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While League of Legends was still in its infancy, the mod that spawned it, DotA, already had a healthy player base and competitive scene. But it wouldn’t be long before League of Legends came into its own, eventually becoming a genre-defining video game with over 100 million active monthly users that would go on to solidify eSports as an eye-grabbing worldwide phenomenon with championships that outclass the viewership of some of the world’s most popular traditional sporting events. League of Legends set the pace not just for MOBA eSports, but for eSports in general, helping it blossom into an international sensation. 

eSports, A History

Although prize pools can climb into the millions now, eSports had humble beginnings in 1972, with the prize for the first gaming competition being a year subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. The early ’80s saw the first televised eSports with the TV show Starcade, pitting players of arcade games against each other in a quest to get the highest scores. It wasn’t until the ‘90s that players competing with each other directly started gaining widescale popularity, rather than players competing through score comparisons, with games like Streetfighter II and Marvel vs Capcom. These games spawned the Evolution Championship Series, which continues to host fighter eSports tournaments to this day, starting in 1996. Nintendo even got in on the action in the ‘90s with their Nintendo World Championships, and the availability of internet connectivity helped games like Quake and Counter-Strike soar in competitive popularity. In South Korea eSports once again gained televised popularity with games in the Starcraft and Warcraft series. And in the USA eSports and traditional sporting coverage converged with Madden NFL tournaments being broadcast on ESPN. Even CBS got in on the action with their 2006 coverage of the World Series of Video Games held in Louisville Kentucky. And yet, all of this is a drop in the bucket compared to how far eSports would go after League of Legends arrived on the scene. 

The New Kid on the Block

When it launched in 2009 as a free-to-play game, no one could have anticipated the popularity it would garner over the next decade. The idea of a DotA successor that was its own standalone game, rather than a mod, was not too radical given the original mod’s popularity. And with Riot bringing over former DotA talent to work on their new game, it was starting to seem like a recipe for success. After a few years in development, and half a year of closed beta, the game was finally ready to open up to a wider world in the latter part of 2009. With a free-to-play release, the MOBA elements that everyone loved from DotA, and a more refined, MOBA-only experience, it’s no wonder that the game took off. After just a few short years the game had already hooked tens of millions of players. 

Worlds

Once the LoL player-base and in-game meta had matured, Riot set their eyes on something big: The League of Legends World Championships had arrived. The first World Championship boasted a $100,000 prize pool. It might not seem like much compared to the prize pool of more recent tournaments, but for the time it was relatively unprecedented, certainly a far cry from a magazine subscription grand prize.  

The first World Championships were held at Dreamhack 2011 in Sweden. Half of the whole prize pool, $50,000 went to the winners, Fnatic, the EU team who beat out the competition. The tournament was watched by over 1.6 million fans. And this was just the beginning. 

The following season saw a whopping $1,000,000 prize awarded to the top team, Taipei Assassins, in a tournament watched by over 8 million viewers. By season four the viewership had more than tripled, and the World Championships were attracting big acts as Imagine Dragons performed live. By season 6 the top prize had reached almost $2.7, and viewership was at an all-time high with 43 million viewers. And by season 8 there were almost 100 million viewers. 

To put this in perspective, major traditional sports broadcasts garnered far fewer viewers. For example, the Kentucky Derby only saw 15 million viewers and peak broadcast times of Wimbledon, the Daytona 500, the U.S. Open and the Tour de France not even reaching 10 million viewers. 

The Rest of the World

eSports now have incredible popularity. Platforms like Twitch make it easy to view your favorite players, and it seems like every new major game that comes out has to leave some room, in terms of content and balancing, for the competitive scene. If there’s a game out there that people enjoy playing, it’s a good bet that there are people out there who enjoy watching others play it.

There has even been some attempts made to eliminate the distinction between eSports and traditional sports, both officially and in terms of mass opinion. And in 2017 the International Olympic Committee acknowledged the growing popularity of eSports saying that “Competitive ‘esports’ could be considered as a sporting activity, and the players involved prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports.” And there’s even talk of the 2024 Olympics featuring eSports in some way. As yet they have ruled out eSports in terms of medal events at this time, but aren’t closed off to the idea of eSports having some sort of involvement. 

And just a decade ago people would have thought very little of eSports, and gaming competitions would have brought to mind a Halo LAN party or a hotel conference hall filled to the brim with Super Smash Brothers players, rather than million-dollar events attracting huge advertizers, live crowds, and worldwide viewership. Without League of Legends, it’s certain that eSports wouldn’t be where they are today. LoL played an instrumental role in introducing not just eSports, but videogame viewership to a mainstream audience. It may have taken off from there, but League of Legends remains a mainstay of the eSports scene it helped spawn.

Posted September 29, 2019

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