Over the next two weeks, the best League of Legends teams from around the world will clash in southern California. Their ultimate goal is to reach the Grand Finals on Oct. 4, held at Los Angeles' prestigious Staples Center. A total prize pool of $2 million is at stake, with the winning team taking home a cool $1 million in cash.
Last year's World Championship set a viewership record of 1.2 million concurrent viewers during the finals, and the All-Star tournament held in Shanghai this past May chalked up 18 million views over the course of the weekend: With those numbers in mind, the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship will almost certainly be the biggest eSports event in history.
The genre, however, is notoriously impenetrable to watch for those who don't play the games. This guide is aimed at hopefully helping you, the curious viewer, understand just what the hell is happening on-screen and why it matters.
The Rules of Engagement
League of Legends is a very traditional MOBA ("Multiplayer Online Battle Arena" for the uninitiated) and viewers who have played games like Dota 2 or Heroes of Newerth will be right at home. There are two teams comprised of five players apiece, and each player picks a unique character (or "champion") as his or her avatar in the game. Only these ten player characters are controlled by humans; everything else is controlled by the computer.
The ultimate goal of League of Legends is to destroy the other team's base, or Nexus. Everything else is secondary; if your Nexus is destroyed, you lose, no matter how well your team had been performing or how hard you had been winning until that moment. Some of the most memorable moments in professional matches of League of Legends have revolved around frantic last-ditch assaults on the enemy's Nexus.
It isn't just a straight shot to the other team's Nexus, however; a team must first clear a path to the other team's base and become powerful enough to safely dismantle its defenses.
Characters in League of Legends grow more powerful in two ways: through levels and items. Levels, as in many games, are gained with experience points earned whenever an enemy champion or NPC dies near a player's character. XP is split between whoever is nearby; a player killing enemies by himself will level up more quickly than one with a partner.
Items, on the other hand, are purchased with gold. Gold is steadily and slowly gained over time, but is most quickly obtained from killing enemies. Unlike XP, only the player who deals the killing blow to an enemy NPC will get gold; if it dies to anything other than a player the team gains no gold at all. Killing enemy champions rewards all players who participated in the kill with gold, and taking map objectives awards gold to the entire team across the map.
In League of Legends, items provide boosts to a character's statistics, like attack speed, physical or magic damage dealt and armor. Some items have "active" abilities that must be manually triggered in battle.
Since League of Legends is a game about objectives, it helps to understand the map.
Welcome to Summoner's Rift
Summoner's Rift, the 5v5 arena that is League of Legends' main and most popular map (and the only map used in competitive play), is arranged in typical MOBA fashion: a rough square with one team's base in the top right, the other in the bottom left. Three "lanes" connect the bases, one along the top and left edges of the arena (the "top" lane); one along the bottom and right edges of the arena (the bottom or "bot" lane); one that splits the arena straight through diagonally (the middle or "mid" lane). A river runs diagonally through the map providing another avenue of movement, and the rest is the "jungle," narrow pathways filled with neutral monsters that attack both sides.
Let's break down the map:
RED: Turrets, or "towers." Each team has three turrets per lane, and a further two guarding their base. Turrets are powerful fixed structures with a very damaging ranged attack that provide safe zones for players in lane; attacking a champion under his or her turret is known as "tower diving" and can be a very risky move. Early in the game, turrets protect players; as their damage output does not scale as champions do, later in the game players must protect their turrets. A tower cannot be damaged if any further out have not been destroyed, so a team must take their opponents' turrets sequentially in any given lane. Turrets do not regenerate health and never respawn. Destroying a tower awards the entire team 150 gold.
YELLOW: Inhibitors. An inhibitor cannot be taken until all the lane turrets in front of it have been eliminated. Destroying an team's inhibitor will add a "super minion" to every wave spawned by the enemy team in that lane. Super minions are very powerful and force a team to stay on defense lest they destroy their entire base. An inhibitor respawns 5 minutes after it is destroyed, but since its defending turrets will not respawn themselves, it will be defenseless for the remainder of the match.
GREEN: The Nexus. As previously mentioned, destroying a team's Nexus ends the game. A Nexus cannot be attacked until its two defending turrets have been destroyed; they in turn cannot be attacked until at least one inhibitor is down. Games have turned on an inhibitor respawning right as one team was trying to destroy the enemy's Nexus. Behind the Nexus is the team's base, where they heal, shop for extra items and respawn after death.
ORANGE: The Dragon. An early-to-mid-game objective, the Dragon awards each member of the team that gets the killing blow 190 gold. The Dragon can sometimes be taken as early as 5 or 6 minutes into a match, but becomes a focal point for teams to converge and battle later in the game. The Dragon respawns 6 minutes after being killed.
PURPLE: Baron Nashor, or "Baron." A mid-to-late-game objective, killing Baron awards each member of the team 300 gold as well as a powerful four-minute buff that significantly increases offensive power and health regeneration for the duration. A winning team will often try to take Baron before making a final push, and a losing team may try a desperation Baron to stem the tide. As Baron has very high health and does very high damage, fighting him is a very risky maneuver and can be disastrous if caught: Many games of League of Legends are won or lost at Baron Nashor. Since only the team who deals the killing blow gets the reward gold and buff, Baron "steals" are often some of the most renowned plays in League of Legends. Baron Nashor respawns 7 minutes after being killed.
MOBA veterans may recognize that Baron Nashor's name is a tip of the hat to Roshan, a giant that plays a similar role in DOTA and Dota 2.
Not pictured on the map are the small monsters in the jungle, which can be killed for extra gold and XP. There are two more powerful jungle monsters per side, the Ancient Golem and the Elder Lizard, who will give their killer a buff ("blue" and "red" buffs, respectively) when destroyed. The Blue buff rapidly regenerates mana and is best on magic-using caster champions, while the Red buff gives basic attacks an extra damage-over-time effect and causes them to slow enemies' movement speed, and is best on physical attackers. Control of your team's and your opponents' buffs can be a crucial part of any match, especially early in the game.
Know Your Role
League of Legends is a team-based game, and like a real-life sport, the five members of a League of Legends team have individual roles. Here's a quick breakdown of the five roles in any given team (Note: While two positions are named after specific lanes because that is historically where they have proven most effective, any player can go into any lane with a champion).
Top: The top-laner is frequently the team's fighter or "bruiser," a bulky champion capable of taking a beating while dishing one out. Top-laners can often initiate fights and usually have some form of disabling ability (or "CC," crowd control) to lock opponents down. Top-lane champions are rarely capable of putting out massive amounts of damage, but are deadly enough to force the enemy team to have to choose between killing the squishy mage further away or focusing damage on the beefy fighter that's in the middle of their team. Common top-lane picks include Shen, Zac, Rumble and Renekton.
Mid: The mid-laner generally plays a team's mage or "assassin," a champion capable of high burst damage who can quickly remove an opponent from a fight. Mid-lane champions are usually casters who rely on abilities rather than basic attacks, and depend on properly chaining their abilities together in a combo for maximum damage output. High mobility is also prized on mid-lane champions, enabling them to roam to other lanes to try and pick up a kill. As with the top-laner, a mid-laner may play in any lane on the map; it may be more valuable to think of the two as simply "solo lane" players, albeit with different roles in a team. Common mid-lane picks include Twisted Fate, Ahri, Zed and Orianna.
Jungler: The jungler, as the name might suggest, does not play in any one lane. Instead, the jungler levels up off of neutral monsters in the team's jungle between lanes. The jungler is frequently the team's play-caller, as he or she is responsible for providing a disparity in force and securing a kill – turning an evenly matched 1v1 into a surprise 2v1 and a kill. Junglers can also try to kill the monsters in the enemy's jungle to slow their opposing counterpart's progress, but this is a risky move. Junglers tend to be the most tanky members of the team, and the best at initiating fights. Common jungle picks include Lee Sin, Elise, Amumu and Jarvan IV.
Carry: The carry, or "AD (Attack Damage) carry," is exactly what the name says: the champion that "carries" the team to victory. A carry starts the game with low stats and is very reliant on gold and items, but will quickly become capable of outputting more damage in a fight than any other type of character. They deal damage with basic attacks, giving them lower burst damage than a mid-lane assassin, but higher sustained damage over the course of a fight. Carries are ranged attackers and often very fragile, and the objective of many team fights is to kill the enemy carry while protecting your own. Common carry picks include Varus, Vayne, Ezreal and Caitlyn.
Support: The support almost always goes to lane next to the team's carry, protecting them as they acquire the gold they need to eventually dish out massive amounts of damage late in the game. Supports are in charge of placing wards to reveal hidden areas of the map and inform the team of enemies' location and movement. Since they do not often get much gold for themselves, support champions tend to be picked for their ability to control and disrupt the enemy team with few to no items in their inventory. Supports try to use their CC abilities to set up kills for their team, making them very valuable even if they do not deal much damage themselves. Common support picks include Thresh, Sona, Nami and Zyra.
What the community knows as "standard" lanes sees the top and mid laners in their respectively named lanes and the support and carry together at the bottom. These were the most common in previous seasons of professional League of Legends, and are by far the most common setup in normal amateur play online. However, these days in competitive play it is very common to change lanes around in search of a more favorable match-up, or to even have the team's jungler come to form a temporary three-man lane in order to quickly push down the enemy team's outer tower.
Play by Play
Though the pace of any game depends on the team playing and the champions they've selected, here's how an average game might break down, divided into phases.
Picks & Bans: Before the game starts, the teams choose their champions. Each team takes turns banning away three champions per side, eliminating the other team's strongest or most favored picks. When banned, a character cannot be played by either team. After both teams have banned three champions, the teams take turns picking. Any given character can be played by only one person, meaning that if two players on opposite teams are known to be skilled with a particular champion, the team that picks first will try to snag it for their side so the enemy can't get it.
Early Game: The "Laning Phase" generally lasts from the beginning of the game to between 10 and 15 minutes. Teams may choose to invade the other team's jungle to try and secure early kills or to impede the opposing jungler's progress. After any initial skirmishes, teams go to lane. Each team's base will periodically spawn waves of AI-controlled soldiers or "minions" whose only directive is to march down their respective lanes as far as they can before being destroyed, whether by players, other minions or the enemy tower. The players' job is to manage their minion waves, pushing forward and being pushed back by the other team in a game of ebb and flow.
Players will use abilities and attacks to harass each other to try and force an enemy to return to base and heal, and these short skirmishes may even result in kills, but frequently the jungler's presence determines the pace of this part of the game. The solo-lane players may also roam to one of the other lanes in hopes of setting up a kill.
Mid Game: The "Objective Phase" typically arises around the 10-15 minute mark and lasts until 25-30 minutes or so. Players are beginning to complete their first significant item, and teams will group up to take objectives like towers or the Dragon. This phase is where we see the first full team fights, as teams try to contest their opponents' moves and control the map.
Late Game: The "Team Fight Phase" usually begins between 25-30 minutes and lasts for the remainder of the game. Players have completed multiple core items, meaning that both assassins and carries are becoming increasingly deadly. Depending on the team's composition, some teams might split off one or more members to "split push" a lane and apply pressure in multiple fronts, forcing the enemy team to react. Other teams might seek to draw their foes into a full 5-on-5 brawl. Positioning and map awareness becomes crucial at this point.
While the Dragon is still a contestable objective at this phase of the game, the real prize is Baron Nashor. The "Baron dance" involves both teams trying to gain control of the area around Baron, to either draw their foes into an unfavorable fight or to take him before the other team can react. At this point, the time it takes for a player to respawn after being killed is so long that an ace – the total destruction of one team – can result in a lost Baron, inhibitors or even a lost game.
During the late game, the winning team might either try and systematically strangle out their foes by confining them to their base and slowly taking their towers one by one, or they might try and simply punch on through for a faster, albeit riskier knockout blow. The losing team may try a desperation Baron if possible, or might simply just try and farm the best they can and look for a favorable team fight.
Here are some common terms you may encounter while watching the League of Legends World Championship:
- Ace: To kill every member of a team so that all five are dead at the same time. While this generally is the result of a team fight, sometimes it can happen if one team simultaneously wins small skirmishes around the map.
- Active: Any ability that requires a button press or click to use. This most often refers to items that grant extra abilities, like the Locket of the Iron Solari which temporarily shields your whole team.
- AD: Attack Damage. This affects the damage you do with basic attacks and some abilities. Attack Damage-using abilities almost always deal Physical damage.
- AP: Ability Power. This affects the damage you do with abilities and spells. Ability Power-using abilities almost always deal Magic damage.
- AD Carry: The traditional "carry" character, who is reliant on items to reach his or her full potential, and deals sustained damage from range with basic attacks. Also called a "marksman."
- Assassin: A character designed to deal high burst damage and eliminate a single target.
- Assist: To help in the kill of an enemy champion, whether by doing damage, using a disrupting ability or providing a buff to an allied champion in the fight.
- Backdoor: To sneak past a team and try to destroy towers and/or inhibitors on one's own instead of pushing as a group. See "Split Push" and "xPeke."
- Barrier: A Summoner Spell that temporarily shields a character for a set amount of damage. Most commonly seen on AD Carries.
- Brush: The bushes around the map. A player outside of the brush cannot see a player inside of them unless they use a damaging ability or attack.
- Buff: A temporary bonus gained from killing a particular neutral monster. There are three types of buff: Red buff (for characters who primarily use basic attacks), Blue buff (for characters who primarily use spells) and Baron buff (for the entire team who slays Baron). Killing a character with Red or Blue will transfer the buff to the killer.
- Build: The set of items that a player buys for any given champion. A character who has reached a full six items is said to have completed his or her build.
- CC: Crowd control. Disrupting abilities that stun enemies, impede their movement or otherwise disable them. Support champions make excellent use of CC to stay relevant despite a lack of damage items.
- Counter-Jungle: To invade the other team's jungle and kill their monsters, delaying their jungler's progression.
- CS: "Creep Score." A total of how many minions and neutral monsters a player has killed. This comes from the original DOTA, where minions and monsters were all called "creeps."
- Duelist: A champion who excels at 1-on-1 combat rather than group fights.
- Exhaust: A Summoner Spell that slows an enemy's movement and attack speed as well as reducing the damage they deal. Most commonly seen on Supports.
- Facecheck: To blindly enter the brush without checking it first in some way. This is very dangerous and can be a deadly mistake, as enemies may be lying in wait.
- Farm/Farming: To focus on killing minions for gold and experience. A team that is behind on kills can still stay competitive with good farming.
- Fighter: A character with strong defenses and high health who is capable of doing respectable damage. Also called a "bruiser."
- First Blood: The first kill of the game, which awards a player with 400 gold instead of the usual 300.
- Flash: A Summoner Spell that allows a character to quickly teleport a short distance. Can be used offensively or defensively. By far the most commonly-used Summoner Spell in the game.
- Gank: To move to a lane that isn't yours to try and set up a kill. Junglers are the most common gankers, but another laner can come try and get a kill as well.
- Ghost: A Summoner Spell that briefly gives a character a significant boost of speed.
- Global: Any ability capable of affecting the entire map. Janna’s passive gives a global speed increase to her team, while Karthus’ ultimate hits every enemy no matter where they are.
- Ignite: A Summoner Spell that does True damage over time and reduces enemy healing.
- Invade: To enter the other team's jungle at the beginning of the game in hopes of stealing a buff or getting a kill.
- Jungler: A player that levels up primarily in the jungle and supports his or her lanes with ganks.
- KDA: "Kill-Death-Assists." A representation of how many kills a given player participates in for every death of his or her own.
- Map Control: To make a portion of the map (relatively) safe for one's own team by taking enemy towers and securing vision through use of Wards.
- Oracles: Oracle's Elixir, a potion that allows characters to see invisible units like Wards or enemy champions hidden in stealth for a short amount of time.
- Passive: An ability that offers a permanent benefit that does not need to be activated. Every champion has at least one passive (i.e, Graves gets higher defenses for every second he’s in combat), but some champions have more. Some items also have passive benefits beyond stats.
- Peel: To use CC to protect more vulnerable members of the team from an enemy attempting to kill them.
- Pentakill: Or just a "Penta." For one member of a team to get a killing blow on every other member of the opposing team in a short period of time (in succession: "Double Kill," "Triple Kill," "Quadra Kill," "Pentakill"). These are very rare and tend to be very exciting moments when they occur in competition.
- Pick: To try and catch one member of the enemy team vulnerable and quickly kill them, forcing the enemy team into a disadvantageous 4v5 situation.
- Push: To pressure another team's side of the map, attempting to destroy their towers and inhibitors.
- Recall: An innate ability possessed by all characters that allows them to return to their home base after a long cast time. Any damage caused will cancel this ability, meaning that using Recall while in enemy vision can be very dangerous.
- Smite: A Summoner Spell that does a high amount of True damage, but only to monsters and minions. Typically taken by junglers.
- Snowball: To do well early on and use those advantages to widen your lead.
- Split Push: To push a lane on one's own instead of with a team, forcing the other team to react or lose their defenses.
- Summoner Spell: A spell used by a player (the "Summoner") regardless of their character. These can be powerful but have very long cooldowns.
- Support: A character that does not rely on items to be effective in battle but does not do particularly high damage. A support player is generally in charge of improving his or her team's vision.
- Teleport: A Summoner Spell that enables a player to transport to any friendly unit or structure on the map.
- Tower Dive: To attack an enemy who is under the safety of his or her tower. Can be very risky if not handled properly.
- True Damage: Damage that is not reduced by armor or magic resistance. True damage is dealt by a handful of champions and the Ignite summoner spell.
- Ult: "Ultimate." The most powerful ability in a character’s repertoire, Ultimates are learned at level 6, 11 and 16.
- Ward: A small invisible unit that grants vision of a particular area. Green wards are cheaper but cannot see things in stealth, while pink wards are more expensive but grant vision of invisible units including other wards.
- xPeke: A specific type of Backdoor, for a single player to attack an exposed Nexus by him or herself. Named for the player Enrique "xPeke" Cedeño-Martinez after an incredible win at the Intel Extreme Masters tournament in Katowice, Poland.
The World Championship tournament kicks off the group stages this Sunday, Sept. 15 at 12 PM Pacific / 3 PM Eastern with CIS wildcard GamingGear.eu vs North American runner-up TSM. The group stage will run through the week, concluding with a massive set of 10 matches on Saturday, Sept. 21.
After the group stages are concluded, the quarterfinals will run on Monday, Sept. 23 and Tuesday, Sept. 24 with matches at 3PM and 7PM Eastern / 12 PM and 4 PM Pacific. The semifinals will be held on Friday, Sept. 27 and Saturday, Sept. 28, and the grand finals will be held at the Staples Center a week afterward on the night of Oct. 4. The full schedule can be found on the LoL eSports site.