Before Riot Games could launch League of Legends as an esport in late 2012, they needed a rulebook. The task fell to its newly hired senior manager of esports, Chris Hopper, who joined the company after working as a financial consultant. He asked coworkers about other gaming bylaws he could use as examples. They replied, “Good luck.”
Hopper, who’s best known in the gaming world as “Chopper,” was charting new territory in esports but not completely without any model. He download the rulebooks for about 40 traditional sports, everything from FIFA and the NBA to UFC, Formula One, cricket, poker, and the Olympics. He perused each in search of anything applicable.
“I would literally just pull out lines that I liked,” said Hopper, now Riot Games’ head of esports for North America. “Like, ‘OK, this feels like a good rule.’ I’d pull it out and just put it into a Word document. At the end of it, I had a confusing-as-hell Word document. It would talk about the player and the court and the ball and the puck and the car.”
This was the modest beginning of esports infrastructure, a far cry from this weekend’s League of Legends World Championship. The final between Europe-based Fnatic and China’s Invictus Gaming is taking place at sold-out Incheon Munhak Stadium in Korea, which has a capacity north of 50,000. Fans in the U.S. can watch on ESPN+ and Riot’s Twitch channel. A North American team, Cloud9, reached the world semifinals for the first time.
Chris Hopper (Courtesy of Riot Games)
Data from July 2012 hailed League of Legends as the world’s most popular video game—doubling the usage of second place—but a competitive esport with an organizational hierarchy, stable franchises, international schedule, and global fan base is a whole other matter. There’s a scouting combine. Mastercard is a global sponsor.
“Look, six years ago, we were nothing,” Hopper said, adding that the history and structure of major professional sports aided LoL’s rapid ascension by cutting decades off the learning curve. “That was our first LCS rule set. It was literally built on the work done by traditional sports. Without that work, we’re never here today. We’d never go from nonexistent to franchise in six years if we don’t have decades of football, decades of baseball, and decades of basketball to lean on.”
The term “mature esport” may sound like an oxymoron, given the nascency of the whole industry. But in a climate when Fortnite could go from launch to arguably the most popular game on the planet in a year, LoL’s relative stability stands out. The North American circuit introduced a 10-team franchise model late last year—seven have backing from traditional sports ownership including the Warriors, Rockets, and Yankees—and Europe will follow suit next year.
“Franchising has brought in a lot of stability and the ability to think long-term where your spot is guaranteed, regardless of competitive performance,” said Ryan Edens, the CEO of FlyQuest, one of the 10 domestic franchises. “You can invest in more long-term infrastructure plays to create something sustainable.”
Edens’ father, Wes, is a cofounder of the Fortress Investment Group who is part-owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, storied English soccer club Aston Villa, and now FlyQuest, a consortium of esports teams.
“Our big thesis has always been, in terms of sports properties, we don’t know what it will look like 20 years from now, but we’re pretty sure that basketball, soccer, and esports are likely to be—at least of the sports today—the three biggest,” Ryan Edens said. “They’re certainly the most global of the traditional sports today.”
Cloud9 is the first North American team to reach the LOL world semifinals (Courtesy of Riot Games)
#mc_embed_signupbackground:#fff; clear:left; font:14px Helvetica,Arial,sans-serif;
/* Add your own MailChimp form style overrides in your site stylesheet or in this style block.
We recommend moving this block and the preceding CSS link to the HEAD of your HTML file. */
Get the latest sports tech news in your inbox.
League of Legends was, Edens added, an obvious starting point for that portfolio. They bought in just as franchising was beginning. What appealed to FlyQuest was Riot Games’ track record—everything is relative—in showing good intentions and running a good league.
“As organizations, the most important thing to evaluate is the relationship with the developer,” Edens said. “Because, unlike traditional sports which is a two-party system, esports is a three-party system. It’s not just labor and management.”
Traditional sports have a league office, but its commissioner reports to the owners whereas the developer is a more intricately involved third party—having created the very game being played—without having the same oversight from franchise ownership.
LOL’s championship trophy, the Summoner’s Cup (Courtesy of Riot Games)
Esports in general and League of Legends in particular continue to grow. Hopper said most players are between 18 to 30 years old. About 35 percent are in college at any given time, a cohort that has remained stable. That means LoL’s game population hasn’t aged but also hasn’t expanded down the age spectrum, so getting younger teens playing is a goal, Hopper said. One way they’ve done that is to partner with PlayVS, which is working with the National Federation of High Schools to introduce esports at the scholastic level. Riot also has advocated LoL as a collegiate sport.
As business has grown, so too has the sophistication of all facets of the enterprise, though there still is trial and error. When Riot Games commissioned its championship trophy, the Summoner’s Cup, the first prototype was 70 pounds—way too heavy to lift.
The rule book has evolved, too. During his bleary-eyed late nights of research back in 2012, Hopper stumbled across one regulation addressing the possibility of a fan entering the competition site and interfering with the act of shooting. He can’t recall if this came from archery or darts or something else, but Hopper was amused such a rule existed. The scenario resembled a “gank” in LoL, when a competitor emerges out of the jungle by surprise to create an advantage in a fight. So he adapted the concept for the esport in a clause that attracted little attention.
“For about four years, the term ‘fan gank’ was in our rule set,” Hopper said. “I put it in as a joke, mostly because I was up to four in the morning writing this thing every night. In my cranked-out mind, I thought it was hysterical. Somehow no one caught it for like four years until we brought in a new league ops guy who was reading through it and was like, ‘Who put this fan gank thing in there?’”