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'League of Legends' competes with 'StarCraft' in Korea's eSports scene

Riot Games' five million dollar prize pool.


Riot Games speaks about the future of e-sports with its upcoming Season Two tournament finals.

At the E3 booth of Riot Games, a few of the studio members gather around a monitor to show footage of one of the team's recent Korean tournaments of MOBA game League of Legends. The video is loud. One of the developers apologizes about the language barrier.

"Forgive the foreign language. Just listen to the excitement." In fact you can barely tell what's being shown in detail: A large room, a collective of gamers from wall-to-wall, PCs, a big screen attached to a back wall that gives spectators a play-by-play of events in the game, and shrieking. They're showing the footage to give an example of a fanbase who wouldn't be out of place in the crowds of a sports arena. There is a lot of happy yelling in the video. Despite the language barrier, the excitement is universal.

"That blue team wiped out the purple team when they were least expecting it," Riot Games representative Chris Heintz explains. "That's one of the game tournaments that just wrapped up in Korea. We had about 3.9 million viewers tuning into that."

To put that into perspective the number is similar to the NBA playoffs in the US. The recent play-offs in the states had 4.4 million adult viewers, says Heintz listing facts. Another fact: League of Legends has a bigger audience than a Major League Baseball game on ESPN.

A five million dollar prize pool

"We regularly see two million-plus viewers," he says gesturing at the screen. "Tens of thousands of live-event viewers. That's why we have a five million dollar prize pool. It's the largest prize pool in eSports history."

League of Legends is split into competitive seasons where groups of users participate in multi-tier events and challenges against other players until one team finally comes out on top. During this time new content is introduced. Last year Riot Games released 31 new champions during its Season One event. Additional modes were introduced, as well as a substantial facelift of the front-end interface. So far Season Two has introduced a Spectator Mode, alongside weekly livestreams of tournaments and the Dominion game mode.The second League of Legends competitive season launched in November 2011 and the finish line is just over the horizon. Season Two culminates October 13 in Los Angeles. Players from North America, Europe, China, Korea and Southeast Asia have been competing in regional finals as part of the tournament series that began in their homes.

The competition started at level 30, moving to competitive prized events at local LAN centers or online tournaments and on again to the big win. Regional championships narrow the teams down to twelve, who get the chance to compete at the League of Legends World Championships later this year in Southern California. Those who dominated at the qualifiers move on to the Challenger Circuit, competing on a global stage in front of millions of viewers for hundreds of thousands of possible dollars.

Riot's big $5 million prize pool is distributed across the season. But the season ends with $2 million in the pockets of the winners of the World Championship.

"We're really looking to elevate eSports and bring it to the next level," says Heintz. "Through live events, and by supporting the League of Legends players. Other companies that are into eSports games have largely seen these games as something that has to turn profit, or to deliver on funding. For us we see it as an investment. Our players are actively entertained by eSports. Most of our players are actively involved in not only playing but spectating."

"We have rapidly risen to prominence"

The game was launched in late 2009 then saw its first Season One World Championship last summer during Dreamhack in Sweden. In the hierarchy of online competitive games League of Legends is relatively young, he says. But he expects it to compete with the likes of StarCraft 2 for supremacy over eSports.

"In Korea we launched in December and pretty rapidly hit the number one spot in the PC ratings," says Heintz. "Obviously Korea kind of treats StarCraft as a national pastime. But we have rapidly risen to prominence in Korea and we're really glad Korean fans are taking an interest."

But so far the team is focusing on growing its community more than it is its eSports presence. Its entrance into the online competitive world was a way of catering to the interests of the community. "The reason we even got involved in it was because they had such an interest. We constantly looking to them for every decision that we make."

Regional championships will take place between July and September in Mainland China, Europe, North America, Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia.

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