League Of Legends esports boss interview: 'We are validated as a sport'

GameCentral reports back from the League Of Legends World Championships and speaks to Riot Games about Hong Kong and the future of esports.

While the total viewership is unclear for this year’s Worlds final at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris, going by increased viewership during the groups stages it’s expected to dwarf previous records, with last year’s final in South Korea achieving nearly 100 million viewers.

It’s a number too enormous to comprehend when reeled off as a statistic, but the magnitude of the appeal of League Of Legends esports is clearer when you attend an event yourself. At the Worlds 2019 final, the 20,000-capacity venue was packed out with passionate fans stomping the floor and throwing up Mexican waves — all while people in cosplay as League Of Legends characters conducted the masses in national anthem singalongs and chants.

It’s a sight you’d only normally find at a huge sports final like the FIFA World Cup, but rarely with such a predominantly young audience. In targeting younger generations, but with opening and closing ceremonies emulating the spectacle of traditional sports events, the Worlds feels years ahead of its competitors. The Super Bowl half-time show might attract pop superstars like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, but Riot Games are forming their own international supergroups and debuting new tracks, while releasing new in-game character skins and staging futuristic performances using ‘holo projection’ technology to blend real-life with the game’s universe.

The pressure to go bigger and better every year is felt on Riot’s Global Head Of League Of Legends Esports, John Needham, who was admittedly nervous about this year’s Worlds final after only recently stepping up to the role in June, following his previous post as managing director of the European and North American scenes.

Speaking to GameCentral, Needham said: ‘It was the first Worlds on my watch as part of this new role so it was very nerve wracking and I’m learning on the job too. I’m just glad everything went well and I was super proud of the team.

‘The challenge with Worlds in particular – it’s one of the fun things and also one of the really scary things in this role – is every year we need to innovate more and more. Doing the augmented reality experience that we did at this year’s final, it’s fairly new technology and they pulled it off fantastically. So how are we going to top that next year?’

The Worlds 2020 final will take place in China’s capital Shanghai, which comes at an especially apt time considering Chinese teams are currently dominating the circuit – with FunPlus Phoenix defeating Europe’s G2 Esports this year, and Invictus Gaming emerging victorious in 2018.

Plans are already underway to make the finals in Shanghai the biggest spectacle yet, spanning across six cities (this year took place across three in Paris, Madrid, and Berlin) and capitalising on their broadcast infrastructure.

‘Next year is our tenth anniversary of League Of Legends as a sport and we are going to do Worlds at a scale that has never been done before. We’re doubling down on everything.

‘We have three cities this year in Worlds and we’re doing six in China. The way we’re going to do that is China was the first region to pioneer the home-and-away model for esports, which started two years ago with three teams in the LPL (League Of Legends Pro League) having their own facilities where they could host matches.

‘We had five this last year, both the Riot team in Shanghai and Tencent invested in a remote broadcast centre right outside Shanghai that can host five simultaneous feeds coming from these remote cities where they’re having matches, so we’re going to leverage that infrastructure for the six cities we’re going to do for next year’s Worlds.’

He also teased how their first virtual band K/DA, whose first single POP/STARS has achieved over 280 million views on YouTube, could also make a return.

Asked if there’s plans to bring back K/DA, Needham replied: ‘We have a lot of great plans for our tenth anniversary in China next year, so expect a great celebration of our past and also some really great and current moments we’re planning as well.

There’s often a perception from those unfamiliar or baffled by esports that it’s on a mission to seek validation next to traditional sports, with discussions around whether it’ll become accepted as an Olympic sport often dominating the conversation.

The viewership numbers and sheer scale of the events prove, if anything, it’s the rest of the world which is yet to catch up with esports – with Needham dedicating his efforts to satisfying the next generation and not so much seeking approval from traditional organisations.

‘It’s one of the great things about joining global esports for me right now, is we are validated as a sport,’ Needham says. ‘When you look at our ecosystem, we have 13 leagues around the world, we have 100 million fans, we draw millions of viewers simultaneous to all of our matches. We own esports, we are the dominant player in esports.

‘We now look to sports like football, which have a similar intentional footprint for inspiration. When we look at Worlds, I look at the World Cup and see what they do in building a cultural spectacle of their event. It’s not just about the competition, there’s human interest stories, there’s entertainment and music that all comes together in the World Cup, we do the same thing with our Worlds.

‘If anything, we’re not as focused as much about validation as much we are appealing to our generation of fans. Along with that comes sponsors and other third parties who want to get involved in your ecosystem because they see you’re reaching this next generation that really isn’t paying attention as much to traditional sports and traditional channels. We don’t talk about whether we’re a thing or not, we are a thing. It’s how we make ourselves a sustainable business and how we continue to grow our fandom.’

As esports grows as a business, the strides towards professionalism has been a factor in the growing amount of players receiving bans over bad language and cheating on streams – with the most recent incident being Fortnite player Jarvis Kaye who was permanently banned by Epic Games for using an aim-assisting program on stream.

But is this merely a phase esports will overcome once it is more established and regulated? Needham describes it as an ‘evolution’ into the next stage.

‘I think if anything we’re just getting more professional in our sport. At the end of the day we’re just a bunch of gamers. We love League Of Legends and we’ve been playing it now for 10 years. The sport started nine years ago and the first Worlds event was in a convention centre where a few hundred people joined and a million people watched online, and last year we have 100 million people watching and 20,000 people live in the venue.

‘Just the growth and scale has forced us to think about esports as a business of its own. We’re tied to the game, but we are a business on our own. It’s just, again, looking to traditional sports in ways we can manage our sport and make it professional. It’s just an evolution, it’s growing pains.

‘But, for example, this next year we’re hoping for sustainability as a sport which I think, compared to any other traditional sport, we’ve achieved in a much shorter time period in 10 years than they have, so I’m super excited about that.’

The issue of growing pains within esports becomes tricky when Needham is asked about the Hong Kong situation which blew up in October last month, where Hearthstone player Ng Wai ‘Blitzchung’ Chung was suspended and had his prize money revoked by developer Blizzard, after expressing his support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong on stream.

Shortly after the incident, which saw many players conduct protests against Blizzard over the decision, Riot Games released a statement encouraging players and casters to keep their political or religious views separate from League Of Legends tournaments in the future – clearly keen to quash any chance of it becoming an issue in their esports scene.

Asking about how they would handle their response to the uproar differently now, leads to an answer you’d probably expect, considering Riot Games is owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent.

‘I won’t comment on that specific situation but I’ll refer to you back on our stance on it,’ Needham says. ‘We’re gamers, we love to have fun playing games, we love to watch our sport and have fun and relax, so we’re going to focus on those aspects.

‘Politics and everything else that has happened in the world, we look at what we do as a rest from that. So we’re going to focus on that.’

Needham does, however, acknowledge that political issues are part of the ‘growing pains’ esports is going through: ‘A little bit. Even having to address that situation I think shows maturity’.

As League Of Legends and Riot enter a new decade leading the esports charge there are inevitably more hurdles to come, including a batch of recently announced new games, but they aren’t worried about League running out of steam anytime soon.

‘We invest more in League Of Legends year on year as we go. The release of Teamfight Tactics this year brought a whole new audience into League Of Legends, and the investment in these new games is just on top of that,’ say Needham.

‘Every game is unique. Every game is going to demand its own unique structure, not every game we’re making is going to have 13 leagues around the world and this big Worlds celebration and everything. We’ll do that when the games demand it and our fans want it.’

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