League of Legends: The Blockbuster In The Shadows - Games Weekly

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

League of Legends: The Blockbuster In The Shadows

In December 2014, 27 million people watched the League Of Legends finals in Seoul. That’s more than the number of people that watched the World Series and yet, LOL doesn’t get the attention of its gaming counterparts. It doesn’t top the trending topics on most websites and it rarely made headlines until it started breaking records. Quietly, somehow, League Of Legends has become the most played game on the planet and is leading the charge in a pro gaming revolution that could well see eSports lifted to the heights of international recognition. So, how did it go from zero to over 70 million players and what does the future hold?

Those are the questions we went into as we began looking at League Of Legends again. As we approach what feels like a new tipping point for this extraordinary gaming phenomenon, we felt compelled to turn to those who know League Of Legends best of all (perhaps even better than its own developer Riot does), the pro gamers who are pushing it onto the world stage.
“League Of Legends has a low skill floor, which means that the knowledge and skill required to start playing the game is quite low, but also a high skill ceiling, meaning that there is a huge margin for progression for players to undertake,” British-born Jamie ‘Tundra’ Duthie from FM-eSports explains to us. “Because of this, the game caters to the casual players who are just looking for a fun game here and there and can easily pick up the game and start playing, but also to the aspiring professional players who wish to learn the finer, more intricate details of the game.”

That kind of hidden depth is exactly the kind of thing that helped the likes of World Of Warcraft rise to the top of the MMO world, offering the surface-level satisfaction that has allowed LOL to be a casual hang-out while also delivering longer-term objectives and challenges for those with more inquisitive and combative personalities.What’s more, there’s so much room for self-expression, with well over 100 Champions to pick from, ranging across six different role types from Tank to Assassin to Support. So there’s space to explore play-styles and push at the edges of the slight variations you might find between one Mage or another. It’s the kind of depth of character variation that gets players hooked on games like Street Fighter too. Delving into the mechanics, becoming obsessed by frame rates, or in the case of LOL things like cooldowns on abilities, becomes a part of what makes the game fun. And as that happens, League Of Legends evolves from a mass brawl into something more tactical and precise.

That low to high-end approach applies to more than just skill levels as another of the UK’s few pro players, the now retired Stephen ‘Snoopeh' Ellis reveals, “The fact that it’s also free-to-play, with low system requirements allowed it to appeal to a much wider audience than traditional business models.” And again, we can’t help but see the similarities with the rise and continued popularity of Blizzard’s MMO. In an industry where graphical fidelity can really make or break a game’s reputation among critics and the gaming public, the potential to be universally playable for graphics to be utilitarian rather than technologically advanced is often overlooked and a choice worthy of praise. It’s really helped League Of Legends find a footing around the world with so many varied internet speeds and average hardware specs. According to Ellis though, it’s not been all smooth sailing for Riot as it had to gradually find its place: “Riot initially struggled to capitalise on its global presence as they partnered up with other publishers. However in the past few years, they have taken much more control themselves (a huge investment). But it’s very noticeable amidst the community how much Riot invests in the players outside of just North America.”
Certainly one of the big reasons why LOL is producing such impressive numbers (over 70 million registered players, 32 million active each month, 12 million playing a day and so on), is the way it has been embraced in South Korea and China. That in turn has been associated with the way in which eSports has been embraced and taken so much more seriously in the Far East. For all that Riot Games has invested in its community, it was the players who identified League Of Legends as a serious pro gaming contender and it was these gamers and their massive sponsors in the East that propelled it to the world stage. The rest of the world has been catching up ever since.

“Up until 2014, it was only South Korea and China who were giving the respect that League Of Legends and eSports deserved,” Duthie tells us. “However towards the end of 2014 and heading into 2015, Western society is beginning to accept eSports and detach the negative social stigma associated with the ‘typical basement nerd’.”

As much as we would like to believe such sentiments have more or less passed by now, the fact is that most of the big headline-grabbing moments in League Of Legends have often been reported by mainstream media with a not-so-veiled undercurrent of cynicism and superiority. Perhaps in the early days it had something to do with that aforementioned low-skill entry level or the game being free-to-play (a phrase that sets off alarm bells for many), but it could just be a generational split. The gaming landscape is changing fast and a new understanding of the social standing of gaming may be emerging.

“There will obviously continue to be stigma attached to gaming and competitive gaming for a long time to come the older generation didn’t grow up with it, and with a new generation growing up with competitive videogames I think we will see it become even more widely accepted,” is Ellis’ take on things and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. Pro gamers are emerging in their late teens and early twenties having been immersed in online gaming. They are embracing social media and video streaming in ways that the vast majority of gamers (if the average gamer age of early thirties is to be believed) have only gradually learnt about.

The rise of eSports globally timed rather nicely for League Of Legends as it simultaneously reaped the benefits of streaming services, gaming taking over YouTube, improved internet speeds globally making for smoother online functionality and viewing, and so much more.You only need to see the takeover of Twitch by Amazon for $970 million (£585 million) to see that something massive has been building in the background. It does beg the question of how impactful the advent of Twitch has been to the promotion of League Of Legends and the eSports scene, giving gamers access to great examples of pro level ability.

“With eSports being around for over a decade, it’s not Twitch or League Of Legends that’s created competitive gaming,” says Ellis, who points to something of a perfect storm of game, tech and developer making this phenomenon happen. “A combination of an extremely popular game with a very passionate developer, coupled with the technology, [has] allowed a platform like Twitch to come around… it was truly a case of everything coming together at once, spawning something really cool which is eSports as we know it today.”

What’s more, these technologies have given pro players extended lifespans beyond the main stage or team management. “It has provided an alternative career for many as it opens up opportunities to full-time streamers,” explains Duthie. “With Amazon purchasing Twitch.tv late last year, I’m incredibly excited to see what they bring to the table. The other obvious benefit for pro players is that they can stream their usual practice games (Solo Queue) and interact with their fans whilst making an impressive additional income.”

Seb ‘Numlocked’ Barton, another top UK pro, feels similarly: “I think it’s made pro players even more successful individually, some even to the point where they’re having to decide on either being a pro or being a full-time streamer. I think that’s great for both the game and eSports as it opens up career opportunities.”

Hand-in-hand, either through direct targeting or serendipitous circumstances, League Of Legends and pro gaming have found a sustainabile relationship. The passion of eSports fans and amateur players to learn more about the game, to play against and train with these seasoned veterans, is giving gaming some real career-like qualities. You need only look at the caster (a commentator for pro gaming events) career trajectory to see that older players are now forging postplaying roles as analysts and opinion makers. There’s a whole lifecycle and business developing around League Of Legends that goes beyond the MOBA’s mechanics.

“We are seeing huge companies begin to get involved with eSports such as Coca-Cola, ESPN and Pepsi to name a few,” points out Duthie. “Major investors, organisations, agencies, media outlets are already keeping a close eye on League Of Legends,” adds Ellis, who is also branching out into hosting and ‘eSports personality’ roles. “We are being taken seriously, but it will still take time.”

League Of Legends has become that force for change though. It’s lifting eSports into the realm of serious debate and analysis, and also helping to take videogaming out from the dark corners of the public consciousness and placing it in the centre of brightly lit stadiums and arenas all over the world. Just last month it was announced that a second US university, University of Pikeville, would be offering a pro gaming athletic scholarship and start up an amateur team for competition. It follows in the footsteps of Robert Morris University in Chicago. Playing and becoming great at League Of Legends could actually pay for people to get a higher education in the States.

But we can’t help but come back to the surprise that seems to surround every big League Of Legends announcement, not least in the UK. Why do so many here still perceive Riot’s game to be a fringe concern, when it’s clearly so popular?

“In short, the social stigma attached to professional gaming,” is Duthie’s assessment, whose FM-eSports team is one of the few based in the UK and made up entirely of British talent. “The proof is that there is an interest for eSports in the UK if you look at Multiplay’s Insomnia Gaming Festival or the League Of Legends Championship Series at Wembley (which sold out a stadium of 11,000). It’s only a matter of time before LOL explodes in the same way it has in other countries and 2015 will be the year for that.”
Barton agrees there is a stigma in the UK, but thinks Riot itself is doing big things to correct this. “With Riot's 4 Nations [the tournament that is exclusive to British and Irish  teams],  2015  has the potential to be huge for the UK and really set it on its way for gaming to not only be more acceptable but maybe even a viable career choice within the UK a real dream.”

“I would say it’s growing, especially with the rise of LANS such as Gfinity,” adds Ellis pointing to the growing professional base outside of Riot’s moves. “Traditionally the UK has always been console-based, but I do think that is changing, even if we are still quite a die-hard console nation. I’ve had more media outlets contact me to cover competitive gaming now than any point previously.”

As three UK-born pro players, Ellis, Barton and Duthie are evidence that there’s a growing interest here for both the game and the competition. As Ellis’ own path into playing LOL professionally proves, even where there’s an initial lack of interest it can quickly grow, as it did for him five years ago. “Being my first MOBA genre game, it was quite a steep learning curve and I was just getting wrecked by the more experienced players,” he admits. “It wasn’t until three months later when some buddies recommended I try it out again and play with them. This was when I got hooked the amount of fun we had playing together made it a much more enjoyable experience. After a few months I noticed I was considerably better than my mates  and long story short became a professional gamer.”

Stories like this are in the minority, but they are becoming more and more common. League Of Legends has become a global force to be reckoned with and one that really cannot be ignored any longer.

“I believe going into 2015 and beyond, Western society will begin to accept eSports more and more, so much so that it’s part of the ‘norm’,” is Duthie’s analysis. “Professional players will be able to pursue their career path without fear of judgement, but also will do so under a stable income due to the developing infrastructure surrounding UK eSports.”

Barton is similarly optimistic for 2015 thanks to Riot’s moves into the UK. “Everyone has the right intentions for the UK and is working really hard to see their dreams for gaming in this country realised,” he tells us. “I’m just personally hoping for more competitions.”

At the rate this game franchise and its accompanying thirst for competition is expanding and spreading, it’s unlikely to be long until events like the LCS in London in July 2014, become a regular occurrence. If Ellis is right that we’re just more console focused in the UK than elsewhere, then it seems we’re very much behind the trend on eSports and LOL, but the country is waking up and the ease of entry for games like LOL is making it incredibly easy for gamers to make their start on the path to the main stage. Riot’s quietly incredible MOBA is ina tight embrace with pro gaming to launch both into a new era.

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