Last week I had the opportunity to visit Riot Games, creator of League of Legends the ‘most-played game in the world’ at its studios in Santa Monica, California. It was the weekend of the League of Legends world finals, an intense, high-sucrose event held at the Galen Center, Los Angeles’ 10,000-seater Basketball arena.
With a $1 million prize for the winning team, it was the largest pot in any eSports championship to date and, whatever you think of the free-to-play game, the final felt like an important event, a moment of evolution for an off-shoot of the games industry that has been growing faster than any other in 2012.
The entire weekend was a whirlwind of bright lights, interviews and jaw-dropping statistics. I wrote up my time with Riot for Eurogamer, telling the story of the game’s stratospheric rise, as well as the narrative of the final itself. Here’s an extract…
The games industry glorifies in numbers. It shouts numbers till it’s hoarse in the throat. It bleeds numbers till you take notice. It has to do with a keen sense of cultural inferiority. Video games are yet to be taken very seriously, viewed as cinema’s runt sibling, literature’s embarrassing distant cousin. So the industry presents numbers as evidence of its relevance and worth. ‘You’ll never guess how much more money video games generate than Hollywood these days!’ ‘Have you heard how many hours people spend playing games over reading?’
The numbers are dressed up like vanity, but they are born of insecurity.
Riot Games recently declared League of Legends the “most played game in the world”. The online PC title – in which two teams of five players compete to be the first to destroy the others’ base – has attracted 70 million registered accounts hailing from 145 countries since it debuted in 2009. Its community consists of 32 million monthly active users, an average of 12 million of whom log on to play every day. At any one moment there are around 3 million people in the world playing League of Legends, and its community logs over a billion hours of play each month.
Last year, people spent four times as much time playing League of Legends than Minecraft, and twice as much playing the game as they did World of Warcraft. This season the average League of Legends league game has attracted a greater online viewership than the average major league season baseball game. Riot Games hires a 30-man team of in-house psychologists (led by Carl Kwoh) whose sole job is to improve the behaviour of League of Legends players and foster sportsmanship.
They’re numbers to drop jaws, unimaginable in their expanse. Most companies like to brag favourable statistics, especially those who work in games, the cultural cul-de-sac. But you have to wonder whether all these eager figures mask a still deeper insecurity. League of Legends is, next to Minecraft and Angry Birds, the greatest success story in contemporary video games. And yet there’s a clear humility in Beck and Merrill’s manner. There’s a flush of awkwardness in this spotlight.
“We were newbs at the starting-a-studio thing,” says Beck to the assembled crowd. “As you might imagine, we dramatically underestimated a lot of the execution challenges along the way. We founded [Riot] out of a lifelong passion for competitive games. We made countless mistakes along this journey; so many in fact, we incorporated the idea of making mistakes into our culture.”
Charming, self-depreciating – despite the numbers. But also there’s an undercurrent of incredulity, as if the pair can’t quite believe what’s happened. After all, both men entered the games industry as fans; players of DoTA and other online competitive PC strategy games that simply hired a team to make a similar game they wanted to play and could support themselves.
Don’t misunderstand: they’re no cloners. League of Legends introduces enough invention to sidestep that grubby accusation. But perhaps there’s an inferiority complex somewhere in all of this – a belief that they don’t quite belong. Are League of Legends’ numbers a way to prove and protest legitimacy?
You can read the full feature here and, even if you’re not very interested in MOBAs or free-to-play web-games that are primarily played by teenagers, I’d encourage you to take a look because it’s an extraordinary story that is still some way off a conclusion.