A League of their own
Twice a month Riot Games, creator of League of Legends, hires an actor to visit its Santa Monica studio. While the developer adds a couple of playable characters to the online PC game each month, this performer isn’t hired to provide voice acting for a new champion, or to be rigged with Ping-Pong balls and motion-captured while pretending to swipe swords or cast spells. Rather, they are hired to mingle, to roam the studio and chat with the other staff, pretending to be a new employee.
The company – founded in 2006 by two graduates from USC – is expanding so quickly that there are often fresh faces to get to know. But new hires – just like every other staff member – are presented with an identification badge to wear at all times: permission to be present. The hired actor, meanwhile, wears none.
If you work at Riot Games part of your day job is to find the imposter roaming the corridors. Report them and you win a prize.
On the surface it’s a cheerily playful game to lighten the workplace: ‘Spot the trespasser; win a prize!’ But it’s a game with a solemn motivation at its heart. When you’re custodian of the most widely played video game on the planet, you must protect your secrets with the vigilance of a Soviet oligarch. Spying? Spying is no game.
Today’s the first time that a non-actor has been invited into Riot Games’ premises without an identification badge. It’s 24 hours before the 2012 League of Legends world championship final begins, an event staged in Los Angeles’ 8000-seater Galen Center. Tomorrow evening the Taiwanese underdogs The Taipei Assassins will compete against Korean favourites Azubu Frost for a $1 million prize, the largest ever awarded in an eSports final. Today is an opportunity for a few press and a clutch of the game’s most prominent community members to step inside the developer-cum-sport promoter’s offices, previously unseen.
The studio has the whiff of young money, fast won. But there are few obvious extravagances. The only area where the company has allowed itself some interior flamboyance is a room decked out to look like a Taiwanese internet café, the exact kind of surroundings in which a huge proportion of League of Legends’ adolescent audience experience the game daily. When it comes to strategy games in the East, nations gather beneath different tactical banners. China is primarily a Defense of the Ancients (DoTA) state while Korea bleeds Starcraft 2. However, a staggering five per cent of the Taiwanese population currently play League of Legends. It’s reasonable then that Riot Games would celebrate this fact with a tribute to the culture that has helped its stratospheric rise.
Elsewhere, Riot Games is all white corridors and ID-gated rooms – the only punctuating décor a glass wall filled with awards for the studio’s first and, as yet, only game, some tall fantasy art displaying its best known characters and the odd sticker demanding: ‘No Photography’. In the main meeting room a pristine Defender arcade cabinet buzzes to one side, a game that, much like League of Legends, was initially dismissed by the mainstream games industry as too niche before coolly proving everybody wrong by taking 150 million quarters per week.
Somewhere else in the building Riot has two private rooms filled with the most expensive PCs money can buy. In each one tomorrow’s finalists prepare, playing the game to refresh muscle memory already etched into professional ligaments through months of training. These are the cabinet war-rooms for the Taipei Assassins and Azubu Frost, where strategy is finalised through a high-contrast Red Bull haze. Their windows are blacked out. With $1 million on the line, spying is no game.
Downstairs, we professional spectators take more relaxed seats as the company’s young founders Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill bound onto the low stage and begin to talk numbers.
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 rest of this feature on Eurogamer here.