While for many League of Legends is just a game they play with friends, for the better part of the decade, it has been one of the biggest esports titles.
“Esports” is essentially professional gaming at the stage where it is turned into a spectator sport. At this level, the best players and teams compete against each other at tournaments and pro leagues. These competitions are streamed online and watched by tens and often hundreds of thousands of viewers. Many of them are genuine fans with teams and players to root for, rivalries they buy into and events to look forward to.
For many League of Legends fans, abbreviations such as TSM, SKT, CLG or G2 bring up memories of league championships, momentous victories, award ceremonies – and many great games. Big League of Legends events have viewership comparable to major sports events. This is not an exaggeration – according to League of Legends developer and publisher Riot Games, the 2018 World Championship finals were watched by 99.6 million unique viewers. For comparison, the recent Superbowls have had roughly 110 million unique viewers.
Image credit: Riot Games
Competitive League of Legends is a serious business – both metaphorically and literally. Team owners and investors include sports stars like Magic Johnson, Steph Curry and Rick Fox, artists like Steve Aoki and businessmen like Mark Cuban. Players at the professional level receive impressive salaries, which in the big regional leagues are routinely over $100,000 per year – with the top echelon receiving significantly more. The best players are also seen as superstars in the gaming culture and often become popular streamers (which can bring additional fame and money) and land lucrative advertisement deals.
In the beginning
League of Legends’ budding pro scene started all the way back in 2010. Competitive play kicked off in the summer of 2010 with the launch of the first ranked season, with LoL esports events at the World Cyber Games in 2010 and the Intel Extreme Masters tournament series.
Video credit: Team Dignitas
The year culminated in the first League of Legends World Championship that took place in November of the same year, in Sweden. The first title went to Fnatic, who defeated Against All Authority in the finals and would go on to become the most successful European team in the game.
The early esports scene was defined by teams attending episodic tournaments around the world. Many of the low-level tournaments that served as qualifiers and exhibitions were poorly paid and supplied. Cases where prizes were delayed or never materialized were sadly not unknown. The big events had respectable prize pools, but getting there required a team to have already made a name for itself in the lower tier. It was a difficult environment to be a full-time gamer, but players could choose which events to attend and how they would prepare for them.
The LCS era
In 2013, Riot Games made the ambitious move to abandon the tournament circuit where they coexisted with third-party tournaments. Instead, they switched to a league format, where a number of teams would play continuously in two seasons.
Those then lead to a one-month World Championship in October. With some changes, the system persists to this day. The league takes place in two seasonal “splits”, one taking place in the late winter and early spring, and the second one unfolding throughout the summer. Each split starts with a group stage and then a playoff direct elimination tournament for the top teams.
Teams would receive subsidies from Riot Games aimed to help them pay the players. However, with the growth of the leagues, the amount from Riot became only a small bonus to the players’ salaries – not to mention the additional prizes based on their placements there. The top teams, determined by their placement in both seasons would also get a seed for the World Championship in October.
There are currently thirteen professional leagues recognized for the major international competitions. Most are run directly by Riot Games or their regional offices, but a few exist as partnerships or are hosted by local organizers. The older and more successful leagues are seen as the major regions. Due to the perceived higher quality of the games that take place there, the major regions have advantages in international competitions.
- League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) – North America
- League of Legends European Championship (LEC) – Europe
- League of Legends Championship Korea (LCK) – South Korea
- League of Legends Pro League (LPL) – China
- League of Legends Master Series (LMS) – Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau
- Turkish Championship League (TCL) – Turkey
- Liga LatinoAmerica (LLA) – South and Central America, formerly separated as Latin America North and Latin America South
- Campeonato Brasileiro de League of Legends (CBLOL) – Brazil
- Oceanic Pro League (OPL) – Australia and New Zealand
- League of Legends Continental League (LCL) – CIS States
- League of Legends Japan League (LJL) – Japan
- Vietnam Championship Series (VCS) – Vietnam
- League of Legends SEA Tour (LST) – Southeast Asia
Image credit: Riot Games
Of these, most are managed by Riot Games either directly or in collaboration with local partners. The League of Legends Pro League, also called the LPL, is run by Tencent Games, the Chinese media and gaming giant that owns Riot Games itself. Finally, the LMS and LST are organized by game developer, publisher and multiplayer platform owner Garena, based in the Southeast Asia region.
Three of the major leagues – North America’s LCS, Europe’s LEC, and China’s LPL, as well as Turkey’s TCL and Japan’s LJL, are franchised partnerships with local professional organizations. Most of the other leagues have a professional level with a promotion/relegation system that gives gifted amateurs a chance to make it big on the main scene. Each league broadcasts its own matches online, and the four biggest ones – LCS, LEC, LCK and LPL – are featured on the official LoL esports VoD (Video on Demand) YouTube channel.
Below this level, there are various amateur or semi-professional tournaments. All organizations in the franchised leagues also maintain an academy team that competes in the lower leagues – either as a separate academy league like in North America, or in the separate amateur leagues like in Europe.
Other regions retain the challenger series structure where highly-ranked teams can compete for a spot in a promotion tournament. Тhere, they face the bottom teams in the pro leagues and try to take their spot. While relegation has been the bane of many venerable organizations, a big part of League’s most beloved pro teams has started as plucky underdogs taking it to the pros.
The international scene
No competition can match the feeling of the top teams around the world coming together to find out who is the best. In League of Legends, the World Championship – or “Worlds” as it is commonly known, is the most highly anticipated event of the year. Its format has changed multiple times throughout the years.
Currently, the champions of the minor regions and the third seeds of major regions compete in a Play-in Stage, with the top two teams of every group playing in direct eliminations. The winners get a spot in the main stage groups. Both use a double Round Robin format and best-of-one matches. The top two teams from each group enter the direct elimination stage, playing best-of-five games in the quarterfinal, semifinal and final. While the minor regions seldom make it past the main event group stage, several third seeds from major regions have made deep runs throughout the tournament. Last year, North America's Cloud9 and Europe's G2 Esports made it all the way to the Top 4, taking out some of the favorites along the way.
Image credit: Riot Games
While Worlds is the biggest competitive event of the year, it is not the only one. In the last couple of years, Riot introduced several more international events. The most important one is the Mid-Season Invitational, a tournament featuring the champions of the spring split for every region. It also makes a difference between the minor and major regions, with the minors having to play a qualifier for the main group. The regions whose representatives make it to the group – and those who make it to the top four – not only get a bigger share of the prize pool, but also advantages in their placement for Worlds.
The summer split is also interrupted by a series of Rift Rivals tournaments. Unlike most other competitions, Rift Rivals is about the teams from each region getting together to face off against their peers.
Finally, December features an All-Star Event that brings the most popular individual players together for a series of exhibition matches and challenges. Since last year, it is also open to popular streamers and content creators, gathering the celebrities and the pros together for a more light-hearted show after the intense competition that Worlds offers.
The thrill of the fight
With several years of matches between some of the best players in the world, multiple playoff series and dozens of international events, the LoL esports scene is rife with great players, bitter rivalries and unforgettable moments. Names like Faker, Uzi, Caps, or Doublelift conjure images of jaw-dropping “outplays” and inspire the up-and-coming challenger gamers to rise to the top. There are even players whose name becomes attributed to a certain move they managed to pull off on stage, such as the xPeke becoming synonymous with a sneaky backdoor after his unforgettable performance in Katowice back in 2013.
Video credit: ESL
Trying to list every major rivalry or legendary player would be a fool’s errand. Every league has big clashes between teams that have spent several years on top and have delivered great games times and again. North America has Team Solo Mid, Cloud 9 and Counter Logic Gaming, while South Korea has the “telecom wars” between SK Telecom T1 and KT Rolster. Regional rivalries are a big deal as well. Europe and North America have fought for the right to be seen as the better western Region for years, to the point that every clash between the two will bring hype.
What is it to be a pro gamer?
Becoming a pro gamer is seen as a dream by millions of players, but actually getting good enough to be noticed takes both talent and a lot of serious work. The topmost part of the ranked ladder is the Challenger division, which consists of the 200 most highly ranked players on the server, and the adjoining Grand Master tier. Getting to it means that you will be playing with and against the pro players, and that your games will be spectated by the people scouting players for the teams.
Furthermore, for those who make it to the top, it’s not just fun and games. Teams train and live in gaming houses where they eat, work and sleep. Between “scrims” – training games they play against other teams or their “Academy” junior squad, solo queue games and video review, their workday is often well in excess of ten hours.
Money is good, but it comes at a cost – most pros are dealing with significant stress and have very little free time. A successful team in a major league is expected:
- to be playing every week in the Spring Split from January to April
- possibly attend the Mid-Season Invitational in early May
- play every week in the Summer Split from June to early September
- attend the World Championship in October
Free time is not an option, and burnout is high. It’s a fun job, but it’s still a job – and not an easy one. Few League of Legends players stay at high level for more than a few years, and those who make it to 25 are seen as venerable veterans – or old fogies.
After ending their pro gaming career, many transition to a supporting position as analysts or coaches, and some take up streaming full time. A rare few have been able to leverage their fame and contacts and become owners of teams of their own. Most, however, have to hang up their mice and headphones and return to ordinary life, their nicknames remembered only by their biggest fans.
Thumbnail image credit: Riot Games