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League of Legends bets big on eSports success

With Season 3 of League of Legends just started, Riot Games talks to Gamasutra about its efforts to make eSports integral to the game, including a 40 person team behind the move.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

February 4, 2013

4 Min Read

Riot Games is betting big on eSports -- so big that, as it now launches its third season of competitive play, it now has "a 40 person team, and it's growing," Whalen Rozelle, senior eSports manager for the company, tells Gamasutra. The company has built studios in Los Angeles and Cologne, Germany, so it can broadcast events from both the U.S. and Europe -- and during filming, brings in production teams above and beyond the 40 staff currently employed by the company. Riot seems to be betting the very future of the game on eSports, if the words of Rozelle and his boss, Dustin Beck, are to be taken seriously. "We're all huge eSports fans at Riot, and the game was originally designed as a competitive eSport," Beck, the company's VP of eSports, tells Gamasutra.

Re-Shaping the Game

Whether or not League of Legends was originally conceived as an eSport, it's at the forefront of the team's current design efforts, say Beck and Rozelle. "We're kind of in the infancy of our eSport and you're still seeing changes," says Beck. He doesn't compare this situation to the usual games-as-as-service model, but to NCAA football, and how the rules of the sport mutate over time. Season 3 includes both a new league system and, perhaps more interestingly, "sweeping changes," to use Rozelle's words, to the game itself. These changes "have been very well received by our community," he says. How did the designers choose what changes to make? Many sources, says Riot. But one of them is particularly notable: "Our design team brought in a bunch of pro players, and the leading members of the community, and had them test out the changes and give feedback," says Rozelle, describing the relationship "a partnership" with Riot's design team. "It's very similar to traditional sports -- the NFL will make changes... to make the game more dynamic and more passing-oriented," says Rozelle. "One of the motivations of our design changes over the past season has been to overhaul items to make them more dynamic as well."

Making a Real League

Changing the game to make it more eSports friendly is one thing. But there will be no professional players if there's no way for them to make a living by playing League of Legends, the company recognizes. Riot has to create a solid league with "compensation and salary, so these guys can focus on league paths for their career," Beck says. There are currently over 200 pro players in the world, Riot tells Gamasutra, spread across the five territories the Los Angeles-based, Shenzhen-owned company concentrates on: North America, Europe, South Korea, Southeast Asia, and China. But "it's not just about the top tier that is going to make this a successful sport; it's about the ecosystem," says Rozelle. "We're creating a lot of aspirational paths to become pro. We're appealing to our current community." Describing plans for "peewee leagues" that lead to "the light at the end of the tunnel" that is pro play, the eSports team at Riot clearly sees League of Legends following traditional sports culture in more ways than one. "We think we have a pretty good structure in place, and we're starting a league from scratch here," says Rozelle. The company's goal is to "mimic what an NFL or NBA does," Beck says.

Getting Audiences Interested

Of course, there's another crucial aspect of the experience: broadcasting it. "Fans of eSports have wanted eSports to be on a similar plane as any other sport," says Beck. The company is aiming for "the Monday Night Football experience," Rozelle says. But one major difference is that the company doesn't have immediate plans to take League of Legends to television. "Maybe in a couple of years. Who knows? It's not on our immediate roadmap," says Rozelle. "Our players are used to consuming content online. We don't really think that that's necessary just yet." Given that the game's last World Championships had three times the viewers of the NHL's Stanley Cup finals, according to Riot, he may be right. The goal of the broadcasts, Rozelle says, is to "capture that dynamic exciting action and also tell stories, to bring up the human element" -- and to that end the company has employed filmmakers that make the same biographical packages you see when you watch the Olympics. Riot has put "a tremendous amount of attention on the viewer experience," says Rozelle. There may be one statistic that shows you just how serious the company is about this initiative: "Our expenditure this year was more expensive than actually making the game in the first place, so we're investing a ton into eSports," Rozelle says.

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