‘Arcane’ Fire: Why ‘League of Legends’ Creator Riot Games Is Producing TV and Film Projects in House

·9-min read

Hollywood does not have a great track record for adapting video games to the screen or figuring out what makes gamers tick, though it hasn’t stopped them from trying. As everyone from Netflix to Facebook tries to dip their toes into the world of gaming, Riot Games and its entertainment division Riot Entertainment are hoping to beat others at their own game.

Riot’s first venture into the world of film and TV is “Arcane,” a scripted, animated action series that debuted on Netflix this month and is set inside the world of their flagship game “League of Legends,” featuring many of the game’s most recognizable characters. The streamer reported that the first six episodes were watched for 34.1 million hours globally, making it the second most-watched Netflix show for the week of Nov. 8.

But what sets “Arcane” apart from other video game adaptations is that it’s a homegrown project developed over years and created by the same people who once pioneered the mechanics, lore and visuals of the game itself. Riot Entertainment is leading the charge of a wave of game developers trying to take their IP into their own hands, be it Sony’s PlayStation Studios pushing adaptations based on “Uncharted” or “The Last of Us,” as well as Gearbox Entertainment in the works on the upcoming “Borderlands” movie.

Rather than license out its games — and hand over creative control to cash-cow IP to a third party studio that barely understand gamers — Riot is developing all of its TV and film projects in-house. While the studio is looking to all sorts of creators, the company is recruiting many of its long-standing “Rioters” from the gaming side into their entertainment division and giving them control of the brand’s narrative IP steering, shaping the future stories and projects that will be based on “League of Legends” and “Valorant” for years to come.

“We’re trying to figure out how to edge effectively into the entertainment space without finding ourselves in the same pitfalls that others have, and doing so thoughtfully and slowly and methodically, so that we make sure our players are at the center of that strategy,” Shauna Spenley, president of Riot Entertainment, told TheWrap. “You often have to have a little bit of heart at the core of what you make. I often joke, ‘Imagine making the Harry Potter movies without having ever read the books.’ You really need people who understand these players and these games at the heart and soul of what we make.”

The gaming industry in 2020 saw revenues that for the first time surpassed the revenues both film and sports combined — growing 20% to an eye-popping $180 billion as COVID stay-at-home orders led to more engagement by fans.

One big part of that chunk is Riot Games’ “League of Legends,” which Spenley said in the last month alone had over 180 million people playing in some capacity. That’s in addition to the over 600 million people who have played within the last 10 years, from casual gamers to the wide network of followers for the brand’s exploding esport the “League of Legends Championship Series” (LCS).

League of Legends Championship Series LCS
Winners at the League of Legends Championship Series in Madrid in 2019 (Getty Images)

Instead of trying to chase a crowd that’s never signed into Twitch or picked up a controller, Riot is making a bet on engaging that already enormous core of fans for both “League of Legends” and “Valorant” and doing everything they can to enhance their experience as players.

“Even If we stayed inside the ‘League of Legends’ audience, I think we would be delighted and thrilled just to delight the base that has interacted with our IP and spent hours in this game,” Spenley said. “When we say we’re really focused on the player, it’s not a small subset. It’s a pretty large group, and we think inside of that group we can really delight them with something they’re already excited about.”

There’s a big risk though in hoping that even a fraction of that gaming audience will follow it to whatever film, TV show or separate product Riot develops, as anyone who has tried to translate the sheer numbers of YouTubers or social media influencers into actual box office or ratings will know. And for every “Sonic the Hedgehog,” there’s bombs like “Super Mario Bros.,” “Max Payne” or “Silent Hill” that show there’s no guarantee the core fans of any video game property will turn up if the adaptation doesn’t meet their expectations.

So far, Riot’s bet on its players appears to be paying off. “Arcane,” the story of two orphaned sisters who get caught up in a war between rival cities divided by technology and wealth, ranks as the No. 16 top rated show among IMDB’s Top 250 TV shows. Riot also streamed “Arcane” to its followers on Twitch and netted 1.8 million viewers at its peak, which Twitch said is the sixth-highest peak of all time for a single trending category term. Gamers have even noticed that the show’s characters Jinx and Vi are being used in the game far more frequently than before as a result of its popularity.

Fans of “League of Legends” know all the game’s rich history featuring over 150 playable characters — or “champions” — each with a backstory of their own. But “League,” which is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, hardly has a strict narrative, and thus far its story has only been told in online wikis, comics and the occasional short cinematics. So if “Arcane” was to be a hit with that crowd, it had to tap into what their players already know to be true and accurate about the game’s universe.

“It was made by players for players. It’s a love letter to the game and these players, for sure. My biggest point of pride for this show is that it was built by long time Rioters who just loved it so much, picked their favorite characters and went so deep for years in trying to shape the story,” Spenley said of “Arcane.” “It doesn’t feel like exploitation at all; it feels like very much enriching the environment they’ve already created inside of the game. These guys built and sculpted the game first before they did this.”

Riot Entertainment president Shauna Spenley (left) and chief content officer Brian Wright/Courtesy of Riot Entertainment
Riot Entertainment president Shauna Spenley (left) and chief content officer Brian Wright/Courtesy of Riot Entertainment

Both Spenley and chief content officer Brian Wright joined Riot Entertainment within the last year, after coming over from Netflix, and in “League of Legends” they saw the biggest untouched IP that was “hiding in plain sight.” With “Arcane,” they actually convinced Netflix to roll out all nine episodes of the series in three-episode batches rather than drop the entire season at once, giving the opportunity to make an event of the show three times. Its final three episodes drop on November 20.

Wright says Riot is in the early stages of building a film and TV slate and have not yet announced any other projects. But their focus is on “building greater and greater products” for both “League” and “Valorant” and “enhancing” what their players already love about the franchises.

“We’re going to take the time that it takes to make stuff incredible. We are not in this hurry-up moment,” Wright said. “The job is to delight the players in a way that they deserve because they invest hours in this gaming universe and they love it. So we want to do right by the player community. We have to do stories and elevate this IP in ways they can only dream about.”

To that end, Riot’s entertainment division also handles comics, multimedia projects, indie game development and even music. And Riot Entertainment already saw an unlikely hit with K/DA, a K-Pop inspired girl group that’s actually a virtual band made up of “League of Legends” characters who have made their way into the game. One of the group’s first singles, “POP/STARS,” hit 470 million views on YouTube and even topped a Billboard chart in world digital song sales.

But more importantly, all of the narrative IP steering for Riot sits within the entertainment division. The company controls the direction of the stories and numerous potential offshoots for the “League of Legends” and “Valorant” brands, and Riot’s entertainment team works closely with the games division to find ways to create crossover events that can tie back into the series or even new characters that might appear in the games down the line. However, the current priority is to expand the existing IP rather than establish new games or characters, and Wright is looking to partner with other artists who want to play within that universe.

“There’s a category of folks who may not be players today, but they deeply understand and respect that player community and want to be a part of it, and those are the storytellers I’m excited to talk to as well, because they really understand the ethos of the company,” Wright added.

Spenley and Wright believe that within 10 years, just as the entertainment world has merged with tech, so too will games merge with more traditional filmed entertainment. Spenley points to companies utilizing the Unreal Engine for special effects development, productions turning to virtual reality means for storytelling or even Mark Zuckerberg’s recent “Meta” presentation. Riot Games she feels has already led the way, first in pioneering the idea of a free-to-play game and second by growing the industry of esports from nothing.

“One of the things that excites me the most is to be the champion of that change and the creator of that change and to be an innovator as we look at what’s next,” Spenley said. “Twice already the company’s DNA has not only bet forward but sculpted the future of gaming and sport. I get excited when you ask about the next 10 years about sculpting the future of entertainment, and I do believe that games will be at the core of that.”

The final three episodes of the nine-part “Arcane” drop on Netflix on Saturday.

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