Shooting Blow Darts at Rocks

I am absolutely terrible at League of Legends, the video game that’s the future of sports.

League of Legends
Each League of Legends “champion” possesses different skills and vulnerabilities.

Courtesy of Riot Games

On Oct. 19, 40,000 fans poured into a soccer stadium in Seoul, South Korea, to smack thundersticks and roar with glee at the fourth annual League of Legends World Championship. Millions more followed along on TV or via online streams—Riot Games, the American company that makes League of Legends, has yet to release this year’s viewership numbers, but last year’s championship attracted a worldwide audience of 32 million. By the end of the evening, a team of five young Korean dudes sponsored by Samsung had taken the “Summoner’s Cup” and the $1 million top prize.

All of which left me with two questions: 1) Is rooting for Samsung akin to rooting for U.S. Steel? 2) Why, exactly, is this video game—and competitive gaming more broadly, known by its practitioners as “e-sports”—so wildly popular?

League of Legends boasts 67 million active monthly players. Broadcasts of its professional title matches draw more global eyeballs than an NBA Finals game. While this year’s event was held in South Korea, and South Koreans make up a healthy chunk of the game’s fan base, a sellout crowd also watched last year’s championship at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. And yet, I could only find one Slate employee who’d ever played LoL before last week. Many among us had no idea what League of Legends even was, beyond a vague sense that it must be some sort of fantasy dealie.

To find out what we were all missing, I downloaded the game and started playing it obsessively. I logged on for match after match, day and night, until my fingers cramped and my eyeballs ached. I assaulted turrets. I was repeatedly “ganked” by “junglers.” I got called a noob more times than I care to remember. And I stand before you today as … a distinctly awful League of Legends player. But I have come to understand the game’s appeal. I now believe that e-sports will dominate our recreational future.

First, a primer. League of Legends is a computer game you can play on a PC or Mac using a mouse and keyboard. The standard game features two teams of five players each. Those teams clash on a square battlefield, starting from opposite corners. Each five-player unit defends its home base and attempts to destroy its enemy’s—kind of like capture the flag. There are three wide-open “lanes” that players can use to traverse the game board between the bases, and which serve as frequent venues for head-on fights. In between them lies a knottier “jungle” that players can roam through guerrilla-style. There are strange monsters and medieval fantasy weapons and magic armor. That kind of scene.

The first time I played, I faced an immediate dilemma: Which character should I be? There are currently 121 “champions” listed on the game’s information page. Each possesses different skills and vulnerabilities. Some are “tanks” that can sustain a lot of damage. “Marksmen” dish out death from afar but are fragile under fire. Which champion best suited my LoL personality?

Seth’s LoL alter ego, Teemo.

Image via Riot Games

Having no idea what I was doing, I picked the cutest of the lot. Teemo is a furry little guy with a hat and goggles. He is a “yordle” from “Bandle City” (each champion has an elaborate backstory), and his key weapon is a blinding blow dart. I could see my four randomly assigned teammates choosing from among the other champions—ferocious spider-beasts, scaly squid-monsters, scantily clad sorceresses. People began to type things in the pre-game chat box. “I’ll go top,” wrote one teammate. “I’ll support bottom,” wrote another. “I’m new to the game,” I wrote, unclear what we were declaring, “somebody tell me where to go.” This was met with a chilly silence.

And then the game fired up and we were Legend-ing. I waddled Teemo down one of the lanes and was immediately brutalized. Some manner of creature tossed some sort of flaming Frisbee at my head, jumped on top of me, and killed me within four seconds. “Idiot,” typed one of my teammates in the chat box. I regenerated at our home base, waddled back into the fray, and was quickly met with exactly the same fate. “Idiot,” my teammate typed again. Keep in mind that this anonymous fellow managed to insult me midmelee, while he was presumably executing all sorts of complicated keystroke combinations. Yet he still found time to tell me what he thought of my playing style. Impressive multitasking.

“Why don’t you have any items?” someone asked me in chat, when I regenerated again. What are items? I thought to myself. “Because I’m new and I don’t know what I’m doing,” I typed. “Well buy some fucking items,” wrote my helpful teammate.

I went to the store and randomly clicked on one of the 193 items for sale. I think I might have bought the Boots of Mobility. Or no, the Amplifying Tome. Whatever. I had no clue what it did, or how to activate it, or whether it was useful to my particular champion, but at least it only cost me a little bit of in-game currency rather than real money. To read up on what exactly was being amplified would have meant squatting at our home base for 20 minutes doing homework while the battle raged. So off I waddled, Tome in hand—once more unto the breach, dear frenemies.

I was of course murdered within seconds. By the time the game had finished (my team lost) I’d registered zero kills and 16 deaths. “0-16,” typed a teammate just before logging out. “WTF????”

Over many more games, I became only marginally better. I learned to hang back instead of rushing headlong into certain, fiery doom. I figured out how to deploy my special powers, with occasional, very limited effect. I think my best-ever finish was two kills against 11 deaths.

“Don’t feed,” teammates would chat at me. I had to look this up. It turns out that when a player kills someone, he is “fed” by the victory and grows stronger. This snowballs quickly if your team includes a horrible player who keeps on dying, thereby strengthening your enemies and making them unstoppable. For my opponents, I was a tasty snack.

No matter how much I tried to concentrate and prepare, in the heat of a battle I’d freak out and mash at my keyboard until I was dead. “What are you doing dude?” asked a teammate in chat. “Click on the enemy!” I’d apparently been clicking on trees and rocks—unleashing poisonous darts on the scenery. My go-to move as Teemo was to cast my “move quick” spell to flee a pursuing opponent while I desperately planted explosive mushrooms in my wake. This rarely worked. But it looked funny.

It’s not all that surprising that I failed spectacularly and continuously—I am 40 years old, and slow of thumb, and not at all in the target demo for LoL. But I did begin to grasp what makes this pastime so beloved by 15-to-25-year-olds and what’s made it an enormous global phenomenon.

First, it is completely free to download and play. You can’t underestimate the appeal of that price point to dudes subsisting on ramen. It also doesn’t require a special gaming console or a souped-up graphics card—any old PC will do the trick. Barriers to entry are minimal.

Beyond that, I submit that League of Legends has succeeded because it’s a sport. E-sports are sports for people who suck at sports. You might be a concave-chested, pencil-legged geek on the soccer field (take a look at the Samsung team—you would not quake in fear were you to encounter this fivesome in a dark Seoul alley), but if you’ve got quick-twitch finger muscles and a sharp mind, you can dominate LoL.

What makes it sporty? Unlike all those video games with open-ended time commitments and sprawling universes, League of Legends is quite bounded in its time/space scope. Matches are generally done within 20 to 35 minutes. The main battle environment—the simple, square-shaped grid—is the same every time. This isn’t some infinite journey through an undiscovered world. You know the territory, you log in, you play a game or 10 or 100, you log out.

If you’re looking for a sports analogy, LoL is a lot like pickup basketball. It’s a five-on-five contest that rewards collaboration and improvisation. You can run two-player schemes, akin to a pick and roll, where one champion baits an opponent into an awaiting ambush from a teammate. Or a single superstar can take over the game, killing everyone in sight and carrying his teammates on his back. Also like pickup hoops, one bad player—say, a 40-year-old noob—can ruin the game for everyone. And when that happens, the atmosphere can become abusive. One player took me aside in a private chat and advised me not to mention my inexperience. “It just makes people mad,” he wrote. Once, when I mentioned my noobosity in a pregame chat, a teammate immediately bailed to find another game. (It’s worth remembering that my teammates were very young. I played with people whose screen names were things like “poopdiik” and “noobkiller.”) 

But there’s a world of difference between the playing styles of amateurs and pros. Top-level, big-money LoL is less like pickup hoops than NFL football. Pro teams practice together endlessly to nail down choreography, converging at a precise spot on the board at a predetermined moment. And, like football, there are highly specialized roles. Some players excel at “jungling”—roaming undetected through the bush to appear suddenly in the middle of a melee, where they’ll “gank” (ambush) an outnumbered foe. Other players are ham-and-egg “laners” who plod along the open avenues, methodically pushing forward and taking out enemy turrets.

As with football, the amount of detailed knowledge required to succeed is immense and intimidating. There is an ocean of LoL-specific terminology. You need to learn all 193 items, how to combine them in various recipes, and when to activate them for maximal impact. You also need to learn the strengths and weaknesses of all 121 champions, so you can use them—or, equally important—counter them on game day. New champions get cycled in all the time, and old ones are routinely “buffed” (made stronger) or “nerfed” (made weaker). Among my many basic failures as an LoL-er was that I used my champions in improper roles—akin to playing an offensive lineman at cornerback.

Other video games let you level up to accumulate weapons, spells, and powers that carry over even after you die and hit restart. Or they might allow you to pay real-world dollars to strengthen your character. Not LoL. As with sports—except baseball, where the Yankees totally pay to level up—each match begins on a level playing field. You start anew every time, with an unembellished champion, and only the wisdom you’ve amassed from playing before. You can’t buy yourself advantages. (In case you’re wondering, Riot Games makes money by selling non-performance-enhancing goodies. For instance, players can pay for special “skins” to make their champions look cooler. The game’s 2013 revenues totaled a reported $624 million.)

Like the major league sports we’re familiar with, LoL has pro teams, marquee events, and worldwide broadcasts with color commentators. There are legendary moments on the biggest stage—e.g., this year’s championship featured a rare “pentakill” in which a single player killed all five opponents in rapid order. If you’re so inclined, you can watch a replay of the 2014 finals. One of the few friendly teammates I encountered suggested I could study that tournament to improve my game. For me, watching the pros is just as confusing as playing the game. I can’t really suss out what’s happening amid all the flameballs and lightning-fast maneuvers. But diehard fans can marvel at the synchronized teamwork, and they worship the best players, who are remunerated quite well for their finger-based wizardry. (Samsung sponsored not one but two teams among the final eight in the championship bracket.)

Other than eyestrain, there are no injuries in e-sports. Beyond a computer and an Internet connection, they require no equipment. You don’t need to be tall or hulking, speedy or agile. Anyone blessed with hand-eye skills, the will to excel, and the time to practice can become an elite player and potentially a worldwide star. Because of this, it’s quite easy to imagine League of Legends—or one of its successors—becoming the soccer of, say, the 22nd century. E-sports are here to stay. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an itch to suit up my Teemo and hit the field.