CEO Brandon Beck at Riot Games.

CEO Brandon Beck at Riot Games. Photo by Ringo Chiu.

Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill became fans of online video games in college. And after they watched one of their favorite titles attract more than 7 million players in just a few years, they decided to design a game of their own.

So in 2006, they hired two of that game’s developers and launched their own company, Riot Games, with the backing of two venture capital firms. The company released its fantasy adventure game, called “League of Legends,” in October of last year. It attracted more than 2 million online players within nine months.

Now the Culver City company is doing something unusual: It will add about 100 employees to its current 140 just to keep up with massive demand for new game features.

It’s a rare bright spot in this era of persistently high unemployment in Los Angeles, said Nancy Sidhu, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

“There aren’t an awful lot of parts of the economy where jobs are being added,” she said. “They’re hiring in advance of their expected growth in 2011. That’s very progressive of them and suggests they have a lot of confidence in themselves and their product.”

Beck, Riot’s chief executive, noted that the jobs are the result of “League of Legends’ ” popularity.

“We grew slowly as we started,” said Beck, who co-founded the company with Merrill, now president. “Since the launch of the game, growth has been much more rapid.”

“League of Legends” is a free online game in which players pick a team and try to destroy opposing players. Such games attract millions of online players thanks to a free-to-play model, said David Cole, an analyst with DFC Intelligence, a San Diego video game market research firm.

Instead of generating revenue from subscriptions or sales like most other games by American developers, free-to-play games generate money from players who pay small fees for extra features such as new characters, weapons or even holiday-themed costumes. Prices range from a dollar or two to $15 or so for such add-ons.

Beck and Merrill were inspired by the success of free-to-play game “Defense of the Ancients,” which drew more than 7 million players after its launch in 2003. That’s a lot of players. The problem is not many spend money.

“Players can play as long as they want without putting any money into the game,” Beck said. “In fact, some of our best players have never spent any money in the game.”

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