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Making League of Legends "more like Monday Night Football"

How Riot Games is trying to bring eSports to a mass audience around the world

Riot Games' League of Legends has been a huge success purely as a game, but at the same time it is transforming the emerging world of eSports. As Season 3 is underway, GamesIndustry International had the opportunity to sit down with Riot's VP of eSports Dustin Beck and senior eSports manager Whalen Rozelle to get some insights into the growth of League of Legends as eSport.

The 40-person eSports team under Beck's leadership has continued to invest in extending and improving League of Legends competition this year. Still, Riot doesn't have set expectations for Season 3. "Each event we continue to be caught off guard by how much of our community tunes in to watch these events," said Beck. "We're not really driving our vision off of where we expect numbers to go; we're driving our vision off of what we think the fans want to see."

The most important innovation for Season 3, according to Beck, is putting events on a regular schedule. "One thing that's been really lacking in eSports is structure; you have these random intermittent tournaments going on over the course of a year, but no one's ever developed a league like the NFL or the NBA," Beck noted. "That's why we created the League Championship Series; it's going to be consistent programming Thursdays and Fridays in America, Saturday and Sunday in Europe."

The regular timing of events will encourage more people to tune into the streams, according to Riot. "We really want to deliver more like a Monday Night Football experience," said Rozelle. "With the LCS's structure we want people to be able to know when to tune in. Essentially, be able to weave League of Legends eSports into their lives."

Putting tournaments onto a regular schedule is just part of the strategy for increasing viewership; Riot is also working to improve the quality of the broadcasting. "That's another expectation we have that we're really focused on improving in 2013: Delivering a higher-quality, high production value viewing experience to our players," said Rozelle. "We built out a studio in LA for these teams to play in and we can capture all the drama and excitement of the games. We brought on a production team with backgrounds in the NFL, in the Olympics to do all kinds of human interest stories and narrative, which is something I don't think eSports has focused on to date because of the structure."

"We really want to deliver more like a Monday Night Football experience"

Whalen Rozelle

It's the same challenge NBC faces when they show the Olympics; they have to create a narrative about the competitors and inform the audience about the sport and how it works, since so many Olympic sports events are a mystery to the mass audience. "You really hit the nail on the head with that," said Beck. "That's exactly right. The producer we hired, who was at the Salt Lake City Olympics, knows how to relate these player stories to the fan base." Rozelle added, "Now that we have a regular season, you'll be able to learn more about what drives our pros to play, and what sort of pressure is on them. I think that'll be really cool for our fans."

Riot has been trying out new presentation techniques during tournaments. "At the North American Qualifiers, we had a Telestrator for the first time," said Beck. "Our 'casters were able to break down the play and bring forth the complexity and depth of strategic execution that these teams live every day. It's very easy to miss, just like the subtleties of positioning in baseball or a route that a receiver runs in football."

Beck feels that creating a roster of professional teams playing League of Legends will improve the quality of play, which will attract more viewers and players. "These players now get to dedicate their careers. It's their profession playing League of Legends; they're getting salaries, they have sponsors," Beck said. "Before they had to take a gamble and fight for prize money at tournaments, now it's insured, it's in the bank for these guys and they get to focus on doing what they do best which is playing League of Legends."

The pro players get revenue from advertising on livestreams of gameplay and from sponsors, and then whatever prize money they earn. Salaries from Riot to the teams that make it into the LCS are significant. "It's actually a considerable amount of money; $175,000 a year divvied up by the team," noted Beck. "There's obviously prize money as well. We sponsor eyeballs that these guys get; before it was one tournament a month or every couple of months, now it's every Thursday, every Friday we get to see these logos on the team."

Beck hopes to encourage future competitors in a variety of ways. "We're highlighting a bunch of aspirational paths. League of Legends doesn't win as an eSport unless we have that," Beck said. Riot is building out a college program to bring more people into the sport. It's not impossible to get into the higher levels of play for new players; recently one team that got together online just made it into the League Championship Series. "Those guys are that Cinderella story," said Beck.

"I don't think there's any parallels outside of FIFA, just how much it's caught on all over the globe"

Dustin Beck

Rozelle explained in more detail what Riot has done to encourage growth: "We've broken up the big ranked ladder and placed everyone in smaller leagues and smaller divisions, and given them milestones to achieve. If you're a Bronze or Silver player, competitive play is fun and you have points of intense competition. We feel it's a good foundation for our system. You also have a challenger tier for the aspiring pros, where the top fifty teams have a direct path into the MLGs and IPLs where they can get valuable tournament experience, win significant amounts of prize money, and then go on to play in the LCS. One of our major goals this year is that every aspiring pro knows exactly how to get into the LCS. This is something that's been a bit vague before in eSports, and we really want to crystallize that." The clearer it is, the more people will join.

The growth of a sports league is never without its problems, and Riot has had some growing pains. Last year's Championships saw cheating, technical difficulties, and some players fined for infractions during play. Beck acknowledged the issues, but feels that Riot has things under control. "We are hyper-vigilant about protecting the integrity of the game," said Beck. "Any sport will be de-legimitized if cheating is rampant. We monitor everything like that. There was a flaw in the stage design at the World Championships that allowed people to look over their shoulder, and that's not happening any more. We have refs who are stationed behind these guys to make sure they're not doing anything fishy. We even check all the peripherals of the players, so they have to plug in their mice and their keyboard before they get to the machines that they're playing on to make sure there's no malware installed."

Player behavior is one of the main tenets of Riot, which the company demonstrated recently by banning three members of a pro team just before a tournament due to bad behavior. "The timing was unfortunate, but we just found out who was playing these games a few weeks ago. We want to make sure that it's a great experience for everyone at every level," said Beck. "The pros have a responsibility to be the best role models for their fans, since they have tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of fans looking up to these guys."

Is there a point where behavior restriction might get too severe, where if you didn't say 'please' and 'thank you' you might get banned? No, says Beck. "We've learned our lessons from the David Sterns and the Roger Goodells," said Beck. "It's not the no-fun league," added Rozelle. "Trash talk is all right."

"You want rivalries; Ron Artest is a polarizing figure, and he's obviously gone over the line a lot of times, but it's good to have those bad boys," Beck said. "Old-school Lakers-Pistons rivalries would be great. There's some rough play there, you kind of want that, but there's obviously a fine line and we're going to make sure that we take that stuff very seriously."

"It's not the no-fun league; trash talk is all right"

Whalen Rozelle

Performance enhancing drugs are a problem in many professional sports; the unfortunate example of Lance Armstrong is merely the latest in a series. Caffeine of course is a mainstay of gamers, but what about something like Adderall? "We've done our homework on that; we've seen what has happened to other sports like MLB," said Beck. "Our sport's so in its infancy right now that our stance on that will continue to evolve. We haven't had any cases that have had that, but we're keeping our eyes and ears open in the event we do need to take action, because we'd hate to put these guys' health in jeopardy. We haven't had any incidents yet."

The issues and problems that occur are not slowing down the spread of League of Legends as an eSport. "I don't think there's any parallels outside of FIFA, just how much it's caught on all over the globe. It's a truly global sport," said Beck. "We have five distinct regions: North America, Europe, Southeast Asia, China, Korea. It's popping up in emerging countries like Brazil and Turkey. The viewership was pretty even across all those territories."

In the end, Riot is looking to make League of Legends commonplace. "eSports should become part of an eSports fan's regular life, just like football or soccer is for those fans," said Rozelle.

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Steve Peterson

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Steve Peterson has been in the game business for 30 years now as a designer (co-designer of the Champions RPG among others), a marketer (for various software companies) and a lecturer. Follow him on Twitter @20thLevel.