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League of Legends is Work and Play for DigiPen Graduate

When it comes to breakout games, few have ascended as quickly and dramatically as League of Legends.

From a business perspective, it’s become one of the foremost examples of the free-to-play pricing model done right. As a cultural phenomenon, it’s helped define a whole new era of competitive gaming and the emergence of e-sports. And in terms of player base, League of Legends is practically unmatched.

"Our blood, sweat, and tears go into this game."

For DigiPen graduate Jessica Nam, an employee at League developer Riot Games since 2011, she’s had more than just a front-row view of the game’s incredible success — she helped make it happen.

“It’s been one huge evolution comprised of so many different efforts by so many teams,” Nam says. “It feels simultaneously unreal in our success and painfully real in that our blood, sweat, and tears go into this game.”

As a project manager, Nam works with several creative teams to help facilitate what are internally referred to as “event experiences” — such as seasonal content that keeps the online playing experience continually fresh and dynamic. While the League of Legends formula is already built around a steady stream of newly introduced characters (known as Champions) and character skins, events are meant to break that pattern by introducing even more flavor and fun.

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Nam worked as product director for the "Twisted Treeline" map in League of Legends. (image © Riot Games Inc.)

Over the past two years, Nam has helped manage a wide range of projects, including an e-sports Season 3 campaign that presented players with tips and information on how to become the next League of Legends professional, as well as a 2013 April Fools’ Day game called Cho’Gath Eats the World, which paid homage to the classic arcade game Rampage.

“We might take you to a website that explains in more detail about a particular character story or faction story,” Nam says. “And this is not information that is core to the game but kind of deepens the player experience.”

"I'm able to talk to designers, artists, other producers, engineers — the whole gamut."

Specifically, Nam says it’s her role to be constantly looking at the internal processes of the creative teams and improving them in terms of efficiency, scalability, and overall effectiveness.

“Because I’m working with a lot of different teams and talking with them about how to plan their component into the next event, I’m able to talk to designers, artists, other producers, engineers — the whole gamut,” Nam says.

While her role in game production is no accident, it wasn’t always the plan. As an incoming DigiPen student to the BS in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation program, Nam says she began her studies with one simple goal: work with talented people to make great games.

While talented developers were in high supply, Nam began to wonder what was holding more game projects back from capitalizing on their strong potential. It was a similar pattern to what she saw in professional games as well.

“I was very much inspired by the idea that developers are smart and capable, but there seems to be a very small number of games that are actually successful,” Nam says. “If everything is right, then why is that part still wrong?”

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League of Legends Champion Annie summons her pet bear. (image © Riot Games Inc.)

While continuing in her responsibilities as a graphics engine programmer, Nam started working across multiple game teams as a producer. That’s when she began to see recurring patterns in team structures, patterns that either stifled or promoted creative output.

"It's so important to be able to talk to your developers and to be able to understand what their experiences are."

Nam also credits the mentoring of faculty member Rachel Rutherford, co-instructor of the yearly game project courses, who drove home the importance of good communication.

“It’s so simple but it’s so important to be able to talk to your developers and to be able to understand what their experiences are, what their relationships look like, what their career motivations are. That all funnels into the project, regardless whether you put focus onto it or not,” Nam says. “So how do you make it so all of those things align with the company goals as well? Finding that alignment is so key, and I think the first time I ever learned that was really from Rachel.”

After completing a programming internship at Crystal Dynamics in 2010, Nam applied to Riot Games while visiting their recruitment booth at the 2011 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Having previously played League of Legends, she was curious to learn more about the company behind the game.

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Nam cites the furious oak tree Maokai as one of her current go-to Champions. (image © Riot Games Inc.)

“It seemed really clear that Riot was a place that … had a lot of passion for their game,” Nam says. “They were really willing to iterate and test new theories on gameplay and player behavior.”

Nam applied and was hired soon after as an assistant producer. She immediately began working as the Scrum master for the team working on a new competitive game mode called “Dominion.” After a little more than a year, Nam was promoted to an assistant project manager and eventually project manager.

"It's a nonstop machine of folks being creative and making the game better and better."

As one might expect for such a huge and evolving game, the workload is heavy, but also balanced by a company-wide love and appreciation for the game. Nam says she still manages to play most days after work (some of her current go-to Champions include Maokai, Lux, Varus, and Thresh), as well as during internal company tournaments held at the Riot office.

It’s not uncommon, she says, to see people voluntarily working late into the evening, as well as employees who will linger after hours just to play the game recreationally. And with international offices located all over the globe, it’s as if the sun never sets on the League of Legends operation.

“When we’re working there are other people that have just gotten out of work, and they’ll be playing. And they’ll give feedback in the China office, the Korean office,” Nam says. “It’s a nonstop machine of folks being creative and making the game better and better.”