League of Legends cemented its status as the world’s most popular esport by outstripping all of its rivals in the latest NewZoo viewer poll this month. Almost a quarter of all competitive gaming fans named LoL as their preferred title, leaving it in top spot ahead of CS:GO and Overwatch.

Developer Riot Games celebrated the news by announcing an expansion of its global sponsorship deal with MasterCard. Other big names backing the professional LoL scene include Mercedes-Benz, Doritos, Acer, L’Oréal, Gillette and Adidas, and it is a true economic juggernaut, earning more than $1 billion per year in digital revenue.

That is testament to its enduring popularity and the careful manner in which the team at Riot Games has nurtured a passionate community of fans over the past 10 years. Most titles die out within a year or so of launch in the notoriously fickle gaming industry, but LoL has enjoyed unprecedented longevity since it was released all the way back in 2009.

A Pioneering Approach

It was the brainchild of pioneering developers Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill, who set up Riot Games in order to turn the industry on its head. They were sick of gaming firms rapidly discarding popular titles and introducing new releases with uniform regularity in pursuit of a quick buck, so they set out to break the mould.

In a small apartment in West Hollywood, the former University of Southern California graduates hatched a plan to launch a game that could stand the test of time. They took inspiration from free-to-play Asian titles that made money by charging for small, optional in-game transactions. Rather than allowing gamers to purchase upgrades that others had to earn by skill, they instead charged for skins that could personalize the experience for the gamer.

Beck and Merrill loved playing StarCraft’s Aeon of Strife and Defense of the Ancients, and they decided to create their own multiplayer online battle arena title. They had no interest in releasing a steady stream of sequels, and instead they created a game that could be constantly updated based on feedback from the community.

Keeping it Fresh

This strategy allows Riot Games to fix players’ bugbears, correct glitches and issues with the gameplay, and take advantage of ongoing technological advancements to ensure LoL remains fresh, dynamic and fit for purpose in the modern gaming industry. The title is alive, with continual updates to maps, champions and features.

It was not always plain sailing in the formative years, and the duo had to work hard in order to whip up an initial $1.5 million in working capital from family members, friends and angel investors, before persuading capital investment firms to inject a further $8 million into the project. They were then rejected by a number of publishers, who were wedded to a regular cycle of releasing games and quickly abandoning them in favour of the next big title.

Yet Beck and Merrill never gave up on their dream. They set themselves up as publishers as well as developers, ensuring they controlled the entire process. They worked hard on the game, plucking talent from the Dota community to work on its development, and by 2009 it was ready to be released to the masses.

For the uninitiated, players are known as Summoners and they control champions that do battle on the Field of Justice. Each hero has a unique set of skills and abilities, which grow more pronounced as the game progresses. Teams of champions band together to take on rival teams, with the aim of destroying an opponent’s Nexus.

An Instant Success

It hit 100,000 concurrent players within two months of launch, and Riot Games knew it was onto a winner, but it could not have predicted just how successful LoL would become. In 2011, Ernst & Young named Beck and Merrill Entrepreneurs of the Year after they sold a 93% stake in the business for $400 million to Chinese conglomerate Tencent.

They continued running the business and by 2014 it was attracting more than 67 million players per month. By 2016 that figure increased to 100 million, and Tencent’s investment began to look like the bargain of the decade.

LoL remains immensely popular because the business model works well. It is free to play, so everyone can afford to enjoy it. The gameplay is exciting, fun and accessible. The visuals are bright and impressive. It is constantly updated, so players are less likely to grow bored and switch off. Riot Games has 2,500 people working across the globe on constantly improving the offering, as there are no other games in its stable and everyone is solely focused on LoL.

Climbing the Ladder

There is always something for players to work towards, such as unlocking a new hero or a new rune, or simply climbing higher on the rank ladder.

LoL has performed well economically, as the team has been savvy enough at making money from microtransactions without upsetting too many gamers along the way.

But the biggest reason for its continued success is its status within the flourishing world of competitive gaming. There are four massive pro leagues – in Korea, China, Europe and North America – and the international events are the most eagerly anticipated esports tournaments of the year.

A Brave New World

In 2018, the LoL World Championship grand final attracted 205 million viewers, which is more than the Super Bowl or the US Open could manage. The thriving pro scene, replete with superstar players like Faker, creates a constant stream of news that maintains a high level of interest in the game.

LoL boasts an extremely high skill ceiling and casual fans love to watch the leading practitioners strut their stuff on Summoner’s Rift. They have enormous social media followings and their Twitch and YouTube channels receive plenty of subscribers, which helps advertise the game.

There are a number of major teams, professional players are paid handsome salaries and revered as celebrities, and the entire scene is becoming better organised and more professional with each passing year.

LoL is the most popular esport by a number of metrics and this is reflected in the League of Legends betting. Fans love to wager on big LoL matches and tournaments, and this drives even stronger interest in the competitive scene, as it gives viewers a stake in the action.

Vanquishing the Competition

It has seen off a number of competitors in recent years, and the MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) genre is now a two-horsed race between LoL and Dota 2. It is safe to say that LoL is winning the race, possibly because it is more fun for beginners to play, it is more visually arresting and the entire scene is more accessible.

It also had first mover advantage and it continues to enjoy a significantly larger fan base than Dota 2. Valve’s MOBA title offers larger prize pools for its tournaments, but LoL events gain more viewers and this means that the commercial opportunities are greater, paving the way for companies like MasterCard to sponsor them.

Money can be made through media rights deals, sponsorships, ticket sales, merchandising and more. LoL has spawned clothing, books, music videos, documentaries and more.

At certain times over the past decade, LoL has appeared to be slowing down, but it always rallies and dazzles analysts with its performance. There is nothing to suggest it cannot continue to flourish for at least another decade, and the publishers that turned it down will still be kicking themselves long into the future.

Tom Parillo

Tom Parillo

I am interested in all things technology, especially automation, robotics and tech that helps change how society will live in the future.