As the calendar turned to 2018, the League of Legends Pro League took on a slightly different look.
On Jan. 14, the Snake Esports League of Legends team shuffled into its new arena at the Chongqing Expo, in Chongqing, China, about 1,050 miles away from its former home in Shanghai. The Spring Split began a week later, with Snake facing LPL newcomer FunPlus Phoenix on its new home turf. Snake lost 1-2. EDward Gaming was the next team to visit Chongqing as part of the new home-and-away system in a marquee rematch of the recent Demacia Cup finals.
The EDG fan base is massive and, as evidenced by its presence in Chongqing on Jan. 21, willing to travel for the team, even if the venue is an 18-hour car ride from Shanghai. As members of both teams fanned out on the Rift for a standard Level 1 start, the cries from the EDG contingent rang out loudly, led by a proud cheer captain, as they screamed at the top of their lungs.
A competing chant, out of rhythm with EDG's, rose slowly until it drowned out the EDG fans, the entire arena thundering with cheers for Snake Esports. The casters had to wait for the noise to die down before speaking again, just 1 minute, 20 seconds into the game.
"You would not believe the energy in that venue when Snake started winning," English-language LPL caster Dom Roemer said. "Suddenly, not only was it the underdog story, but suddenly also the hometown heroes story. It was absolute electric, and the sheer volume rattled the stands in the back."
Shanghai remains the home of many League of Legends squads, and Snake's was one of the most opulent, its entrance complete with the gold, geometric Snake Esports logo stuck into the wall above the doorway.
Now, outside the team's stadium at the Chongqing Expo, a nearby sign lit up at night with the words, "Team Snake fights for Chongqing."
The LPL is quickly becoming a test case for geolocated esports worldwide. Tencent Games, which runs the Chinese league, was the first League of Legends league to announce franchising and is now the first to try a home-and-away system, organized by geographical locations -- a system in line with traditional sports and one that the Overwatch League is hoping to duplicate in the coming years. LGD announced that it would relocate to Hangzhou, Snake to Chongqing, and OMG to a yet-to-be-opened venue in Chengdu as the first wave of organizations to move away from the LPL arena at the Shanghai Super Brand Mall.
This year's geolocation experiment might set the tone for future moves in other League of Legends regions, and it's a relatively safe play. Of all regions to try out this structure, China makes the most sense given the country's population of nearly 1.4 billion and the passionate and colossal fan bases already tied to LPL teams.
"When I first heard about specific geographical locations per team, I thought it was massively ambitious," Roemer said. "In traditional sports, this works because of the wide support for the sport across the culture, and though esports is growing, I was initially dubious that any video game, let alone League of Legends, could possibly sustain anything of this scope."
"I'm proud to say that I was wrong."
LGD Gaming made building up its newfound home-field advantage a priority. On Dec. 14, LGD's team lined up on the red carpet to introduce the team's towering new location in the Xiacheng District at the heart of Hangzhou, China.
The introduction included a tour of LGD's Esports and Screen Culture Center and a first look at LGD's new stage, where the team would be playing the majority of its 2018 matches.
"The team has always had close ties to Hangzhou," LGD Global Media Manager Jenny Lee said. "We've even moved the rest of our offices and other gaming teams here, so it was easy to adjust."
For fans who grew up in an area with a professional sport, that sport is already a part of the city itself. If you follow baseball in Massachusetts, it usually means becoming a Boston Red Sox fan by default. These esports teams have to take a different approach: The goal is to reach out to fans in places outside of Shanghai, who may not have been able to make the trip to the LPL before, and getting them hooked on the experience.
"One of the main points of having the teams set up home venues in different cities while keeping the casters and production studio in Shanghai was really so the fans in other cities could experience the LPL atmosphere for themselves," Lee said. "For the fans who really want to see us play, visiting our arena where we have our merch store, theater, etc., is an experience, plus Hangzhou is only an hour from Shanghai by train. China is so big, and I think it means a lot for the fans outside of Shanghai to be able to watch their teams play live."
In the current LPL standings, Snake Esports sits at the top of the West Region with only one series loss. Although LGD had a slower start to the split, the team has improved in recent weeks. Lee joked that, since the team's first series victory came on top laner Lim "Jinoo" Jin-woo's birthday, a birthday buff was stronger than a hometown buff.
"Looking forward, though, it's definitely possible for a home advantage to develop like in other sports if we can get the support of the local Hangzhou fans," Lee said. "It's also easier and more comfortable for us to play at our home venue, compared to our opponents who have to travel from Shanghai."
For now, LGD and Snake have seen initial success, but long-term growth of fandom in Hangzhou and Chongqing will take time. The early interest shouldn't be used as proof of concept, either. It's important to remember that this started in the largest league with the largest existing fan bases and teams that could afford to have new arenas.
Still, Riot Games and the North American League of Legends Championship Series should take notice. One of the reasons behind moving the LCS finals from city to city is not only the spectacle, but to bring the LCS show to somewhere in North America that's outside of the Los Angeles metro area. If geographical relocation is somewhere on the distant horizon in the NA LCS, the LPL is the first place Riot Games should look to for a road map.
"The fans seems to love having their team so close and convenient," Roemer said. "And adding an element of hometown pride, even if created barely a few weeks ago, seems to be encouraging the teams to play better, too."