I wrote this post almost a full year ago (the text file is timestamped May 27th, 2014). Pro play just started up again, and everything in here is still relevant. I realize now that this article probably has the wrong balance of jargon and dumbed-down-ness. Like, if you understand half of the RPG slang I have in here, you probably know more about League of Legends than I do. Still, I had to try.
Last year, 32 million people watched the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship. Every weekend, millions tune into "regular season" matches between their favorite teams. Any given moment, tens of thousands of "LoL" diehards are watching their favorite streamer on Twitch.tv slay scrubs on "solo queue." The NFL doesn't start back up until September. You do the math. I'm going to teach you how to extract Real Sports Moments from this inscrutable "esport," based on my own ill-founded knowledge of the subject, until you have something better to do.
Step 1: pick a stream
It's not hard to find a League of Legends livestream. Simply visit Twitch.tv and click on that first big link on the left that says "League of Legends." Outside of the occasional Dota 2 tournament (Dota 2 is very similar to League of Legends, and most of the following tips can be applied), League of Legends holds the perennial top spot on Twitch for most concurrent viewers. Typically in the mere ~80k range, viewership spikes to 200k+ whenever a professional match is happening. There are actually five major leagues worldwide, in addition to an amateur league (the Challenger Series) which happens in parallel. While the highest level of play is currently in South Korea, China, and Europe, I prefer the North American league because the stream is in HD and the hours are predictable and EST-friendly.
If there aren't any pro matches happening when you try to tune in, you can find an archive of broadcasts on the Riot Games Twitch page, or browse through a prettier (but spoiler-filled) collection of matches at the official site.
Step 2: back a team
This is the least important step of the process, and I encourage you to switch loyalties on a whim. You know how that one friend of yours doesn't know anything about football, and every Super Bowl he roots for the team with the "best uniform"? And you know how you loathe him, but secretly envy his ability to derive enjoyment from watching a contest with none of the potential heartache of a "true" fan? This is your chance to be that guy!
Basically, one team starts on the bottom left and has blue health bars, and the other team starts on the top right and has red health bars. I typically root for blue as a default, because blue = good, red = bad in typical video game scenarios. Still, it's important to hold this choice loosely. Unlike many professional sports, League of Legends matches have what's called a "snowball effect," where by default the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker. This means that if a team gets out to an early lead, they'll most likely win the match, and so it's a safe bet to root for the team with an edge by the 5-10 minute mark if you're looking for minimal disappointment.
Of course, after a year or so of watching professional League, I've got some favorites. TSM, for instance, has a number of qualities I look for in a professional esports team. On average, TSM players are better looking, and better dressed, than the competition. They wear matching varsity jackets and grey skinny jeans, in a sport dominated by schlubby hoodies and logo-emblazoned motocross apparel. TSM also has Bjergsen, voted MVP of the 2014 LCS Spring Split, and my vote for "who wore it best" IRT the varsity jacket / skinny jean combo.
Step 3: count the creeps
I suppose this is the point in the guide where I should give you a basic idea of the "point" of a League of Legends match. But, really, it's not the most important thing. Watching LoL matches for the results is like watching soccer for "all the goals they score all the time," except in LoL there's only one goal scored (destroying the opponent "Nexus," at the back of their color-coded base), and the team that scores the goal wins instantly. Everything else is posturing, positioning, and grinding.
Basically, League of Legends gameplay is an accelerated version of an RPG level grind. Each player gains gold and experience by killing monsters (and each other), spends the gold on better gear, and levels up their powers with the experience. The most basic unit in the game is a "minion," which stream endlessly from each base along mirrored "lanes." The number of minions and other creatures killed by a player is called their "creep score," and it's a good shorthand for how much relative gold and experience -- and therefore power -- they've accumulated. The creep score (typically referred to as "CS") is listed next to the player's avatar icon at the bottom of the screen.
Different players will have wildly different CS, and that typically denotes their differing roles on the team. Typically a team will have a couple "carrys" (most CS), a "jungler" (a lot of CS), a "tank" (less CS), and a support (least CS). These roles aren't set in stone (there's an ever-evolving "meta" which dictates how teams are composed), and I'm actually not sure I got the order right anyway. What's important is that one or two players on each team will be "stacked" with the most gear and levels, while their teammates work hard to keep them alive and "fed" (more gear, more levels). And then they all fight.
Step 4: root for kills
Here's where the magic happens. Specifically, Bjergsen magic. You know that classic RPG feeling you get when you grind a few levels, buy some new gear, and suddenly those monsters which were so scary ten minutes ago seem to melt under your oversized sword blows? This is why I watch League. Inevitably, somebody gets "fed" (like, for instance, Bjergsen) and somebody gets melted. This is always satisfying.
There are innumerable factors that go into a successful melting, and the more you watch League the more you'll pick up on, but I'll walk you a few of the basics to help boost your initial satisfaction.
First, a player "wins his lane," "counter jungles," or "ganks" somebody. To get the snowball rolling, all he needs is an edge somewhere. This can be achieved by killing minion waves while keeping his mirror matchup from doing the same, trespassing into enemy area and stealing "camps" (stationary minions on set spawn timers), or simply finding vulnerable players and killing them. Once he pulls ahead, it becomes even easier to do all of the above activities -- each of which also harm opposing players.
Once a player builds a clear lead, the opponent must make a difficult decision: do they invest their limited resources in damage-dealing items, in hopes to catch their terrorizer off guard and defeat him, or do they build "tanky" and merely hope to survive? Obviously, this being a video game played by men in their early 20s, they typically pick the damage option. This results in what's known as a "squishy" hero.
To be honest, this is what used to frustrate me about League of Legends. Now I see it as a virtuous cycle. Exciting comebacks, a mainstay of most professional sporting leagues, are incredibly rare in League. Ultimately, I'm rooting for someone to dominate. A close match can be entertaining in its own way, but ultimately a win comes when one team gains a clear advantage and pummels the opponent into submission. Really, match dynamics are more like MMA or boxing than traditional team sports. You're rooting for a KO.
Step 5: complain about the casters
An age-old tradition in obsessive sports spectating is hating on the announcers. There's so much satisfaction to be found in feeling smugly superior to a sport's "professional" experts. This satisfaction is multiplied by the inherent silliness of a man whose job is to yell excitedly about what's happening in a fantasy-themed action RPG.
This is no easy task, of course. A League of Legends caster needs to have an encyclopedic knowledge of hundreds of avatars, players, items, and strategies. Then they need to inform the viewer of relevant facts pertaining to ten players, each juggling a subset of these avatars, items, and strategies, in real time, as the game unfolds. More astonishingly, a good caster can explain the specific spells and abilities being used by different players during a fight which, to my untrained eye, looks like a series of unrelated explosions and lens flares.
On top of all this complexity is the pronoun problem: a player is a "he," but his avatar could be a "he," "she," or "it." When his avatar attacks another avatar, the pronoun possibilities explode, and the poor, put-upon caster frequently retreats to the vaguest possible terms to refer to the parties involved.
Basically, a caster is set up to fail, and failing is hilarious. A caster has absolutely no chance of making the game "accessible" to the uninitiated. I have no idea what it means that "Kha'Zix" is trying to build his "Blade of the Ruined King," and probably never will, because five thousand other things just happened during that sentence. Things that happen in League are so alien that many casters have difficulty spitting out sensical analogies to or summaries of the melee, resulting garbled phrases along the lines of "boom goes the dynamite."
Step 6: ignore chat
All the difficulties in realtime match analysis I just listed? Now imagine them undertaken by 200,000 racist, sexist, illiterate 13-year-olds in an IRC chatroom. The accompanying Twitch.tv chat is my least favorite part of the current esports scene, and most of the time I just pretend it doesn't exist. I'm sure there are other calm, mature fans of DotA, League, and StarCraft, but they're difficult to find in the Twitch chat spamfest. You've been warned.
Step 7: root for the humans
Ultimately, I find nearly all esports fascinating and compelling because of one shared element: human players. The qualities specific to professional video games include fast reflexes (like that of a NASCAR driver), manual dexterity (akin to a piano player), an extensive memory (sort of like chess), and the endurance to stay sharp throughout a match which can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.
The high production values of the NA LCS makes these and other human factors apparent. You can see the nerves of young players, practically shaking before a match begins. The fatigue and pain, as they massage their aching hands with heat packs. Bravado as they strut on stage to a cheering crowd. Disappointment, as they slump in their chairs and stare blankly at their LCDs in defeat. Social awkwardness, as they fist bump, hug, and shake hands
... LOL THAT'S WHERE I LEFT OFF. Way to be a finisher, Paul. Way to see it through to the end like a real pro. I guess, as a wrap up, I'd say... hmm, not really sure what to say. Guess that's why this is a cliffhanger! So draw your own conclusions, I'm done.