League of Legends is an esports mountain, at this point. Over the years since Western professional gaming’s primordial days, it has broken through and risen through tectonic shifts in the global scene, eventually towering over the majority of its competitors both within its genre – and without. It has even reached the lofty heights required for your mum or dad to have heard about it.There’s a good chance that if you have a sister, she’s dated a mid-laner, god help her. Walking around town with a Fnatic or Evil Geniuses t-shirt can, in certain places, elicit a similar reaction that a football (real or American) jersey can. If I see a zoomer in an NA team’s merch, I’m likely to laugh at them. If I see someone in old-school Shalke attire, I’m liable to french kiss them.
But, those plates buried beneath this world of competitive video games keep grinding, resulting in Riot Games spreading its ever growing influence to new pastures that its crown-title simply cannot reach. Valorant has erupted in popularity since its release, with fans and players of its one most notable competitor (CS:GO) jumping ship and leaving only the loyal behind. Wild Rift, the League of Legends mobile game, appears to be building to similar heights, while Legends of Runeterra is cutting out its own audience among hardcore card duelists. This once lone, daunting mountain has found itself a range of familial peaks.
This is, obviously, great for Riot and its base – but with titles like Project L and the distant Riot MMO on the way, what is the role of League of Legends in this modern landscape? Is it still as important, as paramount to the success of Riot esports? Is it as shiny as it used to be, surrounded by fresher, growing games?
To find out, I flew over to Malmo, Sweden for the LEC Summer Split finals. There, I spoke to fans, shoutcasters, and senior staff to find a consensus on where League of Legends sits in the hearts and minds of its most hardcore fans, some 13 years after it arrived on our screens.
Let’s start with the fans, the glue that keeps this whole thing together. With the first live crowd present since 2019 due to COVID restrictions and lockdowns, the vibes around the arena and adjacent LEC expo were elastic – bouncing between an aura of excitement and one of relief. Before the Saturday match between Fnatic and Rogue, I talked with several attendees floating around the venue. “I’ve been watching it from my bedroom, so this is way better than that,” exclaims Alex. He, and his three friends Kate, David and Owen travelled to Malmo from the UK and Ireland – each in their respective team’s kit – to watch the finals.
When asked whether they all still enjoy the game, I’m met with a smirks and tepid laughter from the group. “Yeah… I’m still a League degenerate!” Admits Alex, before his peers follow with similar tales. “Sure it can get frustrating at times, but I still like to play even now.” Each of them, having played the game together for several years, remain invested in the competitive scene and the game itself, even after all this time.
But what of the other titles that fall under the Riot Games umbrella? Well, according to those on the ground at Europe’s biggest League event this year, a general optimism about other RIot titles regardless of genre was the norm. “I’ve recently started following Valorant, and started playing it too. It’s pretty fun!” exclaims Harry Savage, a UK born and bred Fnatic fan that flew over the North Sea to support his favourite team with a custom jersey on his back. “This is my first ever live event. I wanted to go to one in London back in 2017, but I was at uni and just couldn’t make it at the time.
Harry, among literally thousands of other like-minded players and spectators, took the trip to Malmo now that crowds were back in the arena, packing out the 15,500-capacity arena over the weekend. Back at home, the LEC finals hit 732,573 peak viewers online, a staggering figure for an event with only three teams from a single region present. Compare this to CS:GO, another excellent and endlessly popular esports title, which had 762,885 peak spectators. For around 32,000 additional viewers, it was a major global event with teams from across the globe. In that context, it’s hard to discount the continued impact League has in the wider-esports landscape, even if additional games are following its path upwards.
Trevor “Quickshot” Henry, one of the most prominent commentators for League of Legends (as well as a major presence over the weekend), sees League taking up a senior, familial relationship with other Riot titles.
“It’s the older brother that’s finishing university, has a great job and is now figuring out the next career move,” says Henry. “And as the oldest sibling to now have younger siblings that are living in its shadow, you get multiple things: first of all you get to learn, you get to share knowledge and experience. I think when you look at Valorant in particular, the way the ecosystem and the esports scene is developing, some of the features, the viewership tools related to esports and to broadcasting… God. I wish I had them in League of Legends.
“Secondly, I think when you look at how the ecosystem has evolved and the speed at which it has evolved, you know it’s two/two and a half years of kind of grassroots tournament-to-tournament and already you’re looking at partnership models. Then you think ’okay, League of Legends took a decade to kind of figure that out’”.
So you’ve got League continuing to grow, and you’ve got sister games following a path carved out by its decades-long progression to popularity, but how do you keep it in a leading position? Is that even the goal? According to Alberto Guerrero, senior director of esports for the EU, Riot’s got its eyes on making events like the LEC Finals into bigger, more fan-focused events that’ll bring players to the events in-person.
“We have the expo for us, which is a very important thing for sure. Strategically it’s one of the areas I think is going to grow in the future. I imagine a future where we have two incredible days of competition, and why not three or Four days of activities for the community? Maybe from Thursday to Sunday, they can enjoy themselves. Interact with the teams, interact with the players, with the partners we have that want to do things with the fans. This is to me this is a starting point and is one of the areas I think we are going to grow.”
As for the competition itself, Alberto appears proud of the quality and apparent ceiling they’ve hit in terms of physical events. The only thing that comes to mind is a wider outreach to more traditional forms of media. “I really think we deserve to be seen; I mean broadcast channels. Yeah, I don’t want to mention a specific media, but we can be good content for any TV channel. To me, it is more about ‘keep doing what we are doing’ and the growth online will come for sure. We are going to the biggest closed venues we can go to. We are in every city. So I don’t imagine anything really different other than the expo thing that has a lot of space to grow.”
Whether or not League of Legends remains at the top in three, five, or 10 years time remains to be seen — it’s impossible to tell whether another challenger will shoot up the ranks, or interest will suddenly wane overnight. But judging by those on the ground in Sweden, even 10 years later, it’s hard to argue it’s not the Everest of gaming – at least right now.