'League of Legends' Is Already a Global Brand, But It Wants to Get Bigger

League of Legends_Mid-Season Invitational - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Riot Games
With viewership topping 90 million hours-watched per week, the League Championship Series is one of the most popular sporting spectacles in the world.

League of Legends, Riot Games' online battle arena game, is currently holding its Mid-Season Invitational finals in Paris for its e-sports league, with more than 6.9 million hours of the coverage watched across streaming platforms in the past week. 

The League Championship Series (LCS) was launched in 2013 and has grown to a regular season viewership that averages 90 million hours-watched live weekly. Last year's championship final tallied more than 1.2 billion hours-watched over the course of the 21-day competition, with the most-watched match of the event pulling in more than 80 million live unique viewers.

As the popularity of e-sports continues to grow with North American audiences and different leagues emerge, such as the Overwatch League, League of Legends (LoL) remains a mainstay in the industry as an already established global brand with events that have taken place in New York's Madison Square Garden, Los Angeles' Staples Center and the "Bird's Nest" stadium in Beijing.

Chris Hopper, Riot Games' head of North American e-sports, caught up with Heat Vision to discuss LoL's success and the future of the video gaming league.

What makes League a compelling game for e-sports?

I think it starts with having a competitive game that’s naturally suited for a spectator experience. You play League of Legends in the same perspective as watching it, so it’s easy to see all of the action taking place and to appreciate the skill going into it. It’s also a game that can be appreciated at any level of mastery; newer fans can cheer for whoever has the bigger gold lead and get excited for splashy team fights, while more informed fans can truly appreciate the mastery the pros demonstrate in every match. And finally, it’s a game that you can aspire to emulate pro behavior; I can watch a match and hope to pull off a Zed combo like Faker, but I watch Aaron Rodgers throw a touchdown pass and know I couldn’t replicate it if I tried. 

Why has the game endured over the years?

I think you have to start with the gameplay and our dedicated team that works to keep the game fresh. Few titles put out bi-weekly updates at all, much less maintaining that cadence for several years with a major change at the end of the competitive season. Our gameplay team really succeeds at keeping the game fresh, and that makes it interesting as both a player and a viewer. Beyond that, I think you have to consider our commitment to the player relationship and community. Just like with gameplay constantly iterating, there have been a number of things we’ve gotten wrong in the community and decisions made that we can fix by listening and evolving. 

As e-sports become more popular, what sets LCS apart?

In part, our journey so far. Since the official launch of the LCS in 2013, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to run a successful league, and we’ve been able to bring these lessons to the 14 different leagues we run around the world, supporting almost 1,000 pros globally. We’ve spent years refining our systems, processes and teams, so that our foundations are solid, and that gave us the comfort to go through a franchising process in 2017. 

Are there plans to expand?

Potentially. We’d all love to bring more teams into the league, but there are a few checks to make sure that everyone is ready for such a commitment. First, there needs to be sufficient competitive depth to the player pool so that an expansion won’t result in two lackluster teams being formed. Additionally, we need to make sure that the economics make sense. Ultimately, it’s a decision we will make with our partners (the team owners and the players association), but I wouldn’t expect it in 2019.

Are all players paid the same salary or does it vary from player to player like other professional sports leagues?

It varies from player to player. When we first provided baseline $25,000/year salaries per player in 2013, the goal was to offer a degree of stability that no other e-sport could offer. Previously, the e-sports scene was similar to golf or tennis, where athletes only got paid if they did well in the biggest competitions. Unfortunately, this made it hard for potential pros to commit to the competitive lifestyle, because if they didn’t make it big in the first few months, they’d have to go find a regular job to sustain their passion. These days, top teams in the NA LCS are all vying to attract the best talent from around the world, and player salaries are much higher. The variance is pretty wide but, on average, the starting NA LCS player salary is $320,000-plus, with over 70 percent of those players on multiyear contracts. And this is in addition to the benefits that teams are now required to extend to players as full employees of their organization.

What’s the long-term goal for growth of the LCS?

We certainly aspire to continue gaining viewers; right now the majority of our viewership comes from individuals who either currently play or used to play League of Legends, and we’re fortunate that that is still a sizable population to work from. I believe that we can expand into a wider audience; there is a much larger population of gamers to draw from, and I believe it’s not unreasonable to convert sports fans into LoL e-sports fans. When compared to other traditional sports, we are making less per broadcast hour consumed, and we need to bring that number up; this is both an industry educational task as well as a need to build strong relationships with some of our early sponsors to evidence the viability of marketing to e-sports fans. With the owners we have accumulated around the table and the knowledge and network of their corporations behind them, we are confident in our economic future.

Do you ever worry about interest waning as the game becomes older? Are there plans for longevity for the title?

There is always worry that a new game will come out and steal interest away from our fans. League was built as an evolution of previous MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) titles, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that we are constantly exceeding ourselves in the race to stay on top. With that said, our cadence of updates to the game is one of our greatest strengths: We update the game every two to three weeks, and offer a larger, more game-changing update at the end of each year. This helps keep the game fresh, for both viewers and e-sports fans, and hopefully helps to stave off wannabe competitors in the space. We also believe that the e-sport can help extend the longevity of the game; fans who develop deep connections with teams and players are going to want to continue watching because of the competition and the human element, not because the game is the newest on the market. Traditional sports like baseball and basketball have minor changes over the span of decades; if we can keep updating the game every couple of weeks, I see no reason why fans would grow tired of the action.