League of Legends, with its upwards-of-67-million-players-a-month, is a phenomenon. As an esport it garners hundreds of millions of hours of viewer time, packs out arenas and has made its way onto mainsteam channels like the BBC and ESPN. But to the casual viewer it's also an incredibly difficult game to decode. 10 champions out of a possible 128 run around the map, killing minions, monsters, structures and each other, throwing out colourful abilities and colliding with each other in a flurry of swords and spells.
To a neophyte spectator it's too much information to handle, the commentators only adding to the chaos with their indecipherable terminology. “His control of the minion wave allowed a fast rotation, using TP to tower dive bot-lane and secure control over the dragon.” they might cry as your brain hopelessly tries to make sense of their word-vomit. (The same sentence making perfect sense to anyone familiar with the game or genre.)
This primer hopes to share with you a few of LoL's greatest eSports moments and most spectacular plays in an effort to help the casual or unfamiliar understand exactly why this cartoonish lane pusher is so popular. This is why we watch:
In League of Legends the goal of the game is to destroy the enemy team's Nexus – the hub of their base. This simple objective is often obfuscated by all the skirmishing and the grouping around other objectives as they try to give themselves the advantage. But at the end of the game destroying the Nexus is the only thing that matters.
'The xPeke' saw erstwhile Fnatic mid-laner xPeke playing as the Rift-walking mage Kassadin. He limps into the base of rivals SK Gaming with just a sliver of health after a drawn out back and forth battle and with SK bearing down on the Fnatic base. His teammates are either dead or desperately defending, but xPeke? xPeke attacks the SK Nexus while dodging the thrown axes of Kev1n's helpless berserker Olaf. xPeke teleports Kassadin from side to side with perfect timing, chipping away at the Nexus' health and finally destroying it split seconds before he would have been obliterated himself.
Afterwards his team-mates erupt and charge at him in congratulation, with commentator Joe Miller describing it as the "best best best thing I have seen in the entire history of League of Legends".
It's a play that seems so obvious now, but was a moment of pure inspiration to viewers in 2013. xPeke showed that you don't have to beat your opponent to death, you just have to beat them.
Korean jungler inSec is currently a player in the last-chance saloon, a substitute for Chinese team Royal Never Give Up. It's possible that he'll never again start a professional match (and perhaps defy his team's bold name by giving up). But whatever happens in the future, his legend has already been written thanks to a moment of stylish genius.
inSec is renowned using the Blind Monk Lee Sin's abilities in an inventive and supremely flashy way. Using Lee's two-stage Q ability he marks and dashes towards a valuable enemy target, quickly placing a vision ward behind them (in mid flight), then using his W ability to dash to the ward (still in mid-flight) before his follow-up kick connects. This all happens in less than a second.
From there inSec uses Lee Sin's ultimate Dragon Kick to propel the helpless champion backwards towards his own team leaving the enemies allies powerless to help. It's an incredible clutch play that requires quick fingers and a quick mind to execute and can be a spectacular game-changer when pulled off correctly. You might need to watch a couple of times to see how all the different bits happen.
Be warned that fumbled attempts to replicate this play may receive a less-than-forgiving response from fellow players...
The soul-collecting support champion Thresh has the ability to fire out a hook with a small wind-up animation that high-level players will dodge with ease when aimed directly at them. Instead, to land the skill you need to predict the movement of your enemy.
There are few better at this than Korean support player Madlife, whose powers of prediction border on psychic, lending a powerful mind-game aspect to his use of the hook. It doesn't seem to matter if his opponent has their flash ability up (a short range teleport spell that is independent of which champion they're using). He will predict it, he will hook you and you will die.
Madlife the player is also demonstrative of a bigger trend in League of Legends – the play-making support. In some minds the support player's job is to babysit the team's AD Carry through the early-game, provide vision for their team and throw out shields, heals and stuns during team fights. You'll likely have encountered that mentality a lot if you play support yourself.
Far more entertaining to watch are the supports who make daring initiations, throwing themselves into the enemy team and locking them down for their damage-minded comrades to pick off at whim.
Supports can be the most the most conservative and tactically minded players on a team, or the ones capable of split-second decision-making and perfect accuracy.
The Baron steal
Let's talk about the Baron. Baron Nashor is a giant space-worm who for some reason has been granted a rather grandiose title. He's also the source of the most powerful buff in League of Legends - kill him and your chances of winning can skyrocket.
Killing him takes a concerted team effort and is easily interrupted by your opposition. Key to securing the all-important buff is an ability that junglers take called Smite. Smite lets you execute the ignoble Nasher with a final powerful burst of damage ensuring the buff isn't stolen away from your team. At least in theory.
In practice the enemy jungler can sneak into the Baron's pit and steal the kill away with their own Smite. Occasionally the timing goes wrong and then things get interesting. There are also a whole host of character abilities which lend themselves to steals. The video above has a champion called Corki getting that all-important killing blow for the red team thanks to a souped-up missile called the Big One.
Professional League of Legends has seen sublime steals and ludicrous accidents at Baron, with casually tossed out abilities that do minimal damage earning the kill credit and flipping the momentum from one team to the other, while casters and fans alike lose their minds.
Zed Vs Zed
In Korean regional play the best of five format has a fun twist. If a series between two teams goes all the way to the final game, then that game is played as blind pick – players can no longer see which champions their opposition is playing. This can sometimes result in a mirror match-up where two players choose the same champion.
This is what happened in 2013 when SKT's Faker met KT Rolster Bullets' Ryu in the OGN Summer Grand Final. Both picked the shadow swapping ninja Zed.
Here's the slow-mo version because watching it on full speed makes unpicking it so hard:
The resulting play is a mechanical masterpiece, as Faker destroys Ryu, rapidly swapping between shadows and humiliating his far healthier foe before walking away with a swagger.
To explain what happens in more detail (although there are some auto attacks and item usages we've left out to make this easier to follow) here's Pip's description. It runs approximately as follows:
Faker is on low health, taking turret shots and Ryu's auto-attacks as well as suffering from the effects of a damage over time spell Ryu has added to his kit called Ignite.
Faker then uses an ability called Death Mark. Death Mark makes Zed briefly untargettable and has him dash to his target who is then marked. Death Mark also causes a shadow version of Zed to appear at his initial location and Zed can switch positions with it if he wants. It's a neat getting-out-of-trouble option. After 3 seconds the mark on the target will detonate. If you do damage to the target during that 3 second window a portion of that is added to the detonation damage.
So Faker uses his Death Mark on Ryu and Ryu does the same on Faker. Faker switches to his shadow self to move away from his opponent but Faker should be dead, right? He's marked for death, he's on super low health and that Ignite damage is ticking away. Except he uses an item called a Quicksilver Sash and cleanses both effects. Ryu jumps away by swapping to his own shadow but is hit by a shuriken that Faker tosses out and starts taking damage from Faker's own Ignite spell.
Faker then uses Flash (that short-range teleport we mentioned earlier) and adds a bit of distance between himself and Ryu. Ryu uses his own Flash to keep up. The Death Mark detonates on Ryu bringing him to the brink of death. Faker then uses Zed's Living Shadow ability to reposition himself and hits Shadow Slash. A shadow version of Faker's Zed which is now next to Ryu mimics the ability and thus deals the final blow.
This play is also the moment that cemented Faker's place in the LoL pantheon, the birth of a superstar. A young man who can literally somersault his way onto the stage at the biggest esports event in the world.