We’ve all heard the argument a million times: eSports aren’t “real sports.” The sedentary act of playing video games, regardless of the strategic component involved, is incomparable to the physical activity of traditional sports. You can read my thoughts on the definition of a sport here, although honestly, the question of sport-hood is irrelevant- nothing is stopping the continued rise of competitive gaming. Detesters so brashly express their views because they see games as “stupid”, don’t fully grasp their complexity, or are unwilling to put in the effort required to climb the steep learning curve and understand a world so different to their idea of sports. However, from a structural standpoint, eSports exhibit many of the same attributes of these other sports. In fact, League of Legends, the king of eSports, has many concepts similar to mainstream sports, and soccer, the world’s most popular sport, in particular.
The international governing body of soccer is FIFA, and the League of Legends (LoL) equivalent is Riot Games, League’s developer and publisher. Both FIFA and Riot are responsible for organizing major tournaments, and each does so by dividing the world into a number of competitive regions. FIFA’s 211 national associations are divided into six confederations: the AFC for Asia, CAF for Africa, CONCACAF for North and Central America and the Caribbean, CONMEBOL for South America, OFC for Oceania, and UEFA for Europe. In League, there are five main regions in competitive play (North America, Europe, Korea, China, and Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau) which contain most of the best teams in the world. There are also seven smaller regions (Latin America, Brazil, CIS (mainly Russia/Ukraine), Oceania, Japan, Southeast Asia, and Turkey) which aren’t major players in the competitive scene.
The dream of every League of Legends team is to win the World Championships, an annual 16-team tournament comparable to the FIFA World Cup. In both tournaments, the field is made up of qualifiers from each region, with each region receiving a number of spots relative to the strength of teams within the region. For example, in the World Cup, Europe currently receives 13 guaranteed spots, while North America gets three, with the opportunity of a fourth through a playoff. The 2016 LoL World Championships were comprised of three teams from North America, Europe, Korea, and China, two from Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau, and two from a playoff of league winners from all the minor regions.
So what is the process of qualifying for Worlds? Every region has a main competitive league which operates in something called splits. While most team sports compete in a single season each year, with LoL, there are two seasons, called the Spring and Summer Splits. For example, let’s look at the North American League Challenger Series (NA LCS). Other leagues use a similar format with small changes.
10 teams compete in the NA LCS, and in both the Spring and Summer Splits, each team plays a double round-robin schedule for a total of 18 games. The matches are played over nine weeks, with each team playing on Saturday and Sunday during the Spring Split and twice between Friday and Sunday over the course of the Summer Split. For comparison, most soccer leagues in the world have adopted the double round-robin schedule, with teams playing once per week.
At the end of each split, the top six teams enter a playoff similar to that of an NFL conference. These teams then receive Circuit Points (CP) depending on their finishing position. The seventh place team earns no points but is allowed to remain in the NA LCS for the next split. The other three teams are then subjected to relegation procedures.
Following the Spring Splits, the 8th-10th place finishers in the NA LCS compete in a tournament with the top two finishers in the Spring Splits of the North American Challenger Series (NA CS), essentially a second league below the NA LCS. The top three finishers in the tournament move to the NA LCS Summer Splits, while the other two compete in the NA CS Summer Splits. After the Summer Splits, the 1st place NA CS team is promoted to the next year’s LCS while the 10th place LCS team is automatically relegated. The last two LCS teams are decided by matches between the LCS’ 8th and 9th place teams and the 2nd and 3rd place CS finishers.
The promotion and relegation system is used by many soccer league around the world, and several feature a playoff system to help determine promoted teams. For example, the bottom three teams from the English Premier League, the top level of the English football system, are relegated to the Football League Championship. Their replacements are the 1st and 2nd place Championship teams, and the victor of a tournament between the 3rd through 6th place finishers.
The winner of the Summer split is guaranteed a spot at the World Championships, as is the team with the next highest amount of CP. The third spot is decided in a playoff between the next four teams with the highest overall CP, known as the regional qualifiers or the gauntlet. The same rules go for the European LCS (EU LCS), Korean LCK, and Chinese LPL. The LMS for the Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau region awards spots to the Summer Split winner and then has a gauntlet of the next four teams with the greatest CP.
At Worlds, the 16 qualifying teams are split into for groups of four. After a double round-robin group stage, the top two teams from each group move on to the knockout stages. The FIFA World Cup is formatted very similarly, with eight groups of four playing round-robin with two advancing to a single-elimination tournament. Clearly, just in terms of how the leagues and tournaments are organized, there are many parallels between League of Legends and soccer.
However, the similarities don’t end there. One of the most impressive aspects of competitive League of Legends is its presentation. Both the NA LCS and EU LCS are organized by Riot Games themselves, while they sanction other leagues around the world. LCS matches are played live in Los Angeles and Berlin, in front of a paid audience. Riot has a large production team, including commentators, analysts, and reporters that give the same feel as watching a sport on television. Instead of television, though, every game is streamed live on multiple platforms such as Twitch, where streams regularly reach hundreds of thousands of viewers. According to Riot, the 2016 World Championship finals were viewed by 43 million people and 14.7 million simultaneously at its peak, far surpassing many sports including the Stanley Cup and MLS Cup Finals.
Of course, no sport would exist without the fans, and League is no different. In fact, fans contributed $3 million to the prize pool at the 2016 Worlds, nearly doubling the overall total. Like other sports, individual leagues and LoL teams profit through sponsorships, advertising, and the selling of merchandise. However, teams aren’t based in specific cities, meaning players must have entertaining personalities and be connected to their fan bases in order to grow a following.
As opposed to soccer’s youth academies, where young players with high potential are trained until they are skilled enough to play professionally, aspiring League players must first reach the top of the online rankings in their region before possibly being noticed by a professional team. In attempts to earn money while gaining fans and distinguishing themselves to teams, many of the world’s best players become Twitch streamers. In fact, players aren’t limited to signing with teams competing in their home region. Each team is allowed two non-residents on their rosters, similar to the MLS’ rules on international roster slots. Many Korean players, in particular, take advantage of this rule.
On the surface, League of Legends might not look anything like a traditional sport, but everything from its organization, competitive structure, and presentation resemble many sports, including soccer, the world’s most popular sport. Additionally, LoL has done a tremendous job of bringing in an audience, giving them a unique fan interaction, and breeding support for teams and players which will only continue to grow in the future. Maybe eSports aren’t so different after all.
Thanks to David Floris for helping me understand some of the topics covered in this article.