By Devyn Sherry
October has always been a slow month for online competitive gaming. With the vast majority of competitive games holding tournaments during the summer, the start of fall always feels just a little underwhelming. It can be hard for esports fans to fill that void, and without the emotional highs and lows of the summer, many spectators simply drift off, finding better things to do until the next tournament rolls around and the cycle starts over again.
But not this year.
This October, fans of the hit multiplayer game League of Legends are getting ready for the game’s biggest tournament yet: Worlds 2019. The month-long championship marks the game’s 10th anniversary, and is host to 24 teams from 13 regions including China, North America, and Europe.
Originally released on October 27th, 2009, the game has since garnered millions of fans worldwide, and spawned a community as active as it is colourful. The classic setup of the game - two teams of five players competing to destroy an enemy building called a “Nexus” - has been the standard since the game’s inception, and was directly inspired by older competitive games like DotA. Ever since, the game’s developers have worked and re-worked everything from player mechanics to character designs, and the ways in which fans interact with the game are always evolving.
“The most interesting part about League of Legends is that it’s constantly changing.” says competitive player Ryan Neeson. Neeson has been playing League competitively for over seven years, and to him, the game’s learning curve never really ends. “You have to constantly adapt your style of play. It's as if you were playing a sport but they changed a small aspect of the rules every couple of weeks.”
It goes to show something that many hardcore fans have known for years: that League of Legends isn’t an exception - it proves the rule.
Minor tweaks to gameplay aren’t the only thing leaving players winded, though. The Worlds roster is far from being set in stone; until the hammer drops, there’s no telling which team will come out on top. As League analyst Kien Lam put it earlier this year, “You can lose your regional final and, somehow, still manage to win it all.”
Which has happened in the last two years. South Korea’s Samsung Galaxy and China’s Invictus Gaming took the lead in 2017 and 2018’s World championships, respectively, despite the fact that neither team made it past the beginning of semifinals in their respective regions.
And as the competition continues, World’s 2019 looks like it could be another victory for the underdogs. “G2 Esports (Europe’s team) are probably the strongest team in the world right now,” says Neeson, “If they can take the tournament, it would be a huge deal for European League of Legends just because Europe hasn't won Worlds since the first championship in 2011.”
Which begs the question: why is it a huge deal? Esports is a very new phenomenon and, to the layperson, a completely obscure one. Pick a few people at random, and very few of them could name even some of the biggest esports teams offhand, let alone star players.
Neil Barr, journalist and former analyst for local teams, says that personality plays a huge part in audience interest. “I think that people are drawn to competitive gaming for a few different reasons, but the main ones are either looking to watch pros take their hobby to the highest levels possible, or just to follow narratives. Since the game's already so integrated with online culture, it feels pretty seamless to get immersed in a player, team or even game's history.”
And it’s not just fans of gaming that are getting invested. Over the years, League of Legends has partnered with several big-name sponsors, including Red Bull, MasterCard, and Louis Vuitton. On the one hand, it makes sense: any company would hop on board after seeing what kind of money esports brings in. Last year, League generated 1.4 billion USD in revenue, and that figure represents a 21% decrease in sales from 2017. A decrease. It’s obvious that numbers like those would turn a lot of heads.
On the other hand, Holy Crap! The idea that a luxury lifestyle brand like LV, a corporate powerhouse, would bend over backwards to endorse an online fantasy game is, frankly, absolutely insane.
Maybe it is. It’s also absolutely true. It goes to show something that many hardcore fans have known for years: that League of Legends isn’t an exception - it proves the rule. League demonstrates how powerful competitive gaming can be on the world stage, how involved and inspired a community can be when the hype is right, and how well-founded esports can be as a real and valid sport.
In the end, one need not look any further than the fans. When asked how he feels about this year’s competition, Neeson’s eyes light up. “Oh, Worlds?” He says, “I watch it all the time! The championship going on right now is one of the most exciting ones we’ve had in years.”