Perhaps The Last of Us’ accomplishments are misleading. If that adaptation’s success derived from its cinematic heart, a better insight into how more traditional games will exploit transmedia may lie elsewhere.

Released in 2021 and set to enter its second season, Arcane is an animated Netflix TV series based on Riot Games’ League of Legends, a strategy game where two teams of colorful sprites battle to destroy each others’ base. League is, to employ some technical jargon, a very gamey game; it’s the number one esport in the world. “It’s basically the swords-and-sorcerers version of basketball,” explains Alex Yee, a creative designer at Riot Games and Arcane’s co-creator. 

League’s world sprawls out of financial necessity: To compel players, Riot must regularly release new champions. Initially, the company did not even employ writers, and characters’ backstories were limited to a few lines of text; in 2014, the game’s ridiculous success led Riot to cull most of the lore for a meatier premise that might sustain TV and films.

But even now, League’s world—stuff about wars over magical runes on the planet Runeterra—isn’t the draw that brings fans to fill stadiums in the thousands. League is not the kind of thing you adapt hoping fans will follow their favorite characters to a new medium; it’s the kind of thing you take to a new medium to give those characters life.

This is where Arcane fits in. Helmed by animation studio Fortiche, the show focuses on two sisters, Vi and Powder (later known as Jinx), whose relationship disintegrates as war breaks out between two mirrored cities: Piltover, an ocean-banked scientific utopia, and Zaun, an underground slum steeped in smog.

Just as League does not require you to know its lore to play, Arcane does not require you to have played League to watch. So while material that stems from the game’s world—knee-high furry critters decked out in sharp military gear, say—fills the screen, Arcane’s success comes from focusing on those characters’ relationships. 

This was conscious, explains Yee. The team resisted the urge to swallow the Legends canon and regurgitate it whole; they were content not to relentlessly explain everything, and assumed, rightly, that the audience would thank them. Star Wars, he says, was bandied about in the writer’s room as an example of doing it wrong. “So much of the conversation around Star Wars was this mystery and this mystique of, like, the Clone Wars, and ‘What were the Clone Wars?’” he says. “Then they made the prequel trilogy, and it felt like everyone was like, ‘OK, don’t tell me anything about the Clone Wars ever again.’”

Even if Arcane is a little YA for your taste, the show is a triumph for Riot. It has drawn critical acclaim, Grammy awards, and rabid fans. It’s also bolstered League’s reputation. Arcane is a model for game studios intent on expanding their universes to new media: Certain titles may not seem suited for TV, but smart writing can bring them anywhere.

Putting aside the continued challenge of creating compelling live-action adaptations—Yee feels strongly that animation is better suited to capturing the “larger than life” essence of most game’s settings and characters—he is excited by the future of transmedia storytelling; it’s what attracted him to games in the first place. “When you look at trying to take one property or one world, and then find all these different methods of immersion—video games, AR/VR, location-based experiences,” he says, “I think there are all these exciting opportunities to live in our dream worlds.”