League of Legends quickly gaining on traditional sports in American popularity

North American viewership for the LCS this season was massive. Photo by Paul de Leon/Riot Games

League of Legends isn't only the biggest competitive video game in the world, it's now closing in on having one of the biggest sporting events in the world. The game's creator, Riot Games, recently announced its North American competition, the League Championship Series, is the third-most popular professional sports league in the United States among 18- to 34-year-olds based on live average minute audience.

Average minute audience (AMA), provided by Nielsen, calculates the average amount of people watching at any given time during a broadcast. LCS, which holds its regular-season games at a reconfigured television studio in Los Angeles and finals in arenas around North America, recorded an AMA of 124,000 viewers between viewers aged 18 to 34 during its games in 2019. The league's spring final was held at the Chaifetz Arena on the campus of Saint Louis University and the summer season finale was held in the newly opened Little Caesars Arena, home of the Detroit Pistons and Detroit Red Wings.

"Nielsen has become a valuable partner in helping us measure the impact of our sport," said Doug Watson, head of esports insights for Riot Games. "As League of Legends esports viewership continues to grow, trust and transparency are key to building long-lasting relationships with brands entering the space. Nielsen is helping to unlock the next stage of growth by working with our partners around the world to identify how best to engage with our passionate fan base."

Since its inception in 2013, the LCS has grown year-to-year, becoming the premier esports league in North America. In 2017, the league went to a franchising model, accepting in 10 teams through a strenuous application process and a $10 million buy-in fee. Most recently, one of the league's franchises, Echo Fox, formerly backed by three-time NBA champion Rick Fox, sold its spot in the competition for $33 million to Seattle-based esports organization Evil Geniuses.

Along with the rising numbers in viewership and franchise fees, player salaries have also increased. While the minimum salary for a starter in the LCS is $75,000, the numbers for the top players have ballooned since the beginning of franchising. This offseason, South Korean player Heo "Huni" Seung-hoon inked a deal with his team, Dignitas, to become the highest-known earner in the LCS, re-signing for a two-year, $2.3 million extension.

Huni and Dignitas (formerly Clutch Gaming) qualified for the 2019 League of Legends World Championship, where the final, which took place in Paris between China's FunPlus Phoenix and Europe's G2 Esports, had a global AMA of 21.8 million and a peak of 44 million concurrent viewers.

The spring season of LCS begins on Jan. 25, 2020.