London’s Wembley Arena is best-known as one of the city’s biggest venues for sports and entertainment – it hosted events during the 2012 Olympics, and Bryan Adams and Lenny Kravitz will both play there later this year – but recently it was filled by esports (electronic sports) fans. 10,000 turned out at the end of June to watch the first major League of Legends event to be held in the UK, the League Championship Series or LCS. It’s a tournament between top teams in the videogame League of Legends, the most played video game in the world, with only slightly fewer active players than Xbox Live. It regularly has twice as many concurrent players as other major online titles such as Modern Warfare 3. The purpose of the game is simple; two teams of five players, represented by “Champions,” compete to destroy the other team’s “Nexus,” or base. Mastering the game is harder, and communication with your teammates is just as important as technical game-playing ability.
Esports are growing rapidly, and there have been two important recent developments. Firstly, the US government has recognised esports players as athletes, allowing greater access to visas and permitting an easier influx of esports talent into the US. Secondly, Robert Morris University has made the decision to offer college scholarships for League of Legends players, and these have precipitated discussions on American programs such as The View or Live with Kelly and Michael, as well as prompting mainstream news coverage.
People outside the esports world can struggle to comprehend the appeal of esports to spectators, which has been a large part of the scene’s growth. Why do people watch others play video games? Part of the reason is that esports has many similarities to other sports; the famous players, the ability to play the game yourself and the thrill of being in a crowd. Another contribution is the presence of commentators (or the “casters,” as they are known in the esports scene). While more traditional sports have commentators, esports casters are as well-known as the players themselves (or more so), and will often go out with the players to sign autographs and pictures, and are able to interact with the crowd to a far greater extent due to the way the stadium is set up.
The Copenhagen Wolves team hang out with fans outside the Wembley Arena.
Esports is also expanding its geographical range. Traditionally, Korea has been at its centre, with Western players travelling to Korea to compete. League of Legends turned this on its head – the Korean scene grew after both the European and American scenes, and while this has not stopped its rise to prominence (it is currently regarded as the dominant region), growth in other regions has also been rapid. Turkey, Australia, South East Asia, Japan, China, Brazil have seen growth in their respective esports scenes, China in particular. Korean players are also moving away from Korea, as seen in this map from Paravine. This inverts previous patterns, and suggests increasing interest in E-Sports globally. While it still has a long way to go to match major mainstream sports, it will certainly grow into a large niche market. However, if esports does continue to grow at this rate, we might even see esports events moving into the 100,000 seater Wembley Stadium, just next door.
Peter Curry plays League of Legends, but not professionally. The images, by Peter Curry, are published here under a Creative Commons licence. This post has also been published on Ogilvy Do.