Not Football: Watching the Biggest Sporting Event

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League of Legends Summoner's Cup

45,000 fans will pack the stadium as two teams take the field. Over 40 million more will watch from home. The biggest sporting event this coming Sunday will not be televised on ESPN. Tune your browser to Twitch, and enjoy the League of Legends 2014 World Championships.

“Whoa, there! A video game isn’t a sport,” you might be thinking. I hear you. You could say League of Legends, the most popular video game in the world, is more spectacle than sport, but… my football team has a bye week so let’s keep an open mind. Plus, what defines “sport?” A competition of physical exertion for the entertainment of an audience? Recognition by a major governing body? Exorbitant player salaries and irrationally loyal fans?

League of Legends Fan in Jinx Cosplay

Kamikame cosplaying as Jinx, a playable character in League of Legends

Every day, 27 million people play League of Legends. Each one of them has a chance to go pro by rising up through seven ranked tiers: Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Master and Challenger. 80 percent of players — myself included — get stuck in Bronze or Silver. Players who achieve Diamond, Master and Challenger status are gods of gaming. Professional League of Legends players slay gods.

A member of a top-tier League of Legends team has exceptional physical dexterity, gaming mechanics and mental prowess. Their skills are far superior to the average player’s. A pro player practices at least eight hours a day, and reviews footage with coaches and analysts to improve his game. During the regular season, he’ll often follow a regimen governing diet, exercise and sleep. He’ll entertain audiences during weekend games while competing for a playoff spot in the postseason.

That all sounds like “sport” to me, but I’m presenting the facts, so… don’t take my word for it. Trust Uncle Sam (HA! I know, but seriously, read on).

mata samsung white

Se-Hyoung “Mata” Cho plays the Support role for team Samsung White at this Sunday’s final.

The United States government grants international League of Legends players who are members of U.S. teams P-1A visas. This visa is only given to internationally recognized athletes who have achieved “significant international recognition in the sport” according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Why come to the U.S. to play video games? The exorbitant player salaries for pro gamers, of course!

According to e-Sports Earnings, the top 500 professional gamers in the world earned annual salaries of ranging from $38,900 to $1.17M for tournaments in 2014. The 93 League of Legends players on that list averaged about $86,500 so far. This doesn’t include compensation for endorsements, travel, or room and board in their team’s gaming house.

This number also doesn’t include donations from loyal fans which can pad annual earnings by five or six figures if the pro streams practice games on Twitch. Not bad for a 15 to 25-year-old who plays video games all day. It’s nothing compared to an NFL contract, but there’s also no risk of permanent brain damage.

Sangam Stadium hosts League of Legends

This year’s League of Legends World Championship finals takes place in Seoul, South Korea. The venue, Sangam Stadium, hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup. No U.S. team made it past the quarterfinals. In fact, no one would have been too surprised if the North American teams were knocked out even earlier. Korea and China currently own the global League scene.

This didn’t stop thousands of Americans — face paint and cosplay in tow — from traveling to South Korea. It won’t stop millions more from jumping on a new bandwagon and cheering on a Korean or Chinese team.

For me and over 40 million others, Worlds is the biggest sporting event this Sunday. I’m with Korea’s Samsung White and my new favorite Support player, Mata, during Sunday’s final. I wouldn’t fault you for wanting the underdogs, Star Horn Royal Club, to a win on White’s home field though.

Still not sure if League of Legends is sport or spectacle?

Visit LoL Esports to watch the World Championship for free. If you want to learn more about League, The New York Times wrote up two good articles on LoL gameplay and the esports industry last Friday.

Warriors by Imagine Dragons

Listen to the #Worlds 2014 theme song “Warriors,” by Imagine Dragons and Riot Games

Photo credits: League of Legends, greyloch, chobo

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