League of Legends creator beats Squid Game on Netflix with game-based animated series Arcane

Riot Games CEO Nicolo Laurent wants the company to be a ‘Disney for gamers’.
PHOTO: A Handout photo

Riot Games, the creator of online game League of Legends and a subsidiary of Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings, is expanding into animation and other entertainment forms to become the "Disney for gamers" after the launch of its first animated series on Netflix proved successful, the company's chief executive Nicolo Laurent said.

Arcane , an animated series based on popular multiplayer game League of Legends, has already surpassed global hit Squid Game as the most popular show on Netflix in more than 50 countries — mainly in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America — after its debut on Nov 9, according to data firm FlixPatrol.

The success has offered its owner the confidence to expand beyond video games.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, the French CEO of the California-based company said Riot Games sees its future as an entertainment company like Disney — but focused exclusively on the gaming community.

"I have kids who are in their Disney phase right now," Laurent said. "They're watching Frozen , and they have the toys. They have the movie. They go to the theme park. And I'm like, I want to do this for gamers, for people who love our games."

Riot Games has been seen as Tencent's best investment yet — a deal which made the Chinese company an international video gaming giant. In 2011, the Shenzhen-based company bought a 93 per cent stake in Riot for US$400 million (S$545 million), acquiring the remaining seven per cent in 2015.

With multiple hit titles, Riot Games is one of the world's most successful video gaming companies. Its League of Legends generated US$1.75 billion in revenue last year, according to research firm SuperData.

While Chinese censors have been increasingly strict about regulating online content, Riot Games managed to release Arcane in mainland China at the same time as its international premiere.

"Arcane is a global launch. I think it's the only TV show that was launched globally, including China," Laurent said, "I don't think any TV show was able to launch globally with China and the rest of the world together for its very first season … that's tricky."

In China, Arcane was released on Tencent's own video streaming platform, Tencent Video. Netflix is not available in the country.

With nine episodes in its first season, Riot is slated to release the show's final three episodes this weekend.

However, Riot Games' efforts to launch products in China do not always go as smoothly as Arcane. The mobile version of League of Legends - League of Legends: Wi ld Rift — was only launched in China last month, nearly a year after its first phase release in Southeast Asia.

The mobile version of League of Legends was only launched in China last month.
PHOTO: A handout photo.

The company's second signature game Valorant , a sci-fi shooting title, has yet to launch in China although it has been available in other markets since last June.

Last month, Tencent announced that it would bring Valorant to the world's biggest gaming market in the future, but whether it can secure a China release depends on the country's regulators.

This month, Tencent shelved plans to bring Fortnite to China after the shooting game struggled to obtain a sales license from authorities. Laurent said Riot is well aware of the challenges.

"We are trying to make our games and our experience or TV show available everywhere in the world. That means navigating the complexities of the world, including the complexities of Asia," he said.

"A lot of technical challenges, different cultures, localisation challenges, building teams … we have teams all around Asia, adjusting to different regulatory environments, which is sometimes tricky."

Over the years, League of Legends has remained one of the most popular games in China.

Earlier this month, the game's flagship esports tournament — the 2021 League of Legends World Championship finals — sent the country's gamers into an euphoric frenzy after a Chinese esports club took home the trophy.

Some university students were even spotted running naked on the streets in celebration, which ultimately triggered a warning from state media.

According to the tournament's Chinese broadcast partner Bilibili, more than 100 million users watched League of Legends-related content on the platform during the tournament.

Bilibili uploaders submitted over 400,000 videos related to League of Legends during the tournament, with total views surpassing 2.8 billion.

The League of Legends ' television adaptation comes amid a slew of video games franchises rushing to produce their own films and TV shows.

Japanese tech giant Sony has been working to turn its PlayStation franchises Uncharted and The Last of US into a movie and a TV series on HBO. Many other famous games, including Resident Evil, Castlevania, Monster Hunter and Warcraft, have all received cinematic treatment in recent years as gaming becomes a mainstream hobby.

But Laurent said that Riot Games' approach differs from its competitors.

"I think a lot of companies are going out of video games to broaden their audience. That's not what we're doing," Laurent said. "Our games are pretty hardcore, they're not for casuals. They are not for my mom … If you see people who watch our show and go play League of Legends, good luck."

He said that Riot's goal with Arcane, rather, is to make the existing players' experience more exciting.

"If the characters you play are more than just pixels, they're actually a story with origins and depth … if your favourite game is also filling stadiums, and having a league every week, and it's the sport you follow with your parents, that just makes the game so much better," he said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.