BY CODY STEEVES
Professional gaming, otherwise known as esports, has undergone major changes over the past few years. It went from an audience that was derived of a very small clique, to a worldwide phenomenon, where professionals apply for travel visas, hundreds of thousands of viewers tune in to watch their favourite teams and countries officially recognize it as a professional sport. All of these changes can be attributed to three big competitive games, the most prominent being a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game called League of Legends (LoL).
Throughout LoL’s three-year tenure on the gaming scene it has been called many things, from being named a knock-off of the popular player made modification for Warcraft 3, the Defense of the Ancients (DoTA), to being called toxic, childish, greedy and just outright bad. One thing many critics seem to forget is the impact and change this game has made throughout esports. From multimillion-dollar championships, to tournaments where the grand prize is $100,000 in scholarship grants, LoL will go down in history as the game that pushed esports to become the phenom it is today.
League of Legends, created by Riot Games, is a 5 vs 5 team-based game, where opponents attempt to storm the base of the opposing team in an attempt to attain victory. It is a free-to-play game and has remained free since its launch in early October 2009. Players, however, can purchase in-game currency called Riot Points with real currency, that can be exchanged for in-game characters, character skins or boosts. This is completely optional as everything, other than skins, can be bought with the currency earned by playing the game. This business format appears to be working for Riot, as they finished 2013 grossing over $200 million from sales alone, not including business deals with Coke Zero and Twitch.tv. They have also previously sold extensions of the game to other companies in other countries, this includes their Garena extension that deals with southeast Asia.
LoL boasts an impressive fanbase that is very active, where 32 million players worldwide login every month. Blizzard Studio’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft, had previously set the record at over 12 million monthly subscribers, equivalent to LoL’s current daily login. LoL has a grand total of 70 million registered accounts, with peak playtime reaching three million players logged in at one time.
Riot has always promoted its interest in tournament play. Since their early beta in 2009, professional teams have been going head-to-head trying to place first and earn that big cash payout. Since then it has only escalated, with each year the tournaments getting larger and the quality of play getting better. Last year during their world championship Riot held the sold-out final matches at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, the arena of the National Hockey League’s Los Angeles Kings. The concurrent viewership at one time during the finals was 8.5 million fans. The total viewership for the final series peaked at over 32 million according to a Riot press release, which is equivalent to just under a third of the total viewership of the 2013 Super Bowl game.
This huge viewership helped push the United States to officially designate the League Championship Series (LCS) as a professional sporting event.
LoL was the first esports game to pay their professional players an actual salary. Some estimate the best players earn more than $150,000 a year. LoL was also the first competitive game where professional teams purchased gaming houses. Professionals play together, live together and compete together, with most team members saying their team is their family.
Riot has even higher hopes in 2014, with the company purchasing two very expensive studios, one in California and the other located in Cologne, Germany. These studios are setup as an arena for the professional teams. They travel to their respective studio, whether they are currently playing in the European LCS series or the North American one. Teams arrive on a weekly basis, where they face off against other professional teams in their regional division. This is all arranged by Riot with European games being held on Thursdays and Fridays and North American games on Saturdays and Sundays. At any point a viewer may tune in, free of charge, to the Riot twitch.tv account and witness the action alongside thousands of other fans. On average during the tournament, the viewer count is 120,000. This does not include the views from playbacks on Youtube.com, or through other channels.
In addition to their popular professional tournaments, the LoL community still hosts several very large non-professional tournaments as well. One such tournament is the Collegiate StarLeague, which is open to all post-secondary students in North America. The series works as any sports series would with a regular season with games every week, then playoffs.
In the playoffs, the top teams play in a best of three series. The top team wins $100,000 in scholarship grants, to be split evenly between team members. The tournament has two divisions, one that allows players to compete for the scholarship prize and the other one for players to build a competitive team and just gain the experience of playing against rival universities.
Trevor Partridge, a University of Wilfrid Laurier team member, said that despite not being able to compete for the money the experience is more than worth playing a game he already loves.
“Mainly this tournament is just practise. I would never have met my team otherwise and they are all nice people and good friends now.”
Partridge is currently the team’s marksman. The team named Team Laurier is currently in first in the second division with six wins and zero losses.
LoL, although having one of the biggest impacts and boasting an impressive fan base, was not the first to hold professional gaming tournaments. They have been a part of the gaming scene since 1981 with Atari’s Space Invaders. Tournaments before had a more local competitive scene, normally being held in major cities. Few were held on an international level. Having players travel internationally was almost unheard of, as the expenses were steep and the prize pools weren’t big enough. Riot has changed this method of thinking drastically. Instead of making the players pay for international travel, it is covered by the gaming giant. Of course, this is only possible due to their excessive pool of funds for the tournaments, however, it is also due to the popularity of these major events. The world championships for LoL are the equivalent of world championships for other major sporting events. The best players and best teams meet at one stage to determine who the title of world champion truly belongs to, that, and the multimillion-dollar prize pool.
Professional League of Legends teams operate much the same as any professional sports team. Their rosters contain a coach, an analyst and a marketing team. They autograph merchandise, sell it through their store and they have thousands of fans who wear it on a regular basis.
Due to the high viewership and popularity of the game, a second tier of professionals has been created. Professional streamers play the game on a daily basis, where they talk, teach and play with stream viewers.
The most prominent professional streamers such as Nightblue3, Wingsofdeathx and Phant0mL0rd, all boast an average viewership of 20,000 people on twitch.tv. They are able to make a living off of LoL through advertisements, donations and subscribers. Advertisements on a stream can net the broadcaster $3 for every thousand views and donations are made by fans to the streamer. These range from just a couple of dollars, to as much as $500. Subscribing also nets the streamer a small amount of money, but generally contributes the least. Subscribing through twitch.tv costs a viewer $4.99, but only $1.50 is actually given to the streamer.
During a presentation at the Digital Life Design conference held in early January in Munich, Germany, a Riot company official was quoted as saying, “It’s a sport just like anything else. Baseball has been around 110 years. I’m not saying League of Legends will be around that long, but we see the shelf life of LoL as hopefully decades.”
With how Riot has propelled esports forward, it seems likely we will see our favourite players and teams going head-to-head for many more years.