How Riot Games is expanding the ‘League of Legends’ franchise with Netflix’s ‘Arcane’

‘Arcane.’ Netflix
  • The final three episodes of Netflix animated series “Arcane” debut on Saturday.
  • The series is a spin-off of the video game “League of Legends” from Riot Games.
  • Riot execs explained how the show got made and what’s next for the “League” universe.

One hundred eighty million people played Riot Games’ multiplayer online game “League of Legends” last month.

It’s the kind of IP with a large, devoted audience that media companies are salivating over right now as they look to build streaming platforms and attract subscribers.

“Part of what drew me to Riot was that ‘League of Legends’ was the biggest thing in culture that nobody in LA was talking about,” said Shauna Spenley, Riot’s global president of entertainment and a former marketing exec at Netflix. “It feels like it’s hiding in plain sight.”

But the journey for “Arcane” — the game’s first TV spin-off series, which debuts its final episodes this weekend — actually began six years ago, before the recent surge in streaming services that’s included Disney+, HBO Max, and more. At the time, even Netflix, which is distributing the series, was only a couple years into making its own original content.

“We wanted to do something bigger with the characters and go deeper into the story and world of the game,” said Christian Linke, the “Arcane” showrunner and a creative director at Riot. “We wanted to find the answers ourselves of how to tell a great, fresh story. We were building the project from scratch.”

To do it, Riot teamed up with the French production company Fortiche to make the animated series, a prequel that tells the origins of some of “League’s” characters. After years of development, Netflix swooped in for the distribution rights.

The streaming giant has taken a heavy interest in video games recently. It’s making live-action “Resident Evil” and “Assassin’s Creed” series, for starters. And it just launched mobile video games as part of its service alongside its movies and TV shows. A “League of Legends” game, “Hextech Mayhem,” will be available soon for Netflix subscribers.

Game adaptations aren’t new to Hollywood, but they’ve largely been movies that have been poorly received critically and commercially.

Soon, though, there will be a slew of TV adaptations of high-profile games: a “Last of US” series is in the works at HBO; “Halo” is coming to Paramount+ next year; a “Fallout” series is in development at Amazon; and more.

“We play our favorite games for hundreds of hours,” Linke said. “Movies don’t do the experience justice when you only stick with that world for two hours.”

In the case of “Arcane,” it’s six episodes so far at around 40 minutes each. The final three episodes drop on Netflix on Saturday.

It’s an unusual strategy for the streamer, which typically drops entire seasons of shows at once under its binge model. But Riot wanted to do weekly batches of three episodes so that fans could better engage with in-game content related to the series.

It was also the first Netflix series to be co-streamed on the Amazon-owned live-streaming platform Twitch, where anyone could watch the first episode during a premiere event earlier this month.

“We have players all over the world and it was important to reach all of our players,” Linke said. “That made Netflix the obvious choice. And they were willing to take some risks, like a Twitch watch party, even for those without a Netflix account.”

The strategy has seemingly paid off. “Arcane” was Netflix’s No. 2 most-watched English-language TV series globally last week, with 34.17 million hours being watched from November 8 to November 14.

With “Arcane” finding success, Riot isn’t done building out the world of “League of Legends” or its other IP like the first-person shooter game “Valorant.”  

“‘Arcane’ is the launch pad for what I believe will be many stories,” Spenley said. “We’re going to double down with Fortiche in building out stories in the ‘Arcane’ visual style. We’re exploring live-action projects and talking to writers and showrunners. We’re in the beginning stages of building out the direction we want to take.”