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July 12, 2020

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Riot co-founder pushing into television

He seeks to end stigma, negativity around video games

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He created a free-to-play video game with his college buddy that has brought in billions of dollars over the past decade and which draws up to about 8 million concurrent players every day. Yet, when he goes to high-profile cocktail parties and business events, Marc Merrill said people often “walk away, turn their shoulder, or chuckle” when he tells them he makes video games for a living.

Such is the life of the Riot Games co-founder whose game, League of Legends, is one of the most popular titles of all time.

“It’s less about the acknowledgment or recognition from some broader culture,” Merrill said to The Washington Post. “The thing that bothers me is the stigma or the negative judgment.”

That stigma is part of the motivation for Riot’s planned expansion beyond the gaming world. Addressing why Riot decided to make a TV show, entitled “Arcane,” Merrill said the company has an ability to continue to broaden the public’s understanding of what video games, and the industry built around them, represent.

“I think it helps move the needle,” he said, also citing high school varsity letters and scholarships for esports as helping in his mission to reduce stigmas.

The announcement of “Arcane” comes amid the most saturated media landscape of all time, as streamers and traditional networks duke it out for subscribers. In an attempt to entice people to sign up, Netflix, Disney, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, and others have invested billions, annually, in original programming and acquisitions. An Amphere Analysis report showed a total global spend of $165 billion on TV shows, films, and sports in 2018, up from $50 billion in 2008, an increase that mostly happened in the past five years.

Riot enters the arena with the most popular PC video game and esports title at a time when gaming has never been more prevalent. Even then, their success isn’t assured, but it shows the logic behind the move.

“The biggest challenge for TV producers and creators today is to stand out,” said Alon Shtruzman, CEO of Keshet International, which is behind Showtime’s “Homeland” and “Our Boys” on HBO. “The clutter of TV shows is just overwhelming. Many shows, even with big stars, just go away today unnoticed.

“The fan base will be a great help, same as with movies like Angry Birds and Assassins Creed. Even if the movie isn’t great, because they were fans of the franchise, they’re going to go and watch it.”

To wit: the two Angry Birds films brought in close to $500 million combined at the box office, while Assassin Creed took $240.6 million, according to Box Office Mojo. (Box Office Mojo is a subsidiary of Amazon. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Financial outcomes of those films notwithstanding, the history of video games serving as the basis of TV shows and films is a largely maligned one. According to Merrill, Riot is undeterred. Invoking “Game of Thrones” and “Lord of the Rings,” he said they are trying to “hit that type of bar.” In an unusual move for a game publisher, they elected to keep the development of the show in-house by hiring a French production company, Fortiche Production.

A natural move

Industry analysts such as Scott Steinberg, head of consulting firm TechSavvy, and Brandon Ross, a partner at research firm Lightshed Partners, have long-expected Riot to develop a show, and see it as a natural move for a company looking to profit off its IP while expanding the company’s reach – especially at a time when Riot has announced a bevy of new games and projects.

“Video game-Hollywood crossovers have been the brunt of jokes, but they are going to get better over time,” Steinberg said. “The quick hack job done on a low budget that is going to suck is increasingly going to go away.”

He said that League’s bigger fan base, creative control, and, given its ownership by Chinese conglomerate Tencent, Riot’s ability to invest more money than past shows that were based on games could all help in the endeavor.

But even with those advantages, Riot will have over to overcome the fact that their game is not narrative-based, and so story lines and a bulk of character development will have to be developed from scratch.

“The game is great for certain things, it’s not so great on the narrative side,” said Jarred Kennedy, Riot’s global head of IP businesses and partnerships. “Our players want to know more about the characters, they want to know more about their backstories, they want to experience the world in new ways.”

“We are still learning how to tell great stories . . . and there’s lots of the companies that have, for decades, a whole industry of course, that has learned how to tell great stories through film and TV, and even they don’t get it right most of the time,” Merrill said.

Riot will also have to find a way to create a show that satisfies its core audience while also appealing to people unfamiliar with the game. Kennedy said they are banking on utilizing “universal themes” to bridge this gap.

AMC’s The Walking Dead (based on a comic book series) and Marvel’s films (based on comic books and graphic novels), are marquee examples of how shows based on IP with niche audiences can appeal to mass audiences, though the film and TV annals are littered with those that have not.

“Merrill and Riot hope that interactive future will include video games – as an activity or career – becoming fully integrated into mainstream culture and accepted as a “meaningful life pursuit,” in Merrill’s words.

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