League of Legends, commonly known as LoL, is one of the most popular esports in the world. Just last year four million people (opens in new tab) watched the LoL Worlds final between Edward Gaming (EDG) and DAMWON Gaming (DWG KIA). So when the opportunity came to see this year’s semifinals in Atlanta, I wanted to go and see what all the fuss was about.
I don’t have a ton of familiarity with LoL, so once I knew I’d be going I started to study up. I have watched esports on occasion — a great way to kill time working retail for Microsoft was to watch the Halo Championship Series — but LoL was largely foreign to me. My only experience with it was when a former roommate showed me YouTube footage of the 2015 Worlds because they knew I was into gaming.
I ended up watching the quarterfinal matchups from this year and an explainer video on LoL that was somewhat helpful. With that knowledge in my mind, it was off to the State Farm Arena to watch the pinnacle of esports.
The Good: You don’t need to be an expert to have a good time at an esports event
In retrospect, I prepared more than I needed to for me to have a good time, though I’m glad I did. The one thing that watching the quarterfinals allowed me to do was hone in on a team to root for — in this instance, DragonX (DRX). They were a play-in team (opens in new tab) from the League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) that beat reigning champions EDG to make it into the semifinals. Basically, they were the plucky underdog story.
But I didn’t need to know all that to have a blast. All I need was a 20-minute explainer video that frankly, still didn’t answer all my questions. But, it was enough so that I knew the gameplay basics and could follow what was going on.
Even if I hadn’t watched that, there were still the commentators and the crowd. The commentators were good, if not the most helpful. They were clearly knowledgeable and could feel the ebbs and flows of the game. But they were a bit muted — literally. There were times that I just could not hear them over the crowd. When watching the games on YouTube prior to the event, I had no issues following along.
However, even if you cannot hear the commentators, the crowd has you covered. I have been to concerts, sporting events, etc. and I struggle to think of one I’ve been to that was as loud as the crowd in Atlanta. The second day, which was Gen. G, the reigning LCK champion, versus DRX, the aforementioned plucky underdog, was particularly electric. The crowd was screaming for DRX throughout the day, peaking at key moments to keep you truly on the edge of your seat. The closest thing I can describe it to is right before your team is about to score and you feel the anticipation physically building within you. I got that same feeling at the LoL Worlds semifinals and I barely even knew how to play the game.
The Bad: It’s long, and it doesn't cater to new fans
Up to this point, I haven’t really explained how LoL works, because frankly how it works is largely irrelevant to whether or not I enjoyed watching it. However, if I hadn’t done my homework going into the weekend, I definitely would not have come out of it knowing much more about the game than when I started.
And that would have been a long weekend of ignorance. The way a LoL Worlds esports matchup works is essentially that each team builds up over time until one of them can make the pivotal move to destroy the opponent’s Nexus. This can take anywhere from 30-50 minutes when the teams are the best in the world, especially since the game is designed for teams to take their time. One of the objectives teams can take down to give themselves a buff, the Elder Dragon, doesn’t even spawn until the 35-minute mark (opens in new tab). You don’t need it to spawn to win, but a lot of teams build a strategy around killing the dragons in LoL.
Oh, and it's a best-of-five series each time. So if it goes the distance, an LoL esports series can take five hours. Even compared to a baseball game, that’s long. I get the desire for ensuring the best team wins, but finding some way to shrink the series into a three-hour affair would probably help attract the casual fan.
Not that Worlds is devoted to the casual fan. It wasn’t specifically exclusionary either, but this is a tournament for the most diehard fans. People from literally all over the world descended on Atlanta for this weekend, and both days were described as sellouts by an Arena spokesperson. While not every seat was filled, I can tell you it was pretty close. So if you’re a newbie like I was, don’t expect to have the game explained to you. You need to know going in.
Outlook: Overall, esports was surprisingly accessible and you should check it out
The LoL Worlds 2022 semifinals definitely felt like a sporting event, and I mean that as a sincere compliment. The crowd was electric and when they got going you were right there with them. Yes, it's tough to learn just by going to the event — you’ll need to do some homework — but even a basic level of knowledge can have you enjoying yourself.
Plus, you’re not limited to League of Legends if you want to get into esports, though Worlds is certainly the most popular esports event. The most prominent ones that allow in-person viewing are Dota 2’s The International, which has a similar setup to LoL Worlds in terms of the tournament itself. Like LoL Worlds, it takes place around the world in different locations each year. Intel also has the Intel Extreme Masters, which hosts international tournaments in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Starcraft II. But there’s also an Overwatch League and a Rocket League Championship Series. Basically, if it’s a popular multiplayer game, there’s a chance it has an esports counterpart.
Of all the esports events, the wildest one may be the Evolution Championship Series (EVO). It is a fighting games tournament literally open to anyone 13 and up, though younger players can sign up with parental supervision. Double elimination, no qualification required. Talk about accessibility.