Do you remember that awkward moment last May? Seconds after SK Telecom T1 (SKT) beat G2 Esports to claim the Mid-Season Invitational 2017 title in the Jeunesse Arena, a young fan appeared on stage and started hugging the players.
No one knew who he was, where he came from or if it was part of the victory celebration. A first on any League of Legends Esports live broadcast, fellow fans were amused at his spunk, while others were concerned about security. In Riot’s official statement, their investigations revealed that the boy had in fact jumped over the railings onto the show floor 3.6m (or 12 feet) below.
Random fan breaks security lines and hugs SKT (Source: https://youtu.be/d4x7hW3Ny4M)
Later in July, when ChinaJoy was held in Shanghai, an EDward Gaming (EDG) fan similarly took a leap for esports. He recounted on Chinese social media platform Weibo how he jumped down two storeys for the love of Ming “Clearlove7” Kai. Even though he claimed to have applied for leave on the day of the event, his colleague locked the office door from the outside, leaving him stranded within. Determined to catch a glimpse of EDG’s famed jungler, he found an alternate exit which left him slightly wounded.
(Photo Credit: Emotionai_李 on Weibo)
The definition of what it means to be a fan is evolving with the growth of esports. No longer are fans simply viewing games and buying merchandise. A typical League of Legends esports fan has many options to dive into ever-growing pool of participation where the lines between the game itself and esports are indistinguishable.
As a free-to-play MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), the first avenue implemented was through the purchase of Riot Points to buy skins in-game. These digital outfits have aesthetically matured over the years, with seasonal themes and distinct collections. The most popular are brought to life through fan created cosplays and in the form of goods via Riot’s official online merchandise store, and also made available at LoL esports events.
(Source: Riot Games)
This one way monetary street is not a closed one. Player feedback is something Riot Games has been outspoken about. Skin concepts in particular, are a staple in discussion forums. Some have been so good that Riot made them official. In summer of 2012, Pool Party Ziggs and AstroNautilus by MaTTcom were realized and released in the League of Legends store.
Collectively, the sheer growth of numbers over time proved enough for Riot to attract sponsors and commercial partners. Fandom quantified in viewership and financials translated to drinking out of Zed-printed Coca-Cola cans in 2015. Since then, bigger mainstream brands have showed up. This summer’s EU LCS finals in Paris saw BMW as an official partner. For Worlds last year, Acer adverts were meshed in between segments for viewers to be exposed to the multiple levels of marketing. This year’s Worlds sponsors and partners showcase even bigger names which typically are not associated with gaming–Mercedes Benz and L’Oréal, specifically their men’s range, because we are all worth it.
— Sheng Yi (@Marco_YS35) July 27, 2017
As fans love the game, they also cheer hard for their favorite esports teams. Everyone has personal reason for choosing a squad to support. Teams in major leagues, LPL, LCK, NA and EU LCS have gained an international following. Gift Jitpeera from Thailand is one such fan. “Back in season 5, I got to know of Bangkok Titans and started to watch LoL games. Luckily as a Wildcard team they made it to Worlds. Because they were in same group with SKT, EDG and H2K, it got me interested in EDG and SKT, and I started to follow them in the LPL and LCK. I really like Deft’s playstyle and cuteness.”
Gift Jitpeera’s collection of EDG Deft and ESC KeY memorabilia
Due to the large presence of international fans, another milestone for League of Legends was reached during Worlds last year where the prize pool was opened for fan contribution through the purchase of in-game skins and wards. A well-received move by the community, Worlds 2017 too will be getting a larger share, just as this year’s MSI (Mid-Season Invitationals) did.
Besides rewarding the competition, fans also directly support esports organizations through merchandising. One organization in particular has taken esports paraphernalia to new heights. With professional fashion spreads, EDward Gaming’s store stocks new merchandise monthly. They also release exclusive products which fans vie for.
(Screenshot: EDG Official shop)
Dionne Ng who follows the LPL, shared about her EDG shopping experience, “As a EDG fan, I would naturally want to buy their merchandise but the way they market their products also played a big part. When EDGSHOP first started, they sold the jerseys and jackets which fans have been waiting for a very long time to purchase.” Plus, buying these goods from overseas is not an easy task. As a Singaporean shopping on a Chinese website, international shipping is required which adds to the cost. “I use a local ‘taobao’ shopping service…There’s an additional charge for agent fee and shipping fee but it’s not really that expensive for me because I live in Asia,” she explained.
The fortunate ones fast enough to grab esports merchandise off the websites usually make it a point to wear them to esports competitions as a show of their allegiance. “Watching LPL live is really amazing. Nothing feels better than cheering for your favorite team with your fandom,” Dionne echoed. It is common for esports teams to set up their own fan booths at these events so that fans can grab a bag full of ‘support items’ such as banners and fans which they hold up during matches, or create their own.
Scenes of ‘fan support’ happenings at Rift Rivals: Red 2017 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan
(Source: Garena eSports)
Because these League of Legends organizations have such an extensive following, in the same line of Riot Games teaming up with partners over the years, mainstream brands have also penetrated individual teams. Just as SKT Faker uses Razer peripherals to inspire gamers to adopt their brand, Doritos featured him in their Chinese commercial, while Gillette partnered with EDG.
(Source: Business Wire)
If supporting one’s favorite esports team is not enough, why not throw more support for individual players too? When Clearlove7’s birthday came by this year, exclusive merchandise was made available. “EDG released the jersey with his ID and the white hoodie to commemorate his birthday. There were only 80 jerseys and 300 hoodies available. The sale of the 80 jerseys was split into 4 different timeslots (20 per timeslot) and were sold out within 5 seconds. I’m very lucky to be able to buy all the exclusive Clearlove7 merch,” shared Dionne.
Taking it to the next level, FAKER, the first player-brand launched in collaboration with Super Play this month. Touted the best League of Legends player, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok’s face, name and curled smile is distinct and so beloved all over the world that fans can now own a simulacrum of him. Faker has truly become a global phenomenon.
(Screenshot: The Super Play)
With near pop-idol statuses, showing support for esports players is a community-wide effort. Perhaps a mark of just how large and passionate the global League of Legends community is, fans consume all sorts of original creations from other fans. Over and above official merchandise, the fan market is bustling. Dionne described how serious they can be, “The fandom culture (of the LPL) is very different from the West…’Fan support goods’ are fan-made items used for cheering purposes. Fans will give out banners, keychains, stickers, photo-cards and so on, that they designed and print themselves. This requires a lot of effort and money. When I go for LPL, I will always prepare some fan support items to give out at the venue and also exchange it with my Chinese friends there.”
Out of all the ‘fan support goods’, player dolls stand out as most unique. Once designed, they are announced through word-of-mouth on social media and mass produced based on a minimum order. Gift owns two of them. “The Deft doll is made by Chinese fan. I saw a post and contacted her directly. I paid her through Paypal and got it shipped.”
Deft Doll against the backdrop of Kaohsiung where Rift Rivals: Red 2017 was held.
(Photo courtesy of Gift Jitpeera)
A content creator herself, Dionne’s photography skills have been appreciated by others. “Before getting into esports, I used to photograph K-POP idols. I enjoy the thrill of having to take pictures under unfavorable lighting and having a limited amount of time,” she disclosed. Looking up to EDG Zhao “Iceloli” Zhi-ming as a player with a positive attitude and entertaining personality, she went great lengths to express her enthusiasm. “When I had the confirmation that Iceloli will be playing in the LPL Spring split this year, I booked my flight to Shanghai almost immediately and was there during the second week of LPL… I have been supporting this player for long and it was really nice to finally see him playing on stage. I made a photobook out of all the photos of Iceloli that I took at LPL.”
“The most memorable incident was a when a guy sent me a message on Weibo saying that his girlfriend really likes Iceloli and it would mean the world to him if I could sell him my photobook as a gift for her. I was so touched I sent him a copy and wrote a nice letter to the girl that said ‘You have the best boyfriend, don’t let him go’.”
Dionne’s collection of EDG official merchandize and ‘fansupport’ goods
While the LoL fandom has been overwhelmingly positive, not all has been cherry. Collective voices in the Korean community for instance, resulted in a penalty against SKT’s ADC Junsik “Bang” Bae’s for unprofessional conduct made on stream. The never-ending comments in forums even turns fans into news articles as they meme, joke or sometimes turn downright mean towards the teams and players that disappoint them.
As the centerpiece of League of Legends and LoL Esports who number in the millions, good, bad or ugly, fans are here to stay. Fans find meaning in associating with aspects of the game, esports teams, players and in receiving support from each other. They are after all well-aware that their love for League of Legends has connected them to something much bigger than themselves, and there’s nothing quite like it.