On Sunday October 19th, 2014, Samsung Galaxy White won the League of Legends World Championships. Five young men from South Korea lifted the Summoner’s Cup in front of tens of thousands of people inside Sangam Stadium in Seoul while millions more watched from around the world. The winning team shared the first prize of $1,000,000.
Jump forward a couple of months to the 14th December, when Choke Gaming beat out FM eSports to win the inaugural 4 Nations Tournament. The finals were held in the Curve Theatre in Leicester. A little over ten thousand people were watching on Twitch, and the team took home €5,000.
It’s not a flattering comparison, but everyone has to start somewhere, and the League of Legends eSports scene in the UK is still fledgling. You can count the number of professional players in the League Championship Series on one hand, and in terms of infrastructure and tournaments, it’s far behind the likes of Germany and the US.
But things are changing, one step at a time. Choke Gaming barely dropped a game en route to the cup. In only six months they’ve managed to craft a powerful League of Legends team, so they must be pretty excited about the future. Perhaps they could be the team to carry the UK scene to a global scale?
“I think individually we have five of the best players in their respective roles from the UK,” said Luke ‘Shorty’ Short, the General Manager of Choke Gaming. “Not only that, but their friendship over the years and understanding of each other’s play style is something that can’t be bought. Our goal has always been to conquer the UK, go into Europe and one day compete internationally. We have tremendous support from our sponsors Eclipse Computers, XFX, and Asus, so fingers crossed we can make this dream become a reality.”
Josh “Zodiac” Wilko (@ZodiacLoL_ on Twitter) is Choke Gaming’s Support player. He’s 21 years old, but is already highly experienced, having played LoL since Season 1; prior to that he played the original Dota. “I went to UCL to study politics, but I found it too time consuming and their society for eSports was underdeveloped, so I chose to postpone my studies to focus on League full time,” he tells me. The next step? Following in the footsteps of Samsung Galaxy White, of course.
“Seeing them win was inspiring. For me the goal has always been to play games and play them well. That, and showing professional gaming is a good area to get involved in for those who pursue it. We want to remain the best team in the UK as well as moving on to Europe. We recently beat Portugal’s best team at I-series, so it’s possible. I have always held the belief that if I truly believe in my ability, even during the difficult times, I can keep improving and get to the next level. Even the losses drive me to keep improving.”
Luke Short believes that this sense of belief is something the UK scene has been lacking since the start. “There’s a lack of belief from UK players that they can play at the highest level,” he says. “I hope this changes in the future and we can see more UK players at the highest level, like the LCS [League Championship Series].”
But that’s not the only reason that the UK is struggling to keep up. “The teams and players don’t have the backing compared to other countries,” says Luke. “Also, other countries may not consider our players to be as good as their counterparts. We’ve always been a bit behind when it comes to other eSports as well, which doesn’t help.”
“I think a lot of it is to do with lifestyle,” says Josh, “from my experience, the potential LCS-level UK players I play with don’t dedicate enough time to cultivating their talent. The LCS is great because it doesn’t discriminate on anything but skill, and the UK scene needs to recognise that playing one game a day isn’t good enough. I want to see a full UK team in the LCS, but that will take some time. First we need to build the community up with more tournaments and show that it’s worthwhile to compete.”
The 4 Nations Tournament, fully backed by Riot Games, should set things moving in the right direction. “I think Riot being behind the tournament definitely helped,” says Luke. “They added more weight to the competition. Events like these help teams gain experience, which in turn helps them gain sponsorships and potential funding, which in turn helps the scene grow. I’m hoping for more events like this in the future.”
Josh agrees. “I want to see more tournaments like this, bringing talent from across the country to battle it out. It’s now on the organisations to host more of them. This year has been the biggest year for the UK LoL scene, with lots of prizes to be won. Next year it’s only going to get bigger, as we’ve shown that there is a clear market for more tournaments on a larger scale.”
Plans for a eSports Arena have been set in motion by Gfinity, which should help boost the UK eSports scene as a whole. League of Legends is obviously the biggest thing around right now, but other games like Call of Duty, Counter-Strike, Starcraft, Hearthstone, and FIFA will all find a space on the stage. With room for 500 spectators, they want to create a hub for competitive gaming, with multiple live events every year.
eSports bars like Meltdown in London help grow the community and raise awareness by providing a place for people to play and spectate video games. The bar’s owner, Duncan Morrison, is planning to upgrade an already successful business this year, and says that he’s always open to the possibility of expansion to other locations if the opportunity arises.
Perhaps time is all that’s needed for the UK eSports scene to burst out onto a global stage, and it’s looking increasingly likely that this could be the year. More tournaments will bring in more backing, and create more opportunities for players like Josh Wilko and his teammates. Luke Short, at least, is optimistic: “The UK scene is really looking up and I hope it will continue to grow in 2015.”