Given the vast popularity of the League of Legends series, it would be all too easy to bill its annual World Championship as the 'Superbowl of esports'. When in fact, it's much bigger.
In 2019, the showpiece attracted over 100m viewers (two million more than the audience who tuned into the previous year's edition of the Superbowl), making it one of the most watched competitive events of all time – esports or otherwise.
More recently, there were all kinds of blockbuster encounters at Worlds 2020, which saw Korea's DAMWON Gaming lift the Summoner's Cup for the first time. Make no mistake, League of Legends is arguably the best esport of them all.
For the unversed, it's a scene of thrills, spills and raucous stadium atmosphere, a chess match wrapped up in a multiplayer battle, where pressure is high and reactions so fast they'd put Max Verstappen to shame.
Read on for a handy guide to following all of the action:
What is League Of Legends?
League of Legends – commonly known as LoL – is a multiplayer strategy game of magic and manoeuvring that sees two teams of five attempt to destroy each other's base. A free game at point of download for pros and amateurs alike, major and minor leagues are played across different continents, culminating in a month-long, season-defining World Championship for the very elite.
How is it played?
Two teams of five – a blue team and a red team – battle across a map known as Summoner's Rift. Much of the action takes place across three lanes known as ‘top', 'mid' and 'bottom', as well as in the bases themselves. Anywhere on the map that isn't occupied by lanes or bases is known as jungle and it's here that 'junglers' rely on killing neutral monsters to win gold and XP.
Players strengthen their champions (characters) by earning gold to spend on items that allow them to cast better spells and cause extra damage. Winning XP, meanwhile, will help players level up. Each team can call upon an army of minions (not those ones) to help them take down the enemy base.
The first team to destroy a structure known as the Nexus, lying at the back of each team's base, wins the match. Though this might sound as simple as two basketball sides dunking on each other's net until a backboard shatters, it’s not. For as long as all three of its Inhibitors, or at least one of the Turrets on the base are still standing, the Nexus is undamageable.
Turrets play a critical part in match play, causing damage to enemies and also allowing a team to better control the battlefield. Teams will often call upon minions, a non-player controlled army spawned by the Nexus, to help topple some turrets.
What happens when a character dies?
They respawn. What's more, players must also wait for a certain amount of time before their champion is allowed to re-enter the game, increasing the enemy's chances of destroying a base or controlling a lane. "After a character dies, they respawn on the same spot, just behind the Nexus in their base, says player-turned-caster Dan 'Aux' Harrison. "This leads to some very clutch moments, as those players come back just in time to defend their Nexus."
How are characters picked?
One great aspect of LoL events is the Draft Pick, a player versus player game mode giving teams a chance to take turns picking their champions and even banning characters from being used against them. A chess match in a chess match, if you will.
Most teams will do their homework ahead of a draft: there are 150 champions to choose from, but they can only be picked once per game and their abilities tend to lend themselves to certain roles and lanes. The bans alone can be a heap of fun, particularly should one outfit target the favoured champion of a serial MVP.
"Each pick, or even ban, depends highly on a team's strategy," says Aux. "Certain characters could be very strong early in the match, but become weak towards the end of the game and vice versa. You'll find a lot of strategies involved to counter a team's tactics. Even at the highest level, we've seen surprise draft picks and plenty of shocks."
What are the positions?
Top: Sits in the top lane and often goes 1v1 against their opposite number. Every top-laner has a spell to teleport, allowing them to jump to the opposite side of the map in a few seconds.
Jungler: Unlike their team-mates, who level-up by killing minions, these steely competitors sift through the jungle that lies between the lanes, clearing it out for gold and XP. Often seen jumping into other lanes to help turn a 1v1 into a two on one.
Mid: Generally stick to the middle lane, which allows them to move around the map easily, mid-laners tend to play as strong champions, like Aatrox, and are known for a heavy damage playing style.
ADC: Attack Damage Carry is a role traditionally filled by long range, consistent-damage characters such as a Marksman with a bow. This character will look to get stronger throughout the game and in the later stages can often be the key player.
Support: A utility player who moves around the map helping others to become stronger, the support often picks champions with 'crowd control' abilities to stop or stun the enemy at vital moments.
How do the lanes differ?
All three lanes have their own advantages and drawbacks in League of Legends, meaning no game is ever really the same. Arching around the north-west of the map, the top lane is normally exclusively occupied by the two team's opposing top-laners, who tend to take on sturdy champions with survivable traits such as Tanks or Fighters, because of their restricted habitat.
Meanwhile, down in the bottom (bot) lane, teams tend to find more advantage here for kills early on than in other lanes (it's also a closer proximity for bagging some dragons). Keep your eyes glued on the bot lane, as you're bound to see some big plays.
Controlling a lane is key to dominating a map and you'll struggle to find a more eagerly contested piece of real estate on Summoner's Rift than the mid lane. The shortest direct path to the Nexus, it's arguably the most important lane and, as a result, not exactly short of action itself.
What do players do with gold?
Players who win gold on the map can use it to buy items from a shop located at the fountain. Items include everything from armour to magic resistance, attack damage to speed and ability power. Players can carry six items at a time. Often what separates a good player from a great player is being smart with which items they select.
Is there talk between teams?
"The best team in Europe right now is G2 Esports and these guys will constantly taunt players in-game," says Aux. "They use All Chat, which players can use to type messages to their opponents. This can be frustrating for many players and many of them mute their rivals. Stress is a huge factor when you're on stage, with thousands watching and millions of dollars on the line, teams can just crumble."
If you're looking to adopt a team in LoL, G2 are certainly one of the most entertaining out there. After winning the 2020 LEC Summer trophy (their second in as many years) the wisecrackers went into Worlds 2020 as one of the favourites only to come up short in the semi finals, losing 3-1 to eventual title winners DAMWON Gaming. If one thing is certain in 2021 it's that G2 will be looking to put that right.
Does the gameplay change?
Every two weeks or so the game's developers, Riot, release a patch to tweak both champions and items to shake up the map. What might look like a minor addition can occasionally have knock-on effects for the entire season. "New patches can even change how long the game takes by five or 10 minutes," says Aux.
Are there fan favourites?
Supporters typically enjoy watching characters with a higher level of skill and are harder to pilot, like the Assassin subclass, according to Aux. "These champions tend to be quite squishy, which means they lack defensive stats and HP [health], but they have high damage output. Zed [AKA Master of the Shadows] has always been a very strong pick in this regard."
It's also not unknown for players themselves to be the main draw. One recent cult player who had fans out of their seats was TheShy, a top-laner who helped China's Invictus Gaming to win Worlds 2018. "He was on another level that season," says Aux. "He knew what opponents would do before they did. If this was a chess game, he was eight moves ahead."
Any other things to watch out for?
Minions. These guys are a non-player-controlled army spawned by the Nexus and a major part of matchplay. The enemy can kill them to win gold and experience, while the allied side can use them to help destroy their opponent's base. "The towers will constantly hit champions if they walk up to them," reveals Aux. "So, you'll see players getting minions to absorb this damage."
Other non-playable characters you may see teams hunting down are dragons and Barons – both major XP boosts when slayed. "If a team kills a Baron, then every player gets gold," adds Aux. "It's also helpful for a team if they're pushing down a tower, as their minions become a lot tougher with the Baron buff."
Similarly, when a team kills a dragon they'll be rewarded with all kinds of buffs for attack damage and ability power. Kill four dragons for your team and you'll get a buff so powerful it can be a game-changer."
Are there rivalries?
"There's a lot of international pride at tournaments, so even if their teams are no longer at the event, fans will lend their support to other teams from that region," says Aux. "China have been on top for a few years, having won the past two World Championships, while Korean teams, who've traditionally dominated, have fallen behind. Fans of North American and European teams will also never miss a chance to slate each other."
Teams aren't exactly without rivalries themselves. We'd need to write another article to flag them all up, but there remain one or two that always have an added edge when they clash, including G2 and Fnatic, who "have bad blood and share Europe's biggest rivalry by some way," says Aux.
How are characters categorised?
Each champion is assigned a class, ranging from Controller to Fighter to Mage, Marksman to Slayer, Tank to Specialist. These categories will often highlight patterns in the character's behaviour and dictate their place on a battlefield.
At Worlds 2016, Pray, of team ROX, demonstrated the capabilities of Ashe, a frost archer, in stunning fashion: as ROX looked to close a game out against SXT, the enemy's top-laner headed to teleport back to base and save his game. Spotting this, Pray fired a crystal arrow across the entire map, eventually reaching his rival mid-teleport to stun him, cancel the teleport and cement victory. It still ranks as arguably the single greatest play in LoL history.
Are there upsets?
In LoL, nothing is certain. At Worlds 2016, a lesser known team from the Russian leagues called Albus Nox Luna managed to beat Korea's ROX Tigers back when the Korean teams were completely on top. Miraculously, they made it through to the knockout stage of the World Championships.
"It was insane," remembers Aux. "Previously, most teams just copied the Koreans' tactics, but Albus played their own style and caught their opponent off guard. Before that series, teams from minor regions were disregarded as fluff at Worlds, but since then we've seen smaller teams getting more hits on the bigger regions."
More recently, at Worlds 2020, there were upsets aplenty as Chinese underdogs Suning won match after match to reach the final. Ultimately falling victim to Korea's Damwon Gaming, Suning provided one of the most thrilling finals to date, gallantly losing 3-1 in an epic end chapter.
How long do matches last?
"Games typically average around 30 minutes," says Aux. "The format we typically see at the start of the World Championship or league play is a BO1 [best-of-one] round robin, but when you get to the playoffs and knockout stages, it will switch to a BO3. Typically, when you get to the end of the finals it's BO5, which itself is intriguing from a strategic point of view, as teams have longer to respond to a rival's playing style."
Are there pundits and commentators?
At most elite events the setup will include a panel of pundits covering the game live, a play-by-play commentator and analyst to provide detail during the game. There's also people with a microphone on the floor, soaking up the atmosphere.
What's the best way to follow the action?
Over on Riot's official LoL Esports website you’ll find schedules and livestreams for all worldwide leagues and majors.
Additionally, Twitch is not only a great platform for following the tournaments (Red Bull Simplified streamed many live games of Worlds 2020 on its Twitch channel) but also for following the channels of teams and players to learn more about the game and get plenty of personality to boot. Aux picks out a former North American pro player called Voyboy. "His content is really engaging and fun, but you still learn a lot," he explains.
Are there leagues?
Unlike the majority of esports, which tend to have major after major, it's mostly league-based throughout the year, meaning there's only the Mid-Season Invitational and World Championship that produce serious international clashes.
Many national leagues feed into regional leagues, where the elite play, including major ones such as LEC (Europe), LPC (China), LCS (North America), LCK (South Korea) and minor ones in Turkey, Brazil, Vietnam, Latin America, Japan, Oceania and CIS (Russia).
How are teams are selected for the World Championship?
Much like how UEFA awards places for the Champions League in football depending on the strength of a region's league, the organisers of the LoL World Championship award do exactly that. For instance, the league in China may receive four places, Europe's three and minor leagues such as Brazil just one. It all depends.
AD/AP – Both are stats. Attack Damage (AD) is how much health is lost directly from an attack, while Ability Power (AP) is the effectiveness of a champion's abilities.
Babysit – When a player asks another team-mate to hold their lane.
Bot – Bot lane.
Buff – Any type of boost given to a champion or minion.
Carry – Character who starts off weak, but gradually becomes more powerful as the game progresses.
Clutch – When a champion performs a well-timed move under pressure.
Cooldown – The timeout period before an ability or item can be used again by a champion after activation.
Creep - Basic unit in the game, which are non-playable unless a spell or item takes control of them. Creep Score (CS) is how many minions players can get the last hit on.
Crowd Control – Actions that stun or impair the enemy.
Dive – A continued attack on an enemy or opponent's towers.
Draft – A game mode where players choose their champions and banning certain characters from facing them.
Farming – Harvesting and gaining gold and XP for yourself.
Ganking – A sneak attack on an enemy player usually involving the help of one or two teammates.
Inhibitor – The three glowing structures behind the towers in a base.
Juke – To dodge or evade an incoming ability.
Jungling – When a player concentrates on killing non-playable creeps for gold and experience (jungles are found between the lanes).
Laning phase – Killing non-playable creeps for gold and XP between the lanes.
Meta – The current most popular tactic or strategy to win a game.
Off-meta – Any offbeat plays or strategies that don't conform to popular matchplay, such as playing a champion in a lane they're not known for.
Nerf – When something weakens a champion. The opposite of a buff.
Peeling – To use crowd control on the enemy to stop a team-mate from being attacked.
Roaming – When you move between lanes, typically done during the early stages of a game.
Rotating – When you change position because the objective changes. For example, a team will rotate towards a dragon.
Snowball – When a champion or team gains an early advantage and quickly grows more powerful.
Squishy – Champion who lacks defensive stats and HP.
Tanking – To take high amounts of damage.
Trading – The exchange of damage between opposing champions.
XP – Experience Points.
Zoning – Preventing an enemy from gaining gold or experience.
What are the international events?
World Championship [Oct–Nov]
As glitzy as it is prestigious, nothing comes close to the League of Legends World Championship – a month-long final giving teams a chance to finish the season as the best on Earth. Then there's the little matter of $2,500,000 in prize money and a huge trophy known as the Summoner's Cup.
Consistently packed with pulsating plays and eyebrow-raising storylines, Worlds invites the top 24 teams from the top 13 professional leagues do battle. South Korea's SKT hold the highest number of wins, with three championships.
- Prize pool: $2,500,000
- 1st place: $830,000
Mid-Season Invitational [May]
The second most prestigious event in the calendar welcomes the champions of each of the 13 professional leagues for a genuine LoL-fest. In 2019, G2, whose mid-laner Caps was crowned MVP, became the first European team to claim the title after defeating Team Liquid in the final.
Once they reach the group stage, teams compete in a best-of-one double round robin, with the top four sides advancing to the knockout stages. From there, the final four vie for mid-season bragging rights in BO5 single elimination.
- Prize pool: $1,000,000
- 1st place: $200,000