The biggest PC game in the world with over 100 million monthly active players, “League of Legends” is a competitive title played both casually and professionally. The objective of the game is to out-strategize the other team to ultimately take out their base and to grow stronger by obtaining gold via destroying small minions, other champions and enemy turrets. Two teams of five fight using weapons and magic across a jungle filled with wild creatures. In “League” esports, the biggest event of the year is Worlds, and it’s usually dominated by Asian teams.
In recent years, Chinese regional teams have established a reputation for playing aggressively, preying on opponents’ mistakes to crush their foes. Chinese teams won the title in 2018 and 2019, but last year Damwon Gaming from South Korea prevailed, defeating China’s Suning team. Teams from those two countries have won every championship since 2013, with Korean teams claiming consecutive titles from 2013 to 2017.
This year, the reigning teams from 2019 and 2020 are back, and so are some legendary players like Lee Sang-hyeok, better known as “Faker.” A midlaner who plays for the Korean team T1, Faker rose to fame by mastering complex playable champions in “League” such as Ryze, Zed and Orianna. He’s also one of a dwindling number of veteran stars in the game. Several seasoned professionals in their late twenties retired from the decade-old esports scene last year, and the game’s landscape is changing dramatically as new players rise up and take their place.
“When I see players like [Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng and Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg] retire, I feel like time goes really fast,” said Lee, 25, who is part of the only team to win Worlds three times, in an interview interpreted from Korean. “And at the same time, I’m thinking I should do my best to show what I have to the world for the remainder of my career.”
Some of Lee’s teammates have retired since his earlier victories, however, and on today’s T1 roster, Faker is the only name that has stayed on since 2013.
“A lot of my teammates have changed, the meta has changed. So I’m trying to fit myself more to what the teammates and coaches agree on,” Lee said. “And I do believe the game has become much more complicated than before. So we’re trying to discuss more about what we’re trying to do in the game. I believe that the winning team is the one that practices the most and is most prepared. I hope that’s us and that we get a satisfying result at the end.”
Faker and T1 resume competition Friday against Hanwha Life Esports, another Korean franchise, in a best-of-five series. The winner will advance to the semifinals.
Korea’s road to victory
Damwon Gaming is the crowd favorite to win this year’s Worlds after having won the championship last year. Midlaner Heo “ShowMaker” Su said he trains from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on his own, then plays with the team until 2 p.m., practices by himself before lunch and then practices from 4 p.m. until late in the evening.
Even though Su is competing against Lee, arguably the best known professional “League of Legends” player, he said, “I’m not really swayed by playing against Faker. When I was a rookie, I was a little bit pressured because he’s just such a great player. And I’d feel that kind of pressure going into the games, but now that I also have a bit of experience under my belt, I don’t really pay particular attention to it and I just focus on my own playing.”
Damwon, unlike T1, hasn’t gone through significant and continuous roster changes.
“You can’t really disregard synergy that you’ve been building up over a long period of time. I think it definitely is easier that I get to play with people that I’ve played with already for so many years,” said Su.
In 2019, a relatively new Chinese team called FunPlus Phoenix smashed the European team G2 Esports and took home the Summoner’s Cup trophy for winning Worlds. This year, FunPlus team members felt the pressure. Ultimately, the team did not make it to quarterfinals. No Chinese team has more than one world title.
Of all the teams this year, the South Korean ones may be continuing their long-standing trend of stomping the competition at Worlds and taking back the championship from China.
“After how shaky Damwon Gaming looked at the Mid-Season Invitational, it seemed like China was primed to roll through Worlds,” said Tyler Erzberger, editor-at-large at esports outlet Upcomer. “It’s been a resurgence this year, though, with not only Damwon looking like contenders but almost every other Korean team as well. Damwon is trying to become the second ‘League of Legends’ dynasty ever if they can win the cup this year, and you have the original dynasty franchise, T1, also leveling up to challenge them.”
The winning team will take home approximately half a million dollars, a figure that could go up if Riot sells more in-game cosmetics, the company said.
Then there’s the U.S.
The U.S. has never won a “League of Legends” championship, despite parent company Riot Games being based in Los Angeles. (Riot was acquired by Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent in 2015). In the decade that Riot has run the “League of Legends” World Championship, a team from the U.S. or Canada has never won, nor have they even reached the top two. This year, Cloud9 is the only North American team to make it to quarterfinals.
European teams have secured just one title, though they consistently make it to the semifinals or better.
The closest a North American team has come to a title is third place in 2011 and in 2018. Though based in North America, these teams will often feature players from other countries. Teams may only use a limited number of “imported” players, as they’re commonly labeled.
“China, they just have literally more players and talent to pull from, and also, it just comes down to the quality of the practice,” said Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, 28, when interviewed on the topic in 2020. Peng played the “attack damage carry” (ADC) position on TSM, a North American esports team, before retiring last November. “I think it’s a huge uphill battle to ever say that the entire [North American] competitive scene is ever going to match China or Korea. I could imagine one team being really elite, really, really good like that, but not the whole scene.”
Riot knows that the various regions around the world could be more balanced. It continues to invest in its pipeline for developing new talent and maintaining “League’s” massive player base.
“It’s something that we’ll be working on. We … want to understand deeply how we can help bolster all of our regions,” said Naz Aletaha, who was promoted to global head of Riot’s “League of Legends” esports division in October. “It is something that we want to invest time and effort into seeing if there is anything that we can do and try to identify the root causes.”
The pandemic’s impact
Each year, “League of Legends” fans traveled to attend a splashy, Olympics-like event held in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Seoul and Beijing. The matches were accompanied by elaborate productions that infused innovative pregame celebrations with the competition’s inherent drama as teams of five sought to crush each other in matches broadcast on giant monitors inside massive stadiums packed with fans.
That was until the pandemic. Riot scaled back its tournaments held in Shanghai and Iceland in 2020 and 2021, respectively, and dropped the live audiences. Lee, from Korean team T1, said there wasn’t much to see within walking distance from the hotel in Iceland at this year’s tournament, so he hasn’t had the opportunity to explore a lot, but he got to take a few walks and enjoy the chilly weather.
Rigorous practice schedules also limit the amount of time players can indulge in sightseeing.
“After we arrived at Iceland, every day we start training at 10 a.m. and keep going until 12 or 1 a.m. at night,” said Tian “Meiko” Ye, who plays for fan-favorite Chinese team Edward Gaming. “As a pro player, we have to keep up this kind of routine. I’m very tired but I have to keep it up.”