The first rule of e-sports is to react fast. When viewership for League of Legends’ Season 2 World Championships went completely off the scale, developer Riot Games immediately doubled down for its upcoming Season 3 (scheduled to begin Jan. 30, pending a software patch), building an all-new, ESPN-like set and bringing in an 85-inch telestrator manned by color commentator David “Phreak” Turley — or “Weatherman 3″ as he’s now called around the Riot offices. Turley’s new toy just had one problem.
“We got that thing three days before the show started,” says Dustin Beck, Riot’s vice president of e-sports, “and it showed up cracked. We had to get a new one. It came day-of.”
Call it just a slight hiccup on e-sports’ road to legitimacy. Few games have moved that needle nearly as far as League of Legends did in the last two years. In terms of ratings, its Season 2 World Championships pulled in 8.3 million unique viewers, easily blowing away Emmy darlings like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and putting it on par with network hits like How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family. Top players take home six-figure purses. And for an encore, Beck and his team at Riot Games want to erase any distinctions between “e-sports” and “sports.”
“The biggest lesson we learned coming out of Season 2,” says Beck, “was how the fans are so involved that we had to deliver a really rich experience. It’s not OK anymore to start a broadcast late or to not deliver it in HD. These guys want e-sports to be just like any other sport out there.”
“We’re taking our cues from more traditional sports,” adds Whalen Rozelle, Riot’s senior e-sports manager.
The new set and an intact telestrator help with that image, but Beck and Rozelle intend to bring all the drama of sports to the electronic frontier. To do so, they’re backing 16 teams in their League Championship series — eight in North America and eight in Europe — with professional players and consistent, weekly schedules.
“We saw a lack of structure in the ecosystem,” says Beck. “There wasn’t any leagues like you see in the NFL, NBA, or FIFA, so we’re creating one. It’s a year-round, structured league where we pay the teams salaries. The players have compensation, and now this is a viable profession for these guys. They know they have matches every week. They don’t have to worry about going to tournaments intermittently and fighting for prize money and sponsorships.”
That’s partly because the usual sponsoring suspects like Razer, Logitech, and Monster Energy Drinks have already turned up. But now American Express wants in. Beck adds that a few traditional Major League Baseball sponsors are also lining up.
On top of professional combatants, consistency is key to Riot’s new approach. “I’m a huge NFL fan,” says Rozelle, “so I know what I’m doing on Sunday. We want to give fans a platform they can plan around, like Monday Night Football. They can look forward to seeing their favorite teams playing every week.”
Of course, Riot also has to give fans a favorite team to root for. So the other half of its equation calls for bringing the players out from behind their mice and monitors … not simply for in-studio interviews but also for personal profiles and thrice-weekly spots on their lives outside the arena.
“We have a production team with backgrounds in the NFL and the Olympics, and they’re going to focus on telling these narratives over the course of the season,” says Beck. “We really get to bring out the human element. That’s another layer to e-sports that fans haven’t seen before.”
Beck expects people, personalities, and stories to emerge that become the faces of e-sports. “You think about the NFL,” he says. “People care about the Broncos, they care about Colts, but it’s really about Peyton Manning, right? How’s his shoulder going to do? How’s Kobe Bryant going to respond when he might not make the playoffs even though they had the dream team coming into the season? People feel attached to these players as well as these franchises, so we’re really building that up.”
They also want to leave room for wild cards, like the Cinderella-story Team MRN, and it’s Rozelle’s job to make sure the new league system leaves room for the nonsponsored underdogs.
“One of the major things we’re launching in Season 3 is the league system,” he says. “It’s a remap of our ranked system, which was traditionally just one large ranked ladder. We’ve reorganized it to make it more compelling at every level. If you’re a bronze or silver player — like Dustin Beck — you can see tangible progress. But we’ve also built the Challenger Tier, where the top 20, 30, 50 teams have a spotlight shown on them. They have a chance to win prize money, gain valuable tournament experience, and qualify for the league championship series.”
The top-tier teams will also see their stories told the same way the pro teams do. “But now the fans can see these teams coming,” says Rozelle, “so when they do hit a qualification tournament, you kinda know these guys and you can root for them.”
But can e-sports — and League of Legends in particular — break out of its game-culture niche? Beck believes the fundamentals are all there.
“League of Legends is a competitive sport in every sense of the words,” he says. “It shares the core fundamentals of any other sport. It’s competitive, it’s strategic, it’s team-oriented. No two games are ever the same. These fans are just as hardcore as any other fans across any other sport.
Beck also notes that League of Legends and StarCraft were considered for the 2016 Olympics — “they were talking about it” — and he’s confident Riot Games has stepped up to that necessary next level for Season 3. “It’s the consistency. It’s the structure that just hasn’t existed before in e-sports. It’s this league where teams know they’re playing Thursday and Friday. They know they need to go scout this team, and they can focus on this as their actual profession. It’s going to help bring this sport into a new stratosphere.”
He doesn’t even notice that he’s already dropping the “e” himself half the time. It’s an unconscious act, but that’s how it starts.