'League of Legends,' eSports growing

As the world of eSports continues to evolve, video game designers are starting to emulate sports leagues to provide pro players and fans the biggest spectacle possible.

Take Riot Games’ “League of Legends,” for instance. The online multiplayer battle arena game is such a phenomenon worldwide, matches are telecast in Korea during prime time and attract as many as four million viewers per week. Gamers from 145 countries worldwide hack and slash each other on a daily basis, the pro tournaments attract as many as four million streaming viewers at a time in the U.S. and Europe, and there are even a handful of gamers out there who have been able to quit their day jobs and actually play “League of Legends” as their full-time job.

And this week, Riot Games announced that they are upping the ante, offering not only prize money for tournament winners, but salaries for professional gamers who make up the best teams around the world and take on their new season format, complete with playoffs and a championship.

Oh, and did I mention the $5 million in prize money?

I caught up with Riot Games' CEO, Brandon Beck, for more on this PC phenomenon.

ESPN Playbook: For sports gamers wrapped up in “Madden” and “FIFA,” can you tell them what they are missing out by not playing “League of Legends”? Why is this game such a huge deal in competitive gaming?

Brandon Beck: What’s really exciting about “League of Legends” is that the game was built from the ground up to be a sport. It’s a competitive, five-on-five, team-based experience and it is played in 35- to 45-minute matches. And the reason people are playing “League of Legends” months and years after they start is not because they are advancing through some sort of linear storyline. It’s the same reason you play any other sport, and that’s to work on your game and get better because no two games are the same.

With teams now playing a full season, playoffs, and a championship in “League of Legends” season three, which was just announced this week, it sounds like you’re attempting to bridge that gap between sports and eSports like never before.

Because our fans and our players are so keen on watching the pros play and seeing the highest level of the game being played, that enables us to really make an investment in building out the sport. Watching the games has become such an integral part of the experience, and to take eSports from where they are today to where we want to go, is to add a broadcast experience, a live-event experience that has the same quality as pro sports. We have to really invest in evolving eSports.

In 2013, players are not only going to win prize money for winning tournaments, but gamers are going to be paid salaries to compete on teams. How much will the average salary be?

In season three, which is our next season, and it will follow our World Championships in October, the champion of the series, which is in a professional league, is going to have salaries. The salaries are there to cover the basic cost of living for players, and they’re going to be augmented by stipends that cover things like travel and housing, which is all meant to compliment the sponsor revenue players can make and the cash prizes for the tournament. All of that combined makes being a professional “League of Legends” player a viable career opportunity. This helps the game reach its full potential, because we want to avoid our pro players coming under financial stress and having to hold down part-time jobs. We want to make it so being a pro player is a completely viable career opportunity.

So if you’re the top “League of Legends” player, how much money are we talking about?

The prize pool in season two is $5 million, and the top team will make a substantial cut of that prize pool. Couple that with all of the other opportunities, it’s quite significant.

So how many people out there do you see playing “League of Legends” as a profession come season three in 2013?

In the champion series, there are leagues by region (North America, Europe, and Asia), and each region has eight pro teams. A typical team is made up of five to six players. The upcoming regional finals that we are having in season two are also going to help determine which teams are going to get automatic seeds into the championship series for season three. So it’s going to be really exciting to watch our North American finals and our European finals, which are at PAX and Gamescom this year.

When you look at professional gamers and eSports players, do you consider them athletes in their own regard?

In our minds, they are athletes. To be a pro gamer, you have to possess tremendous manual dexterity and mental agility and toughness, and that’s akin to certain characteristics that other professional athletes have. There’s also a massive amount of team play, so these guys have to be phenomenal team players and phenomenal leaders, and they have to have an unbreakable competitive spirit just like any pro athlete has. A pro gamer’s dexterity is measured in actions per minute, and it’s phenomenal to watch pro gamers actually up there playing. Watching their hands and watching their teamwork is really exciting. That’s why you go to these pro gaming events and you’ll see an audience full of fans who are as riveted by the action as you would see at any conventional sport.

How many hours per day do the top “League of Legends” players spend on the game?

Many of the pro teams are living in game houses together, and they’re spending 12 to 14 hours a day practicing. They’re also spending time in the gym to make sure they’re in great physical shape as well. They spend the rest of the time eating, sleeping, and bonding as a team.

How many people would you say play the game on a daily basis?

Last time we announced numbers was last fall, and we had over 11 million monthly active players, and we’ve seen significant growth since then, so it’s a large number.

But we’re really, really fired up to see the competition play out in the coming months. We’re making our way to the most exciting part of our season where now, the best teams from around the world are fighting for those few spots in the global world championships. Come October, we’re going to see the best teams go head-to-head, and it’s going to be phenomenal. It’s a sports arena filled with screaming fans getting fired-up about epic competition and the two best teams battling it out in a video game. It’s a really cool experience.