League of Legends eSports: Focus On the Human Factor (from 2013)

Mar 22, 2016 by

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A piece from 2013 blending commentary and an interview I conducted at E3 about the changes to League of Legends’ League Championship Series (LCS), and how those changes emphasize the human factor, and represent a reliable, relatable new system that intended to further focus global regional competition on the fans. Originally published on RTSGuru.com in 2013 (but freshly edited).

For League of Legends, it’s showtime again. The League Championship Series started up again last week. The day before competition began once more for the first time since LoL All-Stars in Shanghai in May, I was at E3 and got to chat with Whalen “Magus” Rozelle, the Senior eSports Manager at Riot, about how Season 3 is different than previous championship years, and some of the philosophies behind those changes, as eSports grows along with its potential.

It’s about telling stories.

Riot went back to the drawing board and made some significant changes for Season 3, including the structure of the championships, but with an eye ahead on growth and a format that could do a couple of key things – grow with the game and audience, as well as work with a global model. With LoL the most played online game in the world right now, getting things to work on that massive scale has to appeal to a lot of people, and ultimately, the structure of what Riot is doing relies on the human factor. That means not just investing in global infrastructure for tournaments but appealing to many of the factors that bring people to watch physical sports, with emphasis on people’s interest in other people’s stories.

Season 3 also brought a few stabilizing factors. Teams going pro is a reality now, and those teams need an income and more are looking at living together.  Riot helped with “a formal structure with established teams – the pro teams—making sure those teams had a stable income  so those teams could focus on being the best pros they could be,” as well as creating a competitive structure that would allow new teams to come onto the scene and develop. “And we already see this in the structure in Korea and Southeast Asia with the GPL and  the League of Legends Pro League coming out in China.”

Ultimately, though, it’s all about the people. Both the audience and the competitors.

“[What] we wanted to do is to focus on storytelling broadcast narrative, and really delivering a viewing experience more akin to traditional sports. Like your college game day or a Monday Night Football.” So the new structure is predictable, and there’s a familiarity to returning to watch each week.“We want to create a league worthy of planning your time around, ” hence drawing from many aspects of physical sports as well as sports broadcasts. “If you’re an eSports fan, we want you to go ‘Well, I know what I’m doing on Thursdays and Fridays because the LCS is on.” The numbers on streams show that this is indeed working, and the creation of the LoLeSports.com website has also helped connect fans.

They’ve gone ahead to produce packages and a reliable format.  As someone who has been watching sports ever since she was a little girl, they are creating a similar environment, even though the competition is in a completely different space. They’ve hired feature producers that have worked on Olympics clips and NFL and know how to convey this kind of narrative when it comes to a sports audience.

Aside from a predictable schedule with segments, the real heart is on the people. Team spirit is great, but it’s only one piece of that narrative. “Telling these stories that eSports fans can connect and latch onto” in other words. The audience might not be as good as the pros, but by highlighting the stories and that human factor, everyone can find something to relate to. Rozelle gave an example of the Chaox and WildTurtle stories when it came to TSM duing the spring.

They have been doing this also to bring a more relatable experience to eSports and hopefully get those casual fans or those just curious who might be inclined to watch or play to give it a shot. By focusing on who these players are and what their goals, dreams, conflicts, and even training methods are, it creates an entry point for observers, both new and seasoned.

One of the best stories out of the Spring was how some of these newer teams were able to rise and gain confidence. Teams like Vulcun and GGU (now Team Coast),  and watching them grow as the season progressed. On the esports site, the polls under each match would shift throughout the season. You’d start with new teams hitting maybe 20% in their favor and all these lopsided votes, where by the end of the spring you’d see more leveling out as these teams were able to make their way in the competition as well as gain lots of new fans. Now, these teams have fans backing them and some new faces are coming up once again. It just shows the dedication and growth that can happen in this system.

The system is working, as the attention over spring showed, but they still want to go bigger and better. They’re pretty happy with how they’ve accomplished their goals so far but there’s still more work to do as well as more tweaks and more to come on the way.

With the arrival of summer competition, the news of the World Championships location and dates are coming this month. Competition heats up since it’s not just about getting into and staying in the LCS (though there are definitely new faces this season), but about looking further out toward a championship.

And once those details are released, both fans and players will still be focused on Summer, but there’s no doubt mentally, that both will be peeking past and wondering who will be taking it all. And thanks to the new system, we probably know the players involved just a little bit better, even if we have been following for a couple of years.

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With eSports’ Undeniable Global Reach, Employment Visas Open a New Debate (From 2013)

Mar 9, 2016 by

Photo I took at the League of Legends Worlds final. 2013.

This was originally published at RTSGuru.com in the summer of 2013. It contains some references to interviews I conducted at E3 about how Riot actively tried, with growing regional competition, to reflect the global scale of the audience, and to create more moments that would resonate with those watching.

Last week’s announcement of the location for the upcoming League of Legends World Championships was followed by the news that the US government was now issuing visas for visiting international players to work in the country. This is important, since most of the players in the tournament will be from other lands, in addition to demonstrating that pro gaming is making its mark. The topic of visas has sparked much debate outside of the pro-gaming community since it broke. Yet, this is a natural step for a worldwide competition that has an $8 million global pool and 14 teams participating, eleven from outside North America. Let’s also not forget that several players on North American teams are Canadian.

The international nature of the competition is no accident. In North America, eSports has been growing in both recognition and audience for some time. It’s not limited to League of Legends, either. MLG has been around for over a decade, but it’s only in the past couple of years that audiences have truly blown up and bigger deals struck. Whereas maybe a few years ago, you might have seen the rockstar treatment for pro gamers in places like Korea, but now we’re seeing it over here in North America. Like anything else, this did not happen overnight.

Yet some question why pro gamers and not say, students, are getting special visa permission to work in the country. And the current debates over immigration in general have caused some negative reactions to this news among general populations. If eSports is going to continue with its growth, the general population is the potential audience since those of us actively watching, playing, and discussing these issues are already in the net. We’ve been caught and trawled in. It’s those guys you have to convince, eSports event organizers.

That’s another good reason for choosing The Staples Center to hold the event. At E3, I spoke to Riot’s Whalen Rozelle (Magus) about how their goal has been to create a global series that is centered around not just competition, but around relatable moments. Little did I know that not far away was the destination LoL fans would be centering their attention upon in the fall. Trying to extend that relatability is one of the goals and moving to a well-known sports arena is about as big of an arrival as you can get here in this country. Making the mainstream news for the location and the visa issue don’t hurt either, despite the debate.

I’ve seen several people making the case for the visas by defending people like pro poker and billiards players, whose particular competitions are less physical and involve more mental skill. Yet, even pro gamers are subject to physical limitations, as well as changes to the game’s meta. Those changes happen frequently, and keeping up is part of the challenge. I’ve seen some question what pro players contribute to society such that they deserve visas over students or scientists. But it’s not a question of ‘instead of’, it’s a matter of this category being open and these competitions rising to a level where their international nature requires this to happen.

To be fair, people argue that highly-paid basketball players contribute less than teachers and argue about relative pay often. But part of the reason behind questioning the visa grants for LoL players is, let’s face it, the lingering perception of gaming as lazy, immature, and as ‘just’ playtime. That’s one of the next hurdles to overcome when it comes to the mainstream audience. Yet that is a problem that remains for gaming in general. With surveys consistently returning information that the average gamer is well into adulthood, there’s still a disconnect between perception and reality among some.

To bring this back around to the selection of the Staples Center, the fact this is an arena that has seen mainstream physical sports championships is no accident. Bringing the eyes of millions worldwide to the arena in October might seem like a huge thing in itself, yet it’s really a beginning.

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