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The World of Competitive Gaming

League of Legends All-Star, Helena Kristiansson

Photo by Helena Kristiansson

Players compete in the 2014 League of Legends All-Star event at Le Zenith Arena in Paris. The winning team took home $50,000.

A typical day for Danny Le: Wake up at 9:30 a.m. Breakfast. Exercise. Practice the world’s most popular PC video game, League of Legends, from 1 to 10 p.m., with a break for dinner. Analyze recorded matches from 6 to 11 p.m. Practice for a few more hours. Sleep. Repeat.

Le shares a house in Long Beach, California, with the four other members of Team Dignitas, a professional electronic sports squad that competes against the best League of Legends clubs in the world. The 21-year-old Edmonton, Canada, native started playing the five-on-five battle arena game for fun in 2010, got really, really good and, in 2013, obtained a U.S. visa to compete as an internationally recognized athlete—the first pro gamer to receive such status. In mid-2014, Le left a lesser-known team for Dignitas and the big leagues.

Santa Monica-based Riot Games, which released League of Legends in 2009, pays Le’s rent and a base salary of $50,000 a year, though he makes extra cash from competitions, sponsorships and broadcasting solo matches via streaming video game channels. He says the top players in the game’s Championship Series can easily pocket six figures a year.

If getting paid to play video games sounds crazy—and watching people play them even crazier—take a step back from, say, football and what do you see? A bunch of dudes in tight pants fighting over a leather ball. Most forms of entertainment sound absurd when deconstructed.

So, some context: Commonly referred to as eSports, competitive video gaming attracts pro and amateur players from LA to Latvia who battle it out online or in person on PC games such as League of Legends, Starcraft II and Dota 2, as well as shoot ’em up games— Counter-Strike, Call of Duty and the like— for console systems and computers.

Gaming competitions date back to the Atari days, but they’re more popular and organized today thanks to huge growth in the video game sector, whose returns now rival Hollywood’s. Further aiding eSports’ success: the rise of online streaming channels such as Twitch, which Amazon purchased in August for nearly $1 billion. According to a 2014 article in The New York Times, the channel’s peak viewing numbers equal CNN’s prime-time audience. Each month, hundreds of thousands of hard-core gamers tune in to Twitch to play, watch pros compete and talk smack.

The members of Team Dignitas—Cho "CoreJJ" Yongin, Alan "KiWiKiD" Nguyen, Noh "Gamsu" Youngjim, Danny "Shiphtur" Le and Alberto "Crumbzz" Rengifo—at the team's house in Long Beach. Photo by Gregg Segal.

A few hundred miles south of Twitch’s San Francisco headquarters, Los Angeles has emerged as America’s eSports capital. This makes sense given Southern California’s decade-plus dominance of the video game sector, which made an industry-leading $2.78 billion economic impact in 2012, according to The Entertainment Software Association (Texas came in second with $764 million).

The LA area alone is home to some of the largest names in video game development and publishing. Riot Games still gets a lot of buzz for its lone title, which is available as a free download with an option to purchase add-ons for an enhanced aesthetic: At last tally, League of Legends was drawing 67 million players a month, and it had generated a reported $1 billion in revenue in 2014.

Other big names in greater Los Angeles include developer Naughty Dog as well as Activision-Blizzard, the publicly traded holding company behind megahits Call of Duty, Starcraft and Warcraft, each of which has its own unique eSports culture. Rounding out the scene are mobile gaming upstarts such as Scopely and SGN, the latter helmed by MySpace co-founder Chris DeWolfe.

“LA’s entertainment industry is constantly putting out creative people, and it’s transferred over to the video game industry,” says Paresh Dave, a tech writer for The Los Angeles Times. “What eSports has done over the past decade is take the video game industry more mainstream.” Dave points to the 2013 League of Legends World Championship, which drew 13,000 fans to LA’s Staples Center to watch a South Korean team grab the winning pot of $1 million. Further inroads into the mainstream occurred the following year, when the championship, held in Seoul, South Korea, was broadcast live on ESPN3.

In addition to paying pros such as Le to play League of Legends, Riot Games also funds and organizes the major tournaments, as well as amateur events held at bars and on college campuses. The company has admitted that it doesn’t make money off of these events. Rather, it views them as part of a long-term investment strategy to keep people playing.

“We’re continuing to focus on increasing the entertainment value of the eSports that we produce,” says Dustin Beck, VP of eSports for Riot. “Whether that’s refining the events we throw for thousands of fans together in a stadium or upgrading the streaming viewing experience for individuals following along at home.” Beck says he doesn’t care if competitive gaming ever reaches the mass audience of more traditional athletic events but admits that there are some pluses that come with growing recognition. “Esports is gaining a wider audience,” he says. “Major sponsors like Coca-Cola are recognizing the potential and reach and are supporting the competitive scene.”

But even as it grows, it’s hard to say if eSports will ever be accepted outside of the notoriously insular gaming crowd. I’ll admit that after learning the basic rules of League of Legends, I tuned in to Twitch to watch a live match and my eyes glazed over after about five minutes. But to be fair, I’ve had similar experiences watching cricket and other sports I know next to nothing about.

Le, who continues to train and travel the world with Dignitas, says he’s heard the same from nongaming friends and family members: “I want to say eSports will go mainstream, but I’m not so sure. Maybe if they start forming gaming leagues in schools?”

He might be on to something there.

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

It is really amazing how big League of Legends has become as a competitive sport. I don't think it will be long until we see it on TV.
5/18/2015 4:42:45 PM

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