By: Nate Scott | November 4, 2016 12:00 pm
PART I: League
NEW YORK CITY — They showed up hours early, the young people did, dressed in the uniforms of their favorite athletes. (They called them athletes, too, and one day so will you.) The names on the back of the uniforms were unfamiliar and strange, words plucked from the ether – Faker, Wolf, Smeb, GorillA, Cry. Some of the fans were in costume, but most were not. They traveled in packs, mostly boys but some girls as well, walking together in groups of three and four up 8th Avenue toward Madison Square Garden. Here they were, to see their heroes on the biggest stage, at the center of the universe.
It was the League of Legends Semifinals on a Friday night in New York City, and over 15,000 people, young and old, were there to see it all go down. They packed into the arena, giddy and raucous, to watch ten young Korean men play video games against each other. It was Rox Tigers vs. SK Telecom T1, and oh, you should have been there.
If you have been following the business of sports for the past half-decade or so, odds are you’ve stumbled across an article or TV segment on eSports. It’s often framed as something for the future – One day, we will all be watching VIDEO GAMES ON TELEVISION. You may have chuckled at it. Thought “well that will be the day.” Here is the thing though: We are here. That day? Today. We have arrived. eSports are not of the science fiction, and this is no longer the stuff of the future. This is now.
The numbers are staggering. League of Legends, which is merely one video game in a long line of games that are streamed for viewing over the internet, said that over the course of 73 games at last year’s World Championships they averaged 4.2 million viewers watching concurrently, with the average fan watching for “well over an hour per viewing session.” The final of last year’s League of Legends World Championships had 14 million concurrent viewers, roughly the same audience size as Game 1 of last year’s World Series.
Again, League of Legends is one video game. Add in DOTA 2 and CS:GO, the other two big titles in eSports viewership, you’re starting to look at audience sizes that compare to the NFL.
Over the coming week, we here at For The Win will examine this growing world of eSports with a focus on one event – the Friday night semifinal match between Rox Tigers and SK Telecom T1 at Madison Square Garden, a match already being heralded as perhaps the greatest League of Legends match ever played. (The first LoL World Championship was held in 2011, so they feel pretty confident throwing around that sort of hyperbole.) We will try to answer questions: Why is this growing so quickly? Who are these people playing, and watching? Who is protecting them? And where do we go from here?
The match began on Friday night at 6 p.m., and even though it was a semifinal, the pundits — yes, there are pundits – were touting it as the match of the year before it even began. Rox Tigers and SK Telecom T1 are currently the two best LoL (or League as it’s sometimes called) teams in the world. SK Telecom T1, a two-time champion, is led by Faker, a 20-year-old from Seoul who wore glasses, smiled often, and was referred to as “the Michael Jordan of eSports” by just about anyone I spoke to over the weekend.
The players entered the arena to music, bombast, lights and a standing ovation – introduced by Rivington “RivingtonThe3rd” Bisland III, a “caster” and personality who serves as a sort of Jon Gruden-esque figure in the world of LoL. (That is, if Gruden had a better haircut, weighed 145 pounds and dressed sharply in aspirational nerd chic). Bisland is an employee of Riot Games, the company that makes League of Legends and puts on the World Championships every year. He is referred to as “talent” within the company, serving as a face and voice to comment and present the game as a viewing experience to the outside world. He was recognized often throughout the arena that Friday night, with young men shouting “RIV!” at him as he briskly walked by. He smiled and greeted them all.
During the first game of a best-of-5 series, a game SK Telecom T1 won handily in around 40 minutes, Bisland was seated above the action, nestled in a private suite where he could look down upon the players and the action being blasted across the giant video board. For the duration of the 40-minute game (each of the games lasts between 30 and 50 minutes), oftentimes seeming not to take a breath, he spoke about the game he loves so well.
League of Legends is, obviously enough, a video game. It is free, and right now, if the mood should strike, you could go and download it off the internet and be playing in minutes right on your computer. (The game makes its money via “microtransactions” – small payments made by players in order for them to acquire new characters, equipment, and game boosts.)
The game is played by two teams of five players, who start on opposite ends of a map protecting respective bases. The object of the game is simple enough: To win, your team must work together to destroy the other team’s base. Each of the players have different roles based on where they play on the map. Think of it like positions on the field: there are junglers, mid laners, top laners, AD carries, and supports. The map is divided into “lanes” – open paths along the map that connect one base to the other, and battles between the two teams tend to take place in those lanes.
For fans of League of Legends, the above description would be so childish and stupid as to be laughable. There is so much more going on in the game, but describing it all would be like taking an alien from another planet and trying to explain the infield fly rule – it’s just not going to compute. Basically, there are two teams of five and they’re trying to kill each other across a map. Players are constantly working to acquire gold while they’re playing, which can be done in a few different ways, and that gold can then be spent on in-game purchases that help you win. When watching a League match, a good indicator of which team is having more success is the gold count – more gold doesn’t always mean a win is forthcoming, but gain a big enough of a lead in gold and it becomes exceedingly hard for the other team to overcome.
In action, the game is a little bit like a cross between Age of Empires, Magic the Gathering and Super Smash Bros., if older games are more your speed. If even that is gibberish to you, think of it this way – In LoL, fantastical characters (called “champions”) roam around a map, working together to acquire new turf and new equipment, and every once in awhile they come together and beat the everliving hell out of each other. For people who haven’t played the game, the viewing experience is riveting … and completely overwhelming. The learning curve? Almost unbearably steep. Here, for example, is Bisland explaining a particular section of play during the first game of the semifinals:
“So GorillA called to him that ‘I’m here to help,’ but they maybe don’t quite have enough vision on the other team. Actually, there’s hardly any vision on the map right now. If you can see all four triangles, what would be in shade, just of the map, the big quadrants, the bottom right one is a little warded. So you can see vision through there a little bit. It’s not all shadow. But the fact that there’s no vision on the other side for Rox of SKT, means that SKT comes out of the fog, unless they’re in lane farming minions. So, that’s why Peanut was running away like ‘I don’t know what’s going on’ until GorillA came and gave him a shield, and say ‘We don’t have vision, but we know they’re now in our jungle.’”
You get the idea.
Though it is overwhelming, the appeal of League as a viewing experience comes across quickly. The individual games are about the length of a half of soccer, and they take on the rhythm of a soccer match as well. There are moments of calm buildup, during which the audience keeps a watchful eye but can also speak to each other, joke around, sip their beer or Coca Cola. These moments are peppered with skirmishes around the map, but for the most part, the teams are angling for position. (Bisland refers to League as “a cross between a chess match and a boxing match.”) These lulls can last for a few minutes, but every so often, there is a flurry of scoring action as the two teams come together in danger areas. The crowd reacts wildly to these moments – a loud, building hurrahhhh, a sound I’d only ever heard previously at Santiago Bernabéu during a Real Madrid match.
For gamers, too long represented in pop culture as the rejected and lonely, these games provide a coming together. This is a community.
“This becomes your Monday Night Football,” said Bisland. “Families are brought together. Military families, I’ve heard, they come together over this game. Friends are here together, and they might have met each other online playing League, and now they’re traveling together to come to one big event.”
They are here to cheer, and when big moments happen, do they ever. These moments happen organically in individual game, but have also been shepherded in by the game designers. Riot Games noticed in a previous iteration of LoL that top-level players often spent the first 10 or 15 minutes of a game largely ignoring their opponents, which made sense strategically but was a real bummer for fans to watch. So the game designers at Riot changed the way the game was set up. They needed to up the excitement and scoring, so they changed it. Think of it as League’s introduction of the 3-point line.
“For us at Riot, I think we’re the most player-focused company in the world,” said Bisland, toeing the company line. “Obviously, there are changes coming back and forth. Coming into this season, we changed the complete dynamic of the game at the start, much like if you exchanged two queens at the beginning of a game of chess. … [The athletes] got pretty heated, but they saw eventually that it created an incredible viewing experience.”
This all speaks to the constant state of flux for LoL and eSports in general. These leagues aren’t only defining themselves on the fly, they’re often changing the game on the fly, all to find the right balance between fun gameplay for the athletes and fans at home, and a fun viewing experience for the people tuning in for the big matches.
And now, they’re trying to develop marketable stars. Which brings us back to Faker, the aforementioned Michael Jordan of League. Even for a noob idiot watching the first game of the match from up on high, it was clear that the young man was playing on a different level to the competition. His moves were more creative, his play more daring. The 15,000 people there, no matter the team they were supporting, at times came together to chant his name.
“FAKER, FAKER, FAKER” echoed out in the Garden where Willis Reed once played, and down below, bathed in red light, the young man clicked and clicked, and then he clicked some more.
Part II: Faker
“Faker,” the voice boomed, and the arena exploded.
It was the semifinals of the League of Legends World Championships in Madison Square Garden on a Friday night in October. No matter which team people were supporting, they had to cheer for Faker, born Lee Sang-hyeok, the 20-year-old mid laner extraordinaire for SK Telecom T1 and now three-time League of Legends World Champion. He is known to many as the “Michael Jordan of League.” For those blasphemous LoL fans, he is simply called “God.”
He is also the key, many believe, to growing League of Legends beyond its niche audience. He is a “marketable star,” as more than one public relations staffer referred to him over the weekend. If League of Legends and eSports in general are ever going to expand into the mainstream, stars like this are the ones who will get them there. Poker had Chris Moneymaker. UFC has Ronda Rousey. LoL has Faker.
So what sets him apart? Why is Faker the greatest to ever play this game? What makes him pop?
These are all questions that Riot Games, the maker of League of Legends, is asking itself. While Faker doesn’t work for the company, Riot is understandably invested in the success of its greatest player. They want him, the slight 20-year-old from Korea who speaks through a translator, to be an American sensation. This is a tall order.
In person, Faker doesn’t exactly stand out. He is small — standing maybe 5’9” and weighing no more than 150 pounds — and handsome, with the low swoop haircut that is favored now by college-aged men from Seoul to Baton Rouge. He’s also added a pair of sharp glasses to his wardrobe. When he walks out with his teammates to the center of the floor at Madison Square Garden, and to the cheers of 15,000 fans, all that sets Faker apart is a propensity to hold his posture a little straighter than his counterparts — he used to sometimes slouch in interviews, but it’s clear he’s been working on it.
When the announcer says his name, and the crowd erupts, Faker steps forward and gives a slight wave. A journalist huddled below the stage remarks how much better he’s getting with the crowd, which I at first take as a joke and then realize it isn’t. The journalist means it — that small step out, half smile, and wave to the crowd is an improvement for Faker, who after a few years at the top of the game is just now getting used to the attention that comes with it.
This isn’t easy for him, but then again, the pressure on the young man is immense. His gameplay is analyzed. His public comments are broken down, obsessed over, parsed — in a recent interview, he was asked multiple in-depth questions about the new mouse he was using. That pressure, combined with an unusual intensity, doesn’t exactly make Faker a quote machine. Here he is in an interview with The Rift Herald before the quarterfinals of the World Championships this year:
Ryan: After Season 4 there was a mass exodus of Korean players who all went to China. At the time you told ESPN that you wanted to stay in Korea to represent your nation on the world stage, how do you feel like you have been able to do that in the past couple years since you said that?
Not all LoL greats are like this. Faker’s teammate, Lee “Wolf” Jae-wan, is a charming and quite funny dude. A bit pudgy, Wolf laughs often, ribs his teammates, shows off to the crowd. He’s clearly the heart and soul of the team — after big wins, the guys sometimes take turns going over to hug him. He’s the Rob Gronkowski to Faker’s Tom Brady — a lovable goof who can be that lovable goof because he doesn’t have that same heaping pressure applied to him. He’s a star, sure. But he’s not the star.
And with a moment’s thought, you do start to realize how strange this all must be for Faker. He got his start as a gamer, playing at home, communicating with friends through a microphone and an internet connection. He found his refuge, his calling, behind a screen, playing a game more beautifully and consistently than any man or woman before or since. Someone then paid him to play the game. (Former top player Imp said in a Reddit AMA that stars make more than $150k annually, but Riot could not confirm that for me, as contracts are private agreements between organizations and players.)
But that wasn’t enough. Faker, who is still not old enough to legally drink in the United States, was then expected to become the face of a game with a worldwide audience in the millions, an ambassador for a growing movement that is, every day, becoming more and more mainstream. This, again, is a lot to ask a 20-year-old kid.
What isn’t in doubt is Faker’s ability to play.
“It’s weird. You actually think a lot if [his team] is down, it doesn’t matter,” said Rivington Bisland III, an analyst and caster who works for Riot. “SKT has Faker, so they will win. He is that Michael Jordan-type player. He’s going to hit the 3-pointer when you need him.”
For someone who exploded onto the world stage at age 17, Faker’s maturation has been a wonder for many to behold. He’s only seeming to get better, and while plenty of players before him have shone brightly only to burn out, he remains focused, driven, committed to The Game. In a sport where many of the world’s top competitors retire by age 23, fried from countless hours in front of screens, living in group homes with teammates, and drinking what one imagines to be an ungodly amount of energy drinks, Faker seems ready for more, ever more.
“I don’t see him stopping anytime soon,” said Bisland. “It’s infinite joy for him. So why would you ever stop?”
Even for the new fan, Faker’s greatness can be understood just by taking in the basic action — while most players wait for help from other teammates before entering into skirmishes with the other team, Faker often feels confident going in alone. Numerous times in the 5-game semifinal match with Rox Tigers, you’d see the “SKT FAKER” champion (a character in the game) wade into a seemingly overmatched and impossible situation, only to accomplish his objective and somehow bounce out of there, still alive and kicking.
YouTube is full of these moments of brilliance, captured in edited montages in which Faker goes up against numbers and leaves them all for dead.
The other thing that sets Faker a part is the sense he has for timing, the feel for the map, something that’s hard to quantify or even explain. It’s beautiful, really, his way of seeing the entire game unfolding. In a 40-minute game with thousands of micro-decisions that need to be made, many every second, Faker can at once remain totally committed to the fight in front of him but never lose track of the bigger picture. He will fight multiple opponents simultaneously and, in the back of his mind, somehow realize and remember that he’ll need to provide support to a teammate on the other side of the map in exactly two minutes time.
He does this all quietly, which is unique for a top player.
“Faker is much more vocal now. He used to be very quiet. He still somewhat is,” Bisland says. “He’s very dedicated to League. That made him very quiet at the beginning, but as a player he understood that speaking would be a simple way for him to up his level and his team’s level, so it became something that he embraced.”
Needing to “embrace” the simple act of speech is not something you’d expect from someone tasked with being the face of a sport, but Faker isn’t exactly following any model here. League of Legends has never had a crossover star before — there’s no one for Faker to emulate, really. He just has to be himself.
And despite all the outside noise, there is a purity in Faker’s approach to League. For someone who is expected to bring the game to a mainstream audience, he doesn’t seem to care about a game’s entertainment, really, or what fans want. He is driven by a desire for perfection, and one gets the sense listening to him talk about League he cares not so much about beating his opponents but about playing the game exactly the way it is meant to be played. He hates “mistakes” as he calls them, incorrect decisions that he makes, even though he’s faced with thousands of them every match and they are inevitable.
These mistakes haunt him.
This is Faker talking about the semifinal clash that night between Rox Tigers and SKT, which just about everyone in and around the sport described as the most entertaining and perhaps greatest match ever played:
Though the semifinals match against ROX was a fierce match, I don’t think it’s quite right to call it the greatest series in the history of League because both SKT and ROX made many mistakes in the match which left much to be desired in our eyes. This only makes us want to improve.
That isn’t so much the quote of a competitor. Those are the words of an aesthete. Faker was disappointed in the match not because it lacked entertainment for the fans but because it was played imperfectly. It was messy. It lacked precision. And when your standard is perfection, as one suspects Faker’s is, anything less than that is ugly. Yes, for fans it may have been fun. They screamed at the big moments, enjoyed the back and forth, the comebacks and the climactic win, which SKT claimed in the fifth game of the match.
For Faker, though, he couldn’t see what the fuss was about. He is a man responsible for making this game accessible to more and more fans, but it’s not clear if he even cares what fans think.
He had just given them the most entertaining League match perhaps ever, but he only saw the mistakes, the imperfections. And, for Faker, where is the beauty in that?
Part 3: Riot
Whalen Rozelle walked through the guts of Madison Square Garden, striding purposefully through the cinderblock-walled tunnels that led out from the locker rooms down to the main floor. He smiled at the security guard, who waved him through. Above him, the calls of 15,000 people rang out, and then he stepped out into the light.
He looked up at the crowd and smiled wide. “Not bad, huh?” he said.
Rozelle is the Director of eSports at Riot Games, the man overseeing the development of the League of Legends pro circuit and its quest to become the next major worldwide viewing sensation. Others at Riot build the video games, but it is Rozelle’s job to bring them into our homes. At the League of Legends World Championship semifinals, held in New York City on a Friday night in October, he had the look of a man who had built something sturdy and grand.
Rozelle is handsome, with a strong jaw and bright eyes. He smiles nearly in perpetuity, and speaks in the upbeat optimistic tech speak you instantly recognize if you’ve spent more than a few days in Silicon Valley. (He graduated from Stanford in 2005 and worked as a financial analyst at Google before entering the eSports world.) He is the man charged with growing League of Legends into something that will appeal to a broad, mainstream audience, and he speaks with the fervor of a born-again.
When he talks about his dreams for League and eSports, Rozelle won’t settle for the easy goals, finding success as a niche sport. He draws connections to the NBA, the NFL. He also has his eye on soccer, the global game.
“Soccer is aspirational for us in terms of league structure. Look at the World Championships,” he said, gesturing up to the crowd cheering above him. “The format of the World Championships will be very familiar to you because it’s the same as the World Cup. We aspire for this to be our World Cup.”
It’s easy to get sucked up into the spell of Rozelle, to buy into the optimism. Sitting on the floor of Madison Square Garden, his turf, looking up at the 15,000 fans cheering the names of these players as SK Telecom T1 wins a pivotal fourth game to force a deciding Game 5 against Rox Tigers, it’s all spellbinding. It’s beautiful. You feel a part of something. Walking out onto the floor with Rozelle, I’m reminded of the scene in Almost Famous where the young William follows the band Stillwater out onto the stage and hears them rip that first chord of “Fever Dog.” It was all happening.
To understand the business side of League of Legends, and eSports in general, it helps to understand how the entire thing is set up. Riot Games is the maker of the video game League of Legends. It is also the organizing body behind the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS), a professional league run by the company’s eSports division. The eSports division is at once the league’s organizer but also the production company that stages it — booking venues, designing lights and A/V and music, selling merchandise, etc. It organizes the World Championships, the season-ending annual tournament, as well, which I was then watching right there along with 15,000 of my new gaming friends.
On top of building the game, and organizing the events, and running the production, Riot is also now a media company. They produce and stream these matches worldwide to millions of viewers. With a sport that features ten players playing across a broad map, they must direct coverage of the action, which part of the map to highlight, and which lane to cut to, all either live or on a short delay.
To accomplish this, they’ve turned to established sports for guidance.
“I’m from the Bay Area. I love the Giants, the Niners, the Warriors. A lot of us grew up watching traditional sports but were also gamers,” said Rozelle. “We knew that we could improve the broadcast, but how do we do that? So we ended up bringing in people who had done traditional sports broadcasts. … These are guys who had experience doing the Olympics, NBC Sports coverage, some NFL, and they had covered some gaming events.”
They surrounded these established pros with diehard gamers who knew what the fans were looking for, and like that, on the fly, the pro league became the broadcaster of itself.
Riot, in essence, is not only the builder of the game but its commissioner and broadcaster. For League of Legends, one of the most popular video games on earth, the company is James Naismith, Adam Silver and ESPN, all rolled into one.
Riot is making money off this game. Lots of money. The company, which is now owned by Chinese holding company Tencent, had an estimated revenue of $1.6 billion in 2015. It makes this money off of microtransactions, small fees paid by players to upgrade equipment or play as new characters. In January 2014, there were an estimated 27 million people playing the game daily, and even if those people are spending just a few bucks here and there, the numbers add up quickly.
What isn’t clear is how much money the eSports division is making. While the World Championships did have sponsors (electronics company Acer had its name slapped all over everything at the semifinals) almost all LoL broadcasts are streamed completely free online. You can see the strategy — with the video game itself making so much money via microtransactions, eSports is free to sacrifice revenue in pursuit of the largest audience possible.
Riot provides a baseline salary to each team that is meant to be distributed to the players. Any additional salary is left up to the individual teams, who are responsible for building rosters that can compete at the top level. As far as the players’ contracts, well, it gets thorny. Riot both is and isn’t involved in them.
“We do see parts of the contract,” said Rozelle. “But we do need to respect the fact that these are pro teams that are running a business. We do get to see contracts in the case of disputes, but not for our own perusal.”
When pressed on this — how can Riot monitor the players’ contracts if they aren’t seeing the contracts? — Rozelle again had an answer.
“We do work with teams to get a baseline understanding of the contracts, because we do have certain restrictions on contracts. For example, contracts can’t be longer than three years,” he said. “Essentially what we’re trying to do is put in guidelines to help regulate the scene. When we came in we saw contracts that would last two weeks. Or they’d stagger their contracts to end right when the season ends so you wouldn’t have as many options to play. We really worked to introduce rules that would clean a lot of that stuff up.”
Riot also introduced an age minimum for pros, saying players must be 17 years old to sign a professional contract. Teams have limits on roster size — five starters and five reserves — so that one or two teams don’t just buy up all the world’s most talented players. The contract and roster limits make sense. It isn’t in the best interest of LCS for one team to have 30 of the world’s best players, much like it isn’t in the best interest of Riot’s PR department to have one of its premiere teams scoop up a talented 13-year-old kid and sign him/her to a 15-year deal at some ridiculously cheap price.
“We’ve seen someone try to sign someone to a ten-year contract and we said, ‘No, this isn’t going to happen,’ ” said Rozelle, who is one of the few people I’ve ever met with the ability to speak in complete, coherent paragraphs. “And again, as this thing develops, is three years the right maximum term? I don’t know. It’s the right decision and ruling at the time, and like any sport that is growing rapidly, we just have to stay flexible and understand that things might change over the course of the next coming years. And we have to be flexible and willing to change ourselves as needed.”
That flexibility to change and adapt, so prized in the tech world, gets a little hairy when you realize that people’s lives are at stake here. These are teenagers signing contracts to play a game in front of millions of people. There is no collective bargaining agreement, as there is no players’ union.
Rozelle does speak at length about making sure the game is acting in the best interest of the players, who often become pros as teenagers, forsaking college to chase their dream of playing League for a living. Teams often have these young men — and yes, they’re mostly men, though there are some rising women stars in the game — live in group houses, sleeping, eating, and training together every day of the week. The players seem to love it (who wouldn’t want to hang with their buds playing games all day?), and teams have noticed that even when they try to get some separation between the team and the players’ personal lives, the group usually just ends up living together and playing all day anyway.
But all this leads to the unbelievably rapid rate of burnout for many of the world’s top players. It is common for players to retire at age 23, fried after years spent staring at a screen and drowning in Monster Energy drink. Is this the natural way this sport will work? Like gymnastics, will these players forever enter the game as teenagers and exit by their 24th birthday? Or have they gotten something horribly wrong here?
For his part, Rozelle addresses all these questions with confidence, as if the answers are the most obvious thing in the world.
“So there’s a great deal of independence that we want teams to have,” he said. “They’re their own businesses and we want to give them the ability to innovate on their own. That said, we absolutely work with teams and the pros themselves to understand, you know, what are the issues facing pros in terms of health — mental health, physical health — how can we build out the brand of the pros, how can we help them get coached when they’re thinking about career opportunities after playing?
“We have a team called the player management team, which is an internal team at Riot, that is essentially tasked with really improving the lives of the pros, making sure that they have a great experience in the LCS and at the various venues, and also being advocates internally when we make decisions, making sure that we always keep the professional player in mind as well as the eSports fan itself.”
When Rozelle says it, it seems totally natural and normal. But with more than two seconds of thought you get to a lot of serious questions, such as: Why does Riot get to determine the length of these contracts? If a business’ first (and one would argue only) commitment is to its profit, does it really care what happens to these kids? Is anyone talking to these kids about college? Is it condescending to do that, to assume one knows better than they do? Why aren’t the salaries public? If Riot Games is putting on this league and limiting the length of these contracts, why are they not also finding out the dollar amounts inside of them?
Here’s Rozelle on agents:
“I think some players have agents. The money is starting to get big enough that, for certain players, agents do make sense. And we think that that’s a positive thing.”
On players being bought and sold between teams:
“So essentially, it depends on the contract. … But it’s cool to have contracts traded back and forth and purchased. I know that there is a Chinese player named Uzi who is an incredibly popular [player] in China, and his contract was transferred for millions of dollars. It’s pretty cool to see that ecosystem develop.”
And drug testing:
“To date, we haven’t seen a ton of evidence that a lot of stuff is going on. But if we do, absolutely we’ll address the problem, as competitive integrity is so important to us, as well as the health of the pro.”
The drug testing concern is a real one, by the way. These matches can last up to five hours, and with the focus needed to play at the top level, it’s easy to see the advantage in using Adderall or other amphetamines to maintain an edge. After a CS:GO tournament in 2015, a pro player came out and admitted “we were all on Adderall” to a reporter, setting off a brief firestorm within the eSports community and getting mainstream attention from media outlets.
Contract issues and drug concerns aside, Rozelle almost seems giddy with the prospect of the sport’s growth. They’re working to tackle issues, sure, and Rozelle and his colleagues are also getting to create a pro sports league, something most of us could only dream of. They have their own version of the World Cup. They get to pick and choose the elements they love from other sports at their discretion. Grabbing again from European soccer, the LCS has introduced promotion and relegation — allowing teams in the North American Challenger League to enter tournaments twice a year with the bottom-performing teams in the LCS.
They’re also now seeing collegiate programs pop up — UC Irvine is now offering gaming scholarships — though Rozelle does admit that most of the top players in the world are already signed to pro teams by the time they hit college age.
Perhaps the only thing slowing League down is the high barrier of entry for a casual fan. (I’ve now played the game several times, spent a weekend watching the best players in the world play, and still only am scratching the surface at understanding what’s going on while watching.) Then again, if a nation can come together and understand the infield fly rule, perhaps they too can understand why it was so daring for the ROX Tigers to employ a Miss Fortune support in the second and third game of the World Championship semifinals.
There are questions. Many questions. But Rozelle is confident that he can answer them, and that League of Legends has a shot to be something grand, a sport for the world.
“This is a sport that’s super new. We started a pro weekly competition just in 2013,” said Rozelle, during that pivotal fourth game of the semifinals, before drifting off mid-thought and focusing on the play on the giant screen above him.
“… Sorry,” he said. “I just wanted to watch for a second there. I’m a fan.”
Part 4: PR0LLY
Neil “PR0LLY” Hammad, the head coach of H2K, a professional video game team that competes in the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS), was nervous. His team was currently watching the first semifinal match of the World Championship being played between Rox Tigers and SK Telecom T1 on Friday night in Madison Square Garden. The following night, his team would take on Samsung Galaxy in the second semifinal, and while Hammad liked his team’s chances, he was still feeling tense.
Would his team play to its ability? Would they stay focused on the match ahead and not look forward to the Finals, held the following weekend at Staples Center in Los Angeles? Would they be able to tune out the thousands of people packing the arena inside Madison Square Garden the following evening?
And now, with all this racing around his head, the strategies and lineups and team chemistry concerns that fill the minds of every pro coach, no matter what the sport, he had to give an interview.
How could you talk to press at a time like this?
Hammad is thin, with sharp features that make him look like a younger Steve Buscemi. He was dressed down for his team’s off night, wearing a rumpled hoodie over a blue rugby shirt that appeared to be missing a button. He’s clearly whip smart — he studied applied mathematics in school — and was extremely gracious with his time, even the night before a huge match. Down in the depths of Madison Square Garden in a small room set up for media interviews, he expounded on his fears, his work to become a better coach, and how coaching has, in just a year and a half, gone from being a strange anomaly to an expected part of the rapid growth of top level League of Legends teams.
Coaches to League of Legends are very new. While they had been around for a few years, Riot Games — the creator of League of Legends and company that runs the League of Legends Championship Series — only began inviting team coaches on stage starting in January 2015, promoting them from behind-the-scenes influences to main characters in the drama. Coaches could not talk to players during the game — communication was limited to active players — but they could dictate strategy, choose when to bring in a substitute, and speak to players between games in the best-of-five series.
So coaches were now unavoidably a part of the game. There was only one problem: No one had any idea how to coach.
“For the first 2015 split,” said Hammad, referring to the first season when coaches could be on stage, “ex-players just sort of jumped into coaching roles. A whole bunch of things happened. There really wasn’t a defined skillset. [All of the teams] were just like, ‘Well, uh, hire someone who knows about the game.’ Which is how I got hired. I just knew a lot about the game.”
Hammad wasn’t even really interested in becoming a coach. He was still in his relative playing prime, had just been knocked out of LCS, and was looking to hop on with a new team as a player. But he wasn’t having any luck, so when a message popped up on Skype offering him the chance to coach a Challenger team (a lower division squad), he figured what the hell. The team would have a chance to compete for promotion to the full LCS in a couple months, and he’d try to guide them to up to the big leagues. Then he’d get back to playing.
He succeeded. It helped that his team, H2K, was loaded with talent, players he said were better than any he’d ever played with before. They won promotion to LCS easily, and it so happened at that moment Riot Games changed their policy and invited coaches on stage. With no good offers for a team coming, Hammad once again said what the hell.
“The coaching role fit me. I was kind of a coach on my team, when I was a player. But it’s hard for one player to have authority over others. When I was a player, I couldn’t really go into the coaching role, because there’s a lot of back and forth. If I made a mistake that game, I can’t really call someone out on their mistake, because they’ll have something to fire back.”
Hammad found himself in a new role of authority, in a suddenly respected position as team coach. The problem was he still really had no idea what he was doing — no one did. He’d had coaches before, and all of them were terrible.
“I didn’t have an idol. I had anti-idols,” he said.
Not only had he not really had any good coaches in League before, he never really had a coach before in anythingbefore, eschewing traditional sports growing up. So he wasn’t really sure what a coach was supposed to do. And it’s not like his players all grew up on team sports, so they were new to the thing as well.
Over the last year, they’ve been slowly working that all out.
“On the outside it seems obvious,” Hammad said. “You need the coach to be an authoritative figure. But in the scene, you know, we’re all the same age. We’ve all got about the same experience. So it’s really weird to give authority to a guy who’s the same age as you, younger than you, and they’re telling you what to do.”
What happened then was a trial-and-error period where Hammad taught himself how to be a coach of something. Using reverse-engineering methods that he learned in his mathematics studies, Hammad figured out that it was more effective for him to be positive during team talks as opposed to harping on mistakes. He also remembered how he had hated coaches who took credit for success, so he decided to eliminate that from his oeuvre.
“I actually learned that from mis-coaching in the past,” Hammad said. “I had coaches who would take all the praise on themselves when we’d win, so I experienced that firsthand as a player, like, why is this guy loving himself so much? I took the complete opposite approach. I felt terrible when my coach was doing this, so I decided never to do that.”
When I mentioned the old coaching cliche “players win games and coaches lose them,” he smiled blankly. He hadn’t heard it before.
He’d also come upon an idea that he now takes very seriously — that players should focus only on one game at a time.
“I remember there was a multi-game series recently, and my guys I could see their heads were just starting to wander, looking ahead, and I kept saying, ‘Just one more game, guys. Just one more game.’ And I said this all four games.
“So yeah, now I’m always talking about ‘one game at a time.’ I think it’s super cheesy, right?” he asked. “Like it’s something they’d say in Mighty Ducks.”
While some well-known coaching techniques are proving effective, Hammad also pointed out that he has to deal with things that no ordinary pro sports coach does.
“This isn’t an 8-hour job where you go home at the end of the day,” said Hammad. “You live with these people. The game is extremely trust-dependent. The team has to believe in each other. In a game where there are so many mistakes all the time, so many things going wrong, you can lose respect for your teammate really easily.”
He went on: “So part of the job as a coach is to keep morale up, the respect between the players up, you know, the respect between you and the players really high. That’s something I’ve never had to deal with before.”
Hammad is still learning. The next night, his overmatched H2K would be swept by the Samsung team, losing out on a chance for a final. But the experience is one that Hammad will file away. He will learn from it. He will improve. There’s so much room for improvement.
“I’m still not 100% sure exactly what I’m doing in every role as head coach,” he admitted, near the end of our interview.
When I pointed out that coaches were only allowed onstage a year ago, and he should be easy on himself as this was all pretty new, Hammad shook his head vigorously that it was no excuse.
“I’m in my second season,” he said.
Part 5: Riftwalk
When I entered the Riftwalk, a chipper attendant handed me a bracelet.
“You’ll need this,” she said.
I put the bracelet on and walked through the main door to a narrow hallway — a lane — overlaid with replica green fauna. I was in a jungle, one that I recognized — it was the jungle from League of Legends, the game I was there to report on and write about. The semifinals of the League World Championship, one of the premiere eSports events of the year, was to take place that night at 6 p.m. across the street at Madison Square Garden.
Walking the lane, I looked down upon fan art, replica weapons. Up ahead was a place to swipe the bracelet, so I swiped the bracelet. An attendant walked up and explained that this way the machine would know the photo belonged to me. A photo? She offered me a foam helmet to put on, or a replica sword to hoist, but I declined. Just then, a gorgeous cosplayer — a performance artist dressed in costume as one of the champions in the game — walked up and offered to pose with me for the photo. I could see now what was happening: A row of cameras would flash, creating a series of pictures which would be played in rapid succession, a swooping moving image of me, looking to all the world like some heroic knight.
I declined, walking away quickly. I was someone who’d grown up on the nerd fringe — I was a straight-A student, collected Marvel trading cards, and was a devoted Magic the Gathering player — and had fought my way out of it, thanks to a revamped wardrobe and the chance to start over again at a private high school. I wasn’t going back again.
If you’ve stuck with us through this five-part series, you have learned hopefully something about the game League of Legends and the millions of people around the world who not only play the game but spend hours watching top pros play as well. You might have asked: Well, who are these people? You are probably like I was — certain that you didn’t know a single person who knew what League of Legends was, let alone loved the game.
You are wrong. I know that because I was wrong. I know and have known plenty of people who love League of Legends. It’s just they don’t talk about it all that much, at least not to people outside of the LoL world. Or, well, at least not yet.
Before we delve too much into the people who love League of Legends and who attended the Friday night event at Madison Square Garden, let’s just get this out of the way: Yes, some of the people you’d expect to be at a video game competition were there. I lost count at six neck beards. There was acne, and t-shirts tucked into poorly fitting jeans. Orthodontic work was rampant.
There were also sharply dressed guys who looked as if they’d walked straight to the arena from jobs on Wall Street. There were middle-aged men and women, some dads and moms to younger fans, sure, but also some who were clearly there by themselves, as fans themselves. I saw people of every race. It was largely male but there was more than a small amount of women. It looked like any gathering of humanity anywhere. We were all there.
And this is the secret behind the growth of eSports and games like League of Legends — it isn’t necessarily who you think it is. Devotees of the game can be that awkward, geeky kid in the back of your math class, sure. It could also be Tom Levesque. The 30-year-old former lacrosse star — he played at Maryland before transferring to Skidmore and starring on the team there — grew up in Massachusetts but now lives in Santa Barbara, where he runs a technology consulting and contracting business. He also plays League of Legends, he estimates, somewhere between 10 and 20 hours a week.
“Most of my friends have some idea that I play video games,” Levesque said on a phone call. “But if they knew the amount I played, I think they’d be shocked. … I don’t watch TV, though. If I’m home, I’m either playing video games or I’m sleeping.”
Levesque grew up a three-sport athlete and is still extremely active, playing sports, hiking and snowboarding. He’s social, loves live music. It’s just when he’s home, he doesn’t spend his downtime catching up on The Wire. He plays League.
Levesque says his love for gaming stemmed from an interest in computers growing up, and he found League after he had gotten burned out on World of Warcraft. He compares the game to chess often, saying his love for it is found in the fluidity, the sharp decision making needed, the constant updates from Riot that keep the gameplay fresh, and, mostly, a connection with friends.
“I do play on my own a bit, but I usually have a few friends I play with,” he said. “I love it because I play with friends I haven’t seen since high school. I talk to these kids more than I talk to my family. I’m totally caught up on their lives. They’re my closest friends … and it’s really nice to have to have that connection, even if we’re a world apart.”
He also loves how quickly one can achieve greatness in the game — as it’s easy to record, a great play can be captured and uploaded to YouTube, where thousands of fans could watch it and be spellbound. He’d scored thousands of goals in lacrosse growing up — but other than his parents and teammates, who saw any of those?
He also loves that data is kept, allowing him to analyze his own play in a way he never could in traditional sports.
“I can compare my stats to the Fakers of the world,” he said, “and it makes the competition feel more real than anything else I know.”
Levesque couldn’t make it to the World Championship semifinals in NYC or the finals at Staples Center, but he did stream the finals on a 65-inch TV he has hooked up to Twitch and YouTube in his living room. He’ll also find himself watching other top players in his downtime.
“Individual personalities are really fun to follow on Twitch,” he said, calling out popular streamers Imaqtpie and Rush. “They’ll attract 30,000 or 40,000 people watching on a given night, which is just crazy, but it’s so entertaining. And I think the ones who do it right are really teaching people the right way to play this game.”
And what of the other players he encounters in the game? The ones who aren’t his friends?
“Well,” he admits. “The maturity level probably is a little bit younger.”
That’s the thing — yes, eSports fans skew male. Yes, they are younger. But 14 million people watched last year’s League of Legends World Championship, and with numbers that big, you’re getting a larger cross-section of humanity than you might imagine.
And even if the audience is predominantly younger men, well, who cares? While I took in the third game of the semifinal series between Rox Tigers and SK Telecom T1, I found myself sitting in a lower section next to a group of four young men who spoke so much like the group of kids from Stranger Things I did a double take. It was like someone was playing a prank on me. The boys were all about 12, and were almost overloaded with joy and excitement … one kept standing up and sitting down, unable to handle the stimuli being thrown at him. When one spilled popcorn next to me, he picked it up carefully and actually said, “I’m sorry, sir.”
And in that moment I saw the beauty of this event, of League of Legends, a game that appeals to people of every stripe but, at its heart, is for young men like these polite boys next to me. I remembered my own youth spent with friends trading those Marvel playing cards and playing Magic the Gathering (we never graduated to Dungeons and Dragons), and thought about how much a place like this would have meant to me back then. Here these four boys were, young men who I’m sure have been called names, just like I was once, and who have been shoved and mocked and ignored by girls … and here they were, together, waving their glow sticks and screaming at the top of their lungs at the big plays. It was all there for them. Special. And they were not just together, but also with 15,000 people who were just like them. How cool is that?
Source : http://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/11/league-of-legends-riot-games-longform