Gaming goes pro: meet one of Australia’s top League of Legends teams

Behind the façade of a pleasantly nondescript house in Sydney’s west, there’s a sporting revolution taking place.

Six young men aged from their late teens to early 20s have been brought together to live in a two-storey suburban home for a year, in the hopes of becoming a world-beating team.

It sounds less like a sports strategy than a pitch for a reality TV show but could easily be both, especially since the team in question competes in esports – or, as their parents doubtless responded when they first heard about it, videogames. And they do it for a living.

The game in question is League of Legends, a five-a-side online multiplayer game, where fantasy characters battle one another using a range of different weapons and abilities, testing a team’s ability to strategise on the fly.

The game launched in 2009 and has proved enormously popular worldwide, not least since it has a few big advantages over similar games.

One is that it automatically matches players of around the same skill level, which means that – unlike with the much-hyped Star Wars Battlefront – new players don’t immediately find themselves wiped out by veterans who have acquired heavy weaponry and unbeatable attacks.

The biggest advantage, however, is that it’s free: if you have a computer and an internet connection, you’re good to go.

That last point explains why the Legacy team is unexpectedly based in Lidcombe: half an hour from Sydney west down the M4, it’s one of the most central Sydney suburbs hooked up to the high-speed national broadband network.

The house was made possible by the team’s own success; they placed second in the League of Legends Oceania Pro League last year, which secured them Asus sponsorship. Team Legacy and their coach moved in at the beginning of the year, to train for the 2016 competition, which will bring its grand final to Brisbane in August. The winning team will play at the international wildcard qualifier – and, if they make it through, they will head to the world championship, which has a prize pool of $2.1m.

More than 10,000 Australian esport fans attend the 2015 League of Legends grand final for the Oceanic Pro League at Luna Park in Sydney. Photograph: Dylan Esguerra

This is the first time most of the team have ever lived out of their family home. “Everyone’s really enthusiastic about learning how to cook,” says Aaron Bland, better known to League of Legends fans by his screen name, ChuChuZ. “It’s also a bonding experience – we usually cook in pairs.”

The place has been tidied up for the media to traipse through on launch day, but it is telling how few personal effects are on display. This is a training centre, not a crash pad, in keeping with the increasing professionalism of what everyone is at pains to emphasise is a genuine sport.

That’s not an unreasonable distinction either. Chris “Papasmithy” Smith, one of the game’s best-known live online commentators – or, as the play-by-play callers are appropriately known in the esports world, “shoutcasters” – compares the current status of League of Legends to that of competitive poker a decade ago.

“People look at the League of Legends championship and and they see the viewership,” Smith says. “They get tens of thousands of viewers [online] multiple times a week, just like a normal sports league.”

The US cable giant TBS is launching its own esports competition in May and the global sports network ESPN is dedicating more coverage to esports, with a dedicated web portal and coverage of the bigger tournaments for games like Hearthstone, Super Smash Brothers, DOTA 2 and, unsurprisingly, League of Legends.

The change has been recent. “Even for me it’s jarring to see a ticker going ‘here are the NFL results and this team won in the League of Legends’,” Smith says.

Last year’s World Championship of League of Legends had a worldwide online viewing audience of 36 million. Forbes estimated the annual value of the industry at $612m in 2015 and big name brands like Red Bull and Coca-Cola are investing heavily in international teams.

Even so, it’s a new and largely untested field in Australia, where League of Legends only went pro last year. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a competitive gaming career until about four years ago,” says 19-year-old An Trinh, known in the team as Minkywhale, or Minky.

While prize pots for bigger tournaments are growing, it’s only the highest-ranked teams and most high-profile individual players who make millions – partially through winnings and sponsorships but mainly through uploading videos and broadcasts of their plays to platforms like YouTube. Which is why convincing sceptical parents that League of Legends is a viable career choice is often a greater challenge than the tournaments themselves.

“It was very hard,” Minky says. “I started competitive gaming in my final year of high school and I’d arranged with my principal that I could go to places like Germany or New Zealand to play in tournaments. My parents didn’t know [about the extent of my gaming] until I had to go overseas.”

While Legacy’s base is the first in Australia, gaming houses are the norm for teams in the more advanced markets of the US, Asia and the Nordic countries. Historically, Australian League of Legends teams have been decidedly less professional than their overseas counterparts – an attitude perhaps best represented by the defunct Australian team Rich Gang eThugs, who were given a lifetime ban from the competition over abusive behaviour to other teams.

The group housing seems to have made a difference for Legacy: since moving in together, they have yet to lose a single game.

Days are heavily regimented. Monday to Friday starts at 11am with the first three-hour “scrim”, where two teams organise a practice game for a set period of time. “If you want to get the best practice that you can, you need to be versing the top teams,” Minky says.

With less than a dozen League of Legends teams in Oceania, practising against the same people you will be fighting in a tournament poses some unique strategic challenges.

“You don’t want to show your hand too much,” Minky says. “It’s actually very interesting: we deliberately choose different things to practice with different teams. A lot of it’s a mind game.”

That first scrim is followed by lunch and strategy discussions, a break for dinner and another scrim from 8pm to 11pm. Weekends are free but the players admit they spend a fair bit of their recreational time playing games with each another too.

Minky is doing his second year of a communications degree this year and admits he is a little concerned about balancing gaming with his studies.

“I’ve finished one year of uni and this might be harder going,” he says. “Having the gaming house this year was all about seeing how it would affect our rate of improvement and if it works out I think we could all have a career in esports. But, in all honesty, this year is all or nothing.”

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