.We Went To The League Of Legends eSports Tournament At The Shark Tank

Ah, the SAP Center. That palace of sport. That hallowed arena where, on most days of the week, one can watch freakishly strong men travel at frightening velocity across an expanse of ice—carried forth upon their bladeshoes, as they vie with wooden paddles for possession of a small rubber saucer, and intermittently break out into mutually-agreed-upon sessions of face-punching.
And yet, on Sunday night the Sharks were off in Edmonton getting beat by the Oilers, and there I was in the Shark Tank watching hometown favorites Cloud 9 trounce unexpected contenders Unicorns of Love in a very different—but no less odd, if you think about it—kind of sport. Or, to be more precise, eSport.
You know, a video game.
Dec. 7 marked the final day of the San Jose Intel Extreme Masters League of Legends tournament—a contest with a $25,000 first place prize and a spot in the upcoming IEM World Championship in Katowice, Poland on the line, which awarded $65,000 to the top-ranking team last season.
But the IEM World Championship tournament’s purse is chump change compared to LoL’s World Cup equivalent: The League of Legends World Championship boasts a $1 million first place prize. Over 27 million people tuned in this past September to watch South Korean team Samsung Galaxy White defeat the Chinese Star Horn Royal Club in a sold-out stadium in Seoul, South Korea. Those ratings, as have often been reported, beat out the final games of the World Series (23.5 million) and the NBA Championships (18 million). The numbers are more useful for scale than direct comparison though, as League of Legends has a much more global audience than those US-centric sports.
But just what the hell is League of Legends? Unless you’re a 20-something dude with a serious video game habit, odds are League of Legends sounds more like a knock-off comic book series than one of—if not the—most played video game in the world. It’s also one of the most popular eSports titles, a term which refers to the competitive (and often professional) gaming sphere.
To put it simply, two teams of five face-off across a jungle map populated by various monsters, with the eventual goal of destroying their opponents’ base. Each player controls a “champion” character which they use to kill opponents and level up over the course of 45 minute or so match to power-up their own unique abilities.

League of Legends offers 121 different champions to choose from—each with particular powers suited to certain roles and play styles—plus around 300 in-match items to buy. With so many options, the strategy can get complex and the accompanying jargon confusing for the uninitiated.
This is why, when I sit down to interview Cloud 9 team member Hai Lam after the tournament, he first clarifies, “Are people gonna understand what the fuck I’m talking about?”
We agreed to keep things comprehensible to the layman (read: myself), but what I was really interested in was how one of the top League of Legends teams in North America ended up coming out of San Jose.
Turns out, it was out of convenience. Team manager Jack Etienne lives in San Francisco, and Cloud 9’s frequent sparring partner, Team SoloMid, was also based in San Jose at the time. None of the players are from the area, but they had to pick a spot to found the team, so they snagged a house on Fruitdale Avenue. They’re now based out of L.A.
The crowd was definitely on Cloud 9’s side during the semi-finals Sunday as they watched them defeat European team Alliance on a huge projection screen inside the SAP Center. The ten gamers sat facing the audience beneath the screen, their eyes intent on their monitors. There were even play-by-play and color commentators glossing the various moves and plays for the crowd and those streaming at home, who tossed the camera over to television-handsome talking head analysts between matches. After a back-and-forth best of three, Cloud 9 emerged victorious 2-1.
In the finals, Cloud 9 faced the tournament’s dark horse, the Unicorns of Love. The young, much-hyped team had fought their way into the eighth European spot for next year’s North American/European championship, and had then been voted into IEM San Jose as a fan favorite. With unconventional champion picks they’d upset Team SoloMid in the semis and seemed poised to create a classic underdog story.
But Cloud 9 wasn’t feeling very sentimental in the finals and routed the Unicorns 3-0 in a best of five set, ending the final match by killing the entire opposing team with a rare pentakill.
“They’re very good players,” Lam says of his vanquished opponents, in a quote that could have been ripped, word-for-word, from a post-game, locker-room debriefing. “They obviously they haven’t played as long as us… So we have a lot more experience in when to do things and what to do. We just have a lot better team cohesion and game strategy when it comes down to it.”


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