Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, reigning World Champion and regarded as the best player in the world.
Today, there are tons of different ways to get your entertainment fix. If you want to see a movie, you can head to Netflix. If you want to watch TV, you can head to Hulu. If you want to watch sports, you have baseball, football, soccer, and apparently professional video gaming. Specifically, there is an enormous following for professional League of Legends, the most popular so-called “esport”. Why would anybody want to watch a livestream of a bunch of nerds sitting around on their computers? More importantly, why on Earth would someone pay to go halfway across the world to see them clicking and tapping on their keyboards live? Are these people stupid?

Enrique "Xpeke" CedeƱo, celebrating his team Origen's performance.

Turns out esports, or pro gaming, has come a long way from its original roots. No longer just a bunch of random nerds competing to be the best at an arcade or shooter game, professional video game playing has slowly become closer to a true sport. In terms of League of Legends, there is actually a well-established, healthy association of leagues: 12 different top-tier professional leagues spread across several major regions across the world, in addition to the countless amateur leagues. Each league has somewhere around 6 to 10 teams vying to represent to their region at the World Championship tournament every year. If this sounds awfully similar to FIFA’s format, that’s cause it basically is, just with a world championship every year as opposed to every four years. It’s not like these tournaments are pulling in few viewers either. The 2014 World Championship Grand Finals pulled in 27 million unique viewers. This was more than double the viewership numbers of the World Series of baseball in 2014. To put it into further context, that’s roughly 3.5 million more people than the entire country of Australia in 2014. But let’s take it a step back, how exactly did this esport become so popular?

North American favorites Team Solomid
Turns out, a lot of people play League of Legends. According to Riot Games, the company that created the game and maintains the esport around it, 67 million people play the game every month. To continue the population comparison, that’s 3 million more than the population of France. Considering the world population is around 7 billion, nearly 1 out of every 100 people is a League player. Let’s factor in the fact that League of Legends is an incredibly strategic game, with 5 players versus 5 players fighting to destroy the enemy team’s base protected by defensive turrets. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, investor on Shark Tank, and worth approximately $3 billion USD, recently played a charity game at the international esports tournament, Intel Extreme Masters in San Jose, and explained his view on professional League of Legends: “It is one of the smartest games I've ever played, you gotta have dexterity, you gotta be quick. This is a real sport and people are going to figure it out really, really quick.” It makes sense that people would be interested in seeing the highest level of competition in the game they play.

  Mark Cuban being interviewed after a charity showmatch versus Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel 

Another draw-in for the world of pro League is the personalities of the high-level players. They’re just average young adults who like to happen to be really good at video games. Some, like Marcus “Dyrus” Hill or Michael “Imaqtpie (I’m a cutie pie)” Santana, are also very good at entertaining viewers. In the early years of League, they would get a little ad revenue from their YouTube videos. With the advent of Twitch.TV, video game streaming became explosively lucrative. According to one intrepid blogger, Santana makes an estimated $144,000 a year. If that seems like an absurd amount of money, it is estimated that pro-player Soren “Bjergsen” Bjerg, star midlaner for beloved North American favorite Team Solomid, makes around $480,000 from streaming on Twitch alone. This is in addition to his salary from Team Solomid, which is said to be the highest outside of China. These pros are also very open to meeting fans. Here’s a series of photos of me and a ton of League of Legends pros.

From top to bottom: Bee Sin, Bubbadub, Hai, HotshotGG, KeithMcBrief, Voyboy and Boxbox, Maplestreet, and Dyrus.

Like Mark Cuban said, it’s a real sport, and people are going to figure that out really quickly. But you don’t have to take my word for it, here’s an actual game of professional League of Legends. This one is from the North American League Championship Series summer split finals, held at Madison Square Garden, between two rivals: reigning champions Team Solomid, and up-and-coming hype train Counter Logic Gaming.

- Jose -


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