If all goes as planned, by Saturday, November 6, over 180 million people around the world will be very aware that Arcane, a TV series based on the multiplayer, online game League of Legends, is launching on Netflix.
This mega-awareness won’t be so much the result of billboards and TV spots and social media posts about the show—though there have been those, too—rather, is what happens when a gaming company, in this case Riot Games, is able to tap into its ginormous, in-platform ecosystem, and shout from the rooftops. Or, more precisely interweave into its games the kind of clever references, interactive experiences, and rewards (in-game collectibles, new skins)—all of which are related to Arcane—that get players very, very excited.
In the case of Arcane, which is finally launching after a stop-and-start production that has gone on for several years, costumes and thematics from the show have been introduced not just to League of Legends but also to sibling titles like Teamfight Tactics, League of Legends: Wild Rift, and Valorant, a first-person shooter game that was introduced last year. There is also a website, RiotXArcane, where anyone with a Riot game account can log in and, not only get a taste of Arcane, but earn rewards for the games they play. The launch of Arcane also coincides with Riot League World Finals—the Super Bowl of its esports tournament—and the opening show that kicks off that event on Saturday (which is, yes, inspired by Arcane), featuring musical performances by Imagine Dragons (who are behind the show’s theme song), Bea Miller, and JID. The whole event will then roll into a red-carpet premiere for Arcane at the Riot campus in Santa Monica, California, which will stream live on Twitch.
Riot CEO Nicolo Laurent refers to it all as “this ridiculously cool, integrated experience,” something he says the company is doing first and foremost for “the players.”
It’s easy to understand why. At last count there were over 180 million people who play in the LoL universe (which includes all Riot games, excluding Valorant), explaining why Riot can afford to focus on its own platform when it comes to marketing a TV show. (Though there are still outside partnerships, for example, with Fortnite, which is selling a new skin tied to Jinx, the blue-haired LoL character who’s voiced by Ella Purnell in the series.)
That fanbase—which is just shy of Netflix’s number of global subscribers—also explains why Riot sees an opportunity to build out a multimedia universe akin to those born by Disney and Marvel. Riot has already initiated this project with its esports division, which the company launched a few years after LoL debuted in 2009, and with musical offshoots such as K/DA, the virtual K-pop band featured in LoL that also releases real songs that top the Billboard charts.
But with the launch of Arcane, Riot’s first-ever piece of traditional entertainment, the gaming giant is taking its biggest step yet toward becoming a cultural powerhouse for a population that transcends gamers. Indeed, Laurent is confident that a gaming company like Riot will inevitably become the “entertainment company of the 21st century,” just as Disney has been for the last 100 years, given the lightning-bolt growth of the gaming industry. In 2020, the games industry generated $177.8 billion globally, according to Newzoo. That’s nearly twice what box office and streaming accounted for in 2019 (the best year of comparison due to the pandemic), which was just over $100 billion, according to the MPA.
“Gaming is going to be the mass market of tomorrow,” Laurent says. “Gaming will be the center of entertainment. So in 30 years, if you say, ‘Oh, this company just focuses on gamers,’ it will be like, ‘Yeah. So everybody, right?’ I think that’s where the world is going.”
This bet explains why Riot brought on Shauna Spenley in January as the company’s global president of entertainment. A 15-year Netflix alum, where she oversaw marketing and consumer products, Spenley knows a thing or two about brand expansion. (Spenley’s hire comes in the wake of allegations of sexism and harassment in the workplace at Riot, which led to a reorganization of some of its staff and more women in senior positions.) Although the development and production of Arcane began years before Spenley arrived, she is at the center of how Riot is looking “at this extraordinary IP,” she says, and coming up with ways to grow it. “It’s a story that has so many different tentacles and ways we can take it. There are different tonal journeys it can go on. You can go dark or horror. It feels like the beginnings of a universe that I was really attracted to, and it had depth. Where (at Netflix) I had breadth, here I have depth.”
Spenley says she was well aware of the “games curse” when it comes to adapting video games for TV and movies when she arrived at Riot. But she thinks the tide is turning, referencing releases like Netflix’s The Witcher and Paramount’s 2020 adaptation of Sonic the Hedgehog. Those titles aside, the graveyard of missed-the-mark attempts is expansive, from Doom to Assassin’s Creed to Halo, which never even made it into production, despite a made-for-Hollywood pitch by Microsoft (scripts delivered to talent agencies by men dressed in Spartan armor).
But she’s hopeful about Arcane—in which the citizens of the glitzy, Paris-like Piltover, and the seedy, underground Zaun, are pitted against one another—given how Riot has gone out of its way to avoid the typical missteps, such as relying on Hollywood creatives to take over.
Instead of outsourcing, Riot kept everything in-house, hiring its own executives and gamers to work on the script and even self-financing the project and not pitching it to distributors until almost all of the episodes were shot. (The show was created by Riot veterans Christian Linke, who is also a LoL music composer, and Alex Yee, with Linke serving as showrunner.)
“What happens is, you can hire very talented people, but you still have the economics of Hollywood, where if the movie or the TV show is not going in the right direction, at some point pivoting or canceling is not viable economically,” says Laurent. “We wanted to have that control.”
Indeed, two years ago when “we were super happy with the animation and the characters and the directing, but we had big doubts on the story, we actually paused the project for more than a year,” Laurent says. “It was financially hard to stomach, and there’s no way we believed a traditional distributor or studio would stomach this. But we did stomach it, and eventually I think it paid off in quality.”
Hollywood TV writers were brought on to help work on the script, and, while things were on hold, Fortiche, the French animation house behind Arcane‘s lush, hand-painted backdrops and vividly drawn characters, turned to making music videos for Riot’s K/DA band.
“They’d ramped up production, they were ready to go,” Laurent says. “It was very difficult to tell them, ‘Hey, actually, we’re going to pause.’ They’d hired hundreds of animators. But we said, Okay, we don’t want to lose you, we don’t want to lose talent. Let’s work on other projects in the meantime. So they did some music videos for our game. Those videos came from that moment where there was nothing to do on the show. Sometimes bad moments turn into opportunities.”
Moving ahead, neither Laurent nor Spenley would comment on upcoming TV or film projects. But Laurent says, “We’re past the experimentation phase. We’re really trying to take it to the next level. My hope is that the entertainment group will be as valuable and critical as esports is today. Esports is the other side of the business we’ve built over the last 10 years but now is critical. Some people, when you ask them, what is Riot? They’ll tell you it’s an esports company.
“In five to ten years, I’d like to have the same situation for entertainment—where people say, Yeah, that’s where the best stories are told.”