Thrilled to see 10 young men from Asia tap on keyboards, click on mouses and stare at computer screens for 90 minutes, more than 13,000 people packed into Staples Center on Friday night.
They witnessed a team of five from South Korea scorch the underdog squad from China on the biggest stage yet for a computer game, developed in Santa Monica, that has hooked the attention of millions of people across the world.
The goal of the game, called League of Legends, is to steer virtual characters through a series of obstacles and past opponents to destroy the opposing team’s base. Anyone with an Internet connection can play the game for free and form a team with any group in the world. Within a year of the game's release, a professional league began to form.
After advancing past teams from North America, Europe and elsewhere, South Korea’s SK Telecom T1 and China’s Royal Club faced off in the professional league’s third world championship Friday night. Last year’s championship was held at USC’s Galen Center.
This year, on a red-and-blue stage set up where Lakers star Kobe Bryant is usually tossing in layups, the e-sports teams sat behind separate tables -- teammates spread side-by-side and communicating by headsets. Each team member stared at his own monitor as his face was broadcast to the audience on a television screen on the other side. Above them, a gigantic display showed what was happening in the virtual battle on a grassy field known as Summoner's Rift.
Fans, with the help of inflatable noise-making sticks, cheered every time someone killed an opponent. Many were rooting for the underdogs and hoping the bloodshed would continue late into the night.
But unleashing an aggressive strategy and successfully capitalizing on Royal Club’s errors, SK Telecom T1 swept the match three games to nil in a best-of-five duel.
The dominating performance earned them a $1-million prize and a Stanley Cup-like trophy. The Chinese team splits a $250,000 award.
Meanwhile, the South Koreans are likely to come across big paydays from their sponsors, including their local wireless carrier, SK Telecom, and global sporting goods giant Nike.
“We are all going to save it all,” team member Jung Eon-yeong said of the money at a news conference conducted in Korean. He added that one of his teammates had originally wanted to splurge on a feast of 10,000 pieces of fried chicken.
All but one of the South Koreans is less than 20 years old. The eldest is 22. They go by nicknames such as Faker, PoohManDu and Piglet.
“I’m not overly excited,” Jung said of the victory. “We still have to improve, try harder, dominate next year and continue to be strong.”
He apologized for the fact that the team didn’t have a chance to choreograph a victory dance.
Still many fans, and especially USC alums Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck, were all smiles. The pair founded Riot Games in 2006 and launched League of Legends in 2009. With little marketing, the game has spread friend-to-friend from the U.S. to Asia to Turkey to Brazil and elsewhere.
Next year a minor league will be formed that will feed its best teams to the professional circuit.
Merrill said that about all that separates the e-sport from traditional sports is history and legacy.
“You can enjoy a rivalry like Dodgers-Giants or USC-Notre Dame with your grandfather and go over all those big moments from decades past,” he said. “That stuff’s coming to this, too.”
The mostly young spectators, who paid at least $40 to attend the finale, said that watching e-sports matches was akin to tuning into football for their parents.
“The teams have the same objective all the time, but each game is guaranteed to be a little different and you can just appreciate all those different plays and moves,” said Derrick Nelson, 21, of Fresno.
Aaron Haworth, a high school senior, traveled with his mom from Michigan for the weekend to attend the championship. The excursion was his birthday present. Like many, he couldn’t find words to describe the excitement he derives from belonging to the League community.
“Just the atmosphere -- it’s so easy to get into these games with friends,” he said while waiting in a long line to buy memorabilia.
Before walking away for the night, South Korea’s Jung offered a note of caution to people hearing about League of Legends for the first time.
“Once you start playing it, it’s very hard to stop,” he said.