Nobody wanted to play League of Legends while it was in development.
That’s the word from early Riot Games employee (now Producer for Legends of Runeterra) Jeff Jew, who told the Washington Post that the game currently played by over 100 million people “really sucked for a long time” and that management “forced us to” play it. But a few months before launch — Oct. 27, 2009, or 10 years ago yesterday — something clicked and the various testers played not because they had to but because they wanted to, and a (league of) legend(s) was born.
The Post talked to several of the people instrumental in League’s early days, including Riot Games co-founder Marc Merrill, going all the way back to his and Brandon Beck’s recruiting of DOTA players, including Jew, at tournaments in 2006. The article covers all the gory details of League’s development, from its start as a bare-bones office (“an old converted machine shop under an Interstate 405 overpass in Santa Monica”) and game (“a flat plain dissecting a white screen with little skeletons running from one side to the other”), to its securing of capital in 2008, to the pressure of having to produce 40 champions at launch — the game originally called for 20 but Merrill and Beck wanted double to help sell skins — and up to its 2009 launch, in which it seemed like the game would be eclipsed by Heroes of Newerth.
That didn’t happen, according to Jew, because of the difference in payment models, which was a significant barrier to players in Asia. “And all of those players flipped and they came to League of Legends because we were free to play still,” he said. Even so, Merrill and Beck came close to converting their game to a pay-to-play model itself, thinking that they’d only have about 20,000 players and “doing all the math” to figure out how much they’d need to stay afloat as a free-to-play title. It came down to a couple of points, Merrill said, where the company had less than two months’ worth of cash left to continue operating. “There are many, many stories about why the company should have failed,” he said.
It didn’t, of course, and here we are today, with Riot being a juggernaut in the game world that’s finally, after 10 years, expanding into games and products beyond League of Legends. Still, one wonders what might have been, and if, in an alternate universe, we’d all be discussing the new Heroes of Newerth CCG coming out next year.