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How the League of Legends World Championship became the Super Bowl of esports

The Summoner's Cup, the trophy given to the world's best League of Legends team, is awarded at 2017 World Championship at Beijing National Stadium. (Colin Young-Wolf/Riot Games, Inc.)
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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.

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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.

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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.

“At the time, League of Legends was a big game but it [was just] another game alongside many other games at these multigame weekend conventions," Riot’s Esports Director Whalen Rozelle said.

The result? Hundreds of thousands watched online.

“We were blown away by the response, by how many people wanted to tune into the action,” said Merrill.

That same year, 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.”

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Merrill recalled a “moment of panic, followed by the pain and knowledge that this is really bad, followed by the motivation to move forward and do the right thing.”

Rozelle, who was in the broadcast truck when it happened, put it more bluntly, “Holy s---, I can’t believe this is happening,” he remembers thinking. “It just breaks your heart.”

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.

Merrill said that Season 2′s World Championship was a huge inflection point for the community, which further validated their belief that live esports events could take root and succeed in North America, and beyond.

“It felt like a borderline religious experience, being in that arena,” said Merrill of the finals at the Galen Center, owing to the excitement generated by enthusiastic crowds, orchestral music, and the overall celebration of League.

It also brought a mandate to spend more money.

‘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.

“We have to go build the expertise and do this ourselves, because no one is going to do this for us, or help solve the problems,” Merrill said.

Riot was able to hire some people with expertise, such as Ariel Horn, who had experience with the NFL and Olympics, but by and large the company relied on itself to determine what a competitive esports league should look like and then develop the know-how to execute their plans.

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Traditional outlets have since come around with more than 30 television and digital platforms having aired events in 13 different languages, including ESPN and SYFY.

The move to South Korea for the 2014 final was a natural one for Riot. League’s early success was due in large part to engagement from Korean gamers, who also provided a sense of legitimacy to the esports league in its early days. South Korea is a mecca of esports, where televised tournaments have taken place for more than 15 years.

Signaling how big Worlds had become, it was hosted at the Seoul World Cup Stadium. The headline performer was Imagine Dragons.

In 2015 and 2016, the championship continued its global tour, moving to Berlin and then back to Los Angeles.

A global league with global challenges

Riot has staged these large scale events with a small core team — between six and seven people, all of whom have other responsibilities at the company — throughout the year, according to Adam Mackasek, who has worked on the company’s global events since 2014. The team can expand to around 50 people, between employees and contractors, closer to event dates. Mackasek said planning for Worlds begins the day after the current year’s event ends. Logistics present challenge enough, but those are complicated further by having a global league that features international competitions.

“Geopolitics plays a big role,” Rozelle said. “We have competitors coming from everywhere and one of the challenges is getting people from everywhere to places that they may not have great government affiliations.”

Rozelle said Riot is able to lean on Chinese conglomerate Tencent, which owns Riot Games, for matters concerning the Chinese government, and will find more informal routes to lobby officials in the U.S. “Maybe somebody knows a congressman or a senator and we have to reach out and try to get visas," Rozelle said.

Once players and fans arrive, a different set of challenges arise, as Riot has to find ways to engage with, close to literally, the entire world, informing and entertaining millions with vastly different backgrounds and interests.

“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.”

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For the last few years, Riot has tried to push the envelope for its live experience, rivaling events such as the Olympics — and arguably exceeding the World Cup and Super Bowl, with its technological innovation and production value.

In 2017, the World Championship in China saw an augmented reality dragon flying through the stadium and last year’s event in Korea featured an entire augmented reality K-Pop vocal group called K/DA perform alongside its real-world vocalists. The group’s Spotify page shows more than 101 million plays for their song “POP/STARS.”

“We did the [augmented reality] dragon in 2017, and so I was like. ‘Oh how can we push that a little further?'" said Toa Dunn, head of music at Riot. “And I said, ‘Imagine, instead of just a dragon, four members of pop band.' And even that, we had to learn how to do that."

Hundreds of millions of viewers are expected to watch at least part of this year’s World Championship in Paris, in addition to the sold-out crowd at AccorHotels Arena. The spectator experience in France will include a fan village next to the Paris City Hall, complete with player meet-and-greets, demos of pro gaming setups, customized videos, scavenger hunts and a speaker series.

Despite overseeing the most-watched esports event in the world, Merrill said he and his team are still getting used to their role in the culture.

“People have tried to make fun of me constantly,” Merrill said of his love of gaming. “We’re so focused or heads-down in our own little world that we are sort of nervous to go broader. ... Are people still going to be mean to us? And isn’t that cool when that doesn’t happen?”

The increased scope and popularity of the league has also brought new sets of concerns, particularly when current events creep into the picture. Just as the NFL struggled to find the balance between the freedom of its players to protest over the past several years, esports has had to handle a similar incident when a player in the Activision Blizzard-run Hearthstone league, spoke out in support of Hong Kong protesters and was punished. The incident sparked an awkward back and forth between Blizzard and outraged players, some of whom threatened to boycott the company.

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Those at Riot took note of the competing league’s predicament. To head off scrutiny and controversy, Riot has instructed its announcers and players to avoid discussion of the ongoing Hong Kong protests or other sensitive subjects, a message that was shared via Twitter:

“We’re going to try to be as agnostic as possible,” said Needham.

To a degree, the incident will serve as the backdrop to Sunday’s next installment of the World Championship, which will pit European-based G2 against China’s FunPlus Phoenix. It may also serve as a prelude to 2020, when the World Championship will return to China.

“We don’t think about geopolitical realities in any specific area of the world, as much as we just focus on delivering a great experience in game and with our sport," Needham said.

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