Interview with Marc Merrill, Co-Chairman and Co-Founder of Riot Games

Marc Merrill, Co-Chairman and Co-Founder of Riot Games, speaks to maintaining a commitment to quality as the gaming industry rapidly evolves.

BT (Quang Trinh): 2019 is the 10th year anniversary of the release of League of Legends. What do you think has changed the most in the world of gaming for the past decade, and how have you and Riot Games reacted to it?

Marc Merrill: There have been some impactful changes in gaming. One is the proliferation of the philosophy and approach towards the game as a service. In other words, there are a lot more companies that are building a direct relationship with their audience and improving the game over time based on what that audience wants to see and what is working. I think it is a very positive thing for gamers and for the world.

Number two is the proliferation of great technology, whether it is an engine such as Unity and Unreal or the proliferation of cloud-based computing and technology. There has never been a better time for great content creators to create higher quality games for lower cost than ever and to be able to publish it and reach an audience, whether it is on mobile or PC or on console, Xbox and Playstation. Companies like Valve with Steam have done a good job in writing developer tools, using the cloud. Overall, these are exciting developments for developers, which then of course benefits players because they get more content with a wider variety of genre and experience.

The third thing is, of course, the rise of streaming and broadcasting of games, whether it is esports or community content, which helps foster celebrity and gives very high value entertainment to players all over the world to build community, to find people that they can connect with, and to entertain themselves and each other in really compelling ways.

BT: You mention the development of the gaming industry really allows developers to expand the ways that games are designed. I’m really surprised to find out in 2016, Riot Games introduced Mechs vs. Minions, a board game. The game has enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success. In what ways do you think that expanding into this new type of game have impacted your business or your mission? Do you believe that it has expanded your audience in any way?

MM: There are two main reasons we created Mech vs. Minions and expanded into board games.

One and most importantly, internally there are many Riot developers who love board games in general. There are a lot of creative muscles and energy that Riot has and wants to express in different ways. Sometimes, a big game like League of Legends will not necessarily allow for us to go forth and enable teams and individuals to pursue their passion projects that will also delight our players.

The second thing about it is that we don’t think the goal is to extend our audience at all. It was much more about players who love board games and also LoL players, where we want to share the passion that a lot of Riot developers have for a game that is really fun to play. We hope that in the long term, there are a lot more opportunities for fun expression of Riot’s passion that hopefully connects with different gamers, whether it is board game or other forms of video games. We just want to be a company that can facilitate that type of passion.

BT: You mentioned earlier this expansion into streaming, and how streaming really changes the way people perceive gaming. In recent years, there has been a huge trend for streamers to stream the most popular games, like PUBG, Fortnite, and Apex Legends. How do you think this nature of streaming can be both advantageous and disadvantageous to LoL?

MM: There are a lot of advantages for sure. At the end of the day, players want to play great games, and so as long as LoL remains an incredible experience, people will be playing it and streaming it, and it will be a great channel for the game to generate awareness and exposure to new audiences and keep people engaged.

I think in emerging genres, such as the Battle Royale genre, one of the things that we see with PUBG, and then Fortnite and Apex Legends, is essentially that when new a genre or sub-genre emerges, there are a lot of ways to express that gameplay through different games. These games are good for each other from a core experience standpoint, as they all expand the audience of who participates in Battle Royale, but they are also competing with each other fairly directly, and the way that Apex Legends attracted a huge audience in a short amount of time, in our view validates part of the Riot Games long-term approach. We want to create games across different genres, and when we do a good job in elevating a genre or improving it in some particular way, as Apex Legends, Fortnite or PUBG did, we believe that we can find an audience.

Riot aspires to be the type of company where players are going to be really excited when we potentially create a game in a genre that they may be obsessed with, and so we hope to prove that out over time. A  lot of what we see with emerging streaming and proliferation of gaming services help that approach. Then it always comes down to can we build a great game and great experience. That is what matters at the end of the day.

BT: Talking about having a great experience with the game, I was really excited when LoL expanded into emerging markets such as Turkey and Vietnam. Do you think this expansion into these markets change the way you approach LoL or the way you advertise it?

MM: With reference to Turkey and Vietnam specifically, the change is incremental. Part of how we think about it philosophically from the company level is that we believe the game has to be the same worldwide. We believe that we cannot build a global esport without that. For example, chess is chess around the world. LoL should be LoL around the world. However, in different regions, the way you get into the game or the way you experience it should be different. And so, in Korea for example, where we partner closely with PC Bang owners and do a lot to help drive traffic in PC Bangs, we try to make LoL a great PC Bang experience. That is something that can help LoL be relevant and authentic to the audience in Korea. And we try to take that mindset in other markets, whether it is North America, Latin America, Europe, Turkey, Vietnam, or China. It is about how we can do justice to the local culture, how we treat the context of each environment with respect and authentically connect to the players that are there. Hopefully, some people in each area will love it.

BT: Last year was the 8th iteration of the World Championship. It is one of the hallmark events of the esports calendar. From your point of view, how has the evolution of games into a competitive and global sport changed the way that companies produce games, and how has it changed the way people view games in general?

MM: I think the impact has been two-fold. LoL and other long-running successful esports games, whether it is CS:GO or Dota 2, help demonstrate to the gaming industry that if you consistently deliver great value to players over time and can keep them engaged with great content and great experiences, then you can build a long-term business around even one game. The beauty of this service approach is that it aligns the incentive of what players are looking for with what developers and companies would need to do to keep players engaged. Players don’t spend any money on LoL unless we are developing great value. I think that is a great thing for gamers.

One of the positive outcomes of esports contributing to the community is that a lot of people are trying to change their minds about gaming

On the esports side, one of the things that has created a positive outcome has been how other stakeholders and audiences outside of gaming have taken notice of how relevant the impact and high quality games have become. Competition,viewership numbers, and the production value of the events, which then help generate respect and appreciation, ultimately helps gamers. When we all have a particular passion such as gaming, and face stigma from parents or peers or teachers or celebrities or the media, you might feel bad because people are criticizing what you love. So, one of the positive outcomes of esports contributing to the community is that a lot of people are trying to change their minds about gaming, thinking that, hey, this gaming thing is kinda cool. Even if it is not for them, or they are not into it, at least they can respect what people are doing. And I think that continues to be a positive thing: whether it is visas being granted for esports athletes from government or college scholarships existing for esports, the emergence of competition legitimizes gaming and I think that is great for gamers.

BT: Mainstream media has not been kind to esports in general in their depictions and their narrative about the craft. In the future, do you believe this narrative is going to change, and do you think there is anywhere the gaming industry has to adapt in order to become more mainstream?

MM: A thing that we are starting to see, and that we are going to see a lot more in the future, is the emergence of other media entertainment with games and the cultural impact that games can have on other broader popular culture, whether it was the France team doing the Fortnite dance at the World Cup, or the LoL World Championship opening with a virtual performances from LoL characters. Those types of cool genre-bending experiences, like Drake playing Fortnite with Ninja, are just really cool, and help with legitimizing gaming. In a couple decades in the future, more and more people will be gamers, and ours are going to be the type of game that you play. Hopefully, it will be like a movie that you like to watch or a sport that you are into—it would be an anomaly to not be into games.

BT: You have mentioned Riot Games’ commitment to quality and to provide the best experience possible for gamers. There are a lot of optimization issues when it came to gaming, whether it is introducing a new champion or a new map. How does Riot Games address this issue? And, what’s the community role in this process of improving the game?

MM: Obviously, despite our best intentions, which is to always improve the quality of our game across every dimension and the players’ experience, it can sometimes be hard to do. The value-chain is large from intellectual property creation to the creation of the game itself, and then to the distribution and publishing of the game and to players around the world. Including the management and infrastructure, there are so many aspects of complex execution that need to go well, and that requires a great organization and great people, and constant learning. The high stakes are inevitable when the surface area is increasing so dramatically in such a short period of time. That’s where the community can be so helpful to Riot and to other similar companies, where the community points out what is working and what is not working, and points out any flaws and expresses concerns or suggestions on how we can improve. We really appreciate that.

Oftentimes, players want LoL to be successful and they want Riot to be successful and so part of our challenge as an organization is how can we synthesize feedback and criticisms to understand where we need to improve, and where we can prioritize, and what are great ideas versus what is not as important to improve upon. Part of the challenge of managing a company like Riot is a real-time strategy game of resource allocation and managing constraints, whether it is financial or human resources and great expertise, and making sure to focus on solving the right problems.

Also, in a way we are building a sport. In the early days, we talked to companies about helping us execute events. They did not want to support the broadcast of video game events, so we had to build that capacity ourselves. We couldn’t go on Linkedin and type in ‘esports’ and find many people with a lot of expertise, so again the challenge is about training people in all necessary aspects of how to organize esports well. That is a hard problem. So, time is really beneficial for the maturation of an organization, maturation of talent, and the maturation of the ecosystem, and what we try to do is nurture these various ecosystems overtime, whether it is the organization, whether it is esports, or whether it is the global community.

I like the word nurture, because it captures the phenomenon of needing to grow something that is often fragile. Plants suffer from different weather conditions, or challenges like the soil not being optimal, and in order for the plant to grow the right way, you need to ensure that all the critical elements are there. Likewise, in gaming, that is a hard thing to do over time. Over the evolution of the Championship Series, we were initially not ready to have a permanent partnership with a lot of our team owners in the early stage. As things started to evolve, those interactions became more appropriate as the context of the League changed. We think of that as the right type of approach: to nurture something and help some thing in a long-term. So, we are blessed that we can take a long-term approach, while I think many companies suffer from market pressure because they are public.

BT: More and more college students are looking to join the gaming industry in various positions, as game designers, advertisers, or other positions. What advice would you give to college students who are looking for these opportunities?

MM: The best advice I would give is to get involved, during school. Play games, be a part of the community, and try to do something. If you want to go into game design, try to design a game. Be a dungeon master and build a campaign, or make board games and get modding tools, or work on Unity and create a game there. Go code, get on student projects. If you want to be a writer and cover esports, go do it. Go build your own channel or write content.

The great thing for someone that aspires a career in a game industry is being connected to the content and knowing what’s happening. These are incredibly important for large companies that are doing a lot of things. The challenge for the individual, then, is about how you build your professional competency necessary to effectively contribute to the organizations. You need to have the skills sets and attitude and professionalism in order to eventually get involved. The best way to learn in parallel to your education is by really diving in and getting involved.

The second thing that I would say is to take a long-term view. Even if you are going to work in a different industry, the gaming industry is unlikely to shrink in the 21st century, and there are so many positions that are going to be more and more relevant for gaming as the world continues to shift from the physical to the virtual. The blending of the two is going to be more and more important. If you are an economist, that is incredibly relevant for online games or for education of the virtual world; if you are a psychologist, that is incredibly relevant for how you improve the behavior of people participating in the community. No matter one’s educational background, if they have a passion for games, and they are connected to the content experience, they can find a career in a long term. Don’t assume that just because you are an engineer or an artist that you cannot find a job in games. Follow your passion.