MSU students embracing League of Legends gaming trend

May 7, 2017

The multiplayer game is one of the hottest in the world, and is working its way into mainstream sports culture.

EAST LANSING, Mich.- In American culture, there are four main sports dominating major discussion: football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. In the world of online sports, League of Legends stands out in popularity among the rest. After seeing many commercials for local, national, and international competitions, I began to wonder how the game could be growing so quickly. In my quest to understand more about this game and its recent popularity spike, I discovered a huge community of users. I also saw many similarities between League of Legends and many of the strategies and concepts involved in the four major sports.

League of Legends was originally released in North America and Europe in October 2009. As of 2014, the Wall Street Journal estimated that “over 67 million people play League of Legends per month, 27 million per day, and over 7.5 million concurrently during peak hours.”

Rise in Popularity and Economics

League of Legends is totally free to users; money can be spent, however, on cosmetic things, such as character appearances and unlocking new champions. According to Business Insider, “last year, (League of Legends) generated over $1 billion in a year in microtransactions,” otherwise known as in-game purchases. Riot, the company that develops the game offers users the ability to add their credit card to purchase “Riot Points” for in-game currency. League of Legends was the highest grossing digital game across all platforms for the year 2015 with an estimated revenue of $1.63 billion. For consoles, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare led with $355 million in revenue. Mobile games were more successful than console games, with Clash of Clans making $1.345 billion as the top game.

League of Legends: MSU and Beyond

David Borthwick and Grant Miller are members of the League of Legends club at Michigan State University. They have been friends since high school in Northville, Michigan, and have played League of Legends together since 2012. They have participated in live commentary videos filmed in the MSU Newsroom about professional League of Legends matches. These commentaries break down game strategies, match progressions, and player strengths and weaknesses, focusing on highlights to give instructions to new and developing players.

The League of Legends club at Michigan State has 13 members,, according to Borthwick. Students have been given access to special computers in the Communication Arts and Sciences building at MSU to hold practices. Borthwick and Miller said they were both appreciative of MSU and CAS supporting their club. 

“I bought League of Legends the first year the game came out, but I didn’t get into it at first,” said Miller. “The game was still in its developing stages and there were a lot of initial glitches to work out before the game really took shape. I introduced the game to David a couple years later when I picked it back up again.”

“I initially liked how I could apply League of Legends to sports that I had been watching my whole life,” said Borthwick. “The strategies and teamwork involved is a really important element of the game, and it’s obvious when there’s a weak link or a team with weaker chemistry.”

League of Legends holds a world championship series each year. Starting in 2011, teams compete for the champion title, the Summoner's Cup, and a $1 million champion prize. According to ESPN, in 2016, “the finals were watched by 43 million people, with a peak concurrent viewership of 14.7 million viewers, breaking 2015's finals' viewer records.” ESPN has included League of Legends coverage on programs such as SportsCenter, and the Big Ten Conference has its own League of Legends league. The Big Ten broke away from the collegiate league that had been the nation’s premier college league. The Big Ten broadcast matches between schools this year, and will continue to do so in 2017.

Most League of Legends viewers watch online. Twitch, the most popular streaming website for online games, is used by members of the community to broadcast personal streams live to viewers. Professional players gain followers on their personal and team accounts, and use this to get advertising contracts. Twitch states on its website that more than 45 million users access the site each month. 

League of Legends: A Primer

League of Legends is an online fighting game played by two competing teams of five. When players begin the game for the first time, they create a username, called a Summoner’s name. Similar to basketball, each team member plays a certain position, with offensive and defensive roles associated with each position. Players can join groups with friends, or play with strangers. Also similar to basketball, the overall shape and size of the game board never changes. This is different from many online games, where matches alternate between settings. Players can choose from over 100 playable characters, called champions.

The board has four “lanes,” or positions divided among teammates. The lanes are top, middle or “mid,” bottom, and jungle. Since there are five champions per team, the bottom lane will have two players teaming up together.

Team composition is very important, as in any sport. “Comp,” as it is commonly referred to, can make or break a team. Also, each teammate tends to play one position over and over again, instead of rotating with teammates through positions.

Each team guards its own base while trying to attack the other team’s base. The teams are separated into blue and red, with the blue team’s base being in the bottom left corner of the map; the red team’s base is in the upper right corner. At the back of each base lies a structure known as a “Nexus.” To win the game, teams try to destroy their opponent's’ Nexus.

Following the League of Legends characters

In the top lane, the character can be compared to a center in basketball: someone big and strong, willing to get physical. Players refer to this position as the “tank” position. In the middle, the leader of the offense makes his mark. They are constantly pushing forward, like a drive-first point guard, looking to get many kills on the other players. In the bottom lane, two players join forces to succeed in their roles. One is called the “marksman,” whose main focus is dealing damage on the other team. The marksman is very easy to kill; this leads to his co-lane player being called a “support.” Depending on the champion the support picks, he can help his teammates in different ways. Supports can be offensive- or defensive-minded players. They can use healing spells to heal the marksman, or give shields to other teammates. They can also be used as another tank player, taking damage that would normally be taken by the marksman.

Jungle is a unique space in between lanes that is inhabited by neutral monsters which spawn from set locations called camps. The jungle position has the responsibility of trying to kill these neutral monsters while also running from lane to lane, helping teammates. Players in lanes now have an extra element to worry about, with not only the opposing lane player but also the opposing jungle player who might make a surprise visit to the lane. The jungle player is tougher to kill because they have to be able to withstand attacks from the neutral monsters.

All of these different elements provide numerous opportunities for strategy. When an opposing champion is killed, a “power play” opportunity, reminiscent of hockey, is created. Champions take a certain time to respawn, so team members may leave their lanes to go press forward in an open lane. Support and jungle players must divide their time between helping teammates and killing neutral monsters. Teammates are constantly talking to each other using microphones, and communication becomes a key element of changing strategy.