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A league of their own

From the archive: Backstage in the League of Legends phenomenon, and front seat at its world championships.

Every Sunday we plunder our archives to bring you a feature you may have originally missed, or perhaps would like to read again. This week, we go back to October 2012, where Simon Parkin reports from the frontline of League of Legend's competitive scene.

Twice a month Riot Games, creator of League of Legends, hires an actor to visit its Santa Monica studio. While the developer adds a couple of playable characters to the online PC game each month, this performer isn't hired to provide voice acting for a new champion, or to be rigged with Ping-Pong balls and motion-captured while pretending to swipe swords or cast spells. Rather, they are hired to mingle, to roam the studio and chat with the other staff, pretending to be a new employee.

The company - founded in 2006 by two graduates from USC - is expanding so quickly that there are often fresh faces to get to know. But new hires - just like every other staff member - are presented with an identification badge to wear at all times: permission to be present. The hired actor, meanwhile, wears none.

If you work at Riot Games part of your day job is to find the imposter roaming the corridors. Report them and you win a prize.

On the surface it's a cheerily playful game to lighten the workplace: 'Spot the trespasser; win a prize!' But it's a game with a solemn motivation at its heart. When you're custodian of the most widely played video game on the planet, you must protect your secrets with the vigilance of a Soviet oligarch. Spying? Spying is no game.

Today's the first time that a non-actor has been invited into Riot Games' premises without an identification badge. It's 24 hours before the 2012 League of Legends world championship final begins, an event staged in Los Angeles' 8000-seater Galen Center. Tomorrow evening the Taiwanese underdogs The Taipei Assassins will compete against Korean favourites Azubu Frost for a $1 million prize, the largest ever awarded in an eSports final. Today is an opportunity for a few press and a clutch of the game's most prominent community members to step inside the developer-cum-sport promoter's offices, previously unseen.

The studio has the whiff of young money, fast won. But there are few obvious extravagances. The only area where the company has allowed itself some interior flamboyance is a room decked out to look like a Taiwanese internet café, the exact kind of surroundings in which a huge proportion of League of Legends' adolescent audience experience the game daily. When it comes to strategy games in the East, nations gather beneath different tactical banners. China is primarily a Defense of the Ancients (DoTA) state while Korea bleeds Starcraft 2. However, a staggering five per cent of the Taiwanese population currently play League of Legends. It's reasonable then that Riot Games would celebrate this fact with a tribute to the culture that has helped its stratospheric rise.

Elsewhere, Riot Games is all white corridors and ID-gated rooms - the only punctuating décor a glass wall filled with awards for the studio's first and, as yet, only game, some tall fantasy art displaying its best known characters and the odd sticker demanding: 'No Photography'. In the main meeting room a pristine Defender arcade cabinet buzzes to one side, a game that, much like League of Legends, was initially dismissed by the mainstream games industry as too niche before coolly proving everybody wrong by taking 150 million quarters per week.

"The studio has the whiff of young money, fast won."

Somewhere else in the building Riot has two private rooms filled with the most expensive PCs money can buy. In each one tomorrow's finalists prepare, playing the game to refresh muscle memory already etched into professional ligaments through months of training. These are the cabinet war-rooms for the Taipei Assassins and Azubu Frost, where strategy is finalised through a high-contrast Red Bull haze. Their windows are blacked out. With $1 million on the line, spying is no game.

Downstairs, we professional spectators take more relaxed seats as the company's young founders Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill bound onto the low stage and begin to talk numbers.

Riot's team is cross-disciplinary and dedicated. One of the game's graphic designers 'Saiyaka' also sang the loading music for the character Diana.

The games industry glorifies in numbers. It shouts numbers till it's hoarse in the throat. It bleeds numbers till you take notice. It has to do with a keen sense of cultural inferiority. Video games are yet to be taken very seriously, viewed as cinema's runt sibling, literature's embarrassing distant cousin. So the industry presents numbers as evidence of its relevance and worth. 'You'll never guess how much more money video games generate than Hollywood these days!' 'Have you heard how many hours people spend playing games over reading?'

The numbers are dressed up like vanity, but they are born of insecurity.

Riot Games recently declared League of Legends the "most played game in the world". The online PC title - in which two teams of five players compete to be the first to destroy the others' base - has attracted 70 million registered accounts hailing from 145 countries since it debuted in 2009. Its community consists of 32 million monthly active users, an average of 12 million of whom log on to play every day. At any one moment there are around 3 million people in the world playing League of Legends, and its community logs over a billion hours of play each month.

Last year, people spent four times as much time playing League of Legends than Minecraft, and twice as much playing the game as they did World of Warcraft. This season the average League of Legends league game has attracted a greater online viewership than the average major league season baseball game. Riot Games hires a 30-man team of in-house psychologists (led by Carl Kwoh) whose sole job is to improve the behaviour of League of Legends players and foster sportsmanship.

They're numbers to drop jaws, unimaginable in their expanse. Most companies like to brag favourable statistics, especially those who work in games, the cultural cul-de-sac. But you have to wonder whether all these eager figures mask a still deeper insecurity. League of Legends is, next to Minecraft and Angry Birds, the greatest success story in contemporary video games. And yet there's a clear humility in Beck and Merrill's manner. There's a flush of awkwardness in this spotlight.

"We were newbs at the starting-a-studio thing," says Beck to the assembled crowd. "As you might imagine, we dramatically underestimated a lot of the execution challenges along the way. We founded [Riot] out of a lifelong passion for competitive games. We made countless mistakes along this journey; so many in fact, we incorporated the idea of making mistakes into our culture."

Charming, self-depreciating - despite the numbers. But also there's an undercurrent of incredulity, as if the pair can't quite believe what's happened. After all, both men entered the games industry as fans; players of DoTA and other online competitive PC strategy games that simply hired a team to make a similar game they wanted to play and could support themselves.

Don't misunderstand: they're no cloners. League of Legends introduces enough invention to sidestep that grubby accusation. But perhaps there's an inferiority complex somewhere in all of this - a belief that they don't quite belong. Are League of Legends' numbers a way to prove and protest legitimacy?

"The business end of League of Legends is the kind of secret you'd create a corporate culture of mistrust with hired fake spies to help protect."

The studio certainly appears nervous to talk away from the script of a PowerPoint presentation, absent from the comfort of numbers. One senior staff member asks to vet my questions before I'm allowed to meet with Beck. I explain that my questions aren't written down and, besides, I only have a couple of openers - I'd prefer to have an open conversation. "Even so," he says, coolly undeterred: "I'd like to get an idea of your open conversation."

You see, while Riot is only too happy to discuss user numbers, dwell times, how many man hours its teams are spending on improving the character animation in the game and so on, there are certain numbers it won't reveal. It won't say what percentage of their players spend money in the game, nor indeed how much they spend on average unlocking characters or buying new skins. The business end of League of Legends is the kind of secret you'd create a corporate culture of mistrust with hired fake spies to help protect. In the brave new world of free-to-play you only need to look to tomorrow's multi-million dollar tournament, all self-funded by Riot - to realise this company owns the secret recipe. Spying is no game.

But it's not the only secret in these walls. Even the basic story of League of Legends' creation is mostly untold.

"Mark and I grew up in Los Angeles," says Beck as we're ushered into a side office by the PR chaperone. "We were college buddies and we went on to become roommates after graduation. We had dual gaming rigs and would spend hours playing competitive games. I was in management consulting and Mark was in marketing. But we wanted to take a risk. We wanted to start a game company. We built a business plan, quit our jobs and went around trying to raise some financing and find great people to work with."

The game's overhauled feedback system, introduced earlier this year, has reformed 300,000 players who were reported for abusive online behaviour according to Riot.

Beck is young, fashionably stubbled and, despite the broad smile, somewhat jittery. In contrast to most game developers, Riot has no publisher for its game. The company instead manages every aspect of League of Legends itself, from the game's low-level creation to the business side of things all the way up to arranging global eSports championships. Despite the breadth of roles and responsibilities, Beck seems somewhat uncomfortable talking to the press. He pauses before each answer, as if running the sentence through a potential controversial headline-checker. As a result, he comes across as warm but calculated. His answers are clear, but often plain.

You make it sound so simple, I say. But how did two young graduates with no industry experience raise the millions of dollars necessary to create League of Legends? "We specifically knew we wanted to create a MOBA and that we wanted to do things very differently. Our experience was that gamers who stuck with online games for a long time were getting the shaft."

How so?

"For example, with Warcraft 3 the mods like Dota were left alone by the development team when the community was crying out for broader support and feature development. As part of that community we felt those pain points and couldn't comprehend why more games companies weren't focused on evolving the experience for their most dedicated players. We started by locating a bunch of great developers. Some of the original developers from Dota including Steve Feak and Steve Mescon, not to mention Tom Cadwell who worked on Warcraft 3 and a bunch of other passionate guys who shared our vision."

How did you find them?

"Oh man." Beck laughs. "A bunch of those contacts came through the gaming communities we were involved in, but all sorts of different ways. We were sort of knocking on doors and getting out there, and we cast some sort of beacon about what Riot represented as an opportunity. But it was very hard to convince them. We had very limited resources. We had a bunch of individual investors, but resources were always a challenge and constraint for us. Some team members were much harder to convince. A number offered to opt in as advisors, only to join us much later on."

To claim League of Legends had a slow start would be understatement. Everything was made from scratch, including the basic game engine - a first for many of the greener members on the team. I ask Beck how long it was till he knew he was onto something, till they wanted to play the game for fun rather than duty.

"Three years," he says. "At that point playtests were mandatory - nobody was really playing for fun. Nowadays we have to peel ourselves away from the game, but in the early years it wasn't a pleasant experience. But at the start of the third year - around 12 months before we went live - something changed. All we wanted to do was play. Over the next few days and weeks we knew we had something fun because it was engaging us so deeply. That was one of the most exciting times."

Three years is a long time to work on a game that is no fun. Did they ever doubt their plan? "We believed in the vision. But were we nervous? Heck yes! It's very scary to be building a company, responsible for other people's investments, responsible for people's jobs and livelihoods and risky career decisions. It's such a heavy weight on your shoulders. In truth it took way longer than we thought and we had a bunch of near death experiences."

At the beginning of the fourth year, in early 2010, Riot launched League of Legends with no marketing. "The game wasn't an instant smash," explains Beck. "It was just a slow and steady growth trajectory. Players would play the game and tell their friends. People stuck with us. Players were exceptionally loyal. I attribute more of our success to players sticking around than us attracting them."

In fact, Riot spends almost no money on marketing even today - apart, of course from the advertising benefit of hosting a worldwide tournament. The game also attracts a young audience. Over 60 per cent of its players are still in school, a fact that has no doubt helped its viral effect. "The vast majority of players are between the ages of 16 and 30 and 90 per cent are male," says Beck. "I guess that makes sense because you can find the time to squeeze in games during that period in your life. It's easier than ever for unknown games to catch on because of how interconnected we all are. School is like an accelerated version of that - and it helps get newcomers up the learning curve. League's a very challenging game to learn how to play if you've had no exposure to MOBAs before. It helps to have a buddy and school provides that."

League of Legends music team wrote and recorded theme music for the final, which was played by an orchestra on stage before the match.

League of Legends has attracted favourable reviews. But perhaps its greatest success is in the way it is monetised. Anyone can play for free at any time using one of the handful of characters that are made available gratis each week. But at the end of the week you must pay if you want to continue playing as your chosen character. Don't want to pay? Then you can simply opt for one of the new characters made available in free rotation. Where Zynga turned so many off with its cynical monetisation in the earliest days of free-to-play, League of Legends players seem only too happy to invest in characters they grow attached to. I ask Beck where the idea originated.

"We started with the players and worked backwards," he says. "In our mind we wanted to stay away from the MMO subscription model, and the boxed model is too much of a gamble for people these days: you spend money before you know if the game is good or engaging. So we made spending money in our game optional. If players find a lot of value in the experience then they'll engage with it. We felt on faith players would make it work."

The extent to which it's worked is written into League of Legends' numbers. "It never ceases to amaze us how many players are enjoying the work we've done," says Beck. "Our concern is how do we continue to delight our players. That's a constant struggle. But everyone at Riot is completely engaged with that challenge. Nobody is kicking their feet up and saying we've made it. We believe we are in the first or second inning."

Delighting players isn't the only challenge the studio faces when moving into the next 'inning'. Being a one-game studio is a huge risk. If your players move on, you could collapse as quickly as you rose. "We won't be creatively satisfied as a one-game studio," assures Beck. "We won't have a massive portfolio of games because we are prioritising quality over quantity. We will be slow, steady and focused - and what we make next won't be necessarily in the same genre."

"We specifically knew we wanted to create a MOBA and that we wanted to do things very differently. Our experience was that gamers who stuck with online games for a long time were getting the shaft." Brandon Beck

The other challenge, of course, is competition. The sequel to Dota, the game that most heavily influenced League of Legends, is soon exiting its beta phase. Creator Valve has deep pockets and fierce experience. Is Riot worried that Dota 2 might steal its audience?

Beck stutters: "I think… There's a lot of…I think that there's a lot of games that… players…er…"

"I don't know how to answer this," he says at last. "I don't want to answer this question. We try to stay humble and come off as… You know, a lot of us have come from Dota and I believe there's room for both of us."

Beck's admiration for Dota is clear. But his reluctance to answer the question reveals the confusion involved for any young creative whose inspiration becomes a rival. While Beck believes there to be room for both games in this highly competitive market, both his company's investors not to mention Dota's backers want a clear winner.

This is a genre built to create clear winners.

The Taipei Assassins

The Taipei Assassins live together in a 'gaming house' under the shadow of the Taipei101 skyscraper in central Taiwan. Two storeys high and filled with 20 computers, it's here the team - comprised of seven young players - endure a gruelling daily training regime from 9am till 10pm. The working day primarily consists of playing League of Legends and watching replays from rival teams, discerning their tactics, strengths and weaknesses.

Two hours each day is allocated to exercise and English classes, the latter of which are intended to help the players address Western media without the need for a translator. Occasionally Chinese and Korean teams stop by the house to train for a few days. While there are a few equivalent establishments across Europe and the US, Eastern territories train professional players like athletes, with all of the discipline and dedication that entails.

eSports - the business of professional competitive video game playing - is still in its infancy. But in 2012 what has been something of a cultural sideshow has blossomed into a major concern, fuelled by corporations such as the Singapore-based Garena, owners of the Taipei Assassins who hire talented young players, provide them with food and dedicated training facilities (and take a cut of their winnings). For the makers of competitive video games, eSports is a crucial ingredient to success. If professional players flock to your game then they attract hopeful amateurs, swelling the audience. In the world of free-to-play, an eSports interest in your game can mean the different between success and failure.

For this reason Riot has taken a hands-on approach to the eSports scene around League of Legends, not only sponsoring tournaments, but wholesale organising them. "We never fancied ourselves as league commissioners," says Beck. "I don't think it was on anyone's Top 50 list of things they want to do - it's not a core competency of any game developer. But we get it. We're creating a professional sport. It's part of our job."

The numbers demonstrate the extent to which eSports has become a part of Riot's job. Last year, in the inaugural League of Legends season, the winner's prize was $100,000. This year it's multiplied ten times to $1 million. Next year, for season three, Riot Games is employing every single player in the professional league for its game, paying them a salary to ensure that no player ducks out mid-season due to homework pressures or team squabbling (such are the risks in a sport populated by relative youngsters). Scores of players will sign to the company's books while competing for the highest prizes that will, after this year's ostentatious finals, no doubt have grown considerably in size.

It's not just a serious business for Riot. Erica Tseng is the waif-like manager of the Taipei Assassins - or 'T! P! A!' as they will come to be affectionately known by their chanting fans later tonight. She was asked by Garena to pull together a team just six months ago. "I get a lot of credit for The Taipei Assassins, but five of them were already playing together when I discovered them," she says as we chat backstage at the Galen Center, an hour before the final begins. "They won an eSports event in 2011 and, because of their performance there, my boss decided to sign them."

Tseng was studying in Toronto as a business major when she decided to return to Taiwan to join Garena as a community co-ordinator. Her boss saw her focus and leadership potential and asked Tseng to manage the new team. The Taipei Assassins was officially born in April this year after Tseng added Cheng Bo "Bebeisadog" Wei and Kurtis "Toyz" Lau to the line-up.

Tseng speaks in a machine gun patter, tilting her head from time to time, a girlish inflection that offsets the steel in her eyes. But her frantic speech isn't down to nerves. "We are going to win tonight," she says, without a shiver of doubt.

What happens if you win? What changes, I ask?

"For my team it will be great," she says. "We will have more fans. The company is planning more stuff for them in the future. But the guys haven't thought too much about what they'll do with the prize money."

The winning team

The Taipei Assassins is widely considered the underdog in tonight's final, their short history combined with a spate of scrape-through wins earlier in the season leading many to doubt their chances of victory. But their rivals, the Korean-based Azubu Frost, are unlikely finalists too. They are their company's B-team, who happened to beat the A-team (Azubu Blaze) earlier in the season against all odds. But as we settle down to watch the first round in the final, the Galen Center decked out like an X-Factor venue, the giant, forged silver trophy glittering like newborn treasure from another planet on stage, it's immediately clear that the crowd is behind the Taiwanese team.

Azubu Frost even attracts a ripple of boos as they take to the stage. This is a historical resentment. During the playoffs the team was caught cheating by glancing at the mini-maps beamed onto giant screens above their heads and adjusting tactics based on the information gleaned. Riot fined the team $30,000, about 20 per cent of Azubu Frost's semi-final winnings - but many considered the penalty too lenient. "If it had meant we would have had the chance to win $1 million, we would have cheated for the sake of $30,000," one rival team member, knocked out of the competition earlier told me. It was a tough lesson learned for Riot, whose failure in stage set-up and player line of sights was partly to blame. A careful redesign of the stage for this final has ensured no such cheating can happen again. Spying is no game.

Nevertheless, the wisdom of the crowd says: 'Don't trust Azubu'.

'T! P! A!', 'T! P! A!' it screams, willing the underdog on to victory. The support has a transformative effect. As Chen "MiSTakE" Hui Chung, Alex "Lilballz" Sung, and Wang June "Stanley" Tsan join Toyz and Bebe at their PC positions on stage, there's a swagger in the step, the kind of rude self-belief that only comes from a group of young people who have found meteoric competitive success in such a short amount of time. Azubu Frost, dressed in matching khaki uniforms and wearing aviators, appear cooler on stage and somehow more corporate (they arrive and depart the venue in a stretched limousine).

The atmosphere in the Galen Center is extraordinary - at least outside the routine of a sell-out pop concert or sports event. Thousands of eyes fix on the giant screen hanging above the stage, a widescreen window into the battle. A roar detonates every time a team fells an opposing champion, or takes down the dragon in the jungle to swell their team's resources. At one point, TPA's Stanley (the most popular player on stage) dodges an incoming projectile fired from a pursuing Frost player with what seems like prescient timing. The screams of incredulity sustain for close to a minute - drowning out the hyperactive commentary of the casters, who cannot compete for decibels.

The gathering of communal exhilaration, the coiling of a giant spring, is irresistible.

Despite a strong start, TPA lose the first of five rounds. But they take the second in less than 30 minutes, while Azubu Frost resign the third game after just ten minutes of play. At two-to-one to the Taipei Assassins need only take this fourth game to win the championship.

One Azubu Frost team member was an English teacher in Korea when he decided to go professional.

"What's your ambition?" I ask Tseng, in a moment of quiet.

"I want to stay in eSports," she says. "The atmosphere. The audience. This job is all about the passion for me. I'm so grateful my company gave me this opportunity. I'm so grateful."

"Do you see these guys as sportsmen?"

"I cannot believe how seriously they take their jobs," she says. "The team works harder than I ever could have imagined. The way they drive into the games is extraordinary; the level of detail that they notice. For example, Stanley told me when you perform a glide, the moment you press the button you should also press the 'space bar' so you see where the hero lands slightly ahead of time, instead of simply jumping to the location. That millisecond is tactically crucial, he told me. Yes. Sportsmen."

15 minutes in to the final game and TPA are circling upon victory.

Azubu Frost has the body language of near loss, lowered heads and still lips. The crowd senses the win and the temperature in the room raises perceptible degrees. Photographers cluster around TPA's side of the stage, preparing lenses to capture this, the next crucial moment in eSports accelerated evolution.

The jungle holds its breath.

Stanley clicks and the Nexus implodes. But we 8000 - and the 8.2 million watching at home - have never felt more connected.

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