports events ever at Madison Square Garden in 2016, Riot Games' prodigal son has gone from strength to strength since its launch in 2009. In doing so, it's changed the way that people experience and access esports, taking fans from the days of bootleg broadcasts of regional streams to an international gauntlet of iconic stadiums at every year's World Championships. Blizzard and Valve, the top dogs when Riot Games entered the scene, are now playing catch-up to the well-oiled Ferrari that is the League of Legends production model, and it shows.
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