How League of Legends rose to the top of professional esports

How League of Legends rose to the top of professional esports

The decade-long rise of League of Legends has been one of the more striking storylines in the progress of professional esports. SportsPro traveed to Berlin for the relaunch of Riot Games’ European competition to find out how its model is developing

Riot Games’ multiplayer online battle arena title has moved to the core of the world’s leading professional video game contests since its release in late 2009. National and regional competitions feed into one of the most eye-catching and prestigious tournaments around: the League of Legends World Championships.

advertisement

According to Riot, the 2018 edition of the Worlds attracted 99.6 million unique viewers online as 24 teams played for total prize money of US$6.45 million. Winners Invictus Gaming took home just over US$2.4 million after beating Fnatic at the 50,000-seater Munhak Stadium in Incheon, South Korea.

How League of Legends rose to the top of professional esports

When casual observers conjure images of esports conquering the world of sport and entertainment, with its stars playing to packed houses for big money, there’s a fair chance the title they are thinking of is League of Legends.

advertisement

Riot’s own figures indicate that League of Legends is played by 100 million active users around the world and, according to in-house broadcaster and commentator Daniel Drakos, it boasts the two core qualities that give a video game a chance of being a compelling esport. “A huge skill curve,” he says, “so that you can appreciate what it means to be a top player. And something that changes, something that’s very dynamic so that it’s evolving as you watch it.”

League of Legends contests feature two teams of five players, each assuming the identity of a different fantasy character, called a ‘champion’, as they work together to take out their opponents’ base. Players travel across the in-game map taking on other challenges to strengthen their characters ahead of encounters with the other team, giving the action a slow-slow-quick pattern with tactical interludes breaking up frantic periods of on-screen action. 

advertisement

The tournaments themselves are also in flux. In Berlin in mid-January, Riot launched the League of Legends European Championships – or LEC – to replace the League of Legends Championship Series EU. It marks the pinnacle of League of Legends on the continent, with teams feeding in from national series like the similarly retooled UK Masters.

The season is spread across two phases: a ‘spring split’ from January to April and a ‘summer split’ later in the year, each consisting of a ten-team round-robin and play-offs. Later in the year each squad will also compete for the chance to take on the rest of the world, where all of those involved with the European scene are already hoping for a strong showing at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris.

advertisement

The spring and summer splits are being played at a custom-built venue in a Berlin TV studio, with matchdays on Friday and Saturday evenings during the season in front of audiences of around 200.

Jose ‘Diego’ Klingenburg, the head of live production and events for Riot Games in Europe, says that the facility has been coming together “over the last four years”. Based in the Adlerhof district of the German capital, the location has been chosen for its access to local production talent. Berlin itself provides Riot with a good central spot for “an international crew that works back and forth”, while Germany is Europe’s biggest market for League of Legends.

How League of Legends rose to the top of professional esports

advertisement

There are around 100 staff on site each night, with the production team joined by a bevy of makeup artists, models and other operatives. Klingenburg has spent the year reworking plans for the launch of the LEC. All the while, plans are being drawn up in parallel for the spring finals event at the near 16,000-capacity Ahoy Arena in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, a “different behemoth” involvingbetween 300 and 500 crew each day.

How League of Legends rose to the top of professional esports

advertisement

Whatever the arena’s scale, the live esports experience necessarily differs from one involving a physical sporting spectacle, with “massive screens and massive lighting” needed to convey the action to fans. Recent years have seen a pronounced change in how this is accomplished. 

“For example, one of the main things that we did is that, in the past, it was very common to isolate the players in esports,” says Klingenburg. “They had their own booths which were used for competitive integrity concerns and sounds, but at the end of the day you’re just looking at a giant screen and then the people who are playing are just hidden in a box somewhere – that doesn’t make you feel connected.”

advertisement

Each team now sits instead on desks either side of the stage, visible to the audience above their monitors. Players wear noise-cancelling headphones to communicate comfortably above the noise. Some aesthetic touches are borrowed from traditional sport – team members wear branded jerseys, while coaches prowl behind them in smart suits – but others have a more specific design.

How League of Legends rose to the top of professional esports

Esports players wear branded jerseys and have coaches on hand during competitions

advertisement

On the front of each desk, live video footage from a camera in each player’s monitor provides a running close-up of their reactions. Large screens behind them display the champion that each has chosen for the session in play; action from the game is carried on a screen above.  

For the second half of the evening Drakos takes his place at another desk to one side of the main stage alongside Indiana ‘Froskurinn’ Juniper Black, a fellow American who has joined the team in Europe for the new season. The on-air talent split their time between the commentary position and a backstage studio. Cans of Red Bull at their feet give some indication of the energy levels to expect, but the delivery is uniformly crisp.

“The entire set is new, there are a lot more screens, a lot more internal space, a lot more lighting,” says Klingenburg. “All of it is dynamic: we can change the way it looks and feels much quicker than before, much cheaper than before. We can make shows feel completely different even though it is in the same space.”

How League of Legends rose to the top of professional esports

Germany-based SK Gaming are sponsored by the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Deutsche Telekom

With broadcast partners also localising a world feed, the LEC production must be “something that is scalable and operates within very different architectures and structures”. The master control room, once based remotely in LA, has now been moved on site. With so much of the audience online there are further wrinkles to consider – like the fact that compression codecs differ for YouTube and Twitch, making it more difficult to standardise output across the two platforms.

The technological challenges in esports continue in the competition itself, and there are a couple of interruptions on opening night to check for latency issues on the server that might favour one side’s performance over another. The ten teams in the LEC offer a neat cross-section of where the interest in esports is coming from just now. They include esports stalwarts like Fnatic and SK Gaming, German soccer club Schalke 04’s entry, and newcomers Rogue, part-owned by rock band Imagine Dragons.

In esports, our main asset, if you would, is our content. This industry is consumed digitally

Ben Spoont, Misfits Gaming chief executive

Misfits Gaming are backed by National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise Miami Heat. They reached the last eight of the Worlds in 2017 and have set their sights on returning there, investing heavily in players like Korean superstar ‘Gorilla’. Misfits make a big statement on opening night with a comfortable win over Rogue.

Competitive success, obviously enough, is one part of building an esports brand. For Misfits chief executive Ben Spoont (pictured, left), esports teams are well placed to capitalise on “a generational difference” that is seeing traditional sports audiences age as younger consumers’ interests go digital and resources are allocated in kind.  

“In esports, our main asset, if you would, is our content,” he says. “This industry is consumed digitally and you’re talking to a demographic that gets their news from Twitter and Reddit before they get it from any other news source.”

How League of Legends rose to the top of professional esports

'Teams sit on desks either side of the stage, visible to the audience above their monitors. Players wear noise-cancelling headphones to communicate comfortably above the noise'

Misfits also take part in another franchise-based competition: Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League, where they compete as the Florida Mayhem. The value in an esports operation, Spoont explains, comes from a combination of the “fundamental financials of the league” like a share of central media and sponsorship rights, and on the commercial side. That in itself is “not dissimilar” from traditional sport.

“We just have a very specific approach which is that we are global, digital, and we embrace a young audience,” says Alban Dechelotte, the head of sponsorships and business development for EU esports at Riot Games. “And that’s pretty much something that any property in the world would love to offer.”

Then there is the creative potential of the space.

“The possibility to go deep is something very interesting,” adds Dechelotte, whose previous experience includes ten years with Havas Sports & Entertainment, and a spell at the esports and gaming sponsorship division of The Coca Cola Company. At the latter, he was involved in the deal that saw Coke sponsor video game character Alex Hunter in the story mode of the Fifa soccer series.

 Dechelotte positions Riot as “a guardian of the community” but also argues that, with its relative lack of commercial saturation, League of Legends represents a “green pasture” for brands. Fans are still at the point where they welcome non-endemic sponsors as a sign of health, and the possibilities for integration are something that he has “never found” in sport or music.

Digital assets within the game are one such source of connection. Oil giant Shell, for example, sponsors the ‘Baron Power Play’ within a pivotal section of each contest. Though with the commercial grammar of the sector still being constructed, there are challenges on both sides of every deal. As Spoont points out, in many cases, “the teams compete with the leagues for sponsors”.

How League of Legends rose to the top of professional esports

A live audience of around 200 people witnessed the action during week one of the LEC's spring split

The regional differences between League of Legends competitions are also a factor. Dechelotte reveals that a recent partnership with carmaker Kia resulted from “a discussion with our colleagues in Korea”, while there are also partnerships shared with the North American tournament due to the fact both are broadcast in English. China, he says, is “an inspiration for us” and a sign of “what esports will be in ten years”.

Europe, on the other hand, is “fragmented” and diverse, something Dechelotte sees as a complication and a strength. “We have 14 languages and we probably have 18 advertiser markets,” he says. “Our broadcasts are in six languages. So that’s the big difference.”

Esports, Dechelotte (pictured, right) offers, is broadly comparable to sport as a sponsorship proposition, not least in its capacity for emotional storytelling. But there is one significant respect in which its potential differs.

“Most other sports have a very narrow base of players and a very broad base of viewers,” he explains. “We have exactly the opposite: we have much more players than viewers.”

Solely by converting a chunk of that participant base, Dechelotte believes Riot Games can “double or triple” the viewership of League of Legends events in the next few years. That will require an active relationship with players and the game itself is under constant review.

“It’s not something that we put in a box and then we start working on the next game,” says Dechelotte. “It’s something that, since day one, we have invested in to become a live service.”

Patch updates, introducing new elements, tweaking rules and rebalancing the powers of in-game characters, are regularly released. “We create the sport every two weeks,” says Dechelotte. 

League of Legends and its intellectual property are also part of an evolving content universe. Alongside the game, the esports ecosystem, and the inevitable avalanche of merchandise available on site in Berlin and online, there has been the creation of popular themed music playlists on Spotify and a collaboration with Marvel on a series of comic books. The publisher, meanwhile, has also “been thinking about animation and movies”.

How League of Legends rose to the top of professional esports

“It’s a little bit like how for Disney, you would do an animation movie and then this movie has to work to create characters and storylines that will become a park, or a DVD, or toys,” offers Dechelotte.

We’re going to fail and learn. That’s the only way we are sure that we’re trying harder

Alban Dechelotte, the head of sponsorships and business development for EU esports at Riot Games

In January, Riot Games signed a multi-year agreement to make Lagardère Sports the exclusive sponsorship agency of the LEC. Lagardère, Dechelotte explains, will bring its experience to bear in “building the marketing package” and make use of “networks of people” it would take Riot Games “a century” to build.

“At the same time, they are inventing with us, and that’s very valuable,” he says. “We have met a lot of agencies that were just trying to replicate what they had done in handball or what they had done in football or skiing. Lagardère came with a very humble approach of trying to understand, trying to build something that was meaningful, and making sure that whatever we present to brands is something that will fit with Riot Games as an organisation but also with the players.”

Burson-Marsteller, now part of the WPP-owned PR agency Burson Cohn & Wolfe, has also been engaged to help develop a new host city strategy. “Just think about logistics, visas, getting permits to do things that we want to do,” says Klingenburg. “All of those things are way more difficult when you’re just rogue agents, rather than partners in this. And it’s in the best interests of the city to help us build something more.”

It is a self-consciously Olympic-style approach, and it is not the only way in which Riot will be looking to traditional sport for inspiration.

“We are a ten-year-old sport, so in every single discipline we are listening,” says Dechelotte. “We organised our first broadcast partner workshop, like Uefa has been doing for a hundred years. We have our governance people – the people that organise the trades of players, the fines, all the formats – attend all the governance summits from the IOC to learn how they do that in other sports.

“Personally, I try to understand how the media rights or the sponsorship could be optimised. But at the same time, we are very different.”

How League of Legends rose to the top of professional esports

Spoont, too, has been known to reach out to Miami Heat chief executive Nick Arisen for guidance on everything from player and contract management to managing relationships with league offices. He anticipates that the gap in esports investment between “venture-oriented” US sports bodies and their more “risk-averse” European counterparts will close “when the model is more proven”.

“They don’t want to lose their shirts,” he says. “But it’ll happen.”

In the meantime, Misfits have their own plans to push the esports model in different directions. The team has recently opened a new outlet in Berlin’s Europa-Center mall, “which is part merchandise store, part PC Land café” and part mini esports arena. Spoont views it as “an incubator project”.

“I want to learn,” he adds, “I want to iterate. I want to A-B test. I want to learn about our demos in a way that we don’t typically interact. Our relationship with our fans is primarily online and digital, so we’re now trying to bridge that gap.”

league

Whatever path League of Legends takes from here, Dechelotte expects it will be approached in a similar spirit.

“We’re going to do a lot of bets,” he says. “We’re going to work with television, work with online platforms. We’re going to do events in Berlin, we’re also doing roadshows in major venues and now inviting cities to present to us when they want us to come. I think for all dimensions – sponsorship, merchandising, events – we’re going to fail and learn. And that’s the only way we are sure that we’re trying harder.

“So that’s our future: trying, and learning as fast as we can.”