Earlier this month, a few hours before the third annual world championship of League of Legends, the most popular computer game in the world, I heard, from the pressroom of the Staples Center, the sound of a chamber orchestra playing a frantic crescendo. I followed my ears out of the room and through the cement bowels of the arena, the strings growing louder and louder, until I found myself on the show floor.
It was like a dress rehearsal for the future. Neon lights pulsed everywhere. Camera techs in all black hopped on and off — like ninjas! — an elaborate runway in front of a massive rock-show stage. Three towering screens flashed footage of young Asian men typing excitedly at computers. By the time I had oriented myself in front of the empty stadium, the orchestra had stopped playing and was looking on in polite appreciation. Above me, on stage, striding out of a bank of fog, a single guitarist clad in a light-up white bodysuit and mask began to squeeze out a cascading solo on a white Gibson Flying V.
The lights covered one of his arms and his head, and he wore great white braces on his legs. The only part of his body that did not appear to be touched by robots was his groin, covered only by simple white boxer briefs, which were darkened by hair and straining to contain a set of jostling privates. From my perspective at the front of the stage, the lights and the music and the turbulent genitals produced a sort of hypnosis by sensory overload. I was reeling.
Later, I wandered back into the pressroom and struck up a conversation with a friendly employee of Riot Games, the company that makes League of Legends. It turned out that she managed the talent. I told her that that guitarist was impressive. He had made an impression.
“You know who that is, right?” she asked.
I said no, on account of he was wearing a neon space helmet.
“Wes Borland. Limp Bizkit Wes Borland.”
Limp Bizkit Wes Borland. I let it sink in. Limp Bizkit Wes Borland was playing the pregame show of the championship of a computer game. There existed, now, in the world, a cultural force that could harness the power of Limp Bizkit Wes Borland to a light-up bodysuit designed not by Stan Winston, but by Stan Winston’s protégé, because Stan Winston is dead and that would be impossible, for the time being.
There was no question Riot had marshaled a lot of energy for this strange half rock show, half sporting event. There was the spectral blue ether that wafted from a 20-foot-tall bejeweled holographic chalice on the screen center stage; there were the neon red batons, thrust aloft hours later in the theatrical darkness by most of the 13,000 wailing fans, computer game pilgrims; there was an aggregate stoked-ed-ness of millions of televisions and streaming viewers around the world who got up early and stayed up past their bedtimes to watch either five South Korean gamers or five Chinese gamers win a million dollars for clicking a mouse just so.
The thing is, energy has rules. The most important: Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only be changed into different forms. And Riot, a startup worth hundreds of millions, if not a billion, dollars, had for one night borrowed, if not outright hogged, an epic, perhaps unsustainable amount of energy to promote its titanic and yet somehow under-the-radar computer game. Surely somewhere in the world there must have been a brownout, a few lethargic personal computers, a car that wouldn’t start, and a handful of spouses who were just too tired. At the very least, something, or someone, must be wondering where its spectators had gone.
Whether or not playing computer games competitively qualifies as a sport is, to me, a semantic question, and not a particularly interesting one. The better question: Is the shock-and-awe presentation of League of Legends sustainable? Is it a one-time flare-up — neither a concert nor a sporting event nor a conference, but all three at once — a mutant aberration, or a new, meaningful form of culture?
Better yet: Is it good?
League of Legends is by some estimates the most-played computer game in the world. Over a yearlong period, from 2011 to 2012, gamers registered some 1.3 billion hours with the game. That’s 150,000 years, or about the amount of time anatomically modern humans have existed. The game regularly boasts 5 million concurrent players. That’s approximately the entire population of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and San Francisco playing the same computer game at the same time.
The reasons for the game’s popularity are both obvious and inscrutable. To the former, LoL is free, can be played on almost any modern computer (“it can run on a potato,” one player told me), and is polished to a high sheen by Riot from its headquarters in Santa Monica. To the latter, the game is so complex it makes chess seem like tic-tac-toe, and most video games seem like rock-paper-scissors. It also emits, in various ways, faint but distinct whiffs of uncanniness — it’s optimized in every sense, not just technologically but culturally.
In July 2010, not a year after the game’s release, Riot launched the first competitive “season” of LoL, which ended at a championship in Sweden with a total prize pool of $100,000. That event wasn’t dedicated to LoL, which was merely one attraction at Dreamhack, a massive computer festival. Over the past two years, in addition to refining the game, Riot has built out and standardized a LoL Champions League, which comprises six regions across the world, each with eight, five-person teams (plus one substitute player). Riot pays all of the players a base salary, but individual players can and do sign endorsement deals with the streaming services (like Twitch.tv and YouTube) that have been instrumental to the explosive success of the game. Some pro players make in the low six figures; some make much more. The prize pool for this year’s championship tournament was $1 million.
The way to become a professional LoL player is by playing endless ranked matches of the game. Since almost a quarter of LoL players play these standardized matches, the most avid players, and fans, of Riot’s game essentially constitute a massive minor league. The result, if you’re willing to indulge Riot in calling its game a sport, is potentially the most knowledgeable sports fan base in history. Waiting outside the Staples Center for the doors to open on the championship match of LoL’s third season, I met two quasi-retired journeymen pro players (both under age 20) who proudly displayed mouse pads covered in the signatures of famous players and analysts. Imagine 36-year-old AAA relievers asking for Peter Gammons’ autograph and you sort of get the idea. Sports radio spittle launchers these are not.
In addition to creating a simulacrum of a traditional sports league and fan culture, Riot has also created a simulacrum of ESPN in the form of analysis and commentary desks, staffed by astonishingly young former players and surprisingly polished hosts. They have already developed a jargon that would make Chris Collinsworth blush. To “dive” is to pursue an enemy recklessly; to “kite” is to do damage while running away; sentences like “Faker’s Gragas is unstoppable” are not uncommon. This startup media operation, barely three years old, has already produced a cluster of microcelebrities: I watched Krepo, an analyst and pro player from Belgium, who resembles, pleasingly, a hobbit, stand in the same spot for an hour as fans came up to him to request selfies, vogues, and signatures on shirt backs.
There is the sense among many fans and some Riot employees I talked to that the game is still somehow obscure, or at least underappreciated. The mainstream press reports on it as part of the ongoing business story about eSports, streaming viewership, and free-to-play. The gaming press writes some about LoL but is structurally biased by its preview-review model toward release events, not rolling cultural phenomena. The game very much exists in its own gilded ghetto; it hasn’t imprinted on popular gaming culture in a way remotely commensurate with its raw popularity. Tellingly, it hardly ever cracks the popular gaming subreddits.
Instead, LoL is covered by a global army of specialist sites and fan-bloggers, and much of the real discussion takes place in forums and on subject-specific message boards.
The Season 3 championship felt a little like the game’s first real bid for broader cultural significance. Enormous LoL banners faced out from the Staples Center, home of the Lakers, home of the Kings, home of Summerslam, onto a beech- and palm-lined block of South Figueroa. The first press conference, at which Riot bigwigs touted the spread of their game, was held in the Lexus Lounge, the inner sanctum in which the pro basketball players’ families hang out. And outside the Staples Center, in Star Plaza, next to the bronze statues of Wayne Gretzky, Jerry West, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, hulked a life-size replica of Tryndamere, the Barbarian King.
At 2 p.m., six hours before click-off, Star Plaza was already clogged. Fans buzzed, face painters painted, rival Chinese and Korean camera crews chained cigarettes, Staples security looked confused. A diminutive pro posed for pictures while his much taller female companion texted, bored. The crowd was mostly white, mostly male, and mostly under 22. Among the throngs were those who are drawn to LoL for the details of its universe, and they are looked down on by many of the competitive gamers. The former identify strongly with individual LoL characters and frequently dress up as them in public, though, as I would find out later by sneaking a peek at an in-house documentary team’s itinerary, Riot had hired additional cosplayers to bolster the ranks of the megafans. The latter, the True Gamers, are more mercenary; they simply play LoL because it is the best game of its kind. They regard the dress-up as a little childish.
I quickly found out, despite my skepticism, that there was nothing artificial about the passion of the real LoL fanatics. I met four 19-year-old Sonoma County junior college students, who were so keen to get to Staples that they had left Santa Rosa at 3 a.m. the night before to arrive at 1 in the afternoon to hang out with other fans, and had promised their parents that they were going to drive back after the show, to get home at 9 a.m. the next day.
I came across group after group of fans who had known one another online for months or even years but were meeting for the first time in real life. Among them were a group of five friends from a Minecraft server, including a 19-year-old wearing too-big wayfarers who would give his name only as “Itsatacoshop247” (his nom de game) and wore a heavy sign around his neck decorated with train tracks that read “Korean Hype Train” (for the heavily favored Korean team). His friends came from around the country. They said it wasn’t weird at all when they met for the first time; as Itsatacoshop247 told me, they spent hours together every night, talking.
It’s all very dorky, and surprisingly wholesome. The Sonoma County junior college students told me they would never consider playing LoL matches drunk or stoned; World of Warcraft players I know consider the idea of playing that game without weed unconscionable. Isaac Kasper, a brown-haired and big-smiling high school student from Dallas, was there with his mother. Kasper, who was impossible to imagine as anyone but the scruffy-cute nerd who after 80-odd minutes of jock-related conflict achieves Love-Hewittian satisfaction, told me that “LoL is the game for those who were rejected by everything else.” I pondered the Varsity Blues universe in which this kid must play the dweeb. I resisted the urge to tell him about college. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a shirt that read “Nerd? I Prefer Intellectual Badass.”
From patterns in the overwhelming stimuli, I began to piece together a narrative for the final, which would pit a powerhouse from South Korea, SK Telecom 1, against a Chinese underdog, Royal Club. Asian teams — South Korean teams in particular — which have been playing LoL for only two years, have come to dominate the game. Theories of varying dubiety circulated outside Staples regarding the prowess of Korean players and the cultural and/or biological reasons for their dominance, not just in LoL but in all eSports. Among the most prominent, a career in eSports is as respected in Korea as a career in law or medicine; eSports stars in Korea are actual rock stars; eSports teams in Korea follow strict regimes of diet and exercise; eSports teams in Korea practice more rigorously and more intelligently than elsewhere; and the level of competition in Korean eSports forces all players to get better. (“There, you are either the best or you are nothing,” a fatalistic Romanian gaming editor informed me.) Some of these seemed obviously correct at face value. Others sounded more like the way Americans tend to mystify into perniciousness nations, particularly Asian ones, that are winning at something.
It is indisputable that Korea takes eSports more seriously than America, and maybe anywhere else. The nation has an office within its Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism that is dedicated to the management of eSports, and eSports matches have been nationally televised there for more than a decade. SK Telecom 1 is one of two LoL teams under the SKT aegis, named for the major Korean telecom that sponsors them. Though favorites throughout the championship, SKT1 had ridden a somewhat conservative style into the best-of-five-games final. Each of the members of SKT is a very good individual player, and they are all expert at waiting for their opponents to make tiny mistakes and turning them into massive and demoralizing swings in momentum. SKT also boasts the best and most popular LoL player in the world, Lee “Faker” Sang-Hyeok. (LoL players are known almost exclusively by their gamer handles, their voices, and their play style; ask a handful of even fairly informed American fans to point out the Faker in a lineup, or to give his real name, and they would struggle.) Faker plays Midlane, the most difficult of the five positions in the game, and though he is a slight 17-year-old, he is invariably described with horror-move adjectives: frightening, scary, beastly, terrifying.
More than anything, the fans in attendance seemed to want a good match, to see players, like them, playing games, like them, but glorified as gods. That meant, practically, at least four games, if not the full complement of five.
If you pushed them, however, they fell into two camps. The better players pulled for SKT, in the same way very good amateur tennis players will often pull for the more skilled player; they admire the beauty of a game well played more than the narrative of the underdog.
Still, Royal Club, the Chinese team, was by a small margin the crowd favorite. They had the only English-speaking player among the 10, the 22-year-old Tabe, who had endeared himself to fans and the media by singing Josh Groban songs, credibly, in interviews; by mentoring the team’s best player, a temperamental 16-year-old butterball named Uzi; and by declaring that he intended to use the prize money to propose marriage to his girlfriend. Royal Club had played an aggressive, risky, crowd-pleasing style throughout the tournament, in which they attempted to bait opposing teams into large-scale confrontations. The overriding question of the final was whether the daredevil Chinese team could tempt the disciplined Koreans into playing a free-flowing game. If not, as the Romanian gaming editor told me, “it will be game over.”
LoL’s history is short, so Riot isn’t timid about finding shoulders and climbing onto them. One of my closest friends, a New Yorker who hardly wears his gaming habit on his sleeve, took the path many of the LoL’s early adopters followed. He was a fanatical player of Blizzard’s 2003 blockbuster Warcraft 3, which had a robust multiplayer mode. One of its most popular features was the inclusion of heroes, supercharged characters who are particularly exciting to play; that same year modders built Defense of the Ancients, a free download that turned Warcraft 3 into a fight between 10 of these heroes. This mod proved more durable and ultimately more popular than the original game itself, and even as I would recommend to my friend new and flashy games, he would politely tell me thanks but no thanks. What he was saying, basically, was that this free mod was more fun than the biggest and best AAA games.
Then League of Legends came out, and Mike, my friend, switched. I started to see him idle on Gchat later and later at night, and I knew what he was up to. LoL was an extremely polished version of DoTA (both of them are referred to as MOBAs, or multiplayer online battle arenas) created by a startup by two friends who met at the University of Southern California. The founders both came from corporate backgrounds: Brandon Beck, now the CEO of Riot, was a consultant at Bain, the multi-billion-dollar strategy firm made famous by Mitt Romney; Marc Merrill, the company’s president, was a manager of corporate marketing at IT firm Advanstar and before that an analyst at U.S. Bank. They hired several of the modders who created DoTA, as well as employees from Blizzard, the behemoth maker of World of Warcraft.
Gaming is a bigger business than ever. But gamers, in turn, have become more demanding and fickle. Free-to-play gamers, from a business perspective, are among the most capricious. Since there is no cost associated with moving from game to game (as companies like Zynga have found out), LoL is particularly vulnerable to a competitor that does what it does, but better — that’s how LoL became successful, and that’s precisely how it could die.
Because of this, much of Riot’s culture revolves around understanding the mind-set of its players. Almost everyone who works at Riot plays the game; the company has seasonal tournaments at a variety of skill levels and hosts training in the game itself for new workers and their significant others. It’s a deliberate culture, conspicuously so: On the floor of the Riot office dedicated to development and art, there is a central room modeled after a traditional Korean PC bang, or gaming café, which I saw when I visited the company’s headquarters shortly before the final. It’s there to remind Riot’s workers of the way their cash cow is played around the world; right outside the dim room, vending machines are stocked with Korean snacks.
The paramount concern of good MOBA players is balance: the principle that no one aspect of the game should be so weak or so strong that it can be exploited repeatedly to win. Balance is accorded a nearly mystical significance at Riot, which patches LoL every two weeks. Most patches consist of minor “buffs” and “nerfs” — making characters more and less powerful, respectively. These biweekly patches allow for tinkering that could never occur in a physical sport. If the NFL, say, thought the league had become too high-scoring, it might introduce rules meant to decrease points, rules that would take seasons to implement and officiate correctly, and the changes would be deeply controversial. On the other hand, Riot’s tiny adjustments can change the game dramatically and are responsible for one of the most fascinating pieces of LoL jargon: meta. “Meta” refers to “metastrategy,” which itself means the overall tactics adopted by serious teams. “Moving the meta” is a commonplace expression; to a man, the pro and near-pro players I talked to said these constant changes and adaptations are what make the game so rewarding.
There is a sense of fan service in much of what Riot does, from the patches to the art. Sketches for new champions, hung on an inspiration board on the third floor there, seemed like the awesomest fantasies to ever spring from the collected margins of America’s pre-algebra notebooks. They included a combination Tyrannosaurus-shark, and a humanoid, bipedal dolphin with a surfboard. As I was hustled past the sketch wall, I overhead a sentence that began, “If you’re not stoked about the space rhino…” It wasn’t said threateningly, exactly.
Riot doesn’t make money on eSports. Cash isn’t a problem — in 2011 the Chinese holding firm Tencent bought a $400 million controlling stake in Riot, which also makes untold millions through the sale of custom skins and champions, as well as by selling sponsorships. But eSports may be a smart business strategy, a cultural bulwark against a structural and technological threat from new games. If Riot can make LoL totally synonymous with competitive computer gaming, they can make their game the standard in eSports. They can keep players playing.
This strategy isn’t totally without precedent. In 1997, Microsoft and Id Software sponsored a Quake tournament, Red Annihilation, at E3, the massive game industry trade show, flying in the 16 finalists. John Carmack, the co-founder of Id, put his Ferrari up as the grand prize. That tournament had its own stars with their own nicknames, among them Dennis “Thresh” Fong, who, like Faker after him, was also called “The Michael Jordan of eSports.” What happened? A new generation of console-friendly, plotted, blockbuster shooters for consoles, among them Halo, Gears of War, and the endless military shooters we see today, leached off interest. Fatal1ty, a faded early-aughts star in the competitive scene around the Quake sequels, actually attended the LoL final earlier, to no apparent interest from anyone.
Then there’s Starcraft, in some ways the proto-LoL. Blizzard’s 1998 strategy game was largely responsible for the explosion of popular interest in competitive gaming in South Korea in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Televised widely there, Starcraft happened to be most popular in a technological moment that did not support individual streaming; this may be the reason it did not catch on in America to the same extent as LoL.
Riot’s deliberateness runs deep: Last year I watched Christina Norman, the lead designer at Riot, talk for an hour about the elaborate lengths her team goes to in crafting the backstories and appearances of the game’s heroes; this is what game-industry types call “lore.” The idea is to bond players so meaningfully to the stories of individual characters that they come to identify with their favorites. That’s why Riot values cosplayers — fans who dress up in costume — so highly: They are people who literally cover themselves in Riot’s brand. That may also explain why Riot hired cosplayers to mingle with the crowd in front of Staples.
Four hours before click-off, I was ushered to the Chick Hearn Press Room, named for the famous Lakers announcer. It’s the place where Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul take questions from the media, and it was surreal to see it transformed into a space for game media. Swag bags were dispensed, $130 gaming headsets placed in bounteous numbers temptingly on a side table were snapped up, and countless Riot employees raced around in matching black T-shirts with their game handles printed on the back.
The scale of the setup for the main event was vast, anonymous, professional. I spent hours wandering backstage and through the early-arriving crowd, alongside tech crews who knew nothing about computer games; a group of twentysomething friends from San Diego who had defied wives and significant others (and potential four-figure payouts on eBay) and driven up to Los Angeles after winning front-row seats from the online ticket queue; two hype men named Riot Hype and Riot Crazy; VIPs being hustled to hidden elevators; on-air talent in improbable cocktail dresses teetering on stilettos; a man wearing a camera so large that he needed a woman to literally pull on him at all times, a counterweight.
As the massive digital clock next to the holographic chalice counted down below an hour, I found myself lost in the dense scaffolds beneath the stage. I saw, through 10 feet of metal latticework and cables as thick as tree roots, in a little bunker behind the stage, a row of black-haired kids in identical blue polo shirts, sitting in total silence at contiguous computer stations. It was Royal Club. They seemed camouflaged to their environment, easy to miss at first but then impossible to ignore, the way you perceive wild animals in nature. They were practicing, right up until the bell, oblivious to the industry all around them. On the other side, in an identical bunker, I spied SKT. Unlike their rivals, they were not just talking but laughing, making jokes, leaning back in their huge leather chairs. They were loose.
The objective of LoL is simple: Destroy the other team’s base, called the Nexus. In this highly abstract sense, the game is, yes, simple. Nothing else about it is. Each of those five players has a role, the equivalent of a position in team sports. There is the Toplaner, who occupies the top of the map; the Midlaner, who occupies the middle of the map (Faker, the superstar, is a Midlaner); the Jungler, who roams the vast confusing interstitial spaces of the map, and two characters at the bottom, something called an ADC (for attack-damage-carry, don’t ask) and the Support, who makes sure the ADC does not die (Tabe, the English-speaking singer, is a Support). Each of these positions spends much of the game skirmishing with his or her counterpart in a predetermined space called a “lane”; much of the strategy of the game involves knowing when and how to disengage from that “lane” to gang up on another player. These positions and these limitations seem as natural to longtime LoL-ers as they seemed arbitrary to me; I kept asking fans questions that to me seemed clever but were probably categorically indistinguishable from Europeans asking why only one person throws the ball in American football. Is there a good answer? No. Does that mean it isn’t a stupid question? Also no.
Here’s where it gets confusing. Before the game, all 10 players choose from one of 115 characters, or champions. Every one of these champions has its own special characteristics. Of those 115, there are about 30 to 40 who are regularly selected by top-level LoL players in competitive tournaments. LoL fans know and can talk about the strengths and weaknesses of these champions as easily as a fantasy footballer can break down the points per reception potential of a second-string slot receiver. The speed with which they can recall truly arcane information is startling.
Here’s where it gets even more confusing. Prior to each match, opposing teams may ban three champions from play. Because each high-level player practices with and excels at only a handful of champions, this “ban stage” is a kind of dorky voir dire in which teams try to predict and quash easy advantages for the other team. The very best players, like Faker, are often “banned out”: The opposing team uses all three bans to keep star players from dominating. Faker goes entire tournaments without playing as his best two or three characters. Imagine a Super Bowl that pitted the Broncos against the Saints, in which Peyton Manning and Drew Brees were strategically benched — by the other team.
I watched the final alongside Patrick Mackey, who covers MOBAs for the popular enthusiast blog Massively. Massey is a former marine who is short and gaunt, and wears his hair in long black wisps. The total effect is sensei-like, which is fitting, because he answered my incessant questions for the better part of two days with amused patience and the occasional koan. I asked Mackey why he thought LoL, for all its popularity, hadn’t better permeated the culture. He told me, quite simply, that there weren’t enough people who could explain it well. In his opinion, the people who were world-class at the game were more instinctual than analytical and could sometimes barely articulate the reasons behind their own success. I was reminded of “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” the David Foster Wallace essay about sports autobiographies, which suggested that the thing that makes elite athletes great, a kind of unselfconscious and instinctual flow, is also the thing that makes them profoundly boring.
Mackey told me to keep an eye on Bengi, a player for SKT. Though Faker receives most of the credit for his team’s success, Bengi played a position, Jungler, which at the highest levels needs a nearly telepathic feel to be played correctly — and if played correctly, can be unstoppable. The Jungler cannot usually be seen on the display map by opposing players; as a result, this character plays a pivotal role in most of the ambushes that swing matches. Mackey told me he thought that SKT’s dominance thus far in the tournament had been as much due to Bengi as Faker.
Together, Mackey and I watched the pregame show. Limp Bizkit Wes Borland played an urgent duet with a strutting and jiggling cellist in a corset. And then Dustin Beck, a former Goldman Sachs analyst who is in charge of Riot’s competitive gaming ventures, sprinted down the runway with a T-shirt-launching plastic dragon, mortaring the gleeful throngs. The look on his face was unmistakably joy. I imagined Roger Goodell operating the T-shirt slingshot at the Super Bowl.
The setup of a professional LoL match is what turns off a lot of first-time viewers: You can’t really see the players. At the center of the scene, the match is projected on a giant screen. Below and at either side of the screen are big digital feeds from cameras trained on the player’s faces. Behind these face-screens, the players sit at their computers, and from the right angle at Staples you could just make out the tops of their heads, their shiny black hair. Because the mise-en-scène is so futuristic, and because there are giant, made-up-looking logos for the teams above the players, and because the players are so very young and the stakes so very high, the final felt, at times, a little like a real-life Ender’s Game.
Still, my heart started racing at the 11-minute mark of the first game, when, with very little warning, four of SKT’s five players, led by a suddenly marauding Bengi, converged to attack an important point on the map. The crowd roared, but the digital faces of SKT never showed excitement. Royal never recovered, losing the first game.
“See? It was Bengi,” Mackey said, not gloating. I had asked my friend Mike to watch the match from New York and take notes. Here is what he wrote about the four-man maneuver: “SKT plays like a hive mind. It’s impossible to describe how hard coordinating this would be. It’s like an alley-oop, except with four people instead of two.”
The next two matches went much the same way. Royal would doggedly try to bait SKT into a big confrontation, and SKT would resist. Mike compared it to a dominant football team protecting a lead by playing, conservatively, with an effective running game. Then, the play-action pass: At some unexpected but obviously preordained moment, two or three SKT players would strike, draining Royal’s resolve and making the result feel inevitable. Often, these blitzes would be led by Gragas, an obese, red-bearded, barrel-throwing dwarf, played twice in three games by Faker. There was something incredibly disconcerting about the obvious fear produced in the opposing team by a character so clearly designed for comic relief. Mike thought some of this might be attributable to the age of the players, writing of the third match: “This is what happens when 16-year-olds lose twice in a row — they go on tilt.”
It ended 3-0, and the members of SKT ran from behind their seats down the long runway, in a shower of confetti, to raise the real, non-holographic Summoner’s Cup, which they could not fill with champagne, because they were too young. The man of the match, according to Mackey and a few fans sitting around me, was Bengi. No one was entirely sure what Bengi had done, but they were sure that he had done something, and that it was good.
After the match, the media waited for SKT in the pressroom. Bengi and two of his teammates bounded in, whooping and beelining for a tray of brownies. Bengi plopped down at the end of a long podium and traded noogies with PoohManDu, the SKT support. As we all waited for Faker to arrive, it became clear that Bengi, despite his good humor, was tired and a little hungry. His boredom gesture, I noticed, was to pantomime typing on a keyboard. A Korean-American camerawoman told me he kept talking about how much he wanted to get back to the hotel to have some kimchi stew.
At the podium, Faker wore a thin smirk and absentmindedly rolled together his long, fine fingers. He was cool in victory. Someone asked what he thought about winning so decisively. Faker said he was disappointed.
“I had more moves I wanted to show you,” he said, “but the match ended too fast.”
I asked him how he was going to celebrate. Through the translator came the answer: “We’re going to go back to the hotel to practice.” The room cracked up, but the camerawoman told me she wasn’t sure Faker was joking. “Koreans are like that,” she said, a little nervously.
Someone else asked Faker how he planned to spend his prize money. The translator caught the question, and spotted his chance to remind us that the teenage prodigy was, in fact, a teenager.
“Faker told me that he wants to use the money to buy 10,000 fried chickens.”
And what did SKT think of America? The translator took this one too: They hadn’t really been out of the hotel. They might try to see some sights the next day, on the way to the airport.
Faker and Bengi may love League of Legends, per se, or they may not. It’s not really important. Their sponsors, SK Telecom, love putting their players in games that will attract a lot of eyeballs. As long as Riot continues to put on spectacles like the one in Stapes, the Fakers of the future will play LoL or its successor. The thing that enables such a spectacle, of course, is a huge, devoted, and demanding fan base, one Riot will have to continue to anticipate: What it provides, as the company is the first to admit, is not so much a traditional game as a service, something that needs to constantly improve.
Will it? Outside Star Plaza, long after midnight, there were still dozens of fans, some in costume and some not, still milling about, looking for pros to sign autographs, not ready to go home. There was still a lot of energy, looking for someplace to go.