(Cover photo credit – LoL Esports Flickr)
The Big Read: How League Of Legends changed my life
Jack Stewart is the first professional eSports journalist at a British national newspaper. Below he reveals the journey he took to that incredible milestone and the part League of Legends played in getting him there.
By Jack Stewart
Five years ago, I decided to download League of Legends. Initially it didn’t seem like my type of game but a friend wanted to give it a try and instantly I was hooked. I’ve poured a lot of love into it and it’s had a bigger impact on me than I could ever imagine; a video game changed my life.
For those who don’t know, LoL is a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game where two teams of five compete online to kill each other and, ultimately, destroy the opposing base. Every player fills one of five roles and chooses from a current roster of 141 ‘champions’, each with completely different abilities.
The game is constantly updated, adding to the mountain of content and intense learning curves already present. It can be intimidating at first but gradually improving until you are able to outskill your opponents is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had. It’s the perfect marriage between two of my biggest passions: gaming and sport.
“It’s the perfect marriage between two of my biggest passions: gaming and sport”
Though I was never a natural athlete, I adored sport. I developed a competitive streak and loved nothing more than proving people wrong on the football pitch or tennis court. Having previously been in the bottom set for PE, my decision to continue the subject to GCSE was met with snide comments. One lesson later and not another word was said.
As an only child, I spent a lot of my childhood alone and gravitated towards video games. My dad passed away when I was young and my mum was fairly protective of me so I wasn’t always allowed to play outside. As a result, gaming was increasingly important to me and I became fully immersed in virtual worlds.
As I got older, a fun hobby turned into a crucial social tool. Every evening after school I would play online with friends. We’d still meet up in person but afterwards would go home and carry on our conversations over a game.
Video games have been given a bad rep in the media. Parents are told it’s antisocial, it causes violence and it rots your brain. What they don’t hear about is the good that gaming can bring. Massive, global communities have been built around video games and a single game can be the catalyst for friendships, or even relationships, to blossom. I started playing LoL with three friends, all of whom knew me but not each other. Five years later they’re my closest group of friends, we’re brothers.
“Massive, global communities have been built around video games“
It took us a year of playing LoL on a daily basis before we developed a solid understanding of the game. That may sound tedious to some but for me, it was nothing but fun. Learning together and constantly striving for improvement, seeing progress on a day-to-day basis was incredibly gratifying.
The game took over our lives. Any free time we had would be spent researching guides or discussing updates. We would regularly meet for drinks in order to give one another feedback, making lists of the skills and tactics that we needed to work on.
A serious interest in LoL will eventually lead you to the game’s eSports scene. ESports are professional video game tournaments where teams compete for glory and, sometimes, large sums of money. As somebody who already loved spectator sports I was blown away by the quality of the professional players, the production values and the size of the crowds.
After discovering the pro-scene, I discovered that the European League ( EU LCS) were to spend a week at London’s Wembley Arena. My friends and I travelled down there and we had a blast. It felt like any other sporting event but more special, I belonged. I could relate to the players and was surrounded by like-minded people. It was a secret paradise.
“It felt like any other sporting event but more special, I belonged“
That weekend would become a pivotal moment in my life. I had always dreamt of a career in sport and was due to study sport journalism at university. However, this growing industry had taken control and deep down I knew that was where I wanted to be.
I moved to Eastbourne, ready for the next stage in my life. Things started well but my anxiety, paired with the stresses of university life, took over. As someone who is naturally introverted, living on a sports campus with a lot of masculine personalities was overwhelming at the time.
I was extremely down and would lock myself away in my room, with LoL my only escape. It took my mind off how I felt and helped me to stay in touch with my friends who were studying across the country.
My university did have an eSports society but it was based around the other campuses in Brighton. I didn’t have the time or money to be making that journey, I was left isolated in a flat that frequently seemed beset with drama.
Fortunately, I eventually had the League of Legends World Championships to distract me. The Worlds is one of the biggest yearly events in eSports and this was the first time I had watched them with an actual understanding of the game and the competitive scene.
The final was held in South Korea where, arguably, eSports has its greatest following. The 66,000 seater Seoul World Cup Stadium was crammed as the Imagine Dragons performed their song ‘Warriors’ – created specifically for the tournament. Tens-of-thousands were there in person and millions more watched online. People from all walks of life came together to watch ten teenagers live out their dreams.
“The 66,000 seater Seoul World Cup Stadium was crammed as the Imagine Dragons performed their song ‘Warriors’”
It was a life defining moment for me, I knew I had found my calling. Although I could play it safe and continue to work in traditional sport, it simply wouldn’t have been as fulfilling – I wanted to write about eSports and immerse myself in the rising industry.
Eventually I found a group of good friends at uni and, when we weren’t talking about football, they would put up with me blabbing on about pro-gaming. If a rare opportunity of creative freedom materialised in lectures, I would try my best to weasel eSports into my writing.
By the second year I was dead-set on my career choice and began freelance writing in my spare time. It was good to have that balance whilst having to write about local news in lectures. Writing about LoL tournaments was a significantly more enjoyable subject than Eastbourne’s elderly population moaning about roads.
At the end of that year, I had to choose the subject for my dissertation – the most important piece of work in my three years of higher education. I had to write a 5,000 word feature article, which is huge amount for any piece of written entertainment.
By this point, I had lost most of my passion for sport. Though I retained an interest, I was no longer as fanatical as I had been during childhood. Our lecturers told us we could write about anything as long as it was loosely related to sport. They also asked that we try our best to come up with an original idea as they had already read thousands of pieces on why England were not succeeding in international football.
Nothing in sport interested me anymore and every part of me wanted to write that piece on eSports. It was easier said than done. There are a lot of negative attitudes surrounding gaming and I had to convince my lecturers, particularly my tutor who was incredibly intelligent but extremely critical. He hated technology and would even avoid emails when he could. I had a fight on my hands.
In our initial pitching process I was met with a resounding no. He argued that people had unsuccessfully tried to classify chess as a sport, so how was eSports any different? I retorted that you don’t have to aim a chess piece which didn’t go down well. Refusing to give up though, I submitted my pitch and after reading it he was miraculously sold; I was going to write 5,000 words about eSports and couldn’t have been happier. However, that was only the first challenge.
“I was going to write 5,000 words about eSports and couldn’t have been happier”
It would be a significant challenge to stay on top of every development in eSports,whilst also simplifying it for a casual audience and ensuring that it was fun to read. Add into the mix the fact that I was a student with minimal resources and a pretty quiet domestic eSports scene and I had a mountain to climb.
The one resource did have was a student loan. I knew I needed to get to an eSports event if I wanted any chance of interviewing the players and then I saw that the LoL World Championship final that year would be held in Los Angeles.
It was far away but at least it was an English speaking country. Los Angeles is also where the LoL developers, Riot Games, and every professional American team is based. My mind was made up, I had to go and, as a result, so was most of my money. I couldn’t obtain a press pass for the event but I did have a ticket for the final itself. My flights were booked and there was no turning back.
I was travelling to the other side of the world on my own but my only concern was my interview prospects. With no contacts or press access I was lost and boarded my flight with very little in the pipeline.
Before I knew it, I was at the Staples Center surrounded by hundreds of other passionate eSport fans. It felt as though I was home and was soon talking with groups of people as though we’d known each other for years but I still had work at the back of my mind.
As expected, two Korean teams had made it into the final and there was no chance of interviewing either of them. I had managed to find a few pro players’ email addresses through Twitter and one had agreed to an interview but, unfortunately, dropped out the following day.
The day of the final arrived and I still had nothing, all I could do was go to the arena and hope to spot someone. Fortunately my prayers were answered and among the swarms of fans outside the Staples Center were several professional players from America.
“The day of the final arrived and I still had nothing”
The players were filming content with their teams or greeting fans. I was a bundle of nerves approaching them but hadn’t travelled all that way to go back empty handed. With a Dictaphone in hand, I managed to take a few minutes of their time and left with some great quotes which gave me a much-needed confidence boost.
It was finally time to go inside and watch the final; it was everything I had hoped for and more. After an astonishing opening ceremony the teams stepped out to the deafening roars of 21,000 adoring fans. I was covered in goosebumps, the energy was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The money shelled out, the 11 hour flight, the months of stressing had all been worth it. It’s a memory I will always cherish.
A year later I graduated and had despite initially having few job prospects, I wasn’t ready to give up. Fortunately my faith paid off when a friend from my course joined the Daily Mail and heard that they were looking for an eSports journalist. I applied and started a week later, making me the first full-time esports journalist at a British newspaper. I had found my dream job.
All of this happened because I downloaded a free game on my laptop. League of Legends gave me friends, a career, and a passion. It helped me to overcome my anxiety and I learn to believe in myself. It’s a game that has given me my happiest memories and continues to create more.
My friends no longer play the game, now unable to justify the time which is a choice I totally understand. However, I’m not ready to let go yet, in fact I’m diving deeper. I still get as much from joy playing LoL as I do from writing about it. So here’s to the next five years!