13,000 screaming fans is not an uncommon site for the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It’s the home dome for several prolific sports teams, including the Lakers (basketball) and the Kings (hockey), and has hosted more than it’s fair share of rowdy crowds.
But in the center of the massive arena this weekend wass something truly unprecedented: two rows of computers manned by young men facing off against each other in one of the most hyped videogame series ever played.
The game is League of Legends, a juggernaut in the industry boasting more than 70 million registrations, and over 40 million active players at last count. The teams are Royal Club and SK Telecom T1, the two top teams in the world. They’re playing for one million dollars and the most ornate metal trophy cup I’ve ever seen. This is the future of eSports.
This is the third annual World Championship that Riot has hosted for its professional players in attempts to promote the game’s eSports scene, and it completely dwarfs the accomplishments of its predecessors.
The first fans started lining up at the Staples Center entrance at 6 AM—14 hours before the matches are scheduled to begin and way too early for an event with assigned seating. But they’re just too excited to wait at home.
Every inch of the Staples Center–the outside walls, the tunnels to reach your seats, the hallways inside–was covered in League of Legends artwork. At least 20 pro players from LCS teams around the world walked around the stadium signing autographs and posing for pictures.
There no time for a half-time show in a League of Legends series, so Riot decided to host a massive spectacle at the front of the show. And, man, was it shiny. The hour-long pre-game show came close to rivalling some of the bedazzling, star-studded performances of the Super Bowl.
The show kicked off with a full orchestra playing extended versions of key League of Legends songs written for specific champions, and instantly recognizable to the fans because they play in the game’s launcher.
When Lucian’s theme song came up, Wes Borland, Limp Bizkit’s former guitarist, rose from the bottom of the stage donned in a futuristic, light-studded outfit that looked straight out of a sci-fi movie. (I was told that the costume was designed by the same man who built the championship cup and also designed the original Gremins movie costumes).
As he tore into the music, the smaller stage lit up and the two members of Crystal Method, a platinum-record electronic duo who’s frequently featured in top-tier video games and their trailers, burst into action. Both Borland and Crystal Method had worked with Riot to write the song, so their performance of the piece was perfect.
They were soon joined by a cellist in full fantasy warrior garb, rounding out the eclectic costumes as the bass and drums pounded through the speakers, shaking my body. The massive musical performance lasted about five minutes and was packed with non-stop energy and powerful music. The crowd erupted into cheers before it went back to the analyst desk to try and compete with that energy level.
The entertainment quality never dropped. The two teams rose out of the ground, surrounded by smoke to their cheering fans, and the 11-piece display screen was the largest I’ve ever seen used. Extra jumbotrons were hung from the ceiling closer to the nosebleed sections, so even the worst seats could see the action clearly.
When the action began, the atmosphere was astonishing. The most tense moments of the matches led 13,000 people to shout at the top of their lungs or start a chant for SKT. The crowd intensity and energy easily surpassed what I felt at my last NFL game. I not sure I’ve felt that overwhelmingly powerful force from a crowd since I got trapped in a mosh pit at a punk rock concert in middle school.
When SKT sealed their victory, an obscene amount of confetti flew into the air and the massive, metal cup was hoisted into the air by the victors as the crowd chanted their name and roared with approval. There was no absurdly sized million-dollar check handed to the team, but that’s probably a good thing.
The incredible event at the Staples Center last night mirrored the most dedicated fans’ intensity and passion for eSports. That’s more than we’ve been trained to expect from the other gaming companies, who outsource their eSports or keep it tame in an attempt to maintain profitability. With 40 million active players in League of Legends, we know that Riot Games is not having any money problems, and it’s wonderful to see how willing they are to take, quite frankly, extreme measures to make sure their eSports events are as exciting as they can possibly be for the fans.
As I walked out of the Staples Center, I passed the bronzed statues of sports legends that’ve accomplished amazing feats inside that building: Magic Johnson, Wayne Gretzky, Oscar De La Hoya, and others. Tonight’s amazing scale, spectacle, and fan turnout are convincing: it’s no longer wishful thinking to believe that eSports’s legends-in-the-making like Faker and Piglet will soon join the ranks of these immortalized athletes.