Within the flourishing industry of esports, the popular strategy game League of Legends has an established professional scene, broad appeal, and significant playership, but still hasn’t been embraced by many Americans. The game has grown to an extent where even in 2017, the League of Legends Championship prize pool was nearly twice the amount of the Tour De France at $4.9 million. In the past year, there were over 110 million regular players worldwide. Could the key to unlocking the enormous potential talent pool of millions more in the U.S. lie in scholastic and collegiate sponsorship?
(Image from League of Legends World's Finals 2016)
For those unfamiliar with League of Legends, it’s a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) game that’s strategy and team based. Teams of 5 players with specific roles set out to conquer territory in a three laned arena called Summoner’s Rift by completing tasks, removing turrets, taking out champions and collecting minions. Eventually, the winning side will control territory and launch a successful attack on the opponent’s nexus.
That description really doesn’t do the game justice; the fact that major components of League of Legends require some explanation and walkthrough might be a key to understanding why the game is not as popular, since it’s a game that comes with a steeper learning curve than many other FPS (First Person Shooter) or sports games where the objectives are clearer. Given that the average game is an upwards of 30 minutes and does require a decent amount of attention, the initial hurdle alone might be too overwhelming for beginners to become invested.
Almost in a “soccer”-esque way, despite its global attraction, League is nowhere near as popular in the U.S. as it is abroad. Since its initial release in 2009, with only a few hundred thousand players, the game has experienced a series of swells, seeing an increase to nearly 11 million players by 2011 and to over 100 million players by 2017. Most of that playerbase reside in Asia and Europe, which is reflected in the fact that only 3 professional players from the League’s top 100 list hail from North America.
Still there might be some glimmers of hope for the growth of League in the US. They are found in the scholastic pipelines that are emerging through collegiate and scholastic leagues.
Since most colleges with an esports program commonly have League teams, even offering significant scholarships to League players, this has prompted scholastic leagues to focus on the game also, but most professional League teams don’t have many Americans on them, which might be a sign that we’re still in the earlier stages of adoption.
We’re at a crossroads where the game can really only go in two directions: either like Soccer, the game will be commonly played at junior levels, but then fizzle out thereafter in a professional scene that isn’t nearly as competitive as in the rest of the world; or this developing pipeline will produce begin to churn out top talent that can’t be ignored by top teams.
What do you think?