The League of Legends World Championship season 3 is over, with Korea's SK Telecom T1 taking the victory (and the $1 million prize). The champs beat out China's Royal Club in three straight games at LA's Staples Center, pulling off their victory in front of more than 15,000 spectators and millions worldwide who watched it online. It was a great day not only for SK Telecom T1, but also for Riot Games. The continued growth of League of Legends is driven by the eSports component of the game, which now boasts somewhere over 40 million players worldwide and is helping to drive PC gaming growth.
This huge audience hasn't escaped the notice of major companies seeking to connect with this prime demographic of young adults. Recently American Express signed on as a major sponsor for League of Legends, and at the World Championships Riot CEO Brandon Beck announced that Coke Zero will be sponsoring the new Challenger League. This new league is designed to help bring in new pro players, acting like a AAA baseball team or NCAA football teams as a training ground for pro athletes. Coke Zero joins the pantheon of major corporate sponsors for League of Legends teams and the sport as a whole, which includes Nissan, American Express, Samsung and Papa John's.
The [a]list daily sat down with Riot CEO Brandon Beck and Riot President Marc Merrill to talk about the progress of the game, sponsorships, and the future of League of Legends. The continued pace of League of Legends' growth (it's now the #1 game in China) and the popularity of the sport still delights Beck and Merrill.
“We've been extremely surprised, blown away and obviously excited about the continued rapid growth,” said Merrill. “Our focus is always to continue to try to deliver a really great experience for folks all over the globe. We don't set growth targets. It's really not something that we think about a lot. We've really been excited by the response of players around the world.”
Asked to analyze the reasons behind the continuing growth, Beck grew reflective. “I think a lot of the growth is related to more and more players of League of Legends finding an interest in spectating as a way to engage with League of Legends,” said Beck. “Certainly the geographic reach of the sport continues to grow, there's just a remarkable interest in areas like South America, Eastern Europe, and Turkey for example. I think we're going to see global growth and a deeper adoption in the League of Legends community.”
“One comment we see a fair amount from certain League of Legends players is 'Wow, I'm finally understanding the allure of sports!',” said Merrill. “A large majority of our players are sports fans, but some aren't. It's been really cool to watch these new players start to develop an appreciation for players, for teams, start to watch matches and get excited. That's a really fun thing for us. We've had stories from players that they can actually bond with their parents now. Even if they can't relate to each other's sport, they can relate to the same type of passion they have for sports.”
“One cool opportunity that derives from that is we think we can really help reinforce sportsmanship, and team-oriented values and things like that that sports really bring to people who participate in them,” said Merrill. “In China there aren't that many Little Leagues that young people growing up can be a part of. To the extent that we can help teach values like that, that's something we're really excited about.”
The cost of staging these events is increasing as the audience grows and the entire process becomes more professional. That means eSports is requiring more investment from Riot, but that's a price they are very willing to pay. “For the foreseeable future, it's really about providing another way to experience League of Legends,” said Beck. “It's an enhancement to the product. I think over time the eSports ecosystem is going to evolve its economics. Part of the reason we've been focused on bringing some giant sponsors into the mix, such as the recent Coke announcement and American Express, is to help pave the way for a broader ecosystem of companies to get involved in eSports the same way they do in other sports. To help all the entities do what they do. Pro players make a giant commitment to eSports where they spend a countless amount of hours preparing and training, just like pro athletes in any sport. It's important that they can afford what they need to do what they do.”
“The Coke sponsorship is really cool,” Beck continued. “They came to us and they said 'We're interested in contributing to the ecosystem, and we don't want to do a typical media buy or anything like that. How can we put our dollars to work to help the sport and the community around the sport?' And we said 'We've got this Challenger league that we're working.' They contributed their own set of ideas. They talked about an Olympic-style training facility and the teams brainstormed and Coke contributed a bunch of really great ideas. We also think that their involvement is going to help convince other sponsors.”
Riot has already announced that Season 4 will begin in January, and no doubt we'll see more sponsors interested in connecting with this growing audience.