League of Legends and 32 million players try to conquer the future

March 27, 2012 | 11:44 a.m.

leagueoflegends League of Legends and 32 million players try to conquer the future

At 6-foot-1 and weighing scarcely 155 pounds, George Georgallidis does not immediately strike people as an athlete. But make no mistake — the 21-year-old is the Tim Tebow of his sport. Except that Georgallidis’ sport does not require him to run, jump or throw. Instead, he uses his slender, expressive hands to play a computer game called League of Legends.

Developed by Riot Games Inc. in Santa Monica, League of Legends has become the game of choice for millions of competitive online players including Georgallidis, who last year quit his job as a store clerk in his hometown of London, Canada, to make his living as a professional League of Legends player. Georgallidis’ surprising career path is the culmination of a grand plan for Brandon Beck, 29, and Marc Merrill, 31. The co-founders of Riot hatched their idea for the company in 2005, when the two USC graduates were roommates. Four years later, they launched the game.

Today, League of Legends has 32 million registered players, 4 million of whom play daily for an average of three hours a day. Although the game is free to play, Riot has been profitable for at least two years — making money by selling virtual items and characters with special powers, called Champions. In each match, two teams of five players each select from a list of about 100 Champions and attempt to destroy the other’s base in a virtual jungle arena. The genre, called multiplayer online battle arena, is one of the most popular for competitive play.

riotgames2 League of Legends and 32 million players try to conquer the future

Riot Games President Marc Merrill, left, and CEO Brandon Beck at their offices in Santa Monica. (Christina House /For The Times)

Riot operates in the online games market for virtual goods, which research group In-Stat expects to double in size to $14 billion in 2014, from $7.3 billion in 2010. Riot is privately held and does not publicly disclose its financial data. But the company — whose only game is League of Legends — was attractive enough for Tencent Holdings, one of China’s biggest Internet companies, to plunk down $400 million in February 2011 for a majority stake.

Part of what makes Riot so valuable is its devoted fan base. So passionate are the players that thousands gather in places such as Sweden, Germany, South Korea and the United States to compete and root for their favorite athlete in the burgeoning e-sports field. A League of Legends tournament that took place three weeks ago in Hanover, Germany, filled a convention hall to capacity with 5,000 attendees while 3,000 waited in line outside. More than 2.2 million online viewers watched a live stream of the five-day tournament.

Last week, League of Legends became the top online title in South Korea, where such games are big business and are widely played in Internet cafes. In Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood, players gather in similar venues, called PC bangs. But the Internet cafe culture has not hit mainstream America, where the vast majority of games are played on home computers.

riotgames1 League of Legends and 32 million players try to conquer the future

Aaron Hathaway, an associate Web developer, engages in a game session in the PC Cafe at Riot Games in Santa Monica. (Christina House / For The Times)

Competitive gaming has been around for more than 15 years. The first generation of players competed on shooter games such as Doom and Quake, according to Dennis Fong, chief executive of Raptr, an online social network for about 12 million gamers. Fong is well known on the pro-gaming circuit as Thresh, a professional player who won a custom Ferrari 328 in a 1997 Quake tournament and who used to earn more than $100,000 a year in winnings and sponsorships.

But the sport failed to gain mass recognition in the U.S., even though matches were broadcast in 2007 and 2008 via DirecTV’s Championship Gaming Series.

League of Legends, however, represents a new wave of competitive gaming, Fong said. The first big difference between the game and its predecessors is that it costs nothing to play, immediately drawing in players. Second, Riot made the game easy for anyone to pick up and play — but devilishly difficult to master.

“Previous games in this genre had big learning curves that tended to scare people off,” Fong said. “Riot made a few key tweaks that made it a lot easier for players to give it a try.”

riotgames3 League of Legends and 32 million players try to conquer the future

Associate concept artist Anton Kolyukh works on an orthographic render at Riot Games in Santa Monica. (Christina House / For The Times)

There is one other crucial factor in the game’s success: the ability to live-stream matches. With widespread adoption of high-speed Internet access, websites such as TwitchTV and Own3D.tv began hosting games — not just one or two high-level matches, but millions of them.

By aggregating these 30- to 45-minute contests, San Francisco-based TwitchTV, for example, amassed an audience of 16 million viewers in February who spent a combined 2.1 billion minutes watching videos on the site. TwitchTV co-founder Emmett Shear estimates that about 50,000 players broadcast their games in any given month.

TwitchTV, which makes money from selling advertising and charging pay-per-view fees of about $20 for high-level tournaments, splits ad revenue with its top 1,200 broadcasters, including Georgallidis. The amount broadcasters receive is calculated based on their viewership.

marcusgraham cp1 League of Legends and 32 million players try to conquer the future

Learn the lingo

On a Friday afternoon last month, Georgallidis, who plays 10 hours a day under the name HotShotGG, attracted an online crowd of 8,071 spectators for a practice match. The browser window shows Georgallidis staring intently at his computer screen, coordinating strategy with his four teammates via a headset.

Georgallidis’ team, Counter Logic Gaming, is so dedicated that the members moved into an apartment together two weeks ago in Seoul to take part in a three-month League of Legends tournament there with a prize pool of about $180,000.

“It’s very common for these teams to live together,” said Marcus Graham, who makes a living as an e-sports commentator and hosts four weekly shows on TwitchTV dedicated to competitive computer gaming. “They usually play on five computers right next to each other. At the end of the day, they get together and use a whiteboard to talk about strategy. These guys take it very seriously.”

Georgallidis said his mother, who was initially skeptical, eventually came around. “My parents are excited that I get to do something I really love,” he said.

As with other professional sports, a small industry has been built to support e-sports. Companies such as Major League Gaming, Electronic Sports League, World Cyber Games and IGN Pro League organize tournaments — both online and as live events. Sponsors such as Intel Corp., Dr Pepper and Dell Inc. back teams and events.

Beck and Merrill, hard-core gamers themselves, believed that the best way to promote their game was to actively foster it as a sport. As a result, Riot is giving away $5 million in prize money to winners of a series of competitions throughout the year.

Beck, a former management consultant for Bain & Co., and Merrill, who worked as an analyst for U.S. Bank, believe that the money is a good investment in their game’s appeal.

“Our vision was that someday we will all feel the same way about e-sports as we do about soccer, basketball or any other conventional sport,” Beck said.

— Alex Pham


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54 Responses to League of Legends and 32 million players try to conquer the future

  1. Most league of legends players, including George and hes team, stream for Own3d.tv and not Twitch.tv, as the article says, just wanted to point that out.

  2. IceSin says:

    very good articles! nice to see league of legends getting out there. amazing game

  3. okman says:

    hotshot is the appex of lol?

    news to me.

    • @DaveO66 says:

      Sure, for the pure viewer numbers he draws, him, Saintvicious and Dyrus usually have well over 10k viewers.

    • Maln says:

      Outside of Riot, I believe he is the one who has done the most for this game.
      In an interview, he stated that he was more than a player of League of Legends, and he actually wanted more for the game to grow and foster it, rather than be something like the best at this game.

    • bdgjsrftj says:

      Tebow isn't in any way the apex of football, he's a backup. How exactly did this article say that hotshot was the apex of lol? He's definitely one of, if not the best known of the league players.

    • insertname says:

      Fanboys be hating :p

    • DerpDerpington says:

      He's the one person nearly everyone knows, was the first person to regularly stream and has been a mainstay throughout the entire life of LoL, from Alpha to the latest patch.

  4. Different says:

    HSGG isn't the pinnacle but he does get a lot of love from the media.

  5. nick says:

    Seoul is in South Korea for anyone who didnt know

  6. guest says:

    Cant believe the statement, " But the Internet cafe culture has not hit mainstream America…" was made. Internet cafe's have been around since before starbucks was big in the US. They failed miserably, all of them.

  7. AdyEndrus says:

    Twitch definitely targets different genres. I'm not sure why League streamers flocked to own3d.tv. Either way, most people watch on third-party sites anyway, like solomid.net or topleaguestreams.com where they can get more information about the streamers (runes, etc).

    PS: Can we get a different title than "streamers"? Sounds like a child's birthday decoration…

  8. Pallanun says:

    they compared him to tebow which was a stud early on then a complete failure when the big time rolled around except for a hail mary here and there

  9. Van says:

    Played it for months, got my Dota 2 beta key and all I have to say is – if LoL is a great game, Dota 2 will be even greater.

    • Brent says:

      Meh, Dota 2 is kind of a let down.

    • dim3tapp says:

      Apples and oranges.

    • Guest says:

      ALWAYS, some person who's a fan of another game tries to prove that this or that game is better than LoL . meanwhile, LoL players don't give a damn what you think and just play. every forum i've seen with LoL always has people like u saying SC2 is wayyy better, Dota 2 will destroy LoL. well at this point, ur not really proving anything as LoL has broken many records in the gaming community

    • guest says:

      The fact is LoL will most likely remain bigger due to it being free.

  10. Joo says:

    @Van: DOTA 2 has almost none of the appeal of LoL; why would a casual gamer choose it instead? Of 32 million players, a very small percentage would switch for it's oh-so-appealing higher difficulty…

  11. coocooboom says:

    I hate how Dota people hate on LoL because it's more popular and has better competative scene. LoL is easy to pick up but hard to master. Dota is hard to pick up but there is no room for much development because the best competative moba teams are playing League as you can actually make a living out of it via tournaments, streaming and stuff like that.

    • Guest says:

      that doesn't mean that there is not room for development. while league of legends clearly has a competitive scene, there is near infinite room for development in the dota 2.

  12. JustBones says:

    Gotta Agree with coocooboom.
    I have played Avalon Heroes (a not so famous MOBA game) then switched to Heroes of Newerth(HoN) and then i have gone to LoL.
    even though i wasnt a complete noob when i started HoN i had not really chances of winning or actually having fun in the game.
    When i switched to LoL i firstly was impressed how clear the game looks and i loved that.
    There is way more personalization because not everyone has every champ (i palyed HoN before it was free) and the way to pick up the game is easy.

    Long story short in HoN and Dota i played 4 games a day (whch was rare) and after 4weeks of playing Lol i played more games than in HoN over 6 Month.
    DoTa2 will not erase LoL because LoL has a wider community base that is very dedicated to it.

  13. Jeff is too old says:

    OK, I'm 57 and way too old for this stuff. I was brought up on pinball machines and then the sensational (for its time) Pong and then Air Hockey (proud former University champ here – big deal). Then I got married and had to buy groceries and then babies came along. Now my son is 32 and he still eats this stuff up. He even sent me a link to read this. I just don't have time or interest. But the business model is absolutely FASCINATING! You Go Guys.

  14. Alex says:

    Click This to play league of legend. http://5429c465.theseforums.com

  15. Rhet says:

    Stupid game, waste of human potential.

  16. ark says:

    Uhh. 32 million ACCOUNTS. Which are FREE TO CREATE. The article seems to be based on a number that HAS to be far from accurate. I have friends with 5 lol accounts.

  17. Eddywilliams33 says:

    I remember seeing this statistic and thinking how ridiculous it is, and this was almost 2 years ago! I can't imagine how the game has grown since then.

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