In 2009, a studio called Riot Games released a closed beta that would soon take over the world of competitive gaming. League of Legends was seen as a spiritual successor to Defense of The Ancients (DOTA), a Warcraft III: Frozen Throne modification. It is a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game, a genre which generally involves two teams that must defend their bases from the other team. The goal is to attack the enemy base, which can be reached by various different paths, if you can get past the turrets and minions, computer-controlled characters which defend the enemy’s base. There are different types of games, the most popular being ranked games, and then normal games. Within the games there are different team sizes, such as three vs. three, five vs. five, and uneven teams in non-ranked games. As a player improves at League of Legends, their rank increases, starting at Bronze and ending at Diamond. Through this method, when a player competes, he or she is placed with other players of a similar skill level.
Though the game may seem simple on the surface, there are many intricacies, generally referred to as the meta-game. The meta-game, as Josh Ginzberg ’15 describes it, is “the set of strategies that the community has discovered to be most effective in the current balance of the game’s champions and global rules.” Chief among the appeal of League of Legends is its steep learning curve, which separates those who are truly dedicated and understand the meta-game from casual, non-competitive players.
Not everyone who plays League makes a big time commitment, but one needs to be put in a lot of time to move up in the ranks. Not only must players learn the general rules and tactics, but they need to be able to play as different champions (aka characters) and in different positions. Becoming good at League of Legends is in itself no easy task, but becoming good and taking on a Swarthmore workload is an almost Herculean endeavor.
Michael Wheeler ’16, better known as Dovienya in the League community, played League of Legends with his friends professionally. He played Shaco, a jester champion in the game, and tended to play jungle, a position which involved killing computer characters. Wheeler was ranked Diamond 1, the highest rank in the game, which put him among the top 200 players worldwide during the game’s Season 2. Wheeler plays games socially, so when his friends who played World of Warcraft started getting into League of Legends, he decided to join them, feeling pressure to play so that he could keep up. Eventually they got to the point where they decided to take League seriously: they started to record and rewatch their games, and also to stream them live. While they turned down an invitation to the Major League Gaming competition in Anaheim, they later went on to compete in the League of Legends Championship Series Qualifiers, placing second.
Within multiplayer games, communities inevitably form, but given a large following and balanced game mechanics, a professional gaming community can form. As a game grows in popularity, there may be competitions and tournaments awarding prizes. This allows people to pursue the game as a job or at the very least, as an investment. Often, companies even sponsor tournaments and players. Games like Quake, Counter Strike, and Starcraft are all games with strong communities that foster professional players.
During Season 2, Wheeler was taking a gap year for an internship, so he had much more time to play, but he was back at Swarthmore when his team decided to compete in the LCS Qualifiers. His team practiced three to four hours a day leading up to the qualifiers, which may not sound like much to some, but it should be noted that their practice sessions took place leading into finals week at Swarthmore.
Most professional players have to make a choice of whether to take up League of Legends full-time, or to stay in college, but for Wheeler it was an easy choice: he left the League of Legends community. He has gone on to play other games with his friends, and doesn’t see himself going back to the League, but he does appreciate the people he met along in his brief time playing the game professionally.
But the heavy time commitment doesn’t keep everyone at Swarthmore away, and there is a relatively active League of Legends community here (the Facebook group has an upwards of thirty members). Josh Ginzberg ’15 is a SAM and believes that though the time commitment can be a bit too much, it’s all about knowing how to manage your time and how long the games can take. For Julian Marin ’14, League is also how he keeps in touch with friends who have graduated, or don’t go to Swarthmore.
Currently, League of Legends’ status as a sport is one of the biggest debates in the video gaming community. Proponents of its sports status point to the number of viewers of the League of Legends Championship Series and other competitions, along with the fact that the United States now recognizes professional players as professional athletes, allowing them to easily apply for a visa. On the topic, Wheeler said that, “I believe that games are sports,” clarifying that while less physical than traditional sports, games require no less mental involvement and the tactics surrounding them are equally vital. Though the traditional view seems to be that physical exertion is at the heart of sport, supporters of League’s status point out that the International Olympic Committee recognizes both chess and bridge as sports. Wheeler does say that League of Legends might make a boring spectator sport, because once one is familiar with the champions, the meta-game, and the skill levels of various players, it’s easy to predict how any given game will go.
Even though a massive number of people play League of Legends, both players and non-players alike refer to the game’s community as “toxic”:
“When I’m playing a game, if I don’t know the other people that I’m playing [with or against], I just see them as another face on the internet. I’m hesitant to interact because it [the League of Legends community] is notorious for having a lot of negative players,” Marin said.
Most players seem to agree that this negativity is caused by the anonymity of the internet, coupled with League’s competitive atmosphere. Riot Games does attempt to moderate unruly gamers with a system called the Tribunal, which allows players to moderate their peers in the hope of weeding out those who play League unfairly or seek to annoy their teammates.
Even gamers who despise League cannot ignore the scale and scope of its success. Every day new players join, and every year its online presence increases almost exponentially. Some of this may be due to the game’s hype and relative newness, but its growth doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Already on an average day, there are over twelve million players; with over 1.6 million viewers for a single event, it won’t be surprising if you see League of Legends on actual TV, soon.