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Pro-gamer migration to League of Legends reveals tension between eSports communities

As other eSports games and genres decline in popularity, viewership, and sponsors, the highly successful free-to-play MOBA League of Legends has become a prime destination for pro-gamers. The transition, however, is not without a number of challenges.

Zoran Cunningham, Blogger

May 8, 2013

16 Min Read

In just over three short years Riot Games' League of Legends (LoL) has soared to incredible popularity among casual audiences and professional gamers alike. Riot Games' crown jewel is now the single most successful game in eSports history and a premiere hotspot for a migration of pro-gamers leaving other competitive games in order to compete in League of Legends.


The numbers behind LoL certainly speak for themselves. At its peak, MMO giant World of Warcraft had a little over 12 million subscribers while League of Legends reaches 32 million players monthly. The ultra popular FPS Halo series has enjoyed more than 2 billion hours of online gameplay since 2004 while League of Legends averages more than 1 billion hours of play per month. Meanwhile StarCraft 2, the game largely responsible for the resurgence of eSports in 2010 now struggles for viewership and interest as the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) consistently sets records for online viewership and fan attendance at events.



The migration ramped up in 2011 when Riot Games announced plans to support the League of Legends competitive scene with over $5 million USD in prizes. There was an immediate surge of interest from high-level players of all games and genres. At the MLG 2012 Spring Championship, League of Legends had not only the biggest crowds and most vocal fans at the event, but the online stream viewership numbers made it obvious that LoL was the star of the show.


I recall running into Martin "Marn" Phan at the NASL Season 2 Grand Finals. Being a famed fighting game player with a number of major tournament victories under his belt it was surprising to see Marn at an event that had no fighting game presence. His response was simple: he wanted to be a part of the spectacle of eSports, the grand tournaments and prize money in particular. It was around this time that he was brainstorming a transition into LoL and laying the groundwork for starting his own team that, less than two years later, become part of the North American LCS, the highest tier of competition that League of Legends has to offer. 


Marn was one of many high level players from other games and genres that began crossing over to League of Legends for a variety of reasons. Many of the pro-gamers I spoke to liked the variety of the deep champion pool and the consistent release of new champions. Others mentioned the complexity and depth of learning to play against so many abilities that might come their way in a match. Most praised Riot's consistent balancing of game mechanics and champion abilities. 


Yet, when I asked a number of pro-gamers to speak on the record regarding their transition to LoL, they were surprisingly reluctant. Professionally sponsored LoL teams and many of the players who crossed over from other competitive games either declined to speak or preferred to speak off the record on the subject. The common reason being the ongoing tension between each game's respective fan base in the greater eSports community.


It seemed curious that so much tension would exist between different games in the eSports community. While there is certainly a large contingent of fans who can enjoy high-level competition in any game or genre, some of the more storied hardcore fan communities often consider other games to be rivals. StarCraft 2, World of Warcraft PvP, Counterstrike, Call of Duty, and League of Legends communities don't necessarily intermingle and the fighting game community goes so far as to consider itself separate from the very term eSports. 


Fortunately, Loren “Fanatiq” Riley, a well-known top ranked player in the fighting game community who himself has been spending an increasing amount of time with LoL, was willing to speak openly on the topic and provide a better understanding of this phenomenon from a pro-gamer's perspective.



“I started playing League of Legends casually on my TwitchTV stream in early 2012 and the initial reaction of my fans and followers was overwhelmingly negative,” he recalls. “Everyone knows me as a fighting game player and they would tune in primarily to see my high level Marvel vs. Capcom skills in action.”


“I honestly wasn't too surprised by the resentment because I think a lot of fans and players in the fighting game community took it personally when players like Marn, ClakeyD, and Nick Wu all left to go play League of Legends and compete in the LCS. When fans saw me playing LoL, they took it very much the same way, interpreting it as my inevitable transition from fighting games to MOBAs. The fighting game community hates that trend and they felt that League of Legends was stealing some of their best players and personalities.”


In some ways the fan reaction is understandable. Many high-level well-known players establish themselves in a particular game community and become personalities of sorts. They can, at times, become synonymous with a particular game and develop and honest-to-goodness fan base. When they decide to leave a game or scene for another one, fans sometimes feel abandoned or betrayed.


“There were plenty of people that went out of their way to let me know just how disappointed they were that I was even playing LoL, even though I had no intention of leaving fighting games behind. But I stuck with it and the loyal fans stood by me and supported me regardless,” Riley explains.


Indeed, a number of the pro-gamers I spoke were reluctant to be named because they haven't fully announced their transition to LoL and have had to practice in secret. It's quite a difficult task when one considers the team-based nature of LoL. They can't stream their matches online or even reveal their identity before, during, or after matches because they not only face potential heckling from high-level players in their new endeavor, but they run the risk of creating animosity among the community within the game they are leaving. It's a big deal for a lot of pro-gamers who stream their practice and exhibition matches on TwitchTV as part of their pro careers and have very close ties to their fans.



“TwitchTV has become a personal portal for me and so many other pro-level players in that it lets us go well beyond other social media like Twitter and Facebook,” Riley insists. “It lets us connect with fans in way that gives them a first-hand experience and a more sincere interaction with pro-players. Plus, the fact that it's live and that fans can engage with us via chat first-hand is big. It really helps us grow as players and personalities.”


As TwitchTV has become a mainstay of the eSports world, many established pro-gamers have had to parley and explain that they can either enjoy their new gaming interests on stream with their fans or they can do so privately off-stream.


“I knew I was going to be playing LoL more and more and I could easily have just done it off-stream and kept my TwitchTV account relatively inactive,” Riley reveals. “Yet, TwitchTV is a means by which players, professional or amateur, can share their experiences with the world. If there is any particular game that fans are not particularly fond of, it's totally up to them if they want to tune out. But they'll miss out on the whole 'hanging out' aspect that makes TwitchTV so great.”


“I'm glad that a lot of my fans stuck around, but I will admit that my viewership is significantly less than when I primarily streamed Marvel vs. Capcom. Still, I know that whenever I tweet that I'm about to stream fighting games, all my old viewers come right back and are very excited to see what I'm about to play and what I'm up to.”


Some of the better and more level-headed fans will stick around and follow a pro-gamer on their new endeavor and oftentimes players bring with them a group of fans from one genre to the next. Riley confessed that a number of people were put onto and now love LoL as a result of watching his stream. In this sense, pro-gamers can become ambassadors for both the game they left behind and the game they're picking up. 


“I'm happy to say that my stream has convinced a lot of people to pick up LoL who may have never even considered it. To see them enjoy it makes me hopeful that one day there won't be so much bitterness when pros transition from one game or genre to another. Some of my fans from the fighting game community even admitted to having played LoL long before I did and that was probably the most encouraging thing.”


If it took years and numerous tournament wins to establish a following in the fighting game community, I wondered how much work Riley would have to do in order to make a splash with the LoL community, even in an era of so many social media tools. Just how high would the climb be to establish any foothold in the LoL community and perhaps bolster his fan base with their numbers?



“In the same way that my stream gave a lot of insight into fighting games and helped bring up players in the community, I'm hoping I can do the same for LoL in the future. The most important thing is getting up to at least Platinum level, which I'm very close to,” Riley points out (he's ranked Gold I as of this writing). “Then I think more viewers will tune in and actually feel I'm worth paying attention to because they know they'll actually see some legitimate skill in action.”


“I'm also doing some casual things like putting my musical talent to use as I did with the Quinn and Valor and Nami piano solos I did on my stream and on YouTube. Those videos got a lot of views and provided me with some new fans. I have even more music planned and I'm hoping little things like that will hopefully get the LoL community to cross-pollinate over to my stream.”


For some pro-gamers there is little choice in the matter and their migration to League of Legends is simply a result of waning fan interest in their previous game. A shrinking community for any competitive game brings along with it a decrease in major tournaments, sponsorships, and prize money.


Team MRN's Zach "Nientonsoh" Malhas was a top 10 ranked Heroes of Newerth player and Rank 1 World of Warcraft PvP player, riding high on each game's success until a shrinking competitive community led him to move to greener pastures. His teammate Tyler "ecco" Spesic began his competitive career in Halo 2 and eventually became a Grandmaster in StarCraft 2 before taking up LoL. Their stories aren't unique and as the fan base and prize money begin to shrink for other games, LoL starts to look mighty appealing for players hoping to make a career out of competitive gaming.



As more pro-gamers move over to League of Legends, it's inevitably where the world's best talent and skill will be. It's a huge appeal to the competitive nature of pro-gamers who want to test their skills against the best of the best.


“I know for me personally, and I believe this applies to a lot of other pro-gamers as well; I'm so competitive that I want to be playing a game that has a lot of the best players in the world,” Riley admits. “More importantly, it's hard for me to just play something and move on unless I've fully mastered it to the best of my ability. That's very much the case with LoL and I see myself playing it for a very long time until I hit Diamond level and prove that I'm one of the best in the world. For me it's not so much a matter of going pro in LoL as it is becoming one of the best. If I get scouted as a byproduct of all the time and effort I put into it, then that would certainly be amazing.”


Some professionals have to keep their transition anonymous until they can guarantee they can make a financial living after they transition to LoL. If they reveal that they're giving up their old game, they could very well be giving up their sponsorships along with their one guaranteed source of income. It's a tough position to be put in and it's something that could be the deciding factor for some pro-gamers.


“I'm lucky that my sponsor Performance Design Products (PDP) fully supports me as a player no matter what game I choose to play at a high level. They're well aware of the numbers associated with LoL and they've actually nurtured my interest the game. PDP is one of those great sponsors that recognizes how player success translates into better sponsor exposure overall. I genuinely love my sponsor and their AfterGlow products have honestly made me a better player so it's great to know they support the decisions I make,” Riley explains.



“All of us at Team AGE (AfterGlow Elite) represent some of the most talented players that our team director Sebastian “OneHandedTerror” Jennings has been able to pool together. As a gamer himself, Sebastian understands our diverse competitive passions and trusts us enough to support whatever games we play. He's also Social Media & PR Manager for PDP and is very much involved in my progression in LoL because he's eagerly anticipating what the future may bring as a result of Team AGE players crossing over into multiple games. For example, our team has arguably the best Marvel vs. Capcom 3 player in the world in Chris Gonzales and he's famous for being a multi-game specialist. He's consistently a top finisher in every single game he competes in at fighting game tournaments.”


League of Legends' free-to-play model is a nice incentive for pro-gamers who do have to train in secret. This no-cost barrier to entry and ease of accessibility has played a particularly large role in allowing newcomers to jump into the LoL craze.


“You can't downplay how important it is that League of Legends is free-to-play for everyone,” Riley admits. “It's hard to compete with free and that has made it hard for other games to compete against LoL in the eSports world. There are plenty of players who will try it just because it's free without any prior knowledge of the genre or game mechanics. It's easy to establish a fan base for a game that literally anyone with a decent computer and an internet connection can play.”


“There's also so many free tools and guides online that can help people become better players. Websites like MOBAFire and LoLKing have great communities and voting systems that help the best guides and tutorials rise to the top. It's amazing how many free resources there are considering how easy and accessible League of Legends already is for beginners. Riot has done a great job with the game's modes and customization options to allow players to learn via in-game tutorials or play against bots. I've never seen anything quite like it.”



As the free-to-play model provides a quick entry point for casual players, it's the prize money and the attention that keeps LoL on the radar of pro-gamers seeking to make their living in competitive gaming. With the current Season 3 LCS, Riot has created an international league and set up an infrastructure for salaried pro teams, weekly free HD broadcasts, and millions of dollars in prize money. As someone whose claim to fame over the years is the result of a number of high profile money-matches I had little doubt that the potential prize money for LoL championship play was a major draw for players like Riley.


“One of the more obvious things that draws pro-gamers to League of Legends is the money that comes from competing at major tournaments. The game is so heavily watched and has such a healthy fan base that tunes into tournament streams and attends live events that pro-gamers want a part of that spotlight. Riot's business model is one of the best ever in terms of the support they provide for teams and players. It's just ingenious.”


Indeed, Riot set the standard by being the first developer to actively support the eSport community around its game. This direct support is something pro players have taken into consideration when calculating a means to support themselves financially. Riot has created a culture that supports teams and players in a way that allows them to compete at a high level, get maximum exposure, and make a living playing the game to the point that they can focus all their energy purely on being the best.


So long as that holds true, it's likely the competitive eSports world will see more pro-gamers transition to League of Legends alongside a new crop of high level players looking to make a name for themselves in their first ever competitive eSport. It's uncertain what the broader implications this migration of pro-gamers to LoL will be in the long run, but for now, LoL is the biggest eSports spectacle on the planet, bigger than any that have come before it.


OMG, those numbers!

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