Its game 3 in the world championship series, with the reigning champions down 2-0 in the best-of-5 series. The underdogs have a chance to upset the best team in history going into the second half of game 3. After a grueling first half, the underdogs are falling behind the defending champions and it looks like the game is decided, but in a sudden turn of events, one of their players catches one of the opponents off guard and they press the advantage.
The underdogs go all the way, and capture their first ever championship!
Sounds familiar, no? Well contrary to popular belief, this wasn’t an excerpt from the Stanley Cup Final or the Super Bowl, but it was the setting of the 2017 League of Legends (LoL) World Championship series.
Source: eSports Source
With 60 million unique viewers tuning into the broadcast, LoL possesses a following that puts some major sports to shame (Li, 2017). As the professional coup-de-grace of League of Legends, the grand event garnered more unique viewers than the 2017 NBA Finals. For traditional sports viewers, the notion that a video game championship can be a spectacle that rivals the largest sports events in the world may seem odd. Historically, video gamers have been labeled as nerds, childish and lower on the social scale; however, League of Legends’ swift rise to the top of digital entertainment has given opportunities for ostracized communities to find success.
Recent developments in the scene like scholarships for LoL athletes, increased viewership and ownership from NBA teams like the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and Cleveland Cavaliers (Teegarden, 2018), have put the game on a similar level of traditional sports. League of Legends’ emergence as a premier online spectacle has impacted the world’s viewpoint of gamers, creating an opportunity for those who are in the social periphery.
What is League of Legends?
Created in 2009, League of Legends (LoL) is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) video game that was created by Riot Games. The primary game-mode pits one 5-player team against another 5-player team in a battle-royale in which the objective of the game is to defeat the other team’s base. Over the course of its development, League of Legends has become the world’s largest online game, with over 100 million unique monthly users (as of 2016) (Tassl, 2013). The game has also created a large professional scene with 4 certified leagues in China, Europe, North America and Korea. Its global influence has created a player-base of all different backgrounds.
Professional players from around the globe treat this game like a full-time job, often playing for 8 hours per day, in hopes to make it to the annual world championship series. The Championship series is the holy grail of the LoL eSports world, with only 4 teams ever winning since its inception in 2010. With representation from around the globe, viewership is also a large part of the LoL eSports scene. In the pro-league, games are broadcast weekly, with over 100k viewers per game (Rosen, 2017). The combined elements of competition, viewership and an enormous player-base have put League of Legends at the top of the competitive entertainment world, on par with the NBA and other major sports leagues.
How did League of Legends achieve such high popularity?
In addition to its team-based format, League of Legends’ growth came from popular players who began to stream their gameplay on sites like Twitch. Players like Voyboy, Nyjacky and Reginald were the first to attract gamers to their streams, creating communities that didn’t just enjoy playing the game, but also watching it.
“Spectating on eSports can be superficially seen as a similar activity to spectating on any sports. Most commonly, eSports are being consumed by watching live streams on the internet, where in addition to watching the event, spectators can participate in surrounding social interaction, for example, in the form of chat features.” (Hamari & Sjöblom, 2017)
An emerging digital environment calls for entertainment technologies that can enhance the viewer experience. The level of interactivity that League of Legends offers its spectators allows for stronger engagement between the community because it gives an easier way to directly participate in the content that they are consuming. Additionally, the game is global and does not require a significant investment to get involved. LoL only requires a working computer and a decent internet connection in order to start playing.
Breaking Social Stigmas Attached to Gaming
The association of gaming with reclusion, periphery and social inferiority have existed in the past several decades. In popular culture, gamers have been depicted as stay-at-home losers that fully immerse themselves in games like in 2006 American comedy, Grandma’s Boy. In the film, the protagonist is a 35 year-old video game tester who moves in with his grandma after several problems in his life. In a more modern example, the Big Bang Theory often portrays its protagonist and friends as a video-game loving group of nerds.
Source: Big Bang Theory Wiki
This picture of gaming as a negative cultural endeavor harms anyone that plays games for leisure or professionally. LoL allows people who aren’t physically talented to be able win in a competitive atmosphere. The game requires a different set of tools from physical sports. Individuals that don’t have talent in traditional sports make up for it by having quick reaction time and use of strategy.
Universities have also started offering scholarships to support their school-sponsored teams. Many competitions like this one in Toronto, offering $100,000 in tuition scholarships, have fueled collegiate gaming to become a legitimate focus (Ore, 2017). Like NCAA Div. 1 athletes, LoL gamers are now given the chance to work towards their academic goals while being given the support to fulfill their passions. This signifies an important moment for gamers; the academic world recognizes their achievements.
Opening Doors for the Marginalized
League of Legends gives opportunities for the periphery to find normalcy. In the case of platinum-level competitor Keith Knight, LoL puts him on the same level as the rest of his peers, even though he suffers from severe muscular dystrophy. Knight, also known in-game as Aieron, plays LoL with a customized setup that uses his cheek to control a mouse, leg to press external switches and a pen in his mouth to type (MacManus, 2013). In one of his streamed games, he successfully completed a pentakill, which can be compared to a hat-trick in hockey or a triple-double in basketball.
While disabilities like his can make it hard for individuals to compete in traditional sports like soccer, basketball or football, LoL gives them a channel to showcase their skill. The issue of accessibility in the sports world is one that stems from the limited fluidity of physical sports. Those who are physically disadvantaged are oftentimes unable to compete at the same level as their peers, but video games like LoL are the solution. The virtual world that it creates means that online, everyone is on a level playing field.
Real Sport or Not?
While many critics question the legitimacy of the game as a real sport, I would contest: Does it matter if it’s classified as a real sport or not?
At the heart of it, League of Legends has all the elements of a popular team-sport:
LoL attracts viewers from around the world, and aims to grow it’s influence. It is “a world where the rules of the participatory media game are shaped by a relentless push for image promotion, branding, and capital accumulation on a global scale.”(Compton, 2017) This definition doesn’t sound so different from the sports world of the NBA, NHL and NFL that we’re used to. Additionally, the 2017 LoL Championship Finals attracted more viewers than the 2017 NBA Championship.
NBA players and franchises have put investments into teams, signifying its legitimacy as a competitive entertainment category. For instance, former NBA champion, Rick Fox, bought out a North American franchise to rebrand them as Echo Fox. His constant advocacy of LoL as a game that competes on the same level as traditional sports leagues is enabling players to embrace their digital passions. Other sponsors like Red Bull and MSI have started to provide major contributions to professional teams.
What really separates a pro-gamer from a pro-athlete? A study done by the University of Essex showed that eSports professionals have reaction times that can be comparable to jet fighter pilots. The best competitors love what they do. Like other official sports, eSports athletes are required to utilize “strategies are intrinsically related to the dexterity and the mastery of motor skills.” (van Hilvoorde & Pot, 2016)
Pro gamers, like pro athletes, spend copious amounts of time training to become the best. For some teams, it’s quite common to practice for 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. One article even stated that “eSports is on par with some other sports regarding the physiological stresses and strains” (Hallman & Giel, 2017).
The topic of eSports crossing the barrier between sports and video games (or what has traditionally known to be mindless leisure), allows for a greater discussion about what the impact of League of Legends is on the greater community. Physical traits are no longer the sole determinants of performance and perceived success. In LoL, athletes of all colours, ages, and sizes are given equal opportunity to succeed without an initial visual judgement. Moreover, LoL takes the positive traits of traditional sports and combines them with the technological advancements of the digital world to create a true equitable playing-field.
“Elements of the eSports ethos imbue computer games with a particular social meaning, whereby their consumption becomes not merely a form of casual leisure or work, but a symbolic expression of competitiveness, fairness, respect to others, and self-improvement.” (Seo, 2014)
With more people turning to eSports as a primary source of entertainment, its potential to shape the way that it affects society grows. Responsible governance of the pro-leagues and continued growth of the game itself will enable the marginalized to become the new normal.
Compton, J. (2017). Sport, Media and Mega-Events. London: Routledge.
Donghun, L., & Shoenstedt, L. J. (2011). Comparison of eSports and Traditional Sports Consumption Motives. Journal of Research 6(2), 39-44.
Hallman, K., & Giel, T. (2017). eSports – Competitive sports or recreational activity? Sport Management Review, 14-20.
Hamari, J., & Sjoblom, M. (2017). What is eSports and why do people watch it? Internet Research 27(2), 211-232.
Li, X. (2017, November 17). The League of Legends Worlds final reached 60 million unique viewers. Retrieved from Dot Esports: https://dotesports.com/league-of-legends/news/lol-worlds-final-viewership-18796
MacManus, C. (2013, September 25). Disabled gamer: The inspirational story of Keith ‘Aieron’ Knight. Retrieved from CNET: https://www.cnet.com/news/disabled-gamer-the-inspirational-story-of-keith-aieron-knight/
Ore, J. (2017, May 12). Students compete for scholarships at Cineplex’s college e-sports tournament in Toronto. Retrieved from CBC: http://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/college-esports-toronto-cineplex-1.4111211
Rosen, D. (2017, April 21). The EU LCS has a problem: EU viewership is stagnating while NA booms. Retrieved from The Score Esports: https://www.thescoreesports.com/lol/news/13877-the-eu-lcs-has-a-problem-eu-viewership-is-stagnating-while-na-booms
Rowe, D., & Hutchins, B. (2014). Globalization and online audiences. Communications and Media Studies, 39-68.
Seo, Y. (2016). Professional consumption and identity transformations in the field of eSports. Journal of Business Research, 69(1), 264-272.
Tassl, P. (2013, September 16). Riot Games Reveals ‘League of Legends’ Has 100 Million Monthly Players. Retrieved from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2016/09/13/riot-games-reveals-league-of-legends-has-100-million-monthly-players/#36bd8a885aa8
Teegarden, A. (2018, February 14). Golden State Warriors look to dominate video gaming. Retrieved from The Pioneer: http://thepioneeronline.com/35702/features/golden-state-warriors-look-to-dominate-video-gaming/
Van Allen, E., & Myers, M. (2017, December 14). The State of Esports in 2017. Retrieved from Kotaku: https://compete.kotaku.com/the-state-of-esports-in-2017-1821304905
van Hilvoorde, I., & Pot, N. (2016). Embodiment and fundamental motor skills in eSports. Sports, Ethics and Philosophy, 14-27.
Jordan – E102