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Riot: esports still isn't profitable, and we don't care

“We’re still investing millions into esports without profit.”

Riot Games

One of the hottest issues around competitive League of Legends is the profitability, or lack thereof, of Riot’s esports wing. Riot is still a company heavily based on micro-transactions through in-game purchases like skins, and while competitive League has raised the visibility of the game, it does not yet make the company money.

Or at least that’s what we had heard, and it was confirmed this week by Riot co-founders Marc “Tryndamere” Merrill and Brandon “Ryze” Beck in an exclusive interview with Polygon’s Phil Kollar.

“Yes, we’re still investing millions into esports without profit, but our goal with esports has always been to make a great player experience first,” Beck said. “Before Marc and I started Riot, we wanted to do an esports league - we were going to call it the ultimate gaming league (UGL). Even back then, the community blew us away with their response to early high-level competitive play and we responded to that passion, hoping to reward it with a high quality experience. Our journey has been about investing into that passion to see where it can go.”

Beck also shed some light on how League esports started — as a surprise, like many other aspects of the project.

For our season 1 championship we piggybacked onto Dreamhack in Jönköping, Sweden to host our finals. I remember we had something like 20 folding chairs and, without knowing if anyone would watch, decided to stream the games. We ended up getting over 100k concurrent viewers, which just blew our minds. It was there we realized this was something League players loved, and started to really take it seriously. I don’t think we shifted the direction and work of Riot toward esports; it was always designed to be spectator-friendly with a deep, competitive mastery curve. After season one, we just decided we wanted to approach League esports differently from any other game (with weekly high quality broadcast matches and a year-long sustained League of full time professional gamers). At the time, there wasn’t anyone who had experience building an esport the way we envisioned it, so it’s been a learning experience the whole time.

Merrill recently came under fire for comments he made on Reddit in response to TSM owner Andy Dinh. He addressed the controversy in the interview.

‘We’ve had a lot of discussions behind closed doors,’ Merrill says of that latest blow-up. ‘I spoke from a place of passion when I carried on a private conversation in a public forum. I often fail to appreciate how far League has come. We’re at the helm of this massive thing, and there’s so much attention and amplification being put onto it. I’m still getting used to it.’

You can read the whole interview with Merrill and Beck over at Polygon.