Such is the life of the Riot Games co-founder whose game, League of Legends, is one of the most popular titles of all time.
“It’s less about the acknowledgment or recognition from some broader culture,” Merrill said to The Washington Post. “The thing that bothers me is the stigma or the negative judgment.”
That stigma is part of the motivation for Riot’s planned expansion beyond the gaming world. Addressing why Riot decided to make a TV show, titled “Arcane,” Merrill said the company has an ability to continue to broaden the public’s understanding of what video games, and the industry built around them, represent.
“I think it helps move the needle,” he said, also citing high school varsity letters and scholarships for esports as helping in his mission to reduce stigmas.
The announcement of “Arcane” comes amid the most saturated media landscape of all time, as streamers and traditional networks duke it out for subscribers. In an attempt to entice people to sign up, Netflix, Disney, Amazon, Hulu, HBO and others have invested billions, annually, in original programming and acquisitions. An Ampere Analysis report showed a total global spend of $165 billion on TV shows, films, and sports in 2018, up from $50 billion in 2008, an increase that mostly happened in the past five years.
Riot enters the arena with the most popular PC video game and esports title at a time when gaming has never been more prevalent. Even then, its success isn’t assured, but it shows the logic behind the move.
“The biggest challenge for TV producers and creators today is to stand out,” said Alon Shtruzman, CEO of Keshet International, which is behind Showtime’s “Homeland” and “Our Boys” on HBO. “The clutter of TV shows is just overwhelming. Many shows, even with big stars, just go away today unnoticed.
“The fan base will be a great help, same as with movies like Angry Birds and Assassin’s Creed. Even if the movie isn’t great, because they were fans of the franchise, they’re going to go and watch it."
To wit: The two Angry Birds films brought in close to $500 million combined at the box office, while Assassin’s Creed took $240.6 million, according to Box Office Mojo. (Box Office Mojo is a subsidiary of Amazon. Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Financial outcomes of those films notwithstanding, the history of video games serving as the basis of TV shows and films is a largely maligned one. According to Merrill, Riot is undeterred. Invoking “Game of Thrones” and “Lord of the Rings,” he said Riot is trying to “hit that type of bar.” In an unusual move for a game publisher, it elected to keep the development of the show in-house by hiring a French production company, Fortiche Production.
Industry analysts such as Scott Steinberg, head of consulting firm TechSavvy, and Brandon Ross, a partner at research firm LightShed Partners, have long-expected Riot to develop a show, and see it as a natural move for a company looking to profit off its IP while expanding the company’s reach — especially at a time when Riot has announced a bevy of new games and projects.
“Video game-Hollywood crossovers have been the brunt of jokes, but they are going to get better over time,” Steinberg said. “The quick hack job done on a low budget that is going to suck is increasingly going to go away.”
He said that League’s bigger fan base, creative control and, given its ownership by Chinese conglomerate Tencent, Riot’s ability to invest more money than past shows that were based on games could all help in the endeavor.
But even with those advantages, Riot will have to overcome the fact that its game is not narrative-based, so story lines and a bulk of character development will have to be developed from scratch.
“The game is great for certain things; it’s not so great on the narrative side,” said Jarred Kennedy, Riot’s global head of IP businesses and partnerships. “Our players want to know more about the characters, they want to know more about their backstories, they want to experience the world in new ways."
“We are still learning how to tell great stories … and there’s lots of the companies that have, for decades, a whole industry of course, that has learned how to tell great stories through film and TV, and even they don’t get it right most of the time,” Merrill said.
Riot will also have to find a way to create a show that satisfies its core audience while also appealing to people unfamiliar with the game. Kennedy said it’s banking on utilizing “universal themes” to bridge this gap.
AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (based on a comic book series) and Marvel’s films (based on comic books and graphic novels), are marquee examples of how shows based on IP with niche audiences can appeal to mass audiences, though the film and TV annals are littered with those that have not.
“TV or video content is still the mass medium to reach all four quadrants,” Ross said.
Beyond the traditional routes of turning video games into shows, or vice versa, Shtruzman believes new business models could emerge, as well as creative possibilities — which have thus far only been offered fleetingly.
“Since everything is streaming, there is an option to bundle game and shows. It’s possible technologically, the challenge is commercial,” he said. “Those [streaming] platforms have a very, very advanced capability that they barely use. They can do it with choose your own adventure, interactive game shows and reality shows. A game creator could team up with a TV show creator."
Regardless of the cultural or commercial footprint for Riot’s “Arcane,” both Shtruzman and Steinberg expect new kinds of interactive content to emerge.
“Interactivity absolutely creates engagement,” said Shtruzman. Steinberg simply called it “the future.”
Merrill, as a game maker, understands this element well and explained the appeal as “instead of reading James Bond, you are James Bond.”
Merrill and Riot hope that interactive future will include video games — as an activity or career — becoming fully integrated into mainstream culture and accepted as a “meaningful life pursuit,” in Merrill’s words.
“The world is still learning what gaming is about,” he said. “Film and TV both have much longer histories and are more well understood mediums because a much greater percentage of the American public has grown up being consumers of TV and film. ... Fast forward another 30 or 40 years, no one is even going to call themselves a gamer because everyone is going to be a gamer, just like how no one calls themselves a moviegoer now.”