“My favorite champion is definitely Nami. She’s the big mermaid on the right when you walk up the escalator,” Nick Mannos tells me.
Indeed, when I walked into the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) at the Washington Convention Center on Friday, I did notice a large mermaid next to the escalator. “Nami,” as she is called, is primarily a “support” Champion, who “channels the primal energies of the ocean, harnessing its mystical restorative properties and commanding the raw power of the tides themselves.”
“If I get my tidal wave just right during a game, it’s an amazing feeling,” Nick tells me. “I only started playing League of Legends about a month and a half ago because my cousins from Chicago and New York play. But I’m in pretty deep already.”
Nick and his father are sitting next to me at the North American Regional Championships for League of Legends. As far as I can see, every single one of the thousands of seats in the conference room turned eSports arena are occupied. There is a massive throng of people standing on the sidelines, forgoing seats to watch the championships standing up. They don’t seem to mind at all—they are cheering and screaming wildly for the impressive “triple kill” that a pro named “Voyboy” just executed. “HOLY NUTSACKS” one tragically goateed fan blurts, quivering in awe at the on-screen slaughter.
Nick’s father turns to me and grins. “The line outside is crazy. It took us nearly half an hour just to get in the door.”
Half an hour ago, I didn’t even know what the hell League of Legends was.
If you have any male friends between the ages of 18 to 35, chances are you might have at least heard the name tossed around. With 70 million registered users, League of Legends (affectionately called “LOL” by its fans) is one of the most played computer games in the world right now.
LOL is an online five-on-five battle game. Players choose one of over 100 different “Champions” that are constantly being added to the game, and use their unique fighting abilities to get gold and experience and kill the shit out of dragons, monsters and the opposing team’s champions. The object is to destroy the opposing team’s “Nexus,” a sort of glowing energy crystal. Like chess, the game is easy to pick up for anyone, but has an insanely deep level of meta-strategy that makes becoming a true pro a full time job. The game is free of charge to play, which has lent to its unprecedented popularity.
As of right now, LOL might be one of the most watched sports in the world.
The game’s developer and publisher, Riot Games, invited me to come to PAX to “see a new spectator sport in action in front of thousands of screaming fans.” The regional match I was invited to see at PAX will secure three North American League of Legends teams a spot in the World Championship for a chance to win a $2 million cash pool.
When tickets went on sale for the World Championship earlier this month, it sold out the Staple Center’s 11,000 seats in 50 minutes.
Tickets were $40-$100.
For last year’s All-Star match, the online stream of the competition had 18 million unique viewers, exceeding that of the MLB World Series game that was being broadcast at the same time.
“League of Legends is sort of the biggest thing you’ve never heard of,” Dustin Beck tells me, Riot Game’s redheaded VP of eSports. “The pros who play on these teams are achieving an actual level of fame that’s akin to professional athletes. They train 10 to 12 hours a day—they’re just as serious about League of Legends as Kobe is about basketball.”
If anything, they’re more serious than Kobe. The League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) features eight pro teams comprised of six players each. Each individual team lives together in a “gaming house,” which Riot Media helps facilitate. The players receive a generous annual salary, and have team coaches who sometimes also live with them.
“Curse,” one of the more popular LCS teams, leased a $2 million Beverly Hills mansion with a swimming pool last year. A production crew broadcasts an online stream from inside the Curse Gaming House, “Big Brother” style, showing them training, going out on the town, and participating in bikini parties.
“It’s gotten to the level that we’ve started providing these players with media training,” Beck explains. “We’ll teach them how to interact in interviews, how to present themselves, and how to develop themselves as popular personalities. Because at this point, in the League of Legends community these guys really are celebrities.”
The screen in the arena flashes a blazing neon red and white. Another triple kill. Curse isn’t doing as well in this round, and their competitors on Team Dignitas have the upper hand. A wide faced player named “Scarra” is doing particularly well, accumulating a lot of experience points early on in the match.
“Scarra is one of my favorite pros,” Mark Biundeo, a sheepish bespectacled man in front of me says. “A lot of pros will go through these periods where they get mad and think the game design is broken, so they’ll kind of rage at the game. Scarra never does that, he’s always graceful and smiling and has a lot of insight into strategy during interviews. I really respect that, I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Biundeo has been playing League of Legends for three years, and “spends most of his time playing.” He convinced his friends to fly up to PAX in Seattle for the weekend, largely because he would get to watch the Regional Championships go down. Biundeo regularly streams LCS matches online to glean strategy from the pros and brush up on the metagame of positioning.
“You see how the pros move and you take notes, you know? You have to in order to get better.”
Biundeo plays a champion named “Karthus the Deathsinger—a terrible creature who was once a mortal so obsessed with death that he eagerly embraced the gift of undeath.”
“I like him because you can gank up any lane you want with him by using his Ultimate,” Biundeo explains.
Even though I still don’t fully understand what Biundeo meant by “ganking up” lanes and “Ultimates,” being in the LOL arena is truly a thrill. Not even at a Sounders game do fans get as maniacally enthused as the packed PAX arena did. I can’t help but wonder if in the future, children will have posters of Scarra and Voyboy on their wall the same way other kids have posters of Michael Jordan.
I wouldn’t be surprised—the arrows of Ashe the Frost Archer are just as jaw dropping a spectacle as any of Jordan’s dunks.