For the past decade, Riot Games has been a single-game company – its name being practically synonymous with the mega hit MOBA League of Legends (LoL). That came to an end during the company’s 10th anniversary live stream, where seven new games spanning multiple genres and platforms were announced alongside an animated television show and a feature-length documentary. It’s clear that after 10 years making a name for itself in the competitive gaming and esports space, Riot is ready to take on Blizzard Entertainment on all fronts.
The new games include:
- League of Legends: Wild Rift – A new MOBA built from the ground up for 15-20 minute sessions on mobile devices. The game is expected to launch in 2020.
- Legends of Runeterra – Riot’s take on the competitive card game genre, set in the League of Legends But unlike most other games (Hearthstone, for example), Riot said that it won’t use randomized pack purchases for unlocking new cards.
- “Project A” – The code name for “a stylish, competitive, character-based tactical shooter for PC,” which is clearly being set up to take on games like Overwatch. There weren’t many details revealed about the game during the live stream, but a video revealed that close attention will be paid to net code and more will be revealed next year.
- “Project L” – Another codename for a “fighting game set in the LoL” It is likely a revised adaptation of Rising Thunder, a free-to-play fighting game that was canceled when Riot acquired its developer Radiant Entertainment in 2016.
- “Project F” – Very little was shown for this project, which is still in “very early development.” The short gameplay footage revealed a Diablo-style action role-playing game.
- League of Legends Esports Manager – This game practically comes out of left field, as a game that sounds similar to the Football Manager except you manage over a simulated team of professional LoL players as they make their way up the ranks. The game is expected to launch next year with League of Legends Pro League support.
- Teamfight Tactics Mobile – A relatively straightforward port of the League of Legends-themed autobattler spin-off game. It’s expected to release for mobile platforms early next year.
How Riot can take on Blizzard
Although Riot has focused on only one game for the past 10 years, the company is owned by Chinese conglomerate Tencent. Backed by 2,500 employees and a world-famous brand, Riot has the resources to take on heavy-hitters such as Activision Blizzard with a series of rapid-fire game launches across PC, mobile, and console platforms.
Additionally, League of Legends has long established itself as an esports mainstay, preserving its popularity among players and viewers. Analyst firm SuperData estimates that LoL had around 27 million viewers on Twitch in Q3 2019, and it consistently ranks among the top games from month-to-month for revenues on the PC.
It’s clear that Riot is seeking to capitalize on that popularity by basing all of the newly announced games in a shared League of Legends universe. This would be the main difference between it and Blizzard, which (with the possible exception of Heroes of the Storm) relies on a handful of well-established franchises that have their own unique worlds. So, the main question is whether an expanded League of Legends can attract the same audience as several completely different and distinct games.
One might suppose that people who stopped playing League of Legends, or never got into it in the first place, probably wouldn’t have much interest in playing a collectible card game based on it. But the same could have been said for Hearthstone when it first released for PCs and Macs in 2014. Its popularity quickly grew past its roots, becoming a distinct game and esport in its own right while maintaining ties to the World of Warcraft universe.
Despite Riot’s blitz move, the company is still playing catch-up with Blizzard and others. These games may be new, but the genres certainly aren’t. It isn’t as though Riot is breaking new ground with little competition the way it did when it launched League of Legends. Although the world knows that Riot makes an excellent MOBA game with a fun autobattler that launched in June, it hasn’t proven itself a company that can jump across genres as well as Blizzard has.
This could also be a potential benefit for Riot. It doesn’t necessarily have to live up to a legacy of games that came before it. Nor can it be accused of messing up a magic formula that made games like Diablo II so popular and highly regarded. It has the opportunity to start almost from scratch, learning from the mistakes others made, and prove that it has what it takes to expand League of Legends in different genres.
The truth is, Riot needs to diversify. Even though SuperData estimates that League of Legends brought in $1.4 billion USD in revenue last year, which is still a ton for a free-to-play game, it’s far below the $2.1 billion USD it made in 2017. The company has to step up and grow again before more free-to-play games like Fortnite rise up to further erode its revenues.
All in the timing
If there was any doubt that Riot was gunning for Blizzard, they should have been set aside when a Riot made a poke at Blizzard while discussing Teamfight Tactics Mobile, stating, “it turns out, you guys actually do have phones.”
Anyone who remembers last year’s BlizzCon and the icy reception Diablo Immortal received when it was first announced understands the joke. At the time, Blizzard didn’t seem to realize that its fanbase, comprised largely of PC and console gamers, wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about a mobile game. However, principal designer Wyatt Cheng tried to joke about the situation by asking the audience, “Do you guys not have phones?” during the post-announcement Q&A session.
Fans were not amused. Instead, they became angered and took it as a sign that Blizzard had lost touch with its core audience.
All that might be forgiven this year, especially if Diablo 4 is announced, except that Blizzard fans are upset with the company after it suspended a Grandmaster Hearthstone player Ng “blitzchung” Wai Chung for supporting for the Hong Kong protesters during a post-match interview. Many, including some employees, felt that Blizzard had betrayed the core values that are set up outside its headquarters, particularly “Every voice matters” and “Think globally.”
As a result, there were walkouts, protests, and calls to boycott Blizzard’s games with just weeks to go before BlizzCon starts. It’s unclear if new game announcements such as Diablo 4 or Overwatch 2 will be enough to calm upset fans, even after the penalties against blitzchung were reduced.
What was supposed to be an event where Blizzard could redeem itself after last year’s SNAFU now feels like a catastrophe waiting to happen.
However, Riot isn’t a stranger to controversy and scandal. The company is still recovering from widespread accusations of sexism and sexual harassment, detailed in a Kotaku exposé. That led the company to reevaluate its core values and take action. However, Riot received little attention when it, amid the blitzchung controversy, instructed its casters to not discuss politics while on air during League of Legends broadcasts. So, it’s possible that Riot’s fans don’t hold the company to the same standards that Blizzard’s fans do.
Activision Blizzard took some beatings
Even without the Blitzchung incident and potential boycott, Activision Blizzard as a whole has been going through some tough public image problems. The company laid off around 800 employees earlier this year, even though it posted record earnings in 2018. On top of that, the company officially parted with Bungie, with the developer taking Destiny 2 with it.
Not to mention how nobody spoke up to contradict rumors that Blizzard had essentially given up on the StarCraft franchise, a game often credited as the first esport effectively ending with barely a whimper. It leaves Blizzard with one less title to engage fans with, meaning the company is contracting its game franchises while Riot is expanding.
Heroes of the Storm is still hanging on, even introducing a new hero and ranking system in July, but that game is likely to be next on the chopping block. And let’s face it, even if the game survives for a few years longer, the worst League of Legends viewership day on Twitch still blows Heroes’ best day out of the water.
Even with all that working against it, Blizzard has a chance to make a comeback. This year’s BlizzCon may prove to be the company’s ultimate test, proving that it’s still a “PC developer first” while continuing to expand to other platforms.
It’s time for Blizzard to go big or face the possibility that it could be pushed aside by Riot.