As the final second ticked away in game two of the 2022 West Coast Conference (WCC) championship, the LMU Lions completed their decisive win over Pepperdine en route to a clean sweep over their Malibu rivals.
One of the LMU’s most successful sports programs last year was a team that few people on campus know about — and even fewer watch play: the League of Legends Esports team, which will enter the upcoming season as the reigning WCC champions.
League of Legends is a free-to-play multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) video game published in 2009. With more than 150 million monthly users, League has long been, and continues to be, one of the most popular video games on the planet.
The game has seen somewhat of a resurgence over the last few years. Quarantining during the pandemic inspired many new players to join the rift, while many former players began playing again as a way to stay connected.
“For me, it all started in the pandemic,” said Connor Fleeger, the starting mid laner for the LMU varsity League of Legends team. “It kind of felt like there was no way to really get involved with anything on campus during the pandemic, and I played League, so I was like, this is probably the easiest way to make connections during the pandemic and during the online year.”
The promotion and growth of competitive and even professional play continues to increase the popularity of League. Last season’s League of Legends World Championship Finals peaked at 73.9 million viewers on all platforms, a 60 percent increase in from 2021. Just how many people is that? This year’s NBA Finals was the most-watched Finals game in the last four years — and concurrent viewership peaked during Golden State’s victory in Game 6 at 16.8 million viewers.
“I’m a big sports fan, so I like watching football, I like watching basketball and I think [Esports] just gives the same emotional reactions that you get watching regular sports,” said Brady Larsen, the starting jungler for the team. “Rooting for your team gives, you know, the same amazing highs and lows that you would get while watching any other sport really.”
Team captain and starting support Lucas Miller echoed a similar sentiment about the unique enjoyment of high-level, competitive gameplay.
“League, as a game, is the best version of itself when it’s competitive, five versus five,” said Miller. “That’s how it was designed, so I think once you kind of get a taste of that, you’re hooked.”
The rapidly expanding popularity of the game’s professional scene along with its increasing monetary prizes have lit the competitive landscape on fire. Amateur and collegiate Esports teams across the country have gone from fun extracurriculars and club activities to regulated and competitive athletics programs. UC Irvine is a trailblazer in the path toward legitimizing League as a competitive sport after becoming the first collegiate institution to offer a “League of Legends” scholarship for prospective students back in 2016. Since then, a number of higher learning institutions have begun offering the same scholarship.
“Like it or dislike it, it’s making money so it’s kind of legitimizing itself,” said Fleeger. “These teams — these organizations — are all worth multiple hundreds of million dollars that focus solely on eSports and League, pretty much. Especially as it starts trickling down into education where I’ve heard of elementary schools with eSports teams.”
Over the past few years, LMU has caught onto the craze with the revitalization of its own League of Legends program. After five years of development, the team’s 2022 WCC championship season marked their first successful campaign since their invitation to the League of Legends International College Cup Qualifiers in 2017.
“My freshman year… I’m pretty sure we had seven people on the roster entirely,” said Miller. “Then down to five people come season in spring, which really cost us. And that’s just kind of a recurring theme in those earlier years, so last year I went really heavy with recruiting. I basically just sat outside the gaming lounge and anybody who I saw playing League, I asked them to come try out. I wanted to make sure we had enough people to fill out a roster, and I think we had like 20 or so come out.”
This upcoming season, with a more established presence in the LMU Esports community that essentially advertises the team, Miller expects a solid turn out for preseason tryouts — even without recruiting.
“Expectation is to repeat,” said Miller. “That’s pretty straightforward. As a team, we have an even higher ceiling this year. So the goal is to go undefeated and the expectation is to repeat.”
Photo: Caleb Park