Inside the Biggest Nerd Sporting Event You've Never Heard Of

11:00 AM PST 07/16/2014 by Natalie Jarvey
Jessica Chou

The exploding universe of e-sports culminates every year in a "League of Legends" tournament that sold out more than 11,000 seats at Staples, has Coca-Cola and American Express as sponsors and keeps teenagers training year-round.

This story first appeared in the July 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Soren Bjerg plays video games all day with his roommates, pausing only to eat and sleep. Though it might sound like a dream to many teens, it's just the daily grind for the 18-year-old, who recently relocated from Europe to L.A. to devote his life to gaming. He trains relentlessly -- more than 12 hours a day. "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think it was fun," he says. "But now it's my everything. It's my job."

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Bjerg, known in the gaming world as Bjergsen, is a member of Team SoloMid, a squad of professional gamers who have attracted legions of fans and international adoration for their physical skills in front of a computer screen. TSM competes in front of live audiences during tournaments with purses topping $1 million.

They partake in a multiplayer battle game called League of Legends, which has transformed e-sports from a niche spectacle into a juggernaut. League burst into the limelight in 2011 when developer Riot Games, a private company majority-owned by China's Tencent Holdings, began hosting organized competitions. The object of the game -- which is contested by teams of five players who each play a specific position -- is to kill their opponents' characters and then destroy their home base.

This is big business. The game is free but is supported by microtransactions as the game's 58 million players purchase upgrades. Market intelligence firm SuperData estimates that Riot Games made $624 million with League in 2013 alone. Now it's one of the three most popular e-sport games -- along with Defense of the Ancients 2 and StarCraft 2 -- and no one draws more viewers. Riot's annual World Championship last year sold out more than 11,000 seats at Staples Center and streamed live to 32 million people. With that audience, it's no surprise that League tournaments have attracted sponsorship deals with the likes of Coca-Cola, HBO and American Express. "The game itself is designed extremely well for viewership," says Whalen Rozelle, director of e-sports at Santa Monica-based Riot. A Riot spokeswoman says that the company has been approached "frequently" about bringing League of Legends to TV or the big screen but has no plans to announce such projects right now.

Gamers like Bjerg might not align with the definition of "athlete," but they're stars in competitive spectator events that demand speed, agility, accuracy and stamina. They train to improve those skills, run finger-dexterity drills and practice drinking water in the corner of their mouths during matches (so they don't disturb their headsets or game play). And last year, the U.S. State Department approved athlete visas for professional foreign League of Legends players. That's how Bjerg, a phenom in Denmark, found his way to the States.

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Watching TSM train on a recent Monday morning, it's not hard to see why they've been granted star-athlete status. TSM operates much like any professional sports team -- practicing endlessly, discussing strategy, dissecting game videos. The team spends all week training for weekend competitions in the eight-team North American League Championship Series. This is the highest level of the sport, with some 20 teams in a challenger league trying to fight their way into the upper echelon.

Long considered a top North American team, TSM has had a tough year, placing second during the spring season to rival Cloud9. The team is pinning comeback hopes on newcomers Nicolas "Gleeb" Haddad, 18 and from California, and Germany's Maurice "Amazing" Stuckenschneider, 20, to help revive their play. Players work their way up to the big leagues much like in other sports -- excelling in amateur tournaments, improving their ranking enough to score a spot on a development squad and getting recruited by a pro team. Though lots of young women play the game and attend tournaments as fans, very few presently compete at the highest level.

A new coach, Choi "Locodoco" Yoon-Sup, has cracked down on the team in the wake of the losses. "It's easy to be lazy," says the South Korea-born former player, 22, who retired last year because he "lost motivation."

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"We don't really have much time for friends or girlfriends or family," says Bjerg. "You have to give up a lot of things." In his case, it was a dog. For Canadian Jason "WildTurtle" Tran, 19, it was his high school diploma.

Still, top players can earn more than $100,000 a year -- from salaries, team endorsement deals (TSM's include Logitech and Alienware) and live streaming gameplay on the video platform Twitch. "When the season isn't on, the exposure isn't there," says Twitch community and education director Marcus Graham. "A lot of guys turn to streaming to build their brand."

Building an individual identity is key in League, where players quickly can fall out of favor and get cut from a team. And there's the age factor: Few gamers over 24 remain competitive in tournaments. "The biggest things that go down are reaction time and your ability to process situations really, really quickly," says Choi, who notes that many former players become coaches or find other jobs in the e-sports industry.

If gaming sounds cutthroat in the U.S., it's nothing compared to South Korea, where e-sports are broadcast on TV alongside traditional sports and gamers are lauded as heroes. The top three teams from the North American LCS will compete at the World Championship in the fall at a soccer stadium in Seoul that can hold 66,000 fans. For TSM, which placed 11th at last year's World Championship, a place on that stage is the ultimate goal.

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On the afternoon of July 5, TSM is trying to take a step in that direction on Manhattan Beach Studios Stage 22 for the weekly LCS games. TSM had a rough start, losing early to Team Dignitas. But that doesn't stop the crowd from cheering when the team takes the stage for its second match.

Lights flash as broadcasts from the players' computers appear on a center-stage screen. Announcers follow along with play-by-play that resembles any major sports broadcast. As TSM closes in on the opponent's base, signaling that the game is coming to a close, the audience erupts.

Fans stream outside to wait for TSM, whose members emerge to pose for selfies and sign merchandise. The players seem bashful about their fame -- not long ago, they were casual gamers, and none can quite explain how their hobby became a career. "It's a dream job," says Marcus "Dyrus" Hill, 22, from Hawaii. "You don't exactly play video games and magically make money because you're good at it. But it doesn't feel like work because you are doing what you love."

A Day in the Life of a Gamer

9 A.M. | WAKE-UP CALL

In the words of Jason "WildTurtle" Tran, a typical day for TSM is "plain and simple: We eat, play, eat, play and sleep." After they wake up, the players often take a 45-minute walk to the beach from their Santa Monica apartment.

10 A.M. | PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

For the first two hours of training, the players are on their own to warm up or practice as they see fit. "We do have to practice long hours, and there's not that much free time," says Nicolas "Gleeb" Haddad. "But I enjoy all the people on the team. It's just really fun."

NOON | SERIOUS DRILLS

Team training, when the players practice in-game strategy as a group, lasts for about four hours. Maurice "Amazing" Stuckenschneider says the strict schedule has helped the players become "more committed to the game."

4 P.M. | DINNER BELL

A chef delivers food to the TSM house every other day. The healthy meals are easy to heat up during the squad's short breaks, explains Soren "Bjergsen" Bjerg. "None of us really cook because we're 18- to 20-year-old guys," he adds. "It's just easier this way."

8 P.M. | BREAK TIME

The players, who share rooms in the two-story apartment, spend most of their free time with one another. After so much time together, distinctive roles in the house have begun to form. "Nick cleans up a lot," says Marcus "Dyrus" Hill about the team's newest member. "We made a trash rule: If it's full, take it out. He does it the most."

11 P.M. | LAST CALL

A rigorous sleep schedule keeps the players fully awake and alert during their weekend competitions. But it also means that the squad gets few nights off, which makes relationships or friendships difficult to maintain. Says Bjerg: "When we're not the first-place team, there's not much time to just have fun."

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