The West Eyes Esports Greatness. But Can It Catch South Korea?

The main stage of the quarterfinals for last month's world championship match between G2 Esports and Damwon Gaming in Madrid, Spain.

Source Borja B. Hojas/Getty

Why you should care

The power balance in esports is shifting, and the stakes have never been higher.

By the 24:07 mark (most matches last an average of 35 minutes) of the League of Legends 2019 World Championship group stage match between North America’s Team Liquid and China’s Invictus Gaming, the inevitable had become obvious: Invictus would advance to the quarterfinals. Team Liquid, the last remaining North American seed in the tournament, would head home. 

A Western team hasn’t won a League of Legends World Championship, esports’ crown jewel, since 2011, when Europe’s Fnatic seized the very first title. Since then, South Korea has dominated, capturing five titles between two teams: SK Telecom T1 and Generation Gaming. Yet despite the exit of Team Liquid — the winningest esports franchise ever — the West may still triumph at this year’s tournament: European team G2 Esports has reached the finals, where it will play China’s FunPlus Phoenix on Nov. 10. Indeed, across professional esports leagues, Western teams are finally beginning to challenge Asia’s long-held dominance

League of Legends World Championship

League of Legends World Championship

Source: Christoph Soeder/Getty

Team Liquid competes in the group phase of the League of Legends World Championship.

In the Overwatch World Cup this month, Team USA swept China to win its very first title. Along the way, the Americans took down South Korea, which had won all three previous Overwatch titles. European team OG is the only team to have won multiple Dota 2 esports titles. And Team Liquid recently won a record fourth-straight title in the top-tier League of Legends Championship Series (LCS). It won The International, the annual Dota 2 esports tournament, in 2017, and its Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team is ranked No. 1 in the world.

“Team Liquid competes in 16 games today, giving it the broadest footprint of any team,” says Mark Vela, vice president of strategy at aXiomatic, an investment group that holds a controlling interest in the team.

“We’re pretty close. In maybe three years, realistically, it is possible for a North American team to win the World Championship.”

THOMAS “THINKCARD” SLOTKIN, CLUTCH GAMING COACH

It’s a markedly different landscape from 1998. When Blizzard Entertainment released the PC game StarCraft in March that year, nearly half of the game’s more than 9.5 million copies sold were in South Korea, the birthplace of modern esports. At the time, South Korea was recovering from its 1997 financial crisis and building up its IT infrastructure. By 1999, when Blizzard released StarCraft expansion Brood War, media companies were launching television channels and leagues to broadcast esports matches, sanctioned by a new esports governing body formed under South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. South Korea began establishing team houses and support facilities for players and fielding corporate-sponsored teams — infrastructure the West only started building in earnest in 2016. 

The launch in June 2011 of video livestreaming service Twitch was a game-changer. Now, competitive gamers could broadcast to millions of viewers around the world. Much like StarCraft before it, League of Legends, developed by Riot Games, proved immensely popular; by 2012, it had become the most played PC game in North America and Europe. 

“We pioneered the space in general with our first world championship [in 2011],” says Matt Archambault, head of esports partnerships and business development at Riot North America. “And since, we’ve tried to focus on how we take this from something that might be a passion point for fans to an ecosystem.”  

As global tournaments proliferated, Asia’s head start paid off. Every League of Legends World Championship from 2013–2017 was won by a South Korean team. Faker, League of Legends‘ top-paid star player, is South Korean. Chinese teams were victorious three times in the first six years of the Dota 2 tournament The Invitational.

A concerted effort since 2016 by North America and Europe to rapidly develop their esports infrastructure, powered by millions in investment dollars ($4.5 billion in 2018 alone, per Deloitte), is finally bridging the gap. 

Streaming’s success showed would-be investors that an untapped audience of millions of viewers could be reached through unconventional mediums. Many were already major stakeholders in traditional sports. In 2016, Peter Guber (Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles FC co-owner) and Ted Leonsis (Washington Capitals owner) teamed up as co-executive chairmen of aXiomatic to buy a controlling interest in Team Liquid. They were soon joined by Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan. The synergy is obvious: Fan acquisition, audience engagement, player quality of life, sponsorship, monetization, live events, broadcast and entertainment “are all areas of expertise for our leadership which also have natural applications in esports,” says Vela. 

The audience — 453.8 million people in 2019, per Newzoo — is truly global. And with an average age of 25 — compared to the NBA (42), NFL (50) and MLB (57) — it’s attractive to sponsors. “This younger demographic is largely comprised of cord-cutters,” says Vela, “who are incredibly tough to reach through traditional channels.” 

Today, North America is the largest esports market, with revenues of $409.1 million, per Newzoo. The money funnels into everything from bespoke training facilities to sports psychologists. Pay varies among esports leagues, but the average starting player salary in the LCS is now $300,000.

Despite the West’s recent success in other tournaments, the League of Legends World Championship exists in rarefied air, producing 53.8 million hours viewed on Twitch last year, according to Newzoo, making it the year’s most-watched tournament. “We’ve been focused on success at Worlds as our guiding star,” says Vela.

G2 is no different. Owner Carlos Rodriguez Santiago identifies radical changes to the team lineup and “that lineup not being afraid to play their own style” as the “biggest difference” that has propelled G2’s success this year.

Indeed, Western teams tend to be more flexible and willing to take risks. They’re not “afraid to think outside the box,” says Thomas “Thinkcard” Slotkin, Clutch Gaming’s coach.

Still, North America continues to lag behind Europe and the East in infrastructure and player development, and over-rely on imports from other regions. “It’s a really big crutch that we use,” says Cody Sun, a pro LCS player for Clutch Gaming.

A more robust amateur system that gives players a clear path to playing professionally is the next crucial step for North America, with college esport scholarships starting to gain steam.

“We’re pretty close. In maybe three years, realistically, it is possible for a North American team to win the world championship,” says Slotkin. From his lips to God’s fingers. 

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