Esports & Pop Culture Crossover
December 19, 2018 marked a special day in esports. Why? Because it’s the day that Marvel published the first of a series of comics in partnership with Riot Games that aims to flesh out League of Legends’ already robust mythology. Each issue will tell more detailed stories about individual LoL champions, the first of which will be based on the Avarosan warmother, Ashe. Each issue will be released digitally, but the series will culminate next May with a graphic novel.
This isn’t Riot’s first foray into comics. As part of its expansive Universe site, Riot’s previously created several comic issues in-house. As Verge pointed out, the previous comics were usually stand alone stories that provided a venue for LoL’s artists to explore new formats and art styles. The partnership with Marvel implies that Riot is looking to expand the scope of the comic’s role in LoL, shifting from a testing ground of sorts to a full blown entertainment platform of its own.
While the idea of a video game/comic book crossover is nothing new – just look at World of Warcraft, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, and Assassin’s Creed for a few examples – this instance is notable for a couple reasons. First, it’s Marvel. If the MCU has demonstrated anything, it’s that Marvel has the ability to create compelling character-specific stories AND the ability to weave those disparate stories into a huge, cohesive universe. Second, with over 100 characters, LoL has one of the deepest character benches in esports (and all of gaming, for that matter). If this first run of comics and the graphic novel wind up being successful, it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to imagine a full, Marvel-co-produced LoL comic universe, complete with TV shows and/or films.
In addition to just being a cool thing, LoL’s expansion into comics with Marvel opens an interesting door for LoL players and teams. If you look at traditional sports, there are many examples of both players and teams getting their own one-off or limited series runs. Interestingly, Marvel is a big player in sports-comic crossover world, thanks in large part to its shared corporate parentage with ESPN. Some examples include a LeBron James-focused limited series called King of the Rings and a Brooklyn Nets standalone comic, the aptly-titled (if confusingly spelled) BrooklyKnight (and yes, the Nets killed the BrooklyKnight as their mascot, but they made this comic before they did so). While some of these are clearly promotional in nature, there are others – like the aforementioned LeBron James comic – that really do focus on creating characters and telling non-promotional stories. The biggest limiting factor for player or team-based comics would be IP owner approval…you can’t show an LoL pro playing LoL if Riot doesn’t give the approval for it in the first place. While that’s a potentially game ending obstacle, it’s pretty clear that this is a bridge that will be crossed ultimately as esports and its athletes continue their march into mainstream pop culture.
Video games and comics have a long and storied (hey oh!) past, so the expansion of esports into comics is very much expected. What makes this partnership between Marvel and Riot notable is what it indicates. Ten years ago, competitive gaming was niche as a niche could possibly be. Today, one of the esports leaders just had their IP adopted by one of the most mainstream consumer brands in the world. It’s one more (big) step in the validation of esports as a major force in pop culture, which is great news for players, teams, and leagues as they seek to grow their businesses through sponsorships.