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An Outsider's Critique Of LoL Esports' Biggest Stage

Growing Pains

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I came, I saw, someone else conquered. Last weekend, I attended League of Legends’ Championship Series finals, which – in an undeniably historic moment for eSports – were held in Los Angeles’ Staples Center, a venue that’s played host to thousands upon thousands of fans through countless professional basketball games, boxing matches, and hockey games. Also, er, WWE Summerslams. League has, in other words, entered The Big Leagues. Even the US government recognizes it as a sport, and it is a body literally incapable of agreeing on anything else. But, as Korea’s SK Telecom T1 absolutely shut out China’s Royal Club, I bore witness to both glorious, beautiful triumphs and worrisome failings. I’m no League of Legends eSports expert, but perhaps that enables me even more to say this much: the sport still has a lot of important growing to do. Here’s what I saw.

Blue and white lights are flashing everywhere, like the sky is actually falling. And honestly, the ceiling’s so high that I’d probably believe someone if they told me there was a cloud or two up there. It’d also conveniently explain where the endless rain of silver confetti is coming from.

It’s the end of the LCS finals, and the Staples Center has exploded. OK, not literally, but it certainly looks like the sight of some kind of combustion. Sounds like it, too. Shouts, whoops, screams, whistles, bellows, thunderous applause – it’s all swirling together in adoration of five young men in matching red shirts, the oldest of whom is a mere 22 years-old. Together, SK Telecom T1 teammates Impact, Bengi, Faker, Piglet, and PoohManDu heft a gleaming silver cup over their heads, arms nearly straining under the weight. But then, I suppose that’s kind of fitting. After all, they’ve just won $1,000,000.

It’s a larger-than-life moment. I stand in awe – of the scene, of the spectacle, of some kids who are really, really good at a videogame.

——

I pace back-and-forth in my hotel room. It’s day one of Riot’s pre-LCS promotional build-up, and I honestly have no idea how I’m going to cover this thing. I’m what could charitably be called a LoL beginner, and eSports is so far outside my the upper stratospheres of my knowledge that I think I say it make a brief cameo in the film Gravity. I have some ideas, but not the foreknowledge or means to execute them in the moment. That makes me upset. I chew on a bagel spitefully, imagining myself as a vengeful Godzilla wreaking havoc on a donut shop.

Before long, I’m ushered onto a bus. Its wheels go ’round and ’round, all through the town until we arrive at Staples for a press briefing. It’s held in a decadent yet compact auditorium that doubles as a bar, a place where business and entertainment have locked horns many times before. Every conceivable surface is wood paneled. Basketball memorabilia dots the walls. There are chairs and a stage. This can mean only one thing.

Games journalist dunk contest. No, wait, the other thing: press conference.

Riot VP of eSports Dustin Beck takes the stage with a mixture of bravado, marketing speak, and sincere excitement. Despite that, most of the conference is snooze-worthy – a potent NyQuil cocktail of “Here’s what’s happened so far this season, described as simply and dryly as possible” and “WE ARE SUCCESSFUL THIS PLACE IS BIG I MET A BASKETBALL ONCE.” But other bits are worth chewing on, like a contemplative Godzilla wreaking havoc on a donut shop. The Riot presenters queue up a couple absurdly well-produced documentary-style videos of young pros’ stories. Their lives, their passions, their dreams, their ambitions. How incredible, unprecedented fame has altered the way other kids treat them at school.

This game changes lives, in big ways and small. It is legitimately a new sport, contested in an arena far removed from grassy fields or rot-infested school gymnasiums. Kids are starting to grow up with it.

I think back to the way martial arts steadied my life – gave me goals, friends, drive, a family, an identity where once I was just confused and depressed. I remember competing in tournaments, being encouraged by coaches and peers, learning to tear myself down in order to rebuild, to be better. I become excited by the potential of this nascent form of competition and teamwork, this place of expression where kids can clean off the garbage life throws at them and just do something pure for a little while. Whether they aspire to a career on Riot’s official pro roster or are just looking for a way to enjoy themselves and make new friends, there’s potential here. Huge potential. For growth, for lessons, for human relationships, for fun. And this sport is already highly multinational. There are opportunities to bridge cultural borders on a very personal level. LoL is – whether by design, fortuitous happenstance, or a mix of both – in a very rare, special place.

And then I wonder if Riot thinks about any of this when it devises strategies and systems to make its community less awful – and further, when it takes the reins on propagating its own professional scene. And I really, desperately hope it does, as opposed to simply thinking of all this as a giant promotional tool. Because growing up on the Internet is, frankly, a horrifying prospect. Humans aren’t made for it – for the disconnect, the lack of faces and feelings and empathy. It makes us monsters. We need all the help we can get.

——

A couple friends and I are walking through the chaotic, jam-packed halls of the Staples Center on LCS night. It’s mere moments before what will – in all likelihood – be the last match of the season. The air is electric. People stream past copious concession stands, talking and gesturing animatedly. Many of them wear silly hats, because sporting events are, by nature, this glorious nexus point between teeth-grinding seriousness and the side of Halloween that leads to rampant deletion of Facebook accounts.

And then I see a horde of people, teeming and squirming like ants on a fallen cupcake. Pointing toward the center of the crowd, one of my friends finds the source of the madness. “That’s Day[9],” he says, almost whispering. The eSports mega-personality shakes hands, signs pictures, and gives hugs. In his wake, young fans come away very nearly in shock. “That. Was. So. Awesome,” one young man says to a band of friends, biting his words as though they’ll come rampaging out otherwise. So many excited, awe-struck people.

They’re just happy. Passionate. Loving the moment. Nothing like the dreaded stereotypical LoL fans you hear about online. Granted, that reputation is blown out of proportion anyway, but it’s still quite the sight. This thing has brought people together, let them talk and cheer and shout together. In-person. The barriers are down. People are just being people.

It’s an interesting moment, too, because Day[9]’s just roaming around, like any other attendee. He’s not flanked by an entourage or anything of the sort, despite being a bonafide celebrity in this environment. It speaks, I think, to the background of eSports – and how close to that background competitors and fans still are. The culture emerged from people competing in modest venues and sharing videos online, often via rudimentary tools in their own homes. In theory, the doors have always been open to all, or at least more so than in other sports. No need for college scholarships or prestigious backgrounds or political mumbo-jumbo. Just passion and skill.

These homegrown stars would (and still do), in turn, stream and produce other content that interacts directly with their fans. It makes the proceedings so much warmer, so much more personal. The Internet can bring out the worst in a game, but it can also make it better. Perhaps it can even build a new, better type of professional sport – something that treats everyone like people, fame and fortune or not.

Maybe. Or it can just become like all the others.

——

I don’t know what to make of the LCS opening ceremonies, and I get the impression that I’m not alone. A man, who I’m told is Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland, struts across the stage painted ghostly white from head-to-toe. He’s backed by a floppy haired drummer, a scantily clad female cellist, and – oh yeah – a full orchestra. Then a platform arises in the center of the stage, and The Crystal Method emerges, rocking out on synths and keyboards. All the while, lasers dart and dance, slicing through the dark blue hue of the stadium with Jedi-like finesse.

Admittedly, the orchestral rocktronica mega-ensemble is playing familiar League of Legends tunes, but it all just feels so… overblown. Like a cry for attention, an impassioned plea for legitimacy. And honestly, what is renting out the Staples Center for a videogame if not that, right on the money? I mean, why else would you play videogames in a place designed to house people throwing balls in hoops or punching each other in the face? But ultimately, I can’t fault Riot and its fans for enjoying their giant celebration, even if elements of it don’t make a lot of sense. They’ve earned this.

Still, I can’t help but find the moment a bit odd. On one side, you have League of Legends and its bouncing baby pro scene, a thing weened on fan support, community, and old-fashioned, down-to-earth humanity. But on the other, here’s this insane spectacle, this deafening cannon-blast of imagery and sound that wants me to believe – for this single moment, if nothing else – that these players and their game are bigger than me, bigger than other fans, bigger than anyone. And caught in the middle, you have the sport itself with an identity that’s still practically embryonic. Will it stay small and personable, or will a surge in growth propel it into a series of walled gardens – pens of athletic supremacy where mere mortals dare not tread? Will the Internet, YouTube, streams, Reddit AMAs, and things of the like allow it to straddle the line between both? And will it ever infiltrate the airwaves of John Q Public, or will League of Legends diehards keep it in their clutches until the whole scene peaks?

LoL eSports is in uncharted territory, and there is no “right” answer. Only hindsight will decide that.

——

The lights are bright – nearly blinding – as I thrust a microphone in front of Riot VP of eSports Dustin Beck. We’re in a bowling alley for some reason – or at least a bar/dining establishment that’s got strong bowling alley genes on its mother’s side because, let’s face it, Riot has too much money. I dive right into my concerns. The sport’s become massively successful – quite obviously, and you can’t argue with results – but it’s still nigh-impenetrable for all but a very specific subset of people. Meanwhile, Riot, the company that makes the game, has a stranglehold on the highest echelon of competition, potentially snuffing out legitimacy of third-party leagues that might want to cross over to wider audiences. At least, in North America, where they focus their efforts.

Beck replies that Riot’s taken big strides in professionalizing LoL eSports – making it more like a traditional “sport.” Now there are regularly scheduled programs, analyst desks, shoutcasters who’ve undergone rigorous training, and the like. When pressed, however, he concedes that at the moment Riot’s eSports focus will remain on preexisting fans of the game. Players. The goal is not to turn this into a far-reaching spectator sport. Not yet.

There is, admittedly, an appeal there. For those who are already in-the-know, they don’t have to fear dilution or the “dumbed down” approach it might bring. But, though LoL’s player base is truly gigantic, it also caps the sport’s growth, which is a shame.

Later, watching the finals unfold with a couple equally inexperienced friends, I can’t help but feel that a few simple tweaks would have me migrating to the frigid northern reaches of my seat far more often. As an avid (and unabashed) fan of mixed martial arts, I’ve clocked plenty of hours watching a sport with elements that initially make no sense to the masses. Ground fighting just looks like sweaty men laying on each other to those who’ve never, themselves, been twisted into a human pretzel, but good commentating can demystify even the highest levels of strategy. Better still, it can make them thrilling.

It’s just a matter of asking the right questions at the right times – playing dumb for the benefit of the audience – or replacing some jargon with language that’s more easily parsed. Not even all of it. Context will do the rest. People are smart. They’ll learn, and they’ll even enjoy doing it. They just need a little push sometimes.

——

People. That’s the point Beck proudly hammers home while on stage during the pre-LCS press conference. Riot wants to emphasize players and their stories, because ultimately that’s what makes sports interesting. I can’t disagree with him on that, and I can’t complain either. Certainly makes for better reading than a dry-to-the-point-of-crumbling match recap, anyway. And if there’s any way to make people care, it’s giving them something they can personally relate to.

Everyone’s got at least one interesting story in them, I figure.

——

“Yeah, a lot of eSports professionals retire when they’re, like, 24,” a journo friend tells me, idly, as he’s giving me an overview of the pro scene. “Slowing reflexes and all that.”

——

Tabe is 22. As the lights flash and the confetti rains, the curtains also close on his pro career. The fan-favorite Royal Club support planned this. Win or lose, he was going to do two things: 1) retire and 2) propose to his girlfriend. The shoutcasters briefly acknowledge the end of the ever-warm, famously personable player’s life as a pro, but their comments are quickly swallowed up by the sounds of SK Telecom T1’s celebration. I can’t help but wonder if Tabe finds the moment bittersweet.

The professional eSports scene is still young, but its players can’t stay that way forever. So what comes after? When you’ve eschewed job hunting and maybe even a college degree to master a videogame, where do you go when the game stops footing your bills?

——

My arm is getting tired from holding the microphone in front of Beck’s face, and the searing lights are causing sweat to pool beneath my ill-advised blazer. But still I persist, despite facing probably the greatest adversity any journalist has ever experienced. I remember what my friend said about pros retiring young, and I ask if Riot what kind of role it plans to play in all of this. After all, these players do help promote LoL in a very big way. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Riot at least owes them something. Beck replies that there’s always the possibility of a commentator or analyst gig, provided someone’s got the English-speaking skills and charisma to handle it. So there is my something.

But as the sport grows and more players begin to reach the twilight phases of their careers, that inevitably won’t be enough. Coaching is also an option, but it’s still early days on all this, and old pros (who happen to, in the grand scheme of things, be young kids) have some difficult questions ahead of them.

——

Tabe is about to leave for the airport to catch his plane back to China, but he decides to run a Reddit AMA. Fans flock with supportive messages, but also questions. Big questions. Why’d Royal Club lose so badly? Was SKT really just that much better? And what’s Tabe gonna do now? What does life after pro LoL even look like?

Tabe is, as ever, friendly and optimistic. He jokes with his crowd of e-admirers, noting that he can’t propose to his girlfriend with his famed singing abilities because she already hears those too much. He offers advice. He praises SKT, adding that he really does think they’re the best in the world right now. “SKT just outclassed us! I don’t wanna keep playing in China. I will be a coach and do my casting thing to earn a living. But I love the experience in LA, I would love to come to work! I hope I have a chance:)”

Best of luck.

——

The confetti continues to rain. I was not aware humanity had produced this many squares of shiny plastic. I realize it’s less of a rain and more of a blizzard.

All five members of SKT are ushered offstage, down to the Staples Center’s locker room area, and the crowd starts clearing out. It’s oddly quiet for a colossal stadium that still contains thousands of people.

It’s nice, though. It’s a good view. I am overlooking the primordial ooze of a sport that’s only just now really taking off. I wonder what I’ll look down and see next year.

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