How the League of Legends World Championship became the Super Bowl of esports
LOS ANGELES — There is no faster-growing sport than esports, and there is no bigger esports tournament than the League of Legends World Championship.
The run-up to this year’s finals in Paris has already garnered all-time highs in viewership, netting just under 4 million concurrent viewers for the league’s second semifinal match, making it the most watched esports event in history, per Esports Charts. The 2019 final, featuring Europe’s G2 Esports and China’s FunPlus Phoenix, has the potential to eclipse that mark.
As is typical for Worlds, the Nov. 10 event is sold out. It will be preceded by a Friday ceremony at the Eiffel Tower featuring the work of Louis Vuitton and a pre-match performance Sunday featuring world famous musicians. It will be the culmination of a project for which planning began last November. And it is of a size and scale that was inconceivable to those who worked on the original event eight years ago, one held inside a conference hall in Sweden.
Now an international cultural touchstone for hundreds of millions of young people, the idea of hosting a tournament was a matter of debate within the Riot Games less than a decade ago, when it was a nascent company in Los Angeles founded by a couple of college buddies.
“Most people were very skeptical about esports, including a lot of people inside the company,” Riot Games Co-Founder Marc Merrill said in an interview with The Washington Post, recalling that he was met with “chuckles” when he would bring up the idea of competitive play. “That was something I remember very acutely.”
League of Legends, the multiplayer online battle arena game, had been on the market for about two years and had already built a strong community of players around its free-to-play model. However it lacked a full competitive experience until the introduction of ranked play and draft mode in mid-2010. Merrill said there were only a “handful” of people at Riot who believed in the future of competitive play, but that core group quickly expanded as data points began to suggest the company might be sitting on a viewership geyser.
The first major test for their concept came in 2011, at what is considered the first Worlds tournament. The event was hosted by Dreamhack at a convention center in Jönköping, Sweden. Gamers brought their own computers, networked them together and competed in front of thousands of fans. However, it was very much an open question as to whether people would tune in to watch outside the walls of the convention center.
That same year, Justin.tv launched Twitch, a gaming-centric, live-streamed video site that sought to capitalize on the millions of people who were already watching gaming content on their site. [Editor’s note: Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.] This platform allowed a relatively accessible and convenient way for mass audiences to watch esports without mainstream media buy-in or support.
Finding backing from mainstream outlets proved challenging given the game’s complexities, which some first-time viewers have difficulty deciphering. In League, two teams of five players try to destroy each other’s base. The game features over 140 characters, called champions, each with different abilities. For those who can follow it, the game lends itself to exciting viewing moments. A famous one in Worlds lore was when player Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño Martinez’s champion, was one hit away from being killed but managed to evade opponents and win the day.
That was also a dynamic the league’s founders experienced early on as the tournament’s expansion produced some potentially devastating growing pains.
Panic and pain
On the strength of what they saw in Sweden, Riot decided to bring competitions in-house, developing the League Championship Series in 2012 and running the league itself. The goal, Merrill said, was to build the architecture to enable League to “be a real sport,” complete with a regular schedule, teams and salaries for players. Salaries for starters in North America now average $350,000.
“We asked ourselves, ‘How would we rethink this?’" said Rozelle, who was hired in 2012 to develop esports for the company and is related to Pete Rozelle, the NFL’s former commissioner. "The core of it was, ‘Okay, we’re fans of sports, we’re fans of video games and we’re fans of esports. What are the best things that we can pull from all three things?'”
Their ideas manifested in the Season 2 Worlds event, the initial rounds of which were held in a courtyard outside the Staples Center, home of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and the NHL’s Kings. It drew passionate fans, many of whom came sporting homemade costumes of characters from the game. It was another key moment for Riot, which had created the event from scratch. By all accounts the first matches had gone well. But then, in the middle of a quarterfinals match, the game stalled due to an Internet connectivity issue.
“Your heart sinks so low," Merrill said. "You’re instantly going into the worst case assumptions.”
Left without any other options, they decided to restart the match. Then the game stalled again. After several hours of trying to resolve it, the technical issue remained. Brandon Beck, who founded Riot alongside Merrill, went out on stage, apologized, and offered those in attendance $25 of in-game currency along with free merchandise and pizza. The crowd erupted in joy.
With their customers satiated, Riot ultimately resolved the technical problem by creating offline servers and adding satellite Internet backup options, which they deployed at the finals, held at Galen Center, home to the University of Southern California’s basketball teams.
“It was us growing up quickly, when it came to live event production and knowing that you can’t rely on your planning to always go well,” said Rozelle.
‘No one is going to do this for us’
By 2013, Riot set its sights higher, taking the event inside the Staples Center, utilizing a seating configuration the building used for concerts. The event sold out in an hour, according to Forbes.
Rozelle said the Staples Center staff was initially confused about the nature of the event, thinking that thousands of people were coming to play video games. It took mutual connections to assuage concerns about Riot’s bona fides and the event they planned to hold, according to Rozelle.
Just as they scaled up their live event, they also worked to professionalize their broadcast product. At the 2013 Worlds, 32 million people watched at least part of the broadcast via Twitch. While those figures are not a one-to-one comparable to TV’s Nielsen ratings, the mass global audience did show how live-streamed esports can stack up favorably against linear programming.
From a production standpoint, Riot found that endemic companies were busy with their own programs and “not so interested” in League, according to Merrill. Traditional sports-related outlets and companies simply did not understand the concept of esports. That made it clear what their next challenge would be.
A global league with global challenges
“We reach a generation that’s very hard to reach in traditional channels these days,” said John Needham, global head of esports at Riot. “We are the next big sport, the next big wave in sports.”