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How ‘League of Legends’ was made into a Netflix TV show

(Netflix/Washington Post illustration)
8 min

Netflix has adapted plenty of video games into series and films, from “Castlevania” to “Dota: Dragon’s Blood.” Even “Pokémon Go’s” lesser-known predecessor, “Ingress,” was transposed into an animated series. And one of the more convincing successes, “The Witcher,” headlined by Henry Cavill of “Man of Steel” fame, has a second season coming in December and is already renewed for a third.

The streaming service’s latest opportunity is “League of Legends,” a 2009 multiplayer online battling arena made by Riot Games that is one of the world’s most popular PC and esports titles. “League” creators have released minutes-long animations over the years, teasing new characters and giving players visuals to go alongside stories. But they have never built anything on this scale: a nine-episode series, executed in a similar art style as the shorter videos, elaborating on the Harley Quinn-like character Jinx and her troubled relationship with her older sister, Vi. Riot’s showrunners eventually overcame that learning curve, and, six years later, “Arcane” is the result.

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“Suddenly you had to not make two or three minutes, but six hours," said Christian Linke, “Arcane’s” showrunner and creative director at “League” developer Riot Games. “And so it was just building everything again from the ground up, having to relearn tools because the tools they were working with didn’t always actually work for a big-scale production like this. So that’s why it took us six years. It’s a big chunk of life we’re not going to get back.”

The final product is a show about divides — between the rich and the poor, between those who have magic and those who don’t, and between characters that “League” players will immediately recognize, including Caitlyn, Heimerdinger, Jayce and Ekko. It also features a slick, stylized animation that looks like a series of static illustrations, except they’re made to move smoothly with a sense of realism.

“Our audience really was hungry for these stories that would go deeper,” Linke said. “And we just took it from there. It was kind of a crazy pipe dream. But I guess here we are, after many bruises and running into brick walls."

To transform “League of Legends” into a fictional TV series, the “Arcane" team had to consider questions that the original Riot game developers did not. In “League,” which is played from a top-down view, it’s rare to get a quiet moment to zoom in and look at characters’ faces. When teams are caught up in the chaos of violence and destruction, there’s little time to talk backstory. Much of the game is set in a remote forest where characters from across the expansive “League” universe gather to duke it out, so players seldom get to see the worlds they come from. Additional lore does exist, but players have to hunt for it throughout Riot’s website and videos to find it.

“In the game, we will say, you need to have an easy read [for the player], you have to be clear about what a character is among 150-plus characters. You’re going to have a handful of [voice acting] lines that are really going to stick in someone’s brain, and that’s going to be their perception,” Linke said.

Everything that “League” hadn’t already figured out — such as what characters do when they’re not fighting and what clothes they wear — had to be imagined.

“When we did these animation tests very early on with ‘Arcane,’ it kind of struck us that we had never seen any of these characters even speak," Linke said. “Because from the gaming angle, you never really even get there. And so it was pretty monumental.”

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As the “Arcane” team worked to flesh out these characters, Linke said “the question always was: If Jinx from the game is the surface level, what is beneath?” One of the easiest points of reference for Jinx — both for the character in “League of Legends," her voice actor in the show, Ella Purnell, and “Arcane’s” showrunners — is the DC Comics villain Harley Quinn.

“When I was looking for inspiration, I found myself coming up empty-handed because we don’t have many of these violent, chaotic, destructive [female] villains in the same way that we have with men. … Harley Quinn is pretty much the most famous example that we have when it comes to that sort of uncontained mania that results in violence,” Purnell said. “She was definitely a huge inspiration.”

To portray Jinx, Purnell said she had to channel a highly caffeinated, manic energy and do vocal runs to add a gravelly texture to her voice. In her audition, she was told by directors to go as big as possible.

“[Jinx is] a performer. She’s dramatic, she’s childish and juvenile and spontaneous and distractible, probably has a variety of mental illnesses. She’s funny and she does have a sensitive side to her," Purnell said. “She’s wildly intelligent and you can see, had things gone slightly differently in her childhood, she wouldn’t be this mass terrorist. She would be a very intelligent scientist or an artist.”

In the first few episodes, “Arcane” explains Jinx’s childhood, growing up in an underground city, Zaun, witnessing war and destruction. After experiencing significant trauma and being blamed for causing violence, Jinx morphs from a quiet, timid child to the loudmouthed, aggressive character that “League” players will recognize.

“The Jinx that we see in the video game is a snapshot in time as to who this person is,” said Purnell. “She’s still a human being. She is capable of love. I have empathy toward her. … The world has not been kind to her, and she tries in her own way, and she’s not well. She needs help. Get Jinx some therapy!”

In 2015, when Linke and co-creator Alex Yee began working on “Arcane,” Netflix’s biggest successes with video game adaptation didn’t exist yet. So rather than being informed by what fans enjoyed about “Castlevania” or “The Witcher,” the creators of “Arcane” looked to the Marvel cinematic universe, “Game of Thrones” and classic anime like the 1988 cyberpunk film “Akira,” “Ghost in the Shell” and “Cowboy Bebop.” On Netflix, in particular, the showrunners looked at Marvel shows like “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage.”

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From classic anime and from the dramatic slow build in the earlier seasons of “Game of Thrones,” the “Arcane” team drew that same narrative tension into crafting animated scenes featuring Vi and Jinx.

“We care about these scenes that you have in our favorite drama shows, where the silence between the characters in the moment is as important as the words. It’s that dramatic tension, and it’s all about subtlety and subtext,” Linke said.

The team felt confident in drawing from more mature sources of inspiration considering their target audience.

“The game has been around for over 10 years, so a lot of the people who we expect to tune in have gotten quite a bit older since they started playing. They might have families, everything could have changed in their lives. But we still think this is for them, as much as it is for the young high-schooler who’s jumping into ‘League’ now," Yee said.

That’s not to say everyone who watches “Arcane” has to know “League of Legends.” Other game-inspired shows on Netflix can be enjoyed by people who haven’t necessarily played the source material. “Castlevania” wildly diverges from the franchise’s storylines and is written by someone who’s never played the games. “Dota: Dragon’s Blood” is an animated series that still makes narrative sense and is compelling even if you haven’t touched “Dota.”

“We did bring in writers and advisers from Hollywood to help us get the lay of the land. But we always found that the best results came from having a mix of people who had worked internally on the game, who had also played the game, and then people from the outside,” Yee said. “It was always a goal for us to have the show be something that is watchable and enjoyable for people on either side of that spectrum.”

It’s still unclear if “Arcane” will be renewed for a second season, but the showrunners said they have a lore-rich game to draw from for future seasons if they get the chance.

“We still need to earn our stripes with ‘Arcane’ and see: Do the ‘League’ players in the audience actually like it? Do they think this is a good expression of our characters in our world? And if so, yeah, we would really like to take this further,” Linke said. “But right now, we just burned this massive hole in Riot’s wallet. Let’s see if that was really worth it.”