Blizzard vs Riot Games

Blizzard has been the king of online PC gaming for years, but thanks to largely self-imposed wounds, it could be unseated by Riot Games

Tweddlr
SUPERJUMP

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Ever since Warcraft, Diablo and Starcraft established themselves as leaders in their respective genres, Blizzard Entertainment has held a captive audience of millions, who devote endless hours to their titles.

World of Warcraft, with its many, many expansions, is one of the highest grossing PC games of all time. Starcraft and Starcraft 2 were, for a time, the most popular esports.

Blizzard isn’t the quickest studio when it comes to releasing new games, preferring instead to add expansions to older titles. However, since Activision Blizzard split from Vivendi in 2014, there has been a concerted effort to enter more gaming markets.

This started in 2014 with the launch of Hearthstone, a collectible card game. Then, a year later, Blizzard launched Heroes of the Storm, a more casual MOBA. Overwatch, a first-person shooter, launched the year after, capping a very productive three years for Blizzard. In the 13 years prior to 2014, it had released four titles.

While Blizzard has seen varying degrees of success with their new titles, none have had the earth-shattering impact of Warcraft.

For Hearthstone, there has been a gradual decline in the past few years. Since 2017, it has become increasingly difficult to enjoy the game, in a casual or competitive capacity, without spending hundreds on new card packs. That has led a lot of fans calling it quits.

GenG vs Dignitas in the HGC 2018 Grand Finals.

For Heroes of the Storm, competing with Riot’s League of Legends (ranked as the most popular PC game by Newzoo) and Valve’s DoTA 2 was invariably going to be difficult. Once Blizzard realised it wasn’t making much headway, it cancelled all e-sport participation, which suggested less future investment.

Overwatch is still a popular game, but that popularity has waned on the casual and professional side in the past two years. Similar to HotS, Blizzard has been accused of bad esport management with Overwatch, which has led to underwhelming viewership numbers.

While dwindling player bases are not necessarily cause for concern — Blizzard still rakes in hundreds of millions from the three titles — the issues have been compounded by a bad few years of PR for the company.

At Blizzcon 2018, fans booed the announcement of Diablo Immortals being a mobile game. This backlash may have forced Blizzard to reveal Diablo IV at Blizzcon the year after, to appease those that said they would boycott future titles.

Another issue arose before Blizzcon 2019, which overshadowed the game announcements. In early October, Blizzard banned Blitzchung, a Hearthstone esport player, for declaring his support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. While Blizzard did walk back on the ban, the damage had already been done, with many accusing Blizzard of censorship.

If that wasn’t enough, Blizzard also received flack for its shoddy remaster of Warcraft III, which did not include many promised features, suffered from technical issues, and added a controversial legal clause which gives Blizzard the right to own all user generated content.

In short, a lot of people are sick of Blizzard. They see the lack of care, soul and creativity as signs the company is on a downward spiral, incapable of reaching the highs of the last generation.

Enter: Riot Games

For a decade, Riot was a single title publisher.

Unlike most online games, which receive initial investment followed by bi-annual or annual updates, Riot devoted all of its energy to League of Legends, which it has patched every few weeks since release. Every year (or season) the game receives major updates, keeping it fresh.

This has proven to be a successful formula. League of Legends remains one of the most popular PC games in the world, with massive international outreach. However, in 2019 Riot broke with its formula to announce a slew of new games, all multiplayer and attempting to break into competitive markets.

Their first attempt came in 2019 with Teamfight Tactics (TFT), an auto-battler that ran inside the League client. Based on the Auto Chess mod for DoTA 2, TFT uses champions and items from League, and was released for iOS and Android in March 2020 as a standalone title.

Legends of Runeterra, Riot’s first proper standalone game in 10 years, launched a month after TFT’s arrival on mobile. The digital collectible card game is similar to Hearthstone, in that it borrows characters and lore from League of Legends. However, Riot is positioning Legends of Runeterra as fairer and more accessible than Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering. It doesn’t sell randomized card packs, and there are multiple in-game routes to acquiring cards and building decks.

In an interview with the Washington Post, executive producer Jeff Jew said it built the game for long term engagement, fueled by friendly and generous rewards for playing. If that sounds familiar, it’s Riot’s playbook for League, which lets players acquire champions easily, while generating revenue through cosmetics, like champion skins, emotes, and emblems.

By alleviating the barrier to entry, at least somewhat, Legends of Runeterra is a far more accessible card game for those who are moderately interested in collectible cards. It wouldn’t be surprising if Riot is aiming for Runeterra to be the game played in-between queuing for League, as Hearthstone was for many pro-gamers.

There has been some criticism of the game for its slow-paced, control-heavy meta, but Riot has confirmed it will balance Legends of Runeterra similar to League. Riot also has a backlog of champions that it intends to add, to change the dynamics. We are currently missing regions like Shurima, The Void, Zaun and Ixtal, which all feature several League champions.

Riot followed up Legends of Runeterra with a first-person tactical shooter, Valorant. It’s not a direct clone of Overwatch, as some suggest; instead it borrows from Rainbow Six Siege, Counter-Strike, and Overwatch.

The shooting is very reminiscent of Counter-Strike, players rarely survive a shot to the head. There’s also an economy system in which players receive money for winning or losing a round, to be spent on weapon upgrades and utilities. But Valorant also has characters and abilities, similar to Overwatch, and a graphic style less military and more fantasy.

While not a direct competitor in terms of gameplay, Valorant will be a competitor on the esport and streaming side. Esport professionals are already moving to Valorant, as are casters. Riot has not revealed its plans for the esport scene, whether it will run a regional league format similar to League of Legends or a circuit tournament, but a lot of people already want to be part of it.

Out of the four new games announced in Riot’s 10 year anniversary celebration, we are still waiting for two: Project L and F, a fighting game and action RPG, respectively.

Not much is known about either game, other than they will both pull from the Runeterra universe, meaning champions and lore from League of Legends. Both development teams said they would not be available “any time soon”, which indicates a 2021 or 2022 release date.

It will be interesting to see how Riot distributes both games and what unique takes it will have on the genres. Fighting games have notoriously hardcore communities, but the best ones are easy to pick up and play with friends. The action RPG looks like a typical hack-and-slash dungeon crawler, al-a-Diablo, with a brighter color palette, but will Riot do away with the upfront cost to draw in more players, and rely on expansions for revenue?

“I hope in the same way when you see a Disney movie and then go to Disneyland and get to actually walk around and explore a space you know really well feels so magical, I hope that’s the kind of experience we can give,” said a Riot developer involved in the development of the Project F.

Riot is also producing Arcane, an animated series based in the Runeterra universe. Again, it’s hard not to compare it to Blizzard’s 2016 film Warcraft, directed by Duncan Jones, the highest grossing video game adaption of all time.

An early development preview of Project F, Riot’s action RPG.

League wasn’t a lore heavy game at the beginning. I remember when I was a Jax main in season two, his backstory was something like ‘Nobody knew who he was when he entered the arena and beat everyone, so the council decided he had to fight with a lamp’. At the time, the simplicity fit with the character, who would emote ‘Bring it on!’ and ‘Let me at em!’ in game, but his lore has since been reworked to fit into the Runeterra universe.

This focus on fleshing out the world of Runeterra, which began about five years ago, was no doubt pushed by Riot as they started looking to export Runeterra to new genres.

Alongside the new games, Riot is also focusing on portion its games to other platforms. TFT and Legends of Runeterra both run on mobile, with cross compatibility enabled. Riot has said it is looking into a console edition of Valorant, and who knows, in the future a mobile version may exist.

Riot isn’t against redesigning an entire game for mobile, as we saw with the announcement of League of Legends: Wild Rift. Riot built the mobile port from the ground up, which means it won’t be cross compatible with the PC game, avoiding the dreaded Fortnite-scenario where PC players are loaded in with console and mobile.

An early development preview of League of Legends: Wild Rift.

A clear reason for this mobile-centric push is Riot’s largest player-base: China, which has 750 million smartphone users, expected to reach 860 million by 2023. Tencent, which owns Riot, is the largest gaming publisher in China, responsible for some of the most popular PC and mobile games of all time.

That ownership may be a matter of contention as Riot makes more public overtures, due to its apparent subservience to Chinese censors in-game and on broadcast.

Riot’s mobile-friendly approach has not courted controversy in the way Blizzard has, possibly because Riot learned from Blizzard’s mistakes. Instead of announcing a mobile game on stage in front of a crowd of predominately PC games, Riot mentioned it in the 10 year anniversary and allayed a lot of worries by confirming Wild Rift wouldn’t be cross compatible and wouldn’t mean a diluted focus on the PC game.

Will we see more game announcements from Riot in the coming years? Many speculate that an MMORPG, to compete with Warcraft and Elder Scrolls: Online, is on the cards. It would certainly provide Riot with an avenue to fully explore many of Runeterra’s stories, and MMORPG is the perfect genre to essentially dump a load of characters, themes and stories that would be very discordant in a tighter, more linear game.

Whether we hear about an MMORPG or not, Riot has made its intentions clear for the next five years. It is attempting a full on takeover of most popular multiplayer genres and has entered at the perfect time, as Blizzard struggles to maintain its prominence and positive reputation within the PC community.

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Tweddlr
SUPERJUMP

Analyst at Business of Apps. Previously RT Insights, Digital Trends, ReadWrite. Leeds and Lincoln Uni alumni