The Story of League of Legends' BirthTime: Oct. 30, 2019
Before the millions of players, before the billions in revenue, before the esports tournaments that topped 100 million spectators, League of Legends was more of an idea than a game. And the game that did exist in the year-long lead up to its release wasn’t very good.
“The game really sucked for a long time,” said Riot Games producer Jeff Jew, who was an intern at the time. “Nobody wanted to play the game because it was really bad. But they forced us to.”
Jew and a small crew of interns and artists working on the game’s many characters often spent their time playing other games as they waited for the development team to catch up to the work they were doing. One of the team leads caught on and told them they had to play League of Legends every day. So they did, begrudgingly at first. But then something happened about six months before the game was set to roll out to the public: The playtesters and interns started playing League not because they had to, but because they wanted to.
The birth of League of Legends was more about a philosophy than a design document, as co-founder Marc Merrill describes it.
Merrill and co-founder Brandon Beck were college buddies, both studying business at the University of Southern California, who bonded over their shared love of video games. After graduation, the two became roommates, sharing an apartment in West Hollywood while working in their respective jobs — Beck as a management consultant at Bain & Company and Merrill pursuing business management.
They both also loved the idea of working on a video game, but neither saw a viable pathway into game development with their backgrounds. “We weren’t engineers or designers, so we didn’t see a career path on the development side that we thought would be, sort of, attractive for both of us,” Merrill said. “People with skill sets like our’s would typically be more relevant on the publishing side. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t go into games right after school.”
But gaming continued to be a big part of their lives, and over time both Merrill and Beck got involved with a few gaming companies. That included becoming advisers to the board of directors for a now-defunct massively multiplayer online game. The two believed in the vision of the company and offered to help it raise money through venture capital funds.
By 2005, the new CEO of that company, now rebranded, reached back out to Beck and Merrill and asked if they could help him work through a buyout and revitalization of the company. Over the summer of 2008, Merrill and Beck’s work seeking funds proved fruitful and the two landed $7 million more in funding from Benchmark and FirstMark Capital venture capital firms. League of Legends was announced on Oct. 7, 2008 and went into closed beta in April 2009. Merrill described those months between announcement and opening the door to the public — if just by a crack — as terrifying, and Jew said there were “super scary” moments. And in 2011, Riot Games revenue rocketed to more than $85 million. That same year Chinese gaming and internet giant Tencent Holdings purchased 97 percent of the company for $400 million.