Sacramento e-team trains to win its game of choice: League of Legends

Published: Tuesday, Sep. 10, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 10, 2013 - 11:44 am

Most children leave home for higher education, or move out once they find a stable job.

But after spending nearly a year in college, Chris Lesher, 19, departed his east Sacramento home two months ago to manage a professional sports team.

His players aren’t highly touted basketball recruits or beefed-up football players.

They don’t pull down seven-figure salaries or appear on television to hawk the latest brand of athletic shoe.

Instead, they play video games. For eight hours a day, five days a week, five players age 17 to 23 sit down and immerse themselves in the emerging world of electronic sports.

Their game of choice? League of Legends, an online battle arena in which players control champions — powerful fantasy heroes — and wade through an unending tide of computer-controlled minions to blow up their opponent’s home base.

The game, which was released by Santa Monica-based Riot Games in 2009, has an enormous international following complete with sportscasters, live championships, merchandising and legions of dedicated fans.

The top players compete in the League Championship Series, an exclusive club with eight teams whose players each receive a $12,500 subsidy from Riot Games over a three-month period. These teams play in tournaments with large cash prizes, draw thousands of spectators to their websites, sit through professional photo shoots and garner sponsorships from tech companies.

And recently, the world of electronic sports scored two victories generally reserved for mainstream professional sports. In July, Riot Games announced that the 2013 League of Legends World Championship will take place at the Staples Center, the 18,000-seat venue in Los Angeles that is home to the NBA’s Lakers and Clippers. The tournament’s final match is scheduled Oct. 4.

Also in July, Riot Games’ eSports manager announced that the U.S. government will allow international players to obtain visas to travel stateside.

But for Lesher and his team, the big leagues are out of reach — for the moment. They spend their days ensconced in a gaming house, a two-story, three-bedroom residence in Huntington Beach provided for them by their sponsor, Gold Gaming Los Angeles.

They wake up every day at noon, discuss their plans and strategy for the day, then scrimmage against other teams until 10 p.m., with an hour break for lunch. They get the rest of the night to themselves, which some of the players occasionally fill with more online gaming — just for fun.

Although the rooms can occasionally get messy, the gaming house is more of a training camp than a disheveled bachelor pad, Lesher said.

The players are serious about their craft and their dream to compete at the highest levels against the most talented players.

“Our biggest goal is to be the best in the world. And that’s a big, high hope,” Lesher said.

Like Lesher, the players of Gold Gaming Los Angeles left behind friends, family and their former lives to follow their dreams of becoming professional gamers.

Ryan Rowe, 19, was attending community college in Orange with aspirations to eventually enter the medical field when he joined the team in July.

His mom was skeptical about the move because she was worried he wouldn’t finish college for several years. For Rowe, living in the house was an adjustment because it was messier than his parents’ house. Plus, no one cooked dinner every day.

“It was a difficult change, having to prepare everything for myself,” Rowe said.

The players are training for a tournament in January that will give them the opportunity to play with the elite in the League Championship Series, where it’s easier to land sponsors and attract fans. But even if the team manages to launch itself into the big time, it will have to consistently win matches to remain in the high-profile league.

The top players in the most competitive leagues often generate huge followings, but their audiences are inevitably cluttered with a few bad apples, said Jack Etienne, the owner of Cloud 9, the top team in the North American section of the League Championship Series.

When Etienne managed Team Solo Mid, a championship-winning League of Legends team, his players had to deal with pranksters who ordered (but did not pay for) large quantities of Chinese takeout for the team, along with stacks of pizza.

The most well-known teams also have to be careful not to accidentally reveal their Internet Protocol addresses, because followers of League of Legends have used that information to attack the team’s computers and prevent them from connecting to the Internet, Etienne said.

In addition to the pressure from the audience, there’s also pressure to land sponsorships that will augment the subsidy from Riot Games.

Companies are gradually warming up to the possibility of sponsoring League of Legends teams, largely because they’re trying to reach the 18- to 30-year-olds who follow the sport, said Steve Arhancet, director of eSports for Curse, a company that owns a group of websites and a professional League of Legends team.

Riot Games produces videos about the competitors full of personal vignettes and storylines that encourage the audience to identify with specific players and teams.

In addition to the marketing muscle Riot Games puts behind the players, the company also spends big to boost the production quality of its live tournaments, said Dmitri Williams, co-founder of Ninja Metrics, a company that analyzes interactions between individuals in social networks.

The competitions are high-octane events in elaborately lit studios with headset-clad sportscasters and instant replay.

“You could be at a League of Legends match and get the same buzz as you would at a basketball game or professional boxing match,” Williams said.

One of the current obstacles to the growth of eSports such as League of Legends is that many people aren’t yet aware they exist, said Michael Pachter, an analyst for financial services firm Wedbush Securities.

“I think you’re going to have to break down the barriers of people who think that games are a waste of time,” Pachter said. “But that will take a generation.”

But on the other side of the generation gap, Chris Lesher’s father, David Lesher, is glad his son took a leave from college to manage a professional eSports team.

After following the media hype surrounding the emerging industry, he’s interested in attending the World Championship at the Staples Center with his son.

“I still think it’s an industry that’s much bigger than most people know, and I can’t imagine it’s not going to grow and grow,” he said.

Call The Bee’s Benjamin Mullin, (916) 321-1034.

Read more articles by Benjamin Mullin

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