How League Of Legends is building a UK esports scene against Brexit

GameCentral visits the League Of Legends UKLC final at Twickenham Stadium to learn about the challenges facing the game’s growing UK esports scene.

Released in 2009, MOBA title League Of Legends has been a titan on competitive gaming circuits since its first world tournament in 2011. While Dota 2 and Fortnite may have bigger prize pools, last year’s League Of Legends World Championship in South Korea became the most watched esports event of 2018, attracting 99.6 million unique viewers for the live final – surpassing even the Super Bowl.

As with many esports, this popularity has been slow to translate to UK shores. However, developer Riot Games has made strides this year, to establish a stronger presence here, creating new league UKLC (UK League Championship) with esports organisation LVP (League of Videogame Professionals), which is designed to lift amateur League Of Legends players to professional status.

Winners from the UKLC are fast-tracked to the Summer 2019 EU Masters group stage, where 20 teams from around Europe compete for a €150,000 (£136,200) prize pool. Runners-up in the UKLC and other leagues across Europe are put into the play-ins, where seven teams battle for three remaining spots in the group stage.

A new infrastructure isn’t the only investment. In January this year, UK esports organisation Excel announced Twickenham Stadium as their new home – switching out training in gaming houses for a facility within the home of rugby. It’s another step towards a professional image around UK esports, with Excel’s branding on show inside the stand as rugby fans scramble for their next pint. 

It’s apt then, that the first UKLC final, between Fnatic and Excel, takes place at Twickenham. While it isn’t staged in the main stadium itself, the enthusiasm from the hundreds in attendance already feels destined for a bigger space. Since it’s also Excel’s new home turf, it feels like a notable first step towards an official ground for UK esports. 

Mo Fadl, head of UK esports for Riot Games since 2017, is particularly enthusiastic about their progress over the past year, comparing it favourably to his past work in esport and community roles for developers Wargaming, NCSoft, and Blizzard. 

‘The UK was lagging a bit behind in esports but we’re overachieving now with the initial goals we’ve set up,’ Mo tells GameCentral at the UKLC final. ‘It takes time, but the UK has already made tremendous jumps compared to any country I’ve worked in the past, or even globally. We are now nearly 18 months ahead of schedule just because it has picked up so fast.’

But why have we lagged behind European countries like Spain and Germany? Mo cites English being the worldwide language for esports as a barrier to getting UK viewers invested in their own scene – with Spanish or German-speaking tournaments, for example, possessing a local flavour you can’t find elsewhere. Over here, you’re battling for attention against the biggest international tournaments streamed online via Twitch. 

To combat this, Riot has attempted to add a ‘UK flair’ to UKLC livestreams, to make it more distinctly British. Using homegrown casters and adopting a more playful approach, the aim was to build a more entertaining, and less stuffy, image for UK streams, to widen the audience and act as an alternative to the serious coverage of international tournaments.

Whether this will become an identity for UK esports remains to be seen, but its success has captured wider attention in recent months. Jaden Ashman, 15, from Essex was featured on breakfast shows like Good Morning Britain after winning almost £1 million at the Fortnite World Cup finals. While not from the League Of Legends community, it’s stories like these which boost the profile of UK esports as a whole.

‘It’s great for everyone,’ Mo says about Jaden’s win. ‘It’s great for the players, great for the industry, great for all games, it helps the visibility.

‘To be frank, it’s all growing [in the UK]. There are key games, like legacy games, which are the foundation and new games which are coming – like Fortnite came in amazingly for the whole industry for the new players and viewers it created. It widened the audience for players to interact with each other, which is good for everyone.’

A fog hanging over this growth is Brexit’s supposed arrival in October. Like many other business sectors, the uncertainty of its ramifications makes its potential effects on UK esports difficult to gauge – but it’s something which is a cause for concern moving forward.

Asked if they’re worried about Brexit’s impact, Mo said: ‘I’d be lying if I said no. There is a worry more for events and partnerships and infrastructure. We want a place in the UK for teams, for the leagues, for partnerships, which we have to be aware of. It doesn’t mean it should hinder us but it’s another thing on our plate we have to look out for, to keep it in mind and build around it. 

‘Naturally we have a lot of support from key partners in government. We’re talking with them as well to make sure how can we make this transition, whatever happens, as smooth as possible so it has no impact on our players, fans, and ideally the industry in the UK.

‘The one thing we learned is no one really knows. No one knows what will happen. Even when we talk to people within government, they’re like, “Yeah we don’t really know how it’ll actually work out, what it will look like, even whether it’ll be a deal or no deal.” No one knows in the end. 

‘You prepare yourself for the unknown which is very tricky. So naturally we said okay, we can waste a lot of energy and focus on this which we have no knowledge about, or we focus 95% of our energy on building what we have right now and build it solid. Because no matter which storm comes tomorrow, if we build a solid ship it will overcome the storm.’

While Brexit’s effect, if any, on UK esports is unclear, this uncertainty has already had a detrimental effect on the country’s viability to host prestigious tournaments. This year’s League Of Legends World Championship takes place across Europe in Berlin, Madrid, and Paris in October, with London omitted from the line-up to avoid any complications which could arise. 

‘Worlds takes months, years to plan in advance,’ Mo says. ‘We have a lot of work infrastructure behind it so if there’s any risk or potential risk, we try to limit it as much as we can. 

‘This is something we actually looked at and it’s one of the “what if” questions. What if this happened, how can we make sure our place in the UK gets the best experience? How can we make it as good as possible for the players if this happens? This is something where Brexit, let’s be honest, didn’t help us in the decision in regards to the UK for the Worlds esport event.’

Mo’s eyes aren’t necessarily on the immediate future but instead the long-game, when it comes to growing talent in the League Of Legends scene, and he’s positive we’ll eventually see UK players become heavy-hitters on the global stage. 

‘I saw some amazing players, they’re not in the top leagues here in the UKLC, but some new talent coming in, young and enthusiastic players, girls and boys, super talented. I say in three years, these groups of players will dominate on a European or even global stage.

‘This will be something we can look back on. It all started today.’

For players now, this established esports infrastructure across Europe could be seen as a double-edged sword. While it provides comfort with a clear career trajectory, the  path has opened the floodgates to potential competition, all fighting for spots on the biggest teams.

Marc Robert ‘Caedrel’ Lamont, 23, who plays for Excel Esports, has seen the industry grow from the early days of living off tournament prize money to having a salary as a contracted player. While he believes a newfound emphasis on talent scouting for new players is a positive for the industry, the amount of new leagues popping up for League Of Legends has created a new problem for those aiming for the top.

‘It used to be that there wasn’t many national leagues or many national teams so there wasn’t much talent, but now it’s super saturated,’ Marc says. ‘There’s 10 academy teams, there’s hundreds of national teams, there’s leagues in Italy, leagues in Nordic countries, leagues in Holland, Belgium, UK, Ireland, Scotland, there’s leagues everywhere. 

‘So it’s really saturated now in that you have to really shine or really stand out, or you have to get on a really established team to actually get noticed. I think that’s the only difficult part now. It’s more you have to find the right team, rather than before it was, “I have to find a team”.’

While the ascent of League Of Legends as a UK esport may still have some lingering questions, players like Marc, who have dedicated their lives to becoming the best, are simply embracing the current upswing.

’There’s a lot of downsides to it [being a professional esports player], but there’s a lot of upsides as well,’ Marc says. ‘I think the good outweighs the bad in the sense your career is only for so long – you’re not going to play for 20 years, so just make the most of the moment. 

‘The things which suck right now, like not having relationships, the stressful environment, not being able to see your family that much, not being able to establish a home in a sense because you’re always travelling back and forth with tournaments and different houses, and your sleep schedule is really f**ked up if you’re going internationally as well. 

‘So I think just living in the moment is really important right now. It’s something you’ll never be able to do again. I think that’s the biggest positive that outweighs the negatives.’

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