Last Saturday, over 40,000 fans packed the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing to watch a clash of titans. It wasn’t the finals of an Olympic event or the World Cup. What drew supporters from all over the world on a chilly autumn afternoon was the League of Legends World Championship.
The five-versus-five multiplayer online battle area is arguably the pinnacle of global e-sports. Last year’s tournament drew over 43 million unique viewers. This year, it is likely that an equally massive number tuned in to watch 24 teams duke it out for a cut of the over US$4.6 million (S$6.3 million) prize pool.
In an era where tastes change like the wind, League has managed to capture and hold the attention of a global audience that is growing steadily by the month.
In Singapore, too, the presence of League is on a steady upswing.
At the end of last year, League’s publisher Riot Games made its first foray into the South-east Asia region with its Singapore office, set up to support the game’s operations and growth here and in Malaysia.
While exact figures are unavailable, Mr Benjamin Pommeraud, Riot Games’ country manager for Singapore and Malaysia, said the game has seen a consistent growth in player base across the region. He added that although player numbers are affected by factors such as exams and national service, a “significant part” of the Singapore population owns a League account.
The Singapore Cybersports and Online Gaming Association, which runs an e-sports academy, confirmed that League is one of its most popular games. Chairman Nicholas Khoo said League classes have seen “strong interest”, and are more in demand than classes for other games such as Dota 2 or Overwatch.
In each League game, which lasts an average of half an hour, two teams of five battle to destroy their opponent’s structures. Players must demonstrate mechanical skill, a tactical mind and great synergy.
For many fans, the game has become more than just a few hours of entertainment a night. It has become a spectator sport, a community and a social conduit.
Fresh graduate Hui Wen Jie, 25, has been following the tournament since 2014. “It is exciting because the teams have to really work together to win. The level of coordination is usually the difference between a good team and a great team,” he said.
For Cindy Anastasia, League is a way of connecting with people. She started playing in 2011, and what began as a hobby quickly became a lifestyle. Now, she cosplays as characters from the game, and broadcasts herself playing on streaming platform Twitch three times a week.
“The majority of my friends are League players,” said the 23-year-old. “There are times when I get frustrated or bored and I try to pick up a new game, but I always find myself coming back to League.”
The social element of League is a definite draw, with numerous viewing parties held over the weekend for fans to get together to catch the game. Riot Singapore is even in the midst of developing a mobile app, to help players find like-minded teammates to play with.
For Mr Pommeraud, the social aspect of gaming is just one of the many reasons why e-sports is “really taking off” in Singapore and the South-east Asia region.
“It is an exciting moment where we can see both a growing interest from the public… and a growing interest from potential sponsors,” he said. “It shows that more people are understanding that e-sports and gaming events are a long-term shift in the entertainment paradigm, and not just a short-term trend.”