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League of Legends brought me to ‘real’ sports

The path from games to understanding my family

Wild Card Round - Miami Dolphins v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Ryan Gilliam (he/him) has worked at Polygon for nearly seven years. He primarily spends his time writing guides for massively popular games like Diablo 4 & Destiny 2.

The room at PAX was electric, packed with people who had all waited hours for the best seats. The pros sat in front, clicking away at their keyboards and mice. Their physical movements were small, but the impacts they made in-game were explosive.

I sat in silence with the rest of the crowd during tense moments, and I erupted from my seat during big plays. I cheered until my voice gave out.

I felt like an idiot, not because of how I was spending my time, but because of my years spent mercilessly mocking sports fans.

Football was religion

It didn’t take long for me to realize that most people have the same Sunday ritual: go to church and watch the football game. My mother remains the biggest Chiefs fan that I have ever met and, considering that I have spent over twenty years living in the Kansas City area, that’s an accomplishment.

Every Sunday as a child I would watch a play, get bored and head to the basement to continue my eternal quest to beat Super Mario World. My mother’s cheers and sorrows would reach me through the floor. I never had to ask if the Chiefs won or lost; it could be measured in foundation-shaking “woos” or frustrated exclamations of “aww, dog.”

I learned that my distaste for watching sports translated seamlessly into a distaste for playing them. I was picked last whenever possible in school, and audible groans could be heard when I doomed a team with my presence. I would have picked me last as well, had I been given the chance; I had a unique talent for being unathletic.

My time as a theater kid in later years put me on the forefront of the proverbial schoolyard gang war between the jocks and the theatre nerds; the proverbial Sharks and the Jets. My disinterest in sports turned into animosity.

This continued through college, until my friends and I were intrigued by the huge crowds at the League of Legends booth at PAX and decided to try it. We learned to play together and, after weeks of losing terribly, we could claim to have a cursory understanding of the game. It was around this time that League of Legends held its All-Stars tournament for 2013. My friend skipped that evening’s games and instead decided to call me up on Skype to watch All-Stars together.

I very specifically remember the phrase “why would I watch people play when I can just play myself” coming out of my mouth. I reluctantly sat and watched the games play out for hours. When the broadcast ended, I asked when the next broadcast would start.

I spent every Saturday and Sunday that summer at my friend’s house, watching every LCS (the League Championship Series, League’s weekly games) game that was on. By the fall, we had saved up enough money together to attend PAX Prime. We spent most of our time watching the North American LCS finals live, as they were being held at PAX that year, even though we were only weeks away from the launch of new consoles.

I had been to Royals games and the occasional Chiefs game as a child, but this was my first time watching esports with a crowd. And now we’re all caught up; I understood the allure of live sports all at once, and it was like someone had thrown a switch in my head.

The power of being there

There is magic in watching something play out in real time. Competitive events are live and unpredictable, even when watching alone. When something important happens and you cheer, you feel connected to everyone else you know is cheering as well.

I found enthusiasm for soccer; the constant movement and flexibility of the positions made sense to my League of Legends brain. Every unique interaction between the ball and players was reminiscent of a match in League. There were duels, outplays and winners and losers with every single exchange. It isn’t all about scoring, not entirely, it is about all of the tiny battles along the way. The constant flow of a League of Legends match is hard to replicate with the constant stops and starts of American football or baseball.

What started with a single soccer game became an act of saving to buy season tickets with a friend, and for the past two years we have driven about three hours every other weekend just to see our team play. I cheered with the crowds and learned the rules through observation. And it’s that observation where esports and traditional spectator sports share their DNA.

Team SoloMid League of Legends photo Riot Games

The athletic nature of sports may be important for the players, but rarely for the spectators. We are there for the skill, for the moments that each player seems to transcend their own limitations or work perfectly with their team. Whether that happens due to physical or mental prowess is immaterial. League players may not be as immediately physically impressive as an NFL player, but replicating their physical interactions with the game is nearly as impossible for the average person as throwing a football 30 yards in a perfect spiral.

There is value in physical exertion, but let’s maybe not pretend that your average football or soccer fan gains anything from watching players tackle each other with their bodies versus their virtual champions.

Many sports fans have already become esports fans, and I am very pleased to have made that leap coming from the other side. For all that sports and esports share, what is perhaps more important than anything is the communal joy that they bring to all of our lives. No matter where I go in life, I will always be able to excitedly talk to my friends about League of Legends matches in the same way that I now talk to my mother about the Chiefs, and that is a gift in itself. That similarity between the two hobbies is much more important than any differences.

The esports community can’t just cater to the players around us. We need the middle-aged sports fan to join in as well: to sit down, to have a beer, and to watch the next Counter-Strike major together.

Almost everyone I encountered on my way to understanding sports was eager to chat, to explain and to teach. As such, I try to pay it forward, extending a welcoming hand to those that want to understand where I come from and what I enjoy. In a quickly growing industry like esports, it can be easy to close off your mind to other fans. Outsiders struggle to understand what is competitive about these games, and esports fans are easily insulted. These things take time.

But for me, the important thing was the journey to sports, even if I might have come to them from the other direction. My mother may not understand League of Legends, and I may not be able to match her love of American football, but as we cheer for our favorite teams and players? Our voices sound nearly identical.

Ryan Gilliam is a Staff Writer at Unsurprisingly, he spends most of his time playing, watching, and writing about League of Legends.