South Korea’s World Cup Stadium is hosting the biggest sporting event you’ve never heard of this Sunday — the World Championship for the video game League of Legends.
It’s the fourth such competitive season for League, and viewership has been skyrocketing — last year’s championship game attracted more viewers than the last game of the NBA finals.
And the game’s developer, Riot Games, has gone out of its way to make sure this year’s Worlds is a spectacle to behold: lavish venues, professional commentators, and over $2 million in prizes.
But when the games all look a little like this…
CASTER: “The slow on San — is it going to be enough? They have no vision. Good catch there with the Void Spikes — getting caught by the Howling Gale! He’s going to get taken low, I don’t think it’s enough! Uzi hooked in!”
It can be tough to figure out exactly what’s going on. Here’s a brief primer on what a game of League looks like.
League of Legends starts with two teams of five players on an equal playing field, with three lanes of defensive turrets and a steady stream of minions guarding two central bases. Players work together to build up their strength, wear down the other team’s defenses, and destroy their opponent’s base.
Basically, both teams are fighting for an edge — a small advantage can easily snowball into game-winning momentum. There are lots of complicated ways to earn that edge, but you can get a basic idea of who’s ahead by looking at the top scoreboard, which tracks players killed, gold earned, and towers destroyed for each team. Whoever’s got the higher numbers is probably ahead.
This year, the two top teams competing for the grand prize are South Korea’s Samsung White and China’s Star Horn Royal Club.
Samsung White looks like the heavy favorites coming into the tournament — they swept their brother team, Samsung Blue 3-0, in the semi-final games in a dominating performance. (Video via ESPN)
But Royal Club’s close 3-2 semifinal victory over OMG showed how effective their aggressive style can be. It’ll be up to powerful playmakers inSec and Uzi to punch a hole through White’s flawless teamwork.
League of Legends is only the latest video game to take up the mantle of “esports” — digital competitions from Starcraft to Street Fighter to Call of Duty have been steadily growing in acceptance and popularity.
A recent Mashable report noted pro gaming has become a more and more profitable field — the highest-paid pro, Hao, has earned over $1 million this year alone.
And Worlds faces stiff competition from a similar game, Valve's Dota 2 — its International tournament gave out $10 million in prizes several months ago.
But according to a recent profile in The New York Times, Riot and League are leading the pack, with almost eight times the players of Dota 2 and an expected $1 billion in revenue.
That’s a lot of money for a game that’s free to play — even the big tournaments end up being money losers for Riot. The company makes its profits through millions of tiny purchases from players — mostly in-game cosmetic items.
The Finals take place Oct. 19 in South Korea, at 3:00 a.m. EST. Of course, if you don’t want to stay up that late, replays will be available on YouTube and Twitch.tv.