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Last Saturday I went to my first massive esports event: The League of Legends Worlds Championship. More than 16,000 people crowded into the Chase Center arena where the Golden State Warriors play. It was a polished event, full of esports fan installations from cosplay to pregame podcasts.
Well ahead of the opening, crowds of gamers packed the plaza. I couldn’t have been more detached as a fan. I’m not a League of Legends player, and my colleague Jordan Fragen had to fill me in on the play-by-play of the action for the entire match. But by the end of it, I was as teary-eyed as the other 5.15 million fans (peak viewership per Esports Charts), and it finally dawned on me how powerful esports events can be. I could understand better why people love their games and their esports so much.
Riot Games has been at this for more than a decade and more than 600 million people have played League of Legends. But the emotion of the event wasn’t purely about mass numbers. Riot couldn’t have set up a better grudge match, even if it was making a fictional movie or tv show about esports. It was esports storytelling at its finest.
While the stars were pretty stone faced during the match, the casting set the mood. The star players –T1’s Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok and DRX’s Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu — were the same age at 26 and went to the same high school in Seoul, South Korea.
Faker, known as the Unkillable Demon King by fans, has led his team to three victories at Worlds across a decade. But Deft had never made it to the Grand Finals at all despite seven appearances. The one time these players had squared off at Worlds before, Faker’s team crushed Deft’s 3-0.
To add to the contrast, Faker has always played for T1 Esports, becoming a partial owner in 2020. Meanwhile, Deft had to move around from team to team, with DRX being his fifth esports team.
Deft’s team was 4th seed, and it could only qualify to play in Worlds through a “play-in” stage with a difficult round robin. It seemed unlikely that he could make his way to the finals. No team that had entered the tournament at this stage had made it to finals.
The League of Legends Worlds Championship does a good job of finding the best of the best. The tournament brings together 24 qualifying teams of five players each from Riot’s global system of regional leagues to participate in the month-long tournament. That’s a Darwinian process to get to the best players into the finals.
And it’s a pressure cooker. Last year, Worlds had more than 73 million peak concurrent viewers (including those from Chinese streaming services) and a billion hours watched. It’s a real-time strategy game where two teams of five champions face off to destroy the other team’s base. Every player has to carry their weight and make heroic plays.
The event itself was spectacular, with a stage that Riot Games had custom built. I can think of nothing more nerve-racking than waiting for this pre-show extravaganza (which started late) to end before taking the stage in front of a roaring audience.
The opening ceremony featured a three-act music and dance show, starting with The Call, the 2022 season anthem sung by Edda Hayes. That led to Jackson’s Wang’s Fire to the Fuse and the finale from Lil Nas X. These weren’t just musical acts. They were multimedia shows blended with lighting from a couple of dozen projectors and holographic tech that enabled lightning bolts to come down to the stage, which itself had thousands of LED tiles. The centerpiece was the Summoner’s Cup, designed this year by Tiffany & Co.
The finalists from South Korea squared off, with the underdog DRX taking the Summoners Cup in a total surprise as the favorite T1 Esports went down in defeat. Another writer said it was a “plot better than any concocted by a team of scriptwriters.”
Some of the drama starts for the fans as each player picks their champion, mixed in with picks that they won’t allow the other team to play.
It’s complicated because players can choose from more than 140 champions to make epic plays, secure kills and take down towers. Games typically last between 25 to 45 minutes and end when one team takes down their opponent’s Nexus. Yet this was going to be no typical event.
The teams wrestled back and forth over five matches, with the action swinging in one teams favor and back the other way in just about every one of the matches.
In the first game, T1 went on the defense as Faker was killed early but then recovered after Gumayusi stole a dragon just as it was about to be harvested by DRX.
Those events swung the advantage back and forth. But DRX never fully recovered and T1 took the first match. At that point, my friendly commentator worried if this would be a quick match where T1 would sweep three games in a row.
In the second game, the advantage kept swinging back and forth, and I was understanding more about why fans were so excited. They saw heroic plays happen where one player could make a move or surprise an enemy and turn the tables of the game. Even I could spot these events when they happened, though it was hard to miss them as the shoutcasters screamed whenever they happened. Fans started chanting for the first time, “DRX! DRX! DRX!” And DRX came back and won the second match, dashing any ideas that T1 was going to walk away with an easy win.
As the match ended, I didn’t even see any high fives among the teammates, who got up and walked offstage. It seemed like too little emotion on the faces of the players. The fans made up for that with the roars, and the excited shoutcasters wouldn’t stop shouting.
In the third game, the boxing match continued with plenty of trades. The fighters were going all in, but once again T1 came in at the last minute and stole the Baron that was needed to get the endgame in motion. Blows were traded again and then T1 stole another Baron from DRX, and it was over. These dramatic plays and stolen objectives fit the stage the games were played on.
At that point, DRX wasn’t facing good odds, and Deft died early on. But DRX kept picking away at T1 on different parts of the map and DRX started winning the dragons and getting kills again. Fragen kept noting who had the lead in gold, which is used to beef up characters during the matches. And DRX was pulling ahead on that front. I was thinking this was like an NBA game (we were where the Warriors played) where players made mistakes and came back with spectacular plays and turned the tide of battle.
At that point, the two-two match set up some crazy excitement in the arena. The whole tournament was coming down to a single game that would determine the winner and the loser. I was joining in the shouting as I wanted the underdogs to win. The T1 players no doubt had some new respect for DRX, which was hungry for victory as the underdog.
T1 pulled ahead with gold early in the game, but DRX’s Kingen started making life tough for the T1 players. Then DRX killed off four players from T1 and started rushing for Baron. But just as DRX was about the grab Baron and its powerful buff again, T1’s Gumayusi was able to sneak in, shooting a long-range arrow like a sniper, stealing Baron yet again. That put T1 back in the fight and the crowd was chanting “T1, T1, T1” as if we had a new underdog that was making a comeback. T1 secured a second Baron as the game went past 30 minutes. But DRX managed to snag its own dragons as well.
While Faker and Deft were the stars that everyone focused on, it was Kingen who got a double kill on Faker and then Zeka. Once again, this turned the tables and enabled DRX to get a key Elder Dragon. Then they were able to march straight to T1’s base and take the nexus.
And that’s when the real emotion started flowing. DRX’s players jumped up and gathered for a group hug, bouncing up and down. They were so emotional that I almost didn’t recognize them. Hands covered faces on the losing team. One of the T1 players broke down and started crying uncontrollably. The crowd was roaring and the shoutcasters were shouting.
“This is one of the greatest League of Legends finals in history,” said a shoutcaster. “What a show from these two teams.”
The teams bumped fists, Deft and Faker crossing paths one last time for the night. The losers marched off stage, and the Summoner’s Cup materialized. The DRX winners picked up the cup together and shook it with joy. Fireworks and confetti flew. The announcers gave the winners no break to compose themselves and started interviewing them on stage. You can imagine the shock among the DRX team, as no team from play-ins had ever won Worlds before, let alone made it to the final.
Asked what it was like to be a League of Legends world champion after a decade, Deft was weeping as he gave his answers through a translator. He could not speak at first, and I was getting weepy myself. While Deft got the attention, it was Kingen who earned the MVP award. Deft said that he had dreamed of being the best player in the world, but it was more important to be part of the best team. He had no more demons, and he had become a demon killer himself.
Like I said, it was an amazing esports narrative. You couldn’t make up a better story. Riot set the stage for the best esports tournament, but it was the teams that supplied all of the emotion. It would have been just as interesting to watch them play a pickup game in a high school gym. The underdogs, always underestimated, had come out on top. For me, it was a great moment, one that I knew from so many sports events of the past. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
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