Jew and a small crew of interns and artists working on the game’s many characters often spent their time playing other games as they waited for the development team to catch up to the work they were doing. One of the team leads caught on and told them they had to play League of Legends every day. So they did, begrudgingly at first. But then something happened about six months before the game was set to roll out to the public: The playtesters and interns started playing League not because they had to, but because they wanted to.
“That was when we realized we had something that could work,” Jew said. “And it was pretty damn close to launching.”
That launch on Oct 27, 2009 was just one memorable moment in Riot Game’s 10-year journey down a road punctuated by terror, wild leaps of faith, and powered by an army of interns and a lot of luck.
The birth of League of Legends was more about a philosophy than a design document, as co-founder Marc Merrill describes it.
Merrill and co-founder Brandon Beck were college buddies, both studying business at the University of Southern California, who bonded over their shared love of video games. After graduation, the two became roommates, sharing an apartment in West Hollywood while working in their respective jobs — Beck as a management consultant at Bain & Company and Merrill pursuing business management.
“We would always just talk about games whenever we saw each other,” Merrill said. “We would have back-to-back gaming nights at our apartment. That's the thing we loved to do every single moment we ever could possibly do it.”
They both also loved the idea of working on a video game, but neither saw a viable pathway into game development with their backgrounds.
“We weren’t engineers or designers, so we didn’t see a career path on the development side that we thought would be, sort of, attractive for both of us,” Merrill said. “People with skill sets like our’s would typically be more relevant on the publishing side. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t go into games right after school.”
But gaming continued to be a big part of their lives, and over time both Merrill and Beck got involved with a few gaming companies. That included becoming advisers to the board of directors for a now-defunct massively multiplayer online game. The two believed in the vision of the company and offered to help it raise money through venture capital funds.
The work the two did as advisers, Merrill said, taught them a lot about the early days of building a game company.
“We learned you could be at the right place at the right time with a great idea, but if you can't execute it doesn't matter,” Merrill said. “And what ended up happening was the company struggled to build a game that was great because of the lack of mature tech.”
By 2005, the new CEO of that company, now rebranded, reached back out to Beck and Merrill and asked if they could help him work through a buyout and revitalization of the company.
“So Brandon and I came out there for fun on a weekend and helped him think through that,” Merrill said. “And that got us really thinking seriously about, well, where's the industry? What are the trends? Where are things going?”
The two had recently gotten into playing a popular modification of Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft III. The mod, Defense of the Ancients or DOTA, took the real-time fantasy strategy game and created a set of rules that had players controlling two teams of powerful heroes to take out the opposing side’s base. But the mod was an extra download created and maintained by fans that lacked a level of polish and was often hard to find and set up.
“We thought maybe we could build this sort of DOTA-style game,” Merrill said. “The more we thought about that the more we were like, ‘Actually, that’s an incredibly compelling opportunity.’”
And in their minds, the Warcraft III mod didn’t clear the way just for the birth of a new genre of gameplay known as a multiplayer online battle arena or MOBA, it also proved the viability of a still relatively young concept in gaming: Games as a service. With games as a service, a video game isn’t just developed, released, and then forgotten, it continues to grow, iterating, expanding, offering new content, without ever really releasing a sequel. In that way, the game becomes something more akin to a television series than a single movie.
“DOTA proved that games as a service is something that can really work because it grew virally due to the efforts of great creators, a community of moderators, and a community of volunteers with zero advertising dollars spent,” Merrill said. “It was just this direct relationship with players and this willingness to evolve and grow the game over time.”
With the seed of an idea planted, Beck and Merrill got to work.
Jeff Jew was a junior studying film at USC’s interactive media lab when he first met Beck and Merrill.
“They hosted a DOTA tournament at USC. I think the goal was to actually meet students who were interested in games, that were interested in doing game design or [quality assurance] work — mostly QA work to be honest — for their new company,” Jew said. “They were looking for passionate kids that knew this game back to back.”
But the people who showed up, Jew said, not only didn’t know about this secret goal, but also didn’t really know the game that well. So Jew said he spent much of his time teaching them how to play.
When the tournament — which was really more of an open-ended play session — wrapped up, Paul Bellezza, another super fan of the original DOTA game, introduced Jew to Beck and Merrill.
“They said, ‘Hey, keep this confidential, but we’re working on a game that is similar to this game,” Jew said. “And to me that sounded amazing. I was playing 40 hours of that game a week and they said, ‘Why don’t you swing by the office next week when you have the time and we’ll do an interview and just see if you’re interested in joining.’”
It was September 2006, and Riot Games had just opened up its offices in an old converted machine shop under an Interstate 405 overpass in Santa Monica. Jew said his interview ended up being a long chat about Warcraft, DOTA, and his playing habits. As soon as it wrapped up, the two offered Jew an $11-an-hour internship.
He accepted and became Riot Games’ intern number two; Bellezza was the first intern. Jew changed his school schedule to all morning classes and was soon putting in 40 hours a week at Riot.
The studio, he said, consisted of a couple of offices and then a long row of cubicles. In the back, far from the light shed by the single hanging lamp, sat the interns.
“The walls were bare and it was really dark, especially in the back,” Jew said. “When I started there was basically no game.” The game was just as bare-bones as the office, the only thing Riot had to show was a flat plain dissecting a white screen with little skeletons running from one side to the other. “That was it," he said. "So we were really starting from scratch.”
While Jew and Bellezza were the team’s only interns, the company also had Beck, Merrill, and a core team of four which included producers, an engineer and a VFX artist. It wasn’t until the next week that the team got its first concept artist. The team also churned through some interns over the coming months and then, about two months in, Riot Games landed its first coup: They hired Steve “Guinsoo” Feak, one of the original designers of DOTA Allstars.
Feak had handed off development of the mod and returned to school in Wisconsin. At the time he joined Riot, he was working on the Geek Squad at a local Best Buy.
“He was pretty excited about the concept that we wanted to build a MOBA game unconstrained from Blizzard,” Merrill said.
While Feak was a huge hire for Riot Games, he also had no experience working with a group or at a game development studio. His prior work was all done essentially on his own.
“So learning how to be collaborative and work together and the like, that was all new to everybody there,” Jew said. “Which was pretty crazy.”
The group threw themselves into the development of a game they initially called Onslaught. They wrote a massive design document and focused on creating entirely new characters — the original DOTA used the intellectual property of Blizzard — while slapping together a demonstration of the game in about four months that could be shown at the 2007 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
While the team showed off the game during GDC, Beck and Merrill met with potential publishers, but the meetings didn’t go well. The biggest issue was that the duo didn’t want to sell the game, instead they wanted to earn money off the back of in-game sales. While the freemium model was starting to gain traction in Asia, it really hadn’t yet been proven in North America.
“We originally just wanted to be a game developer, but then when we talked to publishers at the time they were like, ‘Wait, you’re not going to have single player (gameplay) and you want the game to be free and virtual? What are you talking about?” Merrill said. “We realized that we can’t give them the keys to the kingdom and have them publish it, because we’d fail. This game, this experience, this whole concept needs to have this vertically integrated experience where publishing and development are completely aligned. So then what that means is that we had to go raise venture money, which we thought was unlikely and we were terrified.”
Following the show, Beck and Merrill took to the road, hunting up potential venture capital funding, eventually raising $1.5 million from angel investors and family.
As the two traveled the country, the core team at Riot was starting to fracture. Jew said that most of that original group were focused on building what he calls a “DOTA clone” very quickly, adding that their “quality bar was low,” whereas the rest of the small team was focused on innovating on the existing genre and improving on what was already out there.
“Ultimately those ideals really clashed,” Jew said. In early 2008, three of the four members of that core team left, a month later so did the fourth. The remaining team still had the design document for the game and some of the characters, but in many ways those that remained had to start over.
Onslaught became League of Legends: Clash of Fates.
Over the summer of 2008, Merrill and Beck’s work seeking funds proved fruitful and the two landed $7 million more in funding from Benchmark and FirstMark Capital venture capital firms. League of Legends was announced on Oct. 7, 2008 and went into closed beta in April 2009. Merrill described those months between announcement and opening the door to the public — if just by a crack — as terrifying, and Jew said there were “super scary” moments.
As the game faced down the early launch, Jew was in charge of overseeing the creation of the game’s player-controlled champions. Initially, the idea was to ship the game with 20, but after doing a competitive analysis, Beck and Merrill realized that wasn’t enough, so they doubled the requirement.
“That did put a ton of pressure on me because I had planned on 20 the whole time,” Jew said, “And they told me that they were going to do this free-to-play business model, which Brandon has always been talking about, and the way we’re going to make money is to sell cosmetic items called skins.”
The sale of skins, or new outfits for characters, is now the main way the game generates its billions in revenue each year. But back then, Jew and his team had to come up with 40 characters and extra skins for half of them in time for the approaching launch.
“The first 20 champions weren’t even done at this time,” Jew said. “That was a mind-blowing and super scary conversation. We had no idea how to get this done and he said, ‘Hey, you’ll figure it out.’”
So Jew brought in an “army” of paid interns and used them to supplement the work on character design.
“We had 12 designers, which is actually quite a lot, and I would say about half of those were interns,” he said. “Each designer was working on two champions at the same time and they each only had two months to work with their champions and get them in the game with a crude asset. We were also outsourcing a lot of the assets, it was the only way we could get this done.”
Meanwhile, pressure was increasing to make sure the game would hit its early access and launch on time as the studio jetted toward a moment when it would run out of money and simply shut down.
To make matters worse, other members of that original DOTA team were now working with established developer S2 Games and Frostburn Studios to create their own MOBA. Where League of Legends set out to iterate on that original concept, Heroes of Newerth was working to deliver a more faithful recreation. And both games were aiming to release their earlier builds of the game within months of each other.
“We were terrified, you know,” Merrill said. “We had never shipped a game. We’d never built a game. Where S2 was an established game developer. They had shipped a variety of games. They had more mature organizational practices and a more sophisticated dev team with more experience, better tools and technology.”
Once both games were pushed out for players to try live, things didn’t look good for League of Legends.
“We felt like we were losing that race the whole time and numbers wise we were,” Jew said. “They had some good developers. Their art was so much better than ours back then. Their VFX was beautiful.”
Both games went live with their early builds around the same time, but Heroes of Newerth was pulling in double the number of peak players, Jew said.
“We thought we were going to lose to these guys for sure,” he said.
But once both games announced their business models, everything changed.
Where League of Legends didn’t charge to play the game — instead relying on in-game purchases, Heroes of Newerth sold like a traditional box game with a fixed price tag. Jew said shortly after Heroes announced its set price, it lost half its players. That was because, Jew theorizes, those players were in Asia or Southeast Asia and either couldn’t afford or didn’t want to spend that money on a game all at once.
“And all of those players flipped and they came to League of Legends because we were free to play still,” Jew said. “It was crazy, we never expected that.”
But the decision to remain a free-to-play product almost didn’t happen. Jew said that Beck and Merrill were very worried about the concept and were having second thoughts.
“We were having cold feet like crazy,” Jew said. “We were doing all the math of how much we would have to sell to earn our money back because we thought we’d only have, you know, 20,000 players. But at the end of the day, Brandon’s like, ‘Nope, you know what? We’re going to go for it. I think this free-to-play model could work.’”
In 2009, Riot earned an estimated $1.29 million in revenue according to estimates by SuperData. The following year, that revenue was up to $17.25 million, according to SuperData. And in 2011, Riot Games revenue rocketed to more than $85 million. That same year Chinese gaming and internet giant Tencent Holdings purchased 97 percent of the company for $400 million.
Looking back at that decision, Merrill said he thinks that by giving the game away they were able to eliminate the biggest barrier for people to check out their new product.
“Nobody would have tried Legends if we put a price point in front of it because the game is tough to sell,” he said. “It’s like, once you start to play it, once you kind of get over the hump — and that hump is big, like 10 or 20 games sometimes — that’s when you start to appreciate why anybody would think it's cool.”
While that decision was an important moment in League of Legends early history, it was just one of many when the wrong idea or wrong approach could have doomed the company.
After the game’s launch on Oct. 27, 2009, for instance, Riot struggled to get the online store up and operating and without it the company couldn’t make a penny.
“Spending other people’s money with zero revenue when you have a fixed amount of cash is always a nerve wracking thing,” Merrill said, but the occasional stumble wasn’t completely unique to the company. Merrill said that at least twice in Riot’s history there were moments when the company had less than two months of cash left.
“There are many, many stories about why the company should have failed,” he said.
That’s not an exaggeration.
Just months into the game’s launch, Riot Games ran into a massive wall in Europe. The company had partnered with a local company to handle the game’s operation there, but players were increasingly unhappy with the game there. Merrill said it was because of their partner didn’t have the same values and simply weren’t invested in the level of support needed there. The result was that players in Europe struggled to log into the game and often ran into technical online issues -- sometimes lasting entire weekends. So Riot convinced the company to hand back control of the game to them in Europe. However that put them on a deadline that gave them 53 days to not just take over operations, but set up their own data centers. They made it, but just barely. Within three months of the May 2010 hand-off, European growth -- which had been well behind North America -- was now 9 percent stronger and growing.
Another major stumble Riot didn’t just survive, but after which thrived, centered on the company’s incredibly important push into esports.
Today, League of Legends is one of the largest esports in the world, but in 2011 Riot had just started experimenting with the idea of pro play. The company hosted the first season championships at the annual DreamHack celebration in Sweden in June 2011, attracting more than 1.6 million viewers.
The following year, the company decided to host the Season 2 world playoffs in Southern California. Things were running relatively smoothly until the third day of the live playoffs when a series of internet technical issues derailed a match not once, but again and again. The issues forced the competing teams to play the same match-up over and over for seven hours. Eventually, Riot pulled the plug for the day and had everyone come back the next day to start over.
That moment, Merrill said became both a “tragedy, but a great rallying cry for the company to get better, to figure out how to solve these things.”
The end result was an overhaul, and a decision to build an on-site system that would host high-profile tournaments moving forward.
Over the years, as League continued to explode in popularity, potential game-killing problems continued to crop up.
While Riot identified toxic, abusive players as a problem back in 2012 — even going as far as building a Team Player Behavior group lead by scientists to try and solve it — it continued to be a problem.
“The number one reason people would stop playing League of Legends was because other people can be jerks online,” Merrill said. “That’s not our fault, but that’s our problem. I think many companies took the approach of throwing up their hands and saying they can’t do anything about it. We tried to take the approach of, how do we foster a better community?”
In 2016, the company decided to start focusing a bit more on rewarding players who behaved and less on punishing those that misbehaved.
While Merrill said the effort is ongoing, he thinks that a lot of progress has been made.
Then in 2018, gaming site Kotaku delivered a scathing story about the company’s culture, reporting multiple incidents of sexism from a large number of sources at Riot Games. The story — which detailed unfair treatment of women employees at Riot — led to an internal investigation, lawsuits, a state fair employment investigation, a walkout, and an effort by the company to improve workplace treatment and culture that included hiring a new chief diversity officer.
For some outside of the company, the story was a shocking, contrasting view of a company that had once been named one of the top 15 employers in America to work by Fortune. Merrill said the moment became an important opportunity for the company to bring everyone together and establish its values.
“We’ve invested a lot in training and we continue to invest more in different types of training around diversity and also how to ensure that people of different backgrounds and contexts can collaborate together, can improve these sort of high quality human interactions and things like that," he said.
In the years to come, Merrill added, he hopes that the company will be able to look back and see this as a ”really positive inflection point that helped us become the company and the employer that we need to be and want to be, because we need to be a great place to work. Otherwise we can’t achieve what we’re trying to achieve.”
In the decade since launch, League of Legends has grown, improved and changed. Where Riot struggled to launch the game with 20 champions, there are now more than 140. Where 20,000 players seemed like an unreasonable high in 2009, League typically has 8 million playing on any given day in 2019. Where the company first set up shop at a tiny machine-shop, now it is based on a 20-acre campus. And where any misstep in those early days could have led to a financial tumble and closure of the studio, Riot earned an estimated $1.7 billion last year on its free game, according to SuperData.
A key to the company’s success, Merrill might argue the key, is the company’s focus on listening to players — both those who remain ardent supporters but also the game’s vocal critics. But that player-centric focus would be problematic if the studio didn’t also recognize that sometimes the player is wrong.
Merrill calls that one of the “paradoxes and tension points” of working at Riot Games.
“How do you be player-centric and care about what your customers want but then literally say, ‘Well, sometimes they’re wrong,’” Merrill said. “It’s because to me, players are great at problem identification, but often are not great at solutions.”
This month is a great example of how Riot listens to player concerns, but doesn’t always act upon them in expected ways.
Where League of Legends most passionate fans might have wanted a company 100-percent focused on the singular game and its evolution, Riot Games instead unveiled work its been doing for years on a slew of new titles, all set in the League’s colorful universe. At an event in Riot’s headquarters earlier this month, the company used the celebration of League of Legends’ 10th anniversary as a chance to unveil a half-dozen new projects.
The decision to mash together the game announcements with the 10-year celebration of League highlights Riot’s underlying belief that while League continues to power the company, these other titles will in their own way power League.
“We were already planning a separate event called the multi-game announcement that we were kind of talking about for a while,” said Ryan Rigney, communications lead at Riot Games for League of Legends. “I had been working on this 10-year campaign where we were just going to do a lot of cool stuff for League players. And then we decided to ask the entire company to work together and combine all of our game announces and the TV show into this one event.”
“It became this really kind of wild thing. It’s the first time in Riot’s history that we pulled together everybody — including the R&D game departments — into one big campaign.”
The goal was to deliver what Rigney calls the “most player-focused game announcement ever.” That meant opening the doors completely to the fans and letting them see just about everything the studio is currently working on. The hope was to also provide a new level of insight into the daily focus of Riot’s thousands of developers.
“I think a lot of players thought that League of Legends was the whole company, where in fact it’s somewhere closer to 20 percent of the company,” said Rigney. “I think players are starting to get a little bit of a grasp of that. When we’re announcing all these games, these are games we’ve been working on for years in a lot of cases. So the company has actually been structured to support multiple games for a long time. It’s just that none of that was obvious. So it’s actually very gratifying for players to have a better understanding of where our heads are at because we just want to be able to talk to players about what we’re doing and have them understand what our goals and priorities are.”
Jessica Nam, the executive producer for League of Legends on PC, said that these new games offer fans of League of Legends new ways to interact with their favorite characters and learn more about that.
“We hope that if you fall in love with the character in one game, that you may be incentivized to try another game, and then you can kind of deepen your love for that character,” she said.
Nam’s team spent the month focusing on monitoring the reaction to the news around League of Legends changes and making sure the influx of new players are able to get in and try the title without a problem, she said.
Jew, who now heads up Legends of Runeterra — one of the new titles announced this month — also sees these new games as new entry points into Riot’s core title.
“I think there are a lot of players out there who League of Legends is probably intimidating for,” he said. “They got in late and they see that there’s now 10 years of it, they see the esport, and they think, ‘It’s way too late for me to play this game.’”
But they might be up for a new strategy card game, or one of the other new titles.
“And then after you've gotten into the characters and the lore you might jump over to League of Legends and play for the first time. So I think these new games are really adding entry points for players that have been interested in the flavor and the lore of legal legend, but never had a chance to jump in.”
Riot’s goal, Jew said, is for League of Legends to have another decade or two of life. As for the next 10 years, Merrill hopes it will be one driven by what he views as League of Legends’ expansion beyond games to become a sort of lifestyle.
“About 75 percent of our players don’t say I play League of Legends, they say I am a League of Legends player,” he said. “That’s the difference between saying I play golf or I like to surf and I’m a surfer. It’s an identity opt-in designation that relates to a lifestyle, and a mindset, and memes, and this community that people are deeply immersed in."
Brian Crecente is a freelance writer who has written for The Guardian, Paste Magazine, Wired Magazine, and elsewhere. He established Gawker’s Kotaku, co-founded Vox Media’s Polygon, and was the games editor for both Rolling Stone and Variety. Follow him on Twitter @crecenteb.