A league of their own: How League of Legends and e-sports conquered America

If the crowds at Madison Square Garden this weekend were any indication, League of Legends is well on its way to mainstream acceptance

A general view of the tournament.
(Image credit: Courtesy Riot Games)

There was an odd energy to the crowds milling outside Madison Square Garden this weekend, and it wasn't just the incongruity of seeing so many smiles in the vicinity of Penn Station. Knots of fans sporting team jerseys gathered around others done up in costumes of impressive intricacy, ranging from the cute and coy to the downright frightening. A nightmare with two oversized axes and zombie cats' eyes stalked around, stopping every so often to pose for selfies with beaming fans. Almost every person seemed to have a sign bearing abstruse and sometimes ominous messages ("C9win," "Bronze and Proud," "WHEREISTHE SANDBOX?"). Every so often a cheer would erupt — "TSM! TSM! TSM!" — from one contingent, only to be echoed, amplified, or challenged — "CLG! CLG!" — by a rival faction.

In the staff elevator in the back, one of the MSG workers shook her head and sighed, and said that it was definitely going to be a long night. When asked why, she shrugged. "Knicks fans aren't ever this excited."

And that was what was special about the League of Legends North American Finals this weekend. The excitement was not only palpable, but also at a keener pitch than at normal sporting events, which is doubly impressive when you consider that this event consisted of turning a stadium into a giant movie theater so that thousands could watch a video game on a large screen. Coursing through the crowd of mostly young men was an excitement tinged with triumph. The fact that League of Legends had booked a capacity crowd at MSG was a kind of affirmation for the game and its legions of fans, and in those smiles and in that excitement was a fierce form of pride. If the game can make it here, as the song goes, it can make it anywhere.

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That the fans needed any kind of affirmation at all was curious. League of Legends is the most popular online video game in the world. Its publisher, Riot Games, reported last year that 7.5 million users play concurrently at peak play-times, and boasted that a total of 67 million people play the game each month. It is also the most popular e-sport in the world: The 2013 World Finals, which were played in front of a capacity crowd at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, had a viewership of 32 million people; the 2014 World Finals were held before 40,000 people at Sangam Stadium in Seoul, and drew 27 million viewers. (By comparison, Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs had 26.3 million viewers, with a peak viewership of 34.2 million.)

Such large numbers translate into big business. Riot Games reportedly made $946 million in revenue for the first three quarters of 2014, and the popularity of the game has drawn the attention of other developers, like Microsoft, and of advertisers and sponsors eager to capitalize on a booming market. The numbers alone would make it seem that mainstream acceptance, if not already well on its way, is irrelevant.

And yet as the crowd took their seats in the stadium and gazed up at the Jumbotron, they saw the game's commentators and analysts speaking excitedly of how awesome everything was, how awesome the event, how awesome the venue — at one point a hype man got up on stage to boom out, "I can't believe how awesome you guys are!" To which, in response, the crowd went wild, smoke machines fogged up the stage in great white gouts, the lights flashed and whirled, and the stadium seemed to roar as if with one mouth: "We! Are!"

At the center of all this awesomeness was MSG, and the expression of all this awesomeness was "energy," which the commentators evoked repeatedly over the course of the tournament, about how this energy will affect the players and alter the outcomes of games, as if energy were some Greek god ready to intercede in the midst of battle.

The tournament this weekend involved two pairs of teams competing in two best-of-five matchups in an onscreen arena known as Summoner's Rift. Team Impulse (TiP) and Team Liquid (TL) vied for third and fourth place in North America, while Team SoloMid (TSM) and CounterLogic Gaming (CLG) competed for first and second. What was at stake were two seeds for the World Finals competition, a multi-city, multi-country event that will take place in October in Europe, where the winner will walk away with a $1 million prize. Due to a system in which the 10 teams that compete in North America gain points over the course of the year, TSM had already qualified for the World Finals, and so the remaining three teams competed for the second automatic qualifying spot. Those that failed have one more opportunity to get to the World Finals, and their total points will determine the degree of difficulty of their path through a regional qualifier.

That may sound complicated to those unfamiliar with the e-sport. It may also seem as if it would lessen the importance of the games that were played at MSG. Indeed the crowds did not seem overly invested in the outcomes of the matches, and they didn't even seem to mind that the first three matches between TiP and TL were largely uneventful, or that the game between TSM and CLG was a rout. Watching the games at MSG seemed to be sufficient to sustain that mysterious energy.

League of Legends — often shortened to League or, comically, LoL — is one of a class of games known as MOBAs, which stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas. The basic concept is this: Two teams of five players compete to destroy the other team's base, traversing across a map made up of three lanes — top, middle, bottom — down which non-player-controlled army units known as minions stream at set times. The map is bisected by a river running perpendicular to the middle lane, and in between the lanes there are little wooded areas, collectively known as the jungle, filled with other, so-called neutral creatures that may be killed by either team for a variety of benefits known as buffs. Players choose from 126 champions to represent them in the arena, opting for assassins like the ninja Zed or the mage Leblanc, or bruisers like the axe-wielding Darius, or elegant supports like Janna, who specializes in protecting her team from enemy engagements.

The champions are used to accrue gold and experience by landing the killing blow on minions and other non-player-controlled characters, or by either killing or helping to kill an opposing player. While the objective of each team is to destroy the enemy base, the team with the most gold and most experience is the one that usually prevails.

From this basic template a meta-game has emerged, widely referred to in the community as "the meta." The map is divided into five roles; top, mid, jungle, AD Carry, and support. The first three refer to the positions those players occupy at the beginning of each game, while the latter two inhabit the bottom lane of the map ("AD carry" stands for "attack-damage carry," essentially a free-ranging high-damage champion). This meta developed almost organically from the player base, and addresses the tricky questions of how to allocate the limited resources available on the map most effectively and how to construct the optimal combination of champion attributes and abilities for securing a win. For example, if a person picks Yasuo, a high-damage samurai champion, the other team members would ideally pick champions with abilities that knock enemies upward, as Yasuo’s strongest ability can only be activated when enemy champions are in the air.

To complicate matters, the game is forever in flux. Riot publishes updates to the game at regular intervals, adding champions and items, altering how much things cost, and changing the effectiveness of existing champions. In some cases, Riot has offered wholesale reworks of champions that are generally regarded as ineffective or are out of date. All of these changes have a direct impact on the meta, determining which champions are the best suited for each role during any given version of the game. As an example, the champion Nautilus — a revenant clad in an atmospheric diving suit whose main weapon is a comically large anchor — was introduced in 2012 as a jungler, during a time when the best champions suited for that role were big, burly, and able to get by with relatively little gold. Changes to the jungle area forced Nautilus into a time of obsolescence, until he was revived as top-tier champion for both support and top.

Viewing the matches can be utterly confusing for those who are unfamiliar with the video game's basics. The popularity of both the e-sport and the game are even more remarkable given the high degree of knowledge one must possess for anything to make sense.

Many of the staff at MSG seemed to embody this confusion, wondering with a mix of bemusement and awe at what was happening at any given time. One of them asked a fan what happened in the second game on Saturday, when TiP caved inexplicably to TL despite having a rather decisive lead. The fan said, "Well, it's complicated. There are a lot of numbers involved."

And that's true, for it is a game of numbers. Unlike other video games, there is no story to speak of — there is only competition. It is not a video game one plays to relax; it is not for an idle 10 minutes before dinner. To log on to the game and hit play means a commitment of at the very least 20 minutes to the nine other players with and against whom you will play, where each player is doing their best to win a game. There is no single game mode where a player can play without teammates; there is only one where the player can play against non-player controlled champions.

In this, League of Legends, and the MOBA genre as a whole, sets itself apart from much of the gaming industry. The point isn't to play, it's to compete, and to compete as a team.

The teamwork component is crucial to determining the skill of any given player. No matter how much knowledge a player may have about the game and its intricacies, no matter how fast his reaction times or skill, no matter how impressive his individual statistics, the rubric that decides a player's skill level is the ratio of how many games his teams have won to how many his teams have lost — and so it helps immensely to be a team player.

The more games a player wins, the higher he rises in rank. There are seven ranks a player can achieve, which are, in ascending order, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Master, and Challenger. Challenger is made up of the top 200 players in a given region, which is determined on a rolling 24-hour basis. Players who reach the Challenger tier possess the requisite skill level to play on professional teams. The differences in skill levels between the tiers are vast, and only grow as one climbs the ranks. A vast majority of players fall into the Bronze and Silver categories, and each subsequent tier has fewer and fewer players. The difference between a Bronze player and a Platinum player, while immense, pales in comparison to the difference between a Platinum player and a Challenger.

The higher the skill order, the more numbers-based the game becomes. A low-ranked player sees the game from the viewpoint of his champion, who operates essentially as the player's avatar on the map. His vision is limited to what is in the champion's vicinity, and he views battles and duels as animated characters at war.

Higher-ranked players tend to view the game more as a series of numbers and timers. The champion he is playing, while it may be a buxom pirate lady or a tentacled alien, might as well be a block of pixels. The best players are consciously calculating the math involved: how much relative gold each player has accrued, viewed against the enemy players' totals; how many items they have purchased in comparison to their opponents; the number of seconds or minutes before an enemy will be able to use an ability; the relative strengths of specific champions at x, y, and z minutes into a game. And while every League player may understand that the numbers are all that is the case, it is incredibly difficult to keep that in mind as lights flash, the game announcer bellows, and bloodlust or gold-greed takes over.

The difference between the two can be underlined in numerous ways, but one of the most obvious is the champions the teams choose to play. While all 126 champions are played with varying frequency in the video game, only a handful are ever used in competitive League. As such, one of the most important times in any matchup between professional teams is the pick and ban phase, which occurs before the game is even played, where each team can ban three champions from being picked. These bans can be targeted at specific players on the opposite team, for example, such as those who are overly reliant on a specific champion, or they can be targeted at champions who will undermine the effectiveness of a strategy a team wishes to employ. Shrewd picks and bans can sometimes make playing the game itself a foregone conclusion, as a team composition can be so strong and bans can be so effective that, barring a miracle, the outcome is predictable.

Yet the game allows for miracles to happen, "big plays" that can upend any given game at any given time. In the end, the big play is what makes an e-sport out of this game of numbers, and it can go a long way toward explaining the appeal of sitting in a stadium and watching a TV screen. Big plays can go down in the game's history, and often end up being named after the player or team that first executed them. There is the Empire, in which a team killed three opposing players instantly by using a tricky bush maneuver; the Xpeke, which set the bar for the level of excitement inherent in so-called backdoors, in which a player singlehandedly takes down the opposing team's base; and there is the Insec, a display of mechanical skill that was up until then unthinkable, but has since become essential to the champion Lee Sin (the following clip of Insec has the added value of Korean commentary, which has a cache that is similar to that of Latin American announcers who elongate their "Gooool"s).

The fans' already amped-up energy at MSG seemed to intensify the longer they were made to wait for a big play. And in the final match between TiP and TL, TL came back from a significant deficit to win the series, solely on the strength of one big play, when TL's midlaner Fenix pulled off an improbable steal of the Baron buff, a key late game objective. The audience response was enormous: Every fan, regardless of their loyalty, cried out in a kind of ecstasy, and the arena seemed to shake with their unalloyed appreciation, that mysterious energy made manifest.

The final matchup was won handily by CLG in a three-game sweep against TSM. And even though these two teams have the longest-standing rivalry in the young e-sport, and even though they both have the kind of passionate followings familiar from other sports, the crowd seemed relatively unaffected by the anticlimactic result. There weren't any big, game-changing plays given CLG's display of dominance, but CLG's toplaner ZionSpartan came out on top of a two vs. one duel with a play that elicited a collective gasp from the crowd, and Doublelift, CLG's AD carry — who is a popular figure in the League scene both for his mechanical skill (he essentially clicks his mouse very accurately and very fast) and for his penchant for calling other players "trash" — managed to pick up a pentakill, one of the most sought after experiences in the game.

The fans' relatively indifferent attitude toward the outcomes of the matches served as a confirmation that the event was less a tournament than a celebration of the game and the community it has created, less a sporting event than a wildly successful coming-out party for American players of the game. And so, as the crowds streamed out of MSG onto Seventh Avenue, still chanting, still cheering, still emitting that odd energy, two days of major league gaming at a premiere venue behind them, the dominant mood seemed to be one of satisfaction. Fans like 14-year-old Timmy from Long Island, who came in with his bewildered father to watch an event that his friends, Rangers fans all, could not comprehend, left the stadium secure in the knowledge that they are not alone, that they too can raise up their voice in a stadium-ringing shout to rival any at the Stanley Cup finals.

And the fans have a lot to look forward to, not just in terms of the World Finals on the horizon. The popularity of the game and e-sport seem destined to grow, and if the crowds at MSG were any indication, the game's community seems eager to explain the intricacies of the game to anyone at all, as if each person is ready to act as an ambassador, and is ready to say at any moment: Welcome. Welcome to the League of Legends.

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