League of Legends maker Riot is set to take on the eSports big boys with the biggest prize pool in video game tournament history.
Even though it's free to play, with over 11 million players each month enough people are paying for League of Legends that Riot Games will offer a whopping three million dollars in its upcoming Regional Finals and World Championship - the largest pay day in eSports history.
It's a lot of money, but to bring attention away from StarCraft 2, and to a lesser extent games like Team Fortress 2 and Counter-Strike, Riot needs something big and attention grabbing to pull the eyes off those games. That's not to say that League of Legends doesn't deserve such attention, though; with that many people playing it, and with such a heavy level of strategy and communication, it lends itself well to eSports.
Which is probably why it's been going from strength to strength over the past year or so. Just last December Riot released the game in Korea, which was a major step for the company. "Because of how big the eSports scene is in Korea and how important it is to Korean culture we saw an organic scene start to develop there before we even launched it," Riot publicist Chris Heintz told Eurogamer.
"We recognised how important Korea was as a sort of Mecca of eSports, and also just for online games. It's a massive market and League of Legends is exactly the kind of game Korean gamers love, so when we did bring it to them we wanted to do it right."
And while a lot of work has gone into the front end of the game to make it more tailored for those Korean audiences, the core game remains unchanged, which is part of the reason something like the World Championship can be so exciting; on top of that huge pot you've also got Korean superstars eyeing it up.
There's some crossover in skill between StarCraft players and League of Legends players, but the amount of time and raw talent required to get great at a game doesn't always translate - Dustin Beck, the new vice president of eSports at Riot
"It's interesting." Dustin Beck, the man drafted in by Riot to spearhead League of Legends' assault on the eSports scene, said. "There's some crossover in skill between StarCraft players and League of Legends players, but the amount of time and raw talent required to get great at a game doesn't always translate." Which isn't to mention that StarCraft is a solo pursuit, more akin to Chess than Football, and translating into a team game brings its own challenges.
"We're starting to see a lot of established teams that have been around for a long time start to build out and recruit for League of Legends teams." Heintz added. Such a migration can only be indicative of the rude health of the game's eSports community, a community that's about to get bigger, if all goes to plan. In fact, just this February, Storm Zerg Yellow, a legend of the StarCraft scene, created his own League of Legends team, Xenics Storm - a sign of things to come?
This week sees the release of Spectator Mode, a long requested feature that enables players to view matches in real-time (albeit at a three minute delay), from the highly skilled pro games to just whatever screw up their mates are currently floundering in. The idea is that, with these streams right there on the dashboard, players who haven't investigated that high level play will get interested just out of curiosity.
"We really think that Spectator Mode is going to help make [eSports] more mainstream." Beck said. And it's hard to disagree with him. Even if hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are already watching the games, having 11 million all having that temptation of an exciting game right there every time they start League of Legends up is bound to increase the fanbase. According to Beck, the community is already pretty huge.
"We know that we're getting millions of viewers during our tournaments, and continue to gain momentum and traction from each event." And it's because of this huge fanbase that they're offering an equivalently gargantuan amount of prize money. "We're really humbled by how much our community enjoys eSports, so we feel like this prize pool is about offering League of Legends and its fans the prize they deserve."
The only potential shadow on this wave of enthusiasm and runaway success is the lingering presence of Valve's Dota 2 on the horizon, a game geared towards high end play from the start, and already with a million dollar tournament under its belt. Is Riot worried about its future once Dota 2 hits?
"We've seen and heard good things about Dota 2, and we think it's only going to strengthen the MOBA community and the eSports scene," Beck responded. It sounds ever so slightly polite, and a cynical eye might infer that the sudden appearance of Spectator Mode now, just as Dota 2 (with its own incredibly comprehensive suite of Spectator features) is starting to look imminent. But competition breeds innovation, and besides, Beck reckons there's space for both to flourish.
"I think there's a lot of room for it. It's similar to mainstream sports where you'll watch a lot of different games and they might be in different segments, but fans have an appetite for each one."
With three million dollars on the line, it's hard not to agree with him. Regardless of what happens in the game, it's going to be incredibly exciting just to watch these guys duke it out over quite such a large, pool-sized amount of money.
The regional League of Legends championships, set to kick off in July, will determine the 12 teams that will compete in the World Championship at the University of Southern California. The schedule in full is below:
- Mainland China: July 26 - Shanghai, China at China Joy - 2 teams.
- Europe: August 16 - Cologne, Germany at Gamescom - 3 teams.
- North America: August 31 - Seattle, United States at PAX Prime - 3 teams.
- Korea: September 21 - Seoul, Korea at the OGN eSports Stadium - 2 teams.
- Taiwan/Hong Kong/Macau: September 22 - Taipei, Taiwan at G1 - 1 team.
- Southeast Asia: September - Singapore at Garena Carnival - 1 team.