Oct. 19, 40,000 fans poured into a soccer stadium in Seoul, South Korea, to smack thundersticks and roar with glee at the fourth annual League of Legends World Championship. Millions more followed along on TV or via online streams—Riot Games, the American company that makes League of Legends, has yet to release this year’s viewership numbers, but last year’s championship attracted a worldwide audience of 32 million. By the end of the evening, a team of five young Korean dudes sponsored by Samsung had taken the “Summoner’s Cup” and the $1 million top prize.
All of which left me with two questions: 1) Is rooting for Samsung akin to rooting for U.S. Steel? 2) Why, exactly, is this video game—and competitive gaming more broadly, known by its practitioners as “e-sports”—so wildly popular?
League of Legends boasts 67 million active monthly players. Broadcasts of its professional title matches draw more global eyeballs than an NBA Finals game. While this year’s event was held in South Korea, and South Koreans make up a healthy chunk of the game’s fan base, a sellout crowd also watched last year’s championship at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. And yet, I could only find one Slate employee who’d ever played LoL before last week. Many among us had no idea what League of Legends even was, beyond a vague sense that it must be some sort of fantasy dealie.
To find out what we were all missing, I downloaded the game and started playing it obsessively. I logged on for match after match, day and night, until my fingers cramped and my eyeballs ached. I assaulted turrets. I was repeatedly “ganked” by “junglers.” I got called a noob more times than I care to remember. And I stand before you today as … a distinctly awful League of Legends player. But I have come to understand the game’s appeal. I now believe that e-sports will dominate our recreational future.
First, a primer. League of Legends is a computer game you can play on a PC or Mac using a mouse and keyboard. The standard game features two teams of five players each. Those teams clash on a square battlefield, starting from opposite corners. Each five-player unit defends its home base and attempts to destroy its enemy’s—kind of like capture the flag. There are three wide-open “lanes” that players can use to traverse the game board between the bases, and which serve as frequent venues for head-on fights. In between them lies a knottier “jungle” that players can roam through guerrilla-style. There are strange monsters and medieval fantasy weapons and magic armor. That kind of scene.
The first time I played, I faced an immediate dilemma: Which character should I be? There are currently 121 “champions” listed on the game’s information page. Each possesses different skills and vulnerabilities. Some are “tanks” that can sustain a lot of damage. “Marksmen” dish out death from afar but are fragile under fire. Which champion best suited my LoL personality?
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