News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by
Arts & Entertainment

'League of Legends' video game championship comes to LA

League of Legends tournament in downtown LA.
League of Legends tournament in downtown LA.
Jacob Margolis/KPCC
League of Legends tournament in downtown LA.
League of Legends tournament in downtown LA.
Jacob Margolis/KPCC
League of Legends tournament in downtown LA.
League of Legends tournament in downtown LA.
Jacob Margolis/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

We won't know if L.A. is hosting the World Series for a while, but another world championship is going on tonight at the Staples Center. It has sold out 11,000 seats in the arena, millions of people will stream it online, and there's a $2 million prize pool up for grabs. It's all for a multi-player video game called "League of Legends" in which magical characters battle for domination.

KPCC's Jacob Margolis attended a semi-final match last weekend to get an idea for what all of the fuss was about.

When I first got this assignment, I wasn’t expecting just a bunch of guys sitting in front of computer screens at a table with a few people around them watching. But as soon as I walked into USC’s Galen Center it became very clear just how wrong I was.

There were maybe 8,000 people sitting in the arena staring at humongous screen filled with game action. Below that, smaller screens filled with the faces of the players reacting to what’s going on.

This probably beats sitting in your dorm room watching your roommate play video games, but you're still watching someone else play video games.

Mike Mishkin, a college student from St. Louis, has been playing League of Legends for 20 hours a week for about a year now, and he flew across the country just to see the matchup.

"I don’t know, I’d say it’s most being in the crowd and being so close to the action even though it’s virtual action," said Mishkin. 

League of Legends is an online multiplayer game. Two teams of five go head-to-head to destroy the other team’s base. Each player can choose a special character and earn gold to increase their power. There’s a lot of tactics and quick decision making. Some would even call the players pro athletes, including the U.S. government.

The U.S. began granting P-1A visas to League of Legends players. These are the same visas that are given to hockey or baseball players, or basically anyone who is an internationally recognized athlete.

"We had to make a case to the U.S. government that the league championship series, which is the professional league where our pro players participate in weekly games, was a legitimate career profession and a viable career path for people to make money and make a living," said Dustin Beck is vice president of electronic Sports at Riot Games, creators of League of Legends.

32 million people play the game regularly but there are only 40 professional players in the North American league. One of those pros is Alberto Rengifo, better known as Crumbs in the League of Legends Universe. He got his visa this year and sees himself as a professional athlete.

"It’s very easy to see as a simple game, it looks like a cartoon almost," said Rengifo. "It’s very basic like that but the more you play, the more you realize it’s more like chess and most of the game is won by mindgames."

Rengifo moved from Canada to Los Angeles, where he lives in a house with his four other team mates.

"Practice-wise just with my team. Everybody seems to play 14 hours a day six times a week for about 9-10 months out of the year," said Rengifo.

They spend time learning strategies for different characters in the game. Researching other teams tactics and coming up with their own. Their entire lives are devoted to the game.

"The game is constantly changing…Every couple of weeks they come up with a new patch so they update the games," said Rengifo . "It’s sort of a relearning process. And as a pro gamer, it’s our job to find out what’s the strongest thing at that certain patch and abuse it."

The better players can make as much as six figures, just playing video games. Riot created this league hoping it might become as popular here as it is in place like South Korea, where it’s been a mainstream sport for years now. But what are the odds that this could become mainstream in the U.S.? 

"I think what you really need is the people who play these games need to become adults and have children and grandchildren and watch with their kids," said Michael Pachter, a research analyst at Wedbush Securities. "Because the reason you and I like baseball is because our dad’s like baseball and they taught us to like baseball.”

It’s possible that electronic sports could become more popular, but it’s going to take a long time says Pachter. But even though it might never unseat things like the Super Bowl or The World Series in terms of popularity, for the amateur players who traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to compete.