It's 8 a.m. Sunday and Skyler Walkowski is standing in front of a line of about 20 fans outside LCS Arena, three miles from the iconic Santa Monica Pier. The doors don't actually open until 11 a.m.; by then, the line behind him will swell to 400 fans who will pack the bleachers of a soundstage that serves as home of America's fastest-growing sport.
Walkowski, 21, traveled to Los Angeles for the weekend from Hatley, Wisconsin, a town of only 600, about 80 miles northwest of Green Bay. But Walkowski didn't leave snow in Wisconsin for the beaches of Southern California. He traveled more than 2,000 miles to watch the North American League of Legends Championship Series (NA LCS). The NA LCS' nine-week spring season and two playoff rounds are held in the LCS Arena in Santa Monica. Ten teams play twice each weekend in round-robin tournament play beginning in January, culminating with a road trip in April for the finals (this year, the spring finals are in Las Vegas). The teams all play in Los Angeles (Berlin for the European counterpart), but they reach a global audience of hundreds of thousands with games streamed every week. When the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship was held at Staples Center in Los Angeles in 2013, it sold out within minutes and had 32 million unique viewers.
Unlike traditional sports in which geography often dictates fan bases, esports teams and players are not defined by a city or a region. Instead, fans align themselves with players and teams for reasons that have little to do with where they live or grew up.
"This is my first time here in person, but I've been watching every week for the past two years," Walkowski said. "My team is Cloud9, and one of the things that drew me to them was a couple of years ago at the world championships, their shot caller, Hai, did like this Metal Gear Solid mission on Zed and tried to sneak around the enemy team. I thought that was hilarious. I started watching them from there and started to love them."
That might not make much sense to non-gamers, but it's essentially like falling in love with LeBron James because of his ability to take control of a game and becoming a Cleveland Cavaliers fan in the process. Much like fans who cheer for Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook without ever stepping foot in Oklahoma City, fandom in esports isn't decided by location but rather personal preferences. Just like Westbrook's aggressiveness on the court attracts fans, so does Hai's aggressiveness on the Field of Justice.
"Early on, [esports] was almost completely player focused, where the top streamers would have all the fans and whatever team they were on, people would follow those players," said Josh "Jatt" Leesman, 28, a retired player and current game analyst for the LCS. "We have seen a bit of an evolution in that TSM and CLG are the two oldest esports franchises in North American League of Legends, and even though their players are 100 percent different than they were four years ago, you still have consistent TSM and CLG fans."
So how do fans pick teams and players in a sport with no real geographical ties or identifiers? Much like traditional sports, the answer is different for every fan depending on the player or team.
Born and reared in South Korea, 18-year-old Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon is the top laner for the nearly unstoppable Immortals, but most of his fans are in Europe and North America, where he has played the past two years.
"I was not a player in [the League Championship Series], so I don't have as many fans in Korea as I do in Europe and in the States," Huni said. "I played in EU LCS and now I play in NA LCS, so I have more fans here. ... I probably still have more fans in Europe still." Huni played on Fnatic last year in the EU LCS and became a fan favorite, not only for his style of play but his ability to make his teammates and fans laugh during events, which inspired more than a few YouTube tribute videos.
Søren "Bjergsen" Bjerg, the 20-year-old mid-laner for Team SoloMid, is Danish and has a massive following in Denmark after playing for the Copenhagen Wolves, as well as for teams in Amsterdam, Paris and Sweden.
"My fans are definitely very global," Bjergsen said. "I'm from Denmark, but I played in Europe first before I moved to North America. So I grew a fan base in Europe before moving to America, which helps. It's nice that every time we go internationally there are fans who know my name, even when we go to Asian countries like Taiwan and Korea. That always surprises me."
It has generally been easier for esports fans to follow players as opposed to teams simply because, specifically in League of Legends, the league and teams haven't been around that long; teams from four years ago have either disbanded or rebranded, with some not even lasting a calendar year. Players also routinely change teams year to year, making it hard for some teams to build stable fan bases around familiar players. Building stable franchises with the ability to keep players long term is the next step for a league that now has Echo Fox team owner Rick Fox, who won three NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, and could be adding Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as well.
"Fans are first and foremost fans of the game," Fox said. "I was a fan of CLG because they were the underdog team. They also had a player, Aphromoo, who my son and I were huge fans of. ... It's still a very player-centric league. Like in the NBA, you root for a player you identify with. Why does someone like Kobe instead of LeBron? You like a player because you like the way they play, what they've done and what they stand for, and then you root for the team the player is attached to and you become a fan of the team because you get to know the other players."
Team SoloMid (TSM) is one of the signature franchises of the young NA LCS, winning three of six league championships and finishing second three times. Cloud9 (C9), founded by former TSM manager Jack Etienne, has won two championships and finished second twice. The success and longevity of those teams, along with Counter Gaming Logic (CLG), have made them the most popular teams in NA LCS. Fans at the LCS Arena routinely chant "T-S-M!" during games and hold up signs for their favorite players. On Sunday, there were a dozen signs in the crowd wishing Bjergsen a happy birthday as he turned 20.
"In terms of branding, being on TSM was everything to me," Bjergsen said. "I went from a player people kind of thought was good, but no one knew anything about me. I hadn't done many interviews, and then I came onto TSM, and TSM was known for doing a lot of content for their fans, so that's kind of how I got myself out there and for everyone to know me through TSM."
While traditional sports teams and players have a geographical home base where their popularity initially grew from, esports players and teams must cultivate fandom in other ways. Tournaments and fan interactions at events are important, but connections are often made long before that, when fans interact with players who stream themselves playing games for hours and interacting with fans in the process. Top players in NA LCS have channels on Twitch, one of the five most trafficked websites in the United States, and are streaming constantly. Bjergsen, for example, has more than 1 million Twitch followers -- his channel has had about 70 million views.
"It's very personal," Leesman said. "When they're streaming, they're on-camera, they're interacting with the chat, you're getting to watch everything they do when they're practicing. It would be analogous to watching Kobe Bryant go through pick-up games and he's talking to fans the whole time. You're never going to see that. You feel a connection to the players and you learn a lot from the player because you're seeing everything that they're doing. ...That's the way players get a really big following."
It's also how teams grow their followings, too. All teams have their players interact with fans in person and online. Every team takes time to take pictures and sign autographs for fans after every game, and players will often broadcast live streams of themselves playing League of Legends, sometimes with their competitors from the LCS, and chatting with fans. It's during these candid moments that fans also find themselves choosing the player or team they want to root for.
"One of the biggest differences between traditional sports and esports is the access to the pros," Etienne said. "You don't get to hang out with the pros after a baseball game or basketball game. Here you get to spend a good half-hour to an hour with them after the events and then through social media, Twitch and reddit, [and] they get a ton more access.
"For example, [our AD carry] Sneaky played really well today. He'll go home, eat some food and hop on Twitch, and he'll stream for eight hours and interact with the fans. He's talking back and forth with them actively. He's streaming almost every day. The increased fan interaction develops a much tighter relationship with esports pros and their fans than you would see with traditional sports and their fans."
It's a relationship, much like the teams in the NA LCS, which is growing and becoming more stable over time. Except the relationship knows no boundaries; it's a global experience and community.