Riot Games has sold out arenas throughout Europe like Brussels Expo for its eSports tournament.
Riot Games

Riot Games continues to evolve its global eSports league and attract bigger sponsors thanks to huge online viewership and great content.

By John Gaudiosi
October 29, 2015

Video game publisher Riot Games’ League of Legends World Championship remains the premiere eSports tournament.

Whalen Rozelle, director of eSports at Riot Games, says this October’s event—which over the years has taken place in Le Dock Pullman in Paris, SSE Arena Wembley in London, and Brussels Expo in Brusselsand—will culminate with an Oct. 31 world championship match at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin. The gaming event pits players from around the world against each other in the multiplayer video game League of Legends.

“The League of Legends World Championship (LCS) is like the Super Bowl and the World Cup rolled into one,” Rozelle says. “We have a very similar World Cup format because League of Legends is truly a global sport with most of the continents and many different countries represented. And the spectacle of the event is like the Super Bowl.”

Since forming the LCS series in 2012, Riot Games has seen its global online fan base explode. During last year’s 15-day event, fans around the world watched over 179 million hours of live eSports competition; that’s up from a total of 70 million hours of online live viewing in 2013.

Riot sold out 40,000 seats at Korea’s World Cup Sangam Stadium last year, but an additional 27 million people tuned in to watch a livestream of the final showdown between Samsung White (a Korean team sponsored by Samsung) and Royal Club (a Chinese video game league) as they battled for $1 million in prize money. The event proved extremely popular, boasting an average online view time of 67 minutes, — an important number that suggests fans liked what they saw and continued to watch the event for a long period of time.

“More fans watch League of Legends than any other eSport worldwide,” Stephanie Llamas, director of research and consumer insights at SuperData Research, says. “It also comes in second to Dota 2 (another popular video game) for top total prize pool.”

Rozelle says Riot has fine-tuned LCS from year-to-year, listening to fans and pulling from real sports for inspiration. Its global league structure with multiple regions of play is similar to professional soccer, while the way it tells player and team stories through video packages is inspired by the Olympics. This year’s competition has been done “in the round” with players competing in the center of arenas—just like basketball or hockey.

Patrick Walker, vice president of insights and analytics at EEDAR, says Riot has done an excellent job of following the blueprint provided by traditional professional sports to create their eSports structure. Examples of this include providing weekly broadcasts with high production value and treating the rules of their sport with complete seriousness. They have a huge rulebook and treat rule infractions with the same seriousness of traditional sports.

League of Legends has 60 to 70 million monthly active users [who play the real-time video game] depending on the month,” Walker says. “The main effect of eSports is as key retention strategy to keep the number of active players consistently high. Much of the content released at this point by Riot, such as champion reworks, are designed to keep competitive players active rather than grow the player base significantly.”

Llamas says the fact that Riot sanctioned League of Legends tournaments through LCS has had a huge impact on the game’s success as a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game and an eSport.

“First of all, they began supporting players financially, something that is pretty uncommon,” Llamas says. “Most players need to earn revenue through sponsorships or livestreams. This encouraged the best players to dedicate themselves to this game over others. Riot also put the full force of their marketing behind LCS even though it was a loss leader. Before LCS, League of Legends tournaments were organized via third parties, so it’s clearly something that was in demand, and Riot listened. This showed their players they were willing to invest in them and engage them on a higher level.”

Rozelle says Riot has kept its prize pool of $2.25 million steady on purpose, which is in stark contrast to the $18.4 million Valve awarded to the top Dota 2 teams at The International Season 5 event this summer.

“We don’t want prize pools to be the main story,” Rozelle says. “Players should be making money from salaries and teams should be making money through sponsors. We want a strong ecosystem.”

Riot actively works with specific sponsors like Coca-Cola CCE , American Express AXP , Logitech G, and Plantronics, but it also steers companies to teams and players whenever it makes sense. Rozelle says one thing that has drastically changed over the past five years is an increase in the number of marketing executives who recognize eSports.

“In the beginning we used to have to explain what eSports was and now we have sponsors and brands coming directly to us,” Rozelle says. “We’ve also seen a shift in companies being more selective and trying to align directly with pro teams. We’re always talking to different companies and if they want to focus on a specific market or they have a smaller budget, we point them to good teams that fit their needs.”

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