Gaming for Gold at the League of Legends World Championships

Athletes in Berlin duke it out for millions at the world’s biggest eSports tournament.

The Mercedes-Benz Arena, home of the Berlin Polar Bears, seven-time champions of the German Ice Hockey League, thrums as fans bang on drums and belt out songs in support of their teams. But remarkably, the racket is nothing compared to the enthusiastic chanting from across the street – at the Verti Music Hall.

In October, the Verti (a venue more commonly frequented by fans of classical music and ice ballet) hosted the 2019 League of Legends World Championship, one of the largest e-sports events in the world. Among the many nations represented by the professional gamers gathered in Berlin were three Canadians: Eric “Licorice” Ritchie, Sun “Cody” Li-Yu and Philippe “Vulcan” Laflamme, all competing for a prize of more than $2 million.

February 25, 2020
G2 Esports fans at the 2019 League of Legends World Championship
A fan sports a G2 Esports team pin
G2 Esports fans at the 2019 League of Legends World Championship, which began in Berlin and ended at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris.
A fan sports a G2 Esports team pin.
A sold-out crowd of 20,000 packs the AccorHotels Arena in Paris for the Finals
A sold-out crowd of 20,000 packs the AccorHotels Arena in Paris for the Finals.

The exuberance of the e-sports spectators easily rivals that on display at any Olympics event. While some fans wear their home team’s jerseys, others have opted to appear in one of the “skins” adopted by their favourite League of Legends characters. One young woman, dressed as Akali in her K/DA skin, complete with a gold-cuffed navy-blue puffy jacket, oversize gold-buckled belt and asymmetrical leather tights, looks like she just stepped out of the game.

For some, the thought of e-sports as an actual sport seems like a punchline, though to the athletes who have devoted months of training to qualify for the World Championship, it’s no joke at all. The 2018 Worlds in Incheon, South Korea, attracted more viewers than the Super Bowl. Even governments recognize its importance on the global stage: When travelling to compete, pro gamers are granted the same internationally recognized athlete visas given to hockey players and soccer stars. The Raptors actually have their own e-sports team (Raptors Uprising, which plays in the NBA 2K League, a professional competitive gaming league).

Clutch Gaming team: Tanner Damonte (left), “Cody” Li-Yu and “Vulcan” Laflamme
An intense moment for Clutch Gaming: Tanner Damonte (left), “Cody” Li-Yu and “Vulcan” Laflamme.

“I think a lot of people get hung up on the argument about whether e-sports is a sport or not,” says Eric “Licorice” Ritchie. “But it’s a competition involving highly skilled people playing at the highest level. And it’s hard to get here.”

For as long as Ritchie can remember, gaming has been a part of his life. When he was growing up in Calgary with a brother four years his senior, the two competed over Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart. In 2013, a friend introduced Ritchie to League of Legends, then already in its third season. Adopting the username “Licorice,” Ritchie quickly became the highest-ranked player among his friends. Then he discovered the pro scene and began imagining life as an e-sports athlete.

“I think a lot of people get hung up on the argument about whether e‑sports is a sport or not. But it’s a competition involving highly skilled people playing at the highest level. And it’s hard to get here.”

Eric “Licorice” Ritchie of Cloud9 in a team jersey
Eric “Licorice” Ritchie of Cloud9 at the group stage in Berlin.

“It was kind of a dream at that point, like a kid who plays basketball and wants to be in the NBA,” Ritchie says. “But as I played more, I figured out that I may actually be good enough to make it as a pro. I was like, ‘Okay, I want to pursue this because it’s a dream job.’” Now 22, Ritchie is on Cloud9, one of the top e-sports organizations in the world, with competitive teams in over a dozen games.

The popularity of pro gaming hasn’t been lost on major sports franchises. Clutch Gaming, a California-based team featuring “Cody” Li-Yu and “Vulcan” Laflamme, is owned primarily by Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment, the same ownership group behind the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia 76ers. E-sports teams spend millions recruiting and training players, and top League of Legends athletes command salaries of well into seven figures, not including tournament winnings. (Lee “Faker” Sang Hyeok, considered to be the best player in the world, has a reported annual salary of US$2.5 million.)

A green velour cosplay hat with built in cat ears and goggles
Profile of a female fan with G2 Win painted on her face in yellow
Profile of a male fan with the G2 logo painted on his face

The hope of winning big is part of the allure. It wasn’t until a team offered to fly Li-Yu out to Los Angeles from his home in Toronto and pay him a regular salary that his family, who wanted him to go to university, realized playing video games all day long wasn’t just a childish dream, it was an opportunity to find fame and fortune. Now, he is often stopped on the street by fans. “People are really nice about it, and it’s not too weird,” he says. “I’ll usually take pictures with them.”

Back in Berlin, the players, each sporting their team’s soccer-kit-style jersey and wearing noise-cancelling headphones to block out the din of the crowd, take the stage. They sit at high-powered gaming PCs facing the spectators while giant screens behind them broadcast the gameplay. Commentators and analysts break down the upcoming match in a nearby broadcast booth.

Lee “Faker” Sang Hyeok, considered to be the best player in the world, has a reported annual salary of US$2.5 million.

In each League of Legends roughly 45-minute match, two teams of five players attempt to destroy their opponent’s base. It’s a feat that requires communication, teamwork and hours of dedication. (Teams often practise for 12 hours a day in the weeks leading up to a tournament, scrimmaging against other teams and watching game tape while their coaches highlight strategies.)

Fans punch the air and white lights wash over the Verti Music Hall as a four-on-four battle in the jungle results in the first kill of the game. When one team slays a dragon, lights flash red and a roaring dragon lands on the screens behind the players. In this World Cup-style group stage, only eight of the 16 teams will advance to the semifinals in Madrid ahead of the finals in Paris. All three North American teams were eliminated early on. (Ritchie was disappointed – Cloud9 had reached the semifinals the year before and been dubbed “North America’s last hope” in this tournament.)

Two weeks later in Paris, China’s FunPlus Phoenix would sweep Europe’s G2 Esports 3-0 and be crowned League of Legends World Champion in front of a sold-out crowd of 20,000 at the AccorHotels Arena. The outcome of Worlds, as with most sports, determines what a team does in the off-season. After early exits for both Cloud9 and Clutch, each team cleaned out their roster. Clutch rebranded as Dignitas and sold both Li-Yu’s and Laflamme’s contracts to other teams.

The winning team holds up the trophy under lights and confetti

But for now, sitting near the stage in Berlin, it’s still far from over. You can see the intensity in the players’ faces. You can hear them shouting out plays while feeding each other information. Six hours into the day’s matches and the Verti is still vibrating.
 
 

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