How Riot is using the League of Legends competitive scene to become the biggest eSport in the world

Scarra and Doublelift arrived in Shanghai, China two days later than they had originally planned due to travel complications. The two professional League of Legends players – their real names are William Li and Yiliang Peng – had only a couple of days to prepare and recover from jet lag before the North American team entered its first All-Star match against the home favorite Chinese. They were expected to lose the match in desperate fashion.

And yet, they were in high spirits. They had both been recognized while making their way through the San Francisco International Airport, and chatted much of the way from the airport to their hotel about how odd it was. These are players who, even just a year ago, were at most niche celebrities, only known amongst the most hardcore of eSports fans. Now, they’re seen playing nearly weekly by hundreds of thousands of viewers on streaming sites like Twitch or YouTube, who are broadcasting their matches.

League of Legends is growing at an increasingly rapid pace, and everyone from the professional players to amateurs to spectators knows it. As of October of last year, it had 32 million active, with an average of 12 million players playing every day. In March, a new record of 5 million concurrent players was set. By most metrics, League of Legends is the most popular online game in the world right now.

Developer Riot Games knows this, and they’ve got a plan to make it even bigger

The biggest barrier to entry for Riot’s target of new players is League of Legends’ steep learning curve. There’s an overwhelming number of characters to understand (113 right now, with more coming every few weeks), item stats to memorize, and strategies that more experienced players are notoriously vicious about adhering to. It’s an extremely difficult game to get into, much less fully understand. And that leads to a lot of people to give up before even giving it a shot.

The All-Star tournament is a perfect example of how Riot Games is attempting to overcome that.

Riot Games’ focus has shifted from simply making a game for the hardcore to play into a full-blown spectator sport. Dustin Beck, vice president of eSports and special projects at Riot, said of the event, “We looked at the more traditional sports like baseball, football, basketball, soccer. And a big thing that we’d never seen done before is an all-star game.”

Riot takes influence from traditional sporting events to a degree that has not been seen in a eSports environment. In the case of the Shanghai All-Star tournament, a huge neon-lined stage was built in a 10,000 seat stadium. The production was massive, with commentators speaking in a half-dozen languages and giant screens showing everything from gameplay to the players’ faces. It certainly felt like a sporting event.

That’s entirely intentional, says Beck. “We want viewers to expect a high-quality broadcast, just like if you’re watching Monday Night Football. We want to mimic that,” he said. “We’ve hired people with experience at the Olympics. Our head of global content is a three-time Emmy Award winner.”

“We’ve also added some other core elements that I think have been missing from eSports. We do a really good job of storytelling behind the scenes. We want to know who [North American all-star] Dyrus is. We want to know who Dyrus’ dad is,” says Beck.

Unlike physical sports, where fandom is often dictated by proximity to a team, League of Legends has to find new ways to gain loyal fans. Riot Games is attempting to build that loyalty through specific players, rather than teams as a whole. “I think fans will latch on to players that have a similar personality to them,” Beck says. “That’s why we’re investing so much in these mini-featurettes [featuring the players].”

Commentators, typically players who have come up through the streaming community, have been receiving training to be more professional on-camera. As the front line of the movement towards turning League into a spectator sport, they have to be accessible to those who are not experts in the game. The challenge is to take what skills they’ve honed by appealing purely to the small League of Legends community and make them accessible to a more mainstream audience.

“We brought them through broadcasting boot camp. We sent them to improv classes. We’ve had CNN correspondents come in and give them advice on how to hold themselves in an interview, how to broadcast better, or what do with your hands,” says Beck. “We’ve really trained these guys up, and they’ve responded incredibly well.”

Joshua “Jatt” Leesman is one of those broadcasters. Originally a professional player himself, Leesman took his love for both physical sports like basketball and knowledge of League of Legends to the commentator level.

“I try to take a lot from watching other sports into commentating on League of Legends. In a game, even in [the pre-game] picks and bans [of which Champions each team will use], there’s a special pace of it. You try and relate that to the pace of a basketball game or a football game,” he says. “We try to break down a League of Legends game and figure out which style of sports broadcasting would work better for that point in the game.”

It’s much different than basketball, for example, says Leesman. “In basketball, there’s a 24 second shot clock and for the most part, the play-by-play commentator will be going for it the majority of the time. After a basket goes down, that’s the point where a color commentator comes in to talk about what happened.”

Leesman and his fellow broadcasters are constantly learning by doing. Because eSports coverage on this scale has not existed before, each event is a new opportunity to learn. At the All-Star tournament, Leesman had to learn to more efficiently think on his feet when dealing with teams he had never talked about before, and how to keep games interesting when an obviously one-sided match was occurring.

“The biggest struggle was the team names. It was something we sort of forgot to practice. Sure, we knew who these players were, because they’re All-Stars, but we stumbled a lot of team names,” said Leesman. “When games were clearly over, we tried to talk about more interesting examples of how, for example, [South Korean all-star] Shy did something good, and the things that got them there. Talking about teams closing out games is not that interesting.”

Few other eSports commentators go through the training those employed by Riot do. Events like the Shanghai All-Star tournament show exactly what that quality training can do.

Riot Games is committed to creating an atmosphere of serious, high production value eSports coverage for League of Legends. It remains to be seen if that focus can carry League of Legends into the mainstream and keep it relevant in the long term, but it seems to be working right now.

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