Following its 2009 launch, League of Legends established itself as the definitive multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game. In the years since, it attracted millions of fans and players, establishing a critical role in driving esports to become the massive industry it is today. Perhaps more impressively, people are still playing League 13 years later and attracting new players, with progressively bigger competitions continually being held.
History of Competitive League of Legends
What is League of Legends?
The game needs no introduction if you’re a gaming enthusiast. But to the uninitiated, League is a MOBA game inspired by the classic Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne mod, Defense of the Ancients (DOTA). The gameplay is set in the isometric battlefield called “Summoners Rift” and played by two teams of five players. The game’s object is simple, destroy the enemy team’s main base structure, called “Nexus.”
Each team chooses a champion to play, characters with unique abilities (League currently has over 130 to choose from). The champion’s abilities dictate the team’s strategy. The primary player positions are: top lane, mid lane, and bottom lane – referring to the areas on the battlefield. The others play the roaming support role, wandering the areas between lanes to help teammates whenever needed.
But while the premise is simple, League’s unique stable of characters, extensive item list, and level and abilities progression have made it a transcendent game. Its gameplay requires strategic teamwork and mastery of character abilities and weaponry. The typical match lasts anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour.
The story of League of Legends
It all began in 2005 when developers Steve “Guinsoo” Feak and Steve “Pendragon” Mescon met with newly-founded game publisher Riot Games. The ambitious startup had been a fan of the pair, owing to the success of their Warcraft 3 mod. The fateful meeting would align their ambitions, as Feak and Mescon wanted to create a standalone MOBA game beyond the Warcraft platform. Riot Games gave them the vehicle they needed to pursue their dream game.
While it took four more years since the meeting to release the beta version of League, it only contributed to building anticipation. As such, when the beta came out in April 2009, it was an immediate success. Shortly after, the full game was released in October 2009. Gamers received League with widespread acclaim for its exciting character designs, accessibility and fresh take on an established genre. The decision to make League free to play was a huge factor, as it allowed gamers worldwide to sample and, ultimately, fall in love with the game.
The history of competitive League of Legends
It didn’t take long for the highly-anticipated release to become one of the most popular games on the planet. The dynamic gameplay attracted professional players as the number of competitions and leagues quickly grew. Riot Games claimed that a little over a year after its release, League already had 15 million players. Even bolder, it said players started 10 new League games every second.
League Season 1 Championship
The first-ever League tournament was held in 2011 at DreamHack Summer in Jönköping, Sweden. The USD$100,000 prize pool attracted eight teams from North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. Almost 1.7 million viewers live-streamed the event, which culminated with Fnatic besting Against All Authority (2-1) in the final to bag the top prize of $50,000.
Interestingly, a number of the top League teams participated in the inaugural event. This included Counter Logic Gaming and Team SoloMid, which finished third.
Season 2: Controversy looms
For the second League World Championship, the esports spectacle would move stateside to Los Angeles in October 2012. The pool featured 12 teams, 4 more than the inaugural tournament. It was the first time Chinese and Korean teams participated in the League season finale.
Up for grabs was the largest prize pool in esports history at the time: USD$2 million. The exponential rise in prizes was mirrored by fan interest, attracting over eight million viewers throughout the tournament. The grand final saw the Taipei Assassins defeating South Korea’s Azubu Frost (3-1) to take home $1 million.
While the Season 2 numbers shattered its predecessor’s, controversies marked the tournament off the bat. Defending champions Fnatic skipped the World Championship in favor of the IGN Pro League 5. In addition, Jang Gun Woong of Azubu Frost was caught cheating by watching the big screen at the Galen Center, costing his team a USD$30,000 fine.
Season 3: A new powerhouse emerges
League would come back to Los Angeles the following year on October 2013 at the Staples Center, where 14 teams battled for the top prize in esports. The event blew the previous year’s viewership out of the water, with over 32 million people watching the event. Tickets sold out within an hour.
A star was born in 2013 when rookie phenom Lee “Faker” Sang-Hyeok produced one of the most iconic moments in esports history at the Hot6ix League Champions Summer 2013 Final. Faker and SK Telecom T1 (SKT) would carry their dominance of the 2013 season into the World Championship. They ran roughshod through the Group Stage before beating Royal Club (3-0) in the finals.
The season would mark the beginning of South Korea’s League dominance. SKT would win two more world titles in the next four years, with another South Korean team, Samsung Galaxy White bagging the other two. This era would also see teams from across the globe importing South Korean players. In fact, Chinese team Invictus Gaming (IG) formed its 2018 World Championship-winning team on the backs of South Koreans Song “Rookie” Eui-jin and Kang “TheShy” Seung-lok.
2014: League of Legends World Championship
In 2014, Riot Games rebranded the League season finale to the League of Legends World Championship. A format change accompanied the rebrand, with the tournament hosted by various regions before heading to South Korea for the Grand Finals.
Sixteen winners of major professional leagues and regional qualifying tournaments made up the World Championship pool. As mentioned above, Samsung Galaxy White would take the top prize, edging the Chinese Starhorn Royal Club. The Chinese team fell just short of the world title for the second consecutive year. However, it cemented the region as a League global powerhouse.
While viewing numbers once again came in record numbers (280 million views on TV, YouTube, and Twitch), controversies once again marred the festivities. This time, Danish SK Gaming player Dennis “Svenskeren” was at the center of the ruckus. The Dane’s racially-insensitive actions caused him to be suspended for three of his team’s opening matches while also receiving a USD2,500 fine.
2015 World Championship: European return
The League Worlds would return to Europe for the first time since 2011, with London, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin hosting the different stages of the event. In spite of a strong season from inaugural champions Fnatic, the European team settled for third place. The Grand Final saw SKT win its second title in three years, defeating the South Korean KOO Tigers.
While 36 million viewers caught the annual esports spectacle, the League Worlds couldn’t escape controversy. Cloud9 player Hai Lam was fined USD$500 for an offensive hand gesture towards an opponent during the group stage. An in-game bug caused a Fnatic game to be halted before completion. This led to Riot Games disabling characters “Gragas,” “Lux” and “Ziggs” for the remainder of the tournament.
2016 World Championship: SKT dynasty
For 2016, The League of Legends World Championship would go back Stateside, with 16 teams qualifying for the tournament. SKT cemented its dynasty, winning its third world title in four years. In the final, SKT barely edged rival Samsung Galaxy (3-2) to take home the USD$2.6 million grand prize.
The tournament attracted 43 million fans worldwide, crushing other major professional leagues’ numbers. According to The Neilsen Company and ESPN, Game 7 of the NBA Finals featuring LeBron James and Steph Curry had 31 million viewers, while college football’s BCS National Championship attracted 24 million.
2017 World Championship: Chinese homecoming falls short
Following the colossal success of the previous year’s championship, the League Worlds would head to China to capitalize on the gigantic gaming market. With the home crowd from four Chinese cities hoping to witness their first world champion, the South Koreans spoiled the party for everyone yet again. This time, Samsung Galaxy avenged its loss to SKT.
The 2017 World Championship saw the biggest pool of participants, with 24 teams from 13 professional League of Legends leagues vying for the title. The prize pool was also the biggest in history, reaching USD$4.94 million.
2018 World Championship: China finally breaks through
This year’s League Worlds would finally see a Chinese team grab the top League of Legends prize, returning the favor by winning in South Korea. As mentioned earlier, Invictus Gaming would capture the 2018 title in the year when perennial powerhouse SKT wouldn’t even qualify for the League World Championship.
The entire tournament was held in South Korea, from the play-in to the finals, which saw a capacity crowd of around 50,000. The 2018 Worlds boasted the highest prize pool in League history, with a total of USD$6.45 million on the line.
2019 World Championship: The European drought continues
In 2019, the Worlds returned to Europe, holding the play-ins and group stage in Germany before moving to Spain for the quarters and the semis. Fittingly, the Europeans finally looked poised to win the top League tournament as G2 Esports made its way to Paris to face FunPlus Phoenix. Unfortunately, the Chinese team would blast G2 in the finals (3-0), to the dismay of the pro-EU crowd.
Twenty-four teams made their way to Europe for the World Championship. The diverse collection of teams featured participants from Hong Kong, Macao, Vietnam, Brazil, Japan, South America, Oceania, and Southeast Asia, with Turkey even qualifying for the season finale. They joined the usual titans from China, South Korea, Europe, and North America.
2020 World Championship: Pandemic challenges
Similar to the rest of the sporting world, the 2020 League Worlds was hit hard by the pandemic. What was originally scheduled as a tournament that would travel across China was shrunk to a Shanghai-exclusive event. On-the-fly format changes accompanied the revised schedule, with the Vietnamese teams dropping out of contention and all South Korean teams being promoted straight to the group stage.
The changes would ultimately bear fruit for South Korea, as Damwon Gaming dominated the 2020 League Worlds, dropping only three matches en route to the title.
2021 World Championship: Disruptions continue
The pandemic continued to disrupt the League of Legends World Championship in 2021, forcing organizers to move the tournament from Shenzen, China, to Reykjavik, Iceland, at the last moment. The last-minute change didn’t bother the Chinese team as underdog Edward Gaming prevented Damwon from winning back-to-back titles, squeezing out a 3-2 win.
FunPlus came into the 2021 Worlds as one of the favorites but dropped out early following a series of disappointing performances. While Damwon lived up to pre-tournament expectations by reaching the finals, it failed to become the first repeat champion since SKT achieved the feat in 2015-2016.
Due to the ongoing pandemic restrictions, there was no live audience during the tournament. However, as has been the tradition, millions tuned in online to follow the proceedings.
League: Sustained relevance
With advancing technologies and platforms, it’s truly incredible how League of Legends has sustained its relevance 13 years after its release. According to Riot Games, there were 5 million monthly League players in 2011. While Riot Games stopped officially publishing player base stats after 2014, unofficial reports have pegged monthly players in 2022 at a staggering 180 million.
Players have also shared the success of the esports engine. In 2019, top laner Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon signed a two-year, USD$2.3 million contract extension with Dignitas. In 2021, Hu “SwordArt” Shuo-chieh signed a record-breaking $6 million deal with TSM.
Of course, the game wouldn’t be as lucrative if amateur players lost interest. The developers address this by releasing regular updates, such as new balancing patches to nerf or buff champions, adding or removing items, game mechanics, and other improvements to keep fans and players interested.
League of Legends does not appear to be going away anytime soon. Its marketing machine led to its expansion into other platforms, which include digital card games, comic books, and even an animated series on Netflix. These machinations will help fan the flames of fan interest moving forward, which wouldn’t make it surprising to see a 2030 League Worlds.
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