This weekend, legends were created in South Korea, the birthplace of esports. Watched by tens of millions of people each year, the world championship finals of League of Legends this year featured two squads battling it out at a 50,000-seat stadium in the South Korean city of Incheon.
Fondly called LoL in short by fans, the PC game has grown into the darling of the $13 billion global gaming industry since being released by Riot Games Inc. almost a decade ago. LoL mixes the elements of strategy-based and role-playing games and features monsters, mages and warriors that feel like they’ve been pulled out of medieval folklore. It’s no surprise the game has spawned new businesses from books and clothes to toys and accessories.
E-sports fans liken the LoL championship to the World Cup, pointing out it holds the record for the longest and largest viewership among game tournaments. Last year, 60 million people tuned in to watch the finals in Beijing, where team Samsung Galaxy defeated three-time champion SK Telecom T1, another team from South Korea.
This year marked the first time that no South Korean squad had reached the finals since 2011, even though it was played in the Asian country. Instead, Fnatic, a European team that had won the first championship held in Sweden, duked it out with Invictus Gaming, a Chinese organization also famous for its exploits in Dota 2 and StarCraft.
One team must win three matches to claim the title by destroying the other’s base, or “Nexus.” And of course, it’s easier said than done. It takes guts, quick thinking and teamwork on top of numerous hours of practice to beat another team that has put in as much devotion. Winners go on to hoist the coveted “Summoner’s Cup.”
The opening ceremony drew world stars like The Glitch Mob, Mako and Madison Beer while some fans celebrated their affection for the game with cosplay outside the Munhak stadium. The event has served as an outlet for creative expressions by fans as they show off costumes made with inspirations from the game.
While no South Korean team played in the finals, enthusiasm for e-sports is hotter than ever in this nation of 50 million where it’s common to see a gaming cafe on almost every major street in a city. That’s boosting profits at local game developers while manufacturers like Hyundai Motor Co. and Samsung Heavy Industries Co. struggle to regain their old glory. For instance, Netmarble, which specializes in mobile-phone games, has market capitalization that rivals that of LG Electronics Co.
Some gamers achieve celebrity status in South Korea. Lee Sang-heyok, “Faker” of T1, reportedly earns millions of dollars each year and commands a following that most baseball and soccer players would be jealous of, while StarCraft legend Lim Yo-hwan is married to an actress and frequently appears on television shows.
More and more of the nation’s skilled players enjoy successful careers that often take them on globe-trotting journeys while a growing number of teenagers aspire to follow in their footsteps by attending cram schools for e-sports.
“South Korea has produced so many talented players,” said Song Chong-ho, general manager of T1. “It’s become the Brazil of e-sports.”