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Volume 22 No. 35
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Forty Under 40: Whalen Rozelle

Photo: riot games

If Riot Games co-head of esports Whalen Rozelle got anything wrong when he first envisioned the future of “League of Legends” in 2012, it was aiming too low. 

“I think this is one of those cases where we weren’t dreaming big enough,” Rozelle said. “Back in 2012, our fear was that there would be a couple markets with ‘League’ as an esport, and we’d develop it out, and do it somewhat as a niche.”

Co-Head of Esports, Riot Games

Age: 35

Born: Ithaca, N.Y.

Education: Stanford University, B.A., double major in economics and East Asian studies

Family: Wife, Manunya; child, Liliana (17 months)

Profession you’d most like to attempt? Venture capitalism. 

Something your friends would consider “so you”: I can’t pass up good debate and I’m willing to take the other side of a position just to spur one on. 

Esports or video games Played: “Magic: the Gathering,” “League of Legends,” “Civilization” and whatever the newest hot game is (being able to do that as “research” makes my job awesome!).

Gamer name: Riot Magus.

Causes supported: For the past five years I’ve become a regular supporter of Cycle for Survival. My brother passed away a few years ago due to a rare form of cancer, and as part of his fight I was introduced to this wonderful cause.

We’d be surprised to know that … : I am related to Pete Rozelle. (The NFL’s first commissioner is the cousin of Rozelle’s paternal grandfather.)

Needless to say, it’s more than that now. November’s world championships drew just short of 100 million unique viewers globally, and 13 international regions have thriving elite “League of Legends” circuits. It’s still the world’s most-watched esports title.

Rozelle has overseen the switch from promotion-and-relegation to franchises, deciding when each market — North America, China or Europe — was ready to make that change. Rozelle hired former NBPA executive Hal Biagas to lead a players association, pushing ambivalent players toward unionization because he thinks that will lead to long-term stability.

That focus on the long term is also why Riot has pushed a developmental system, and a college circuit with no expectation of it producing revenue. And it’s why Rozelle and Riot have kept their regional leagues as a loose confederation rather than rolling them up into a streamlined global property — to allow them to make needed changes while not alienating the fans who got them this far.

But the long-term play means something different than it used to. Rozelle says he’s still impressed that big brands he knows from traditional sports have signed on with Riot already, like State Farm and Mastercard. “We knew we’d get there, but I thought it would take an additional five to 10 years for this generational gap to close,” he said.