INTERVIEW: Jason Yeh, head of EU eSports at Riot Games, on League of Legends’ rise to the top

INTERVIEW: Jason Yeh, head of EU eSports at Riot Games, on League of Legends’ rise to the top
Matthew Jarvis

With more than 27 million daily players and viewership numbers that rival national TV broadcasting, League of Legends is undeniably the biggest eSports title in the world.

Jason Yeh, head of EU eSports at the title’s developer Riot Games, tells MCV how League got to the top - and how it plans to stay there

How did League of Legends come to be the eSports mainstay it is today?

As with a lot of the things that we do, it was really driven by the interest and engagement of our players.

We knew early on that League was a very competitive, PvP [player-versus-player] game; even as it first launched, there were a lot of tournaments being held by local organisers in North America, Europe and other markets.

As we expanded, it was therefore a logical next step for us to build more organisation and structure around it.

One thing we noted early on in Europe, when we did the First Season championships at DreamHack in Sweden, was that a lot of people tuned in - a lot more than we had expected. So our investment is based on the interest of the players and, over time, that interest is continuing to grow. That’s how we got where we are today.

How did you approach hosting your first eSports events?

When we first started, we didn’t throw our own events - we were basically trying to get League tournaments at pre-existing events.

One thing that the players really showed us is that these events were something they were really interested in engaging with on a more regular basis.

In that regard, as really big sports fans, we found a lot of inspiration by asking: ‘Why do people tune into sports on a regular basis?’, ‘What compels them to keep following specific teams and players?’ and ‘How do we leverage that to build a stronger connection between League players and the game itself?’

From an offline events standpoint, the main thing for us is that the number of people who come in person to a League event will always be a smaller audience than the total number of people who watch online, but it really adds a lot to the broadcast for the people watching online. If you’re watching online, and the view is of a venue that is completely packed with screaming fans, it makes it more exciting and you feel like you’re there.

Over the years we’ve tried to do more things to cater to fans’ offline experience, so that the broadcast itself continues to look more epic.

“The UK is a very exciting market; it’s one of the faster-growing from an eSports endpoint.”

Jason Yeh, Riot Games

Online viewers for the League of Legends World Championship finals last year were down 15 per cent year-on-year. What was Riot’s take on these statistics?

There’s a lot of ways to look at and measure engagement.

Looking at the amount of unique viewers tuning in is one commonway, but that number is going to fluctuate from year-to-year; it’s going to depend on what location we’re in, how convenient the time zone is for our global audience… So the total uniques number will fluctuate.

The total we look at is the time people spend watching; how much engagement they have over the course of the entire World Championships specifically. A lot of those numbers were up. If you look at the average amount of time that someone who tuned into the World Championships watched, it grew from just over 40 minutes to almost 70 minutes. It really showed that people were more interested in following the Championship last year.

There was a recent debate on BBC Radio 5 Live about whether eSports could ever be classified as a ‘sport’. What’s your opinion?

When you talk about what makes sports interesting, the amount of interest and fascination that people have - not only in who wins or loses the game, but the connections they have to teams and players - that’s something we’re seeing increase over time.

Obviously, League and its teams have a lot less history than, say, Liverpool or any other English Premier League side, but we’re seeing people becoming really connected to these players in a way that is pretty similar to sports.

Whether or not eSports is called a sport depends on each individual person’s definition of what a sport is, but it’s definitely something that has the same kind of characteristics.

What more needs to be done to support the growth of UK eSports?

From our standpoint, the UK is a very exciting market; it’s one of the faster-growing from an eSports endpoint, and it’s one of the markets where there have been a number of organisations that were on the forefront of the growth of eSports.

As our player base continues to grow in the UK, having higher-level competition is going to happen.

Last year we worked with a bunch of different local organisers to run the 4 Nations tournament - there was significant interest in an outlet that allowed local teams to showcase how good they are and declare that they’re the best in the region. That’s something that we’re looking to develop over the course of the next year.

How does Riot work with other games firms in the UK?

We have a team based out of Dublin that is focused on growing the UK more from the grassroots up into the regional tournaments. We’re looking to do more of those things.

How can UK businesses invest in the sector - and why should they?

It makes sense for companies to invest in the sector if their audience is highly engaged in eSports.

There are a lot of people that are engaging for a long time on a regular basis with eSports - so for companies who want to authentically participate in that experience in a positive way, it makes a lot of sense for them to figure out how to get involved.

Taking a look at our audience, and how they can provide value to that audience, is something that will be ultimately very valuable to them.

“eSports has gone beyond being purely focused on competition to becoming a more spectator-focused experience, like sports.”

Jason Yeh, Riot Games

Gfinity plans to build the UK’s first dedicated eSports stadium later this year. Do you think the UK market is strong enough to support such an undertaking?

One of the big things that has changed in eSports is that it’s gone beyond being purely focused on competition and seeing which team is the best to becoming a more spectator-focused experience, like sports. So giving players more opportunities to engage with it is a good thing.

I can’t speak to the specifics of Gfinity’s strategy, but having a battle arena is something that could definitely work.

Other than Dota 2, there arguably hasn’t been another MOBA title to take off in the same way as League. Will there ever be another game to join the ranks of Dota and League?

I think quite the opposite. There are a lot of League competitors - any game that makes you excited and want to play with your friends is a competitor. At the end of the day, as long as a game continues to be fun to play, it has a chance of sustained success.

For us, we focus on keeping the game replayable and keeping the experiences fresh around the core game modes.

There are a lot of potential competitors, so it keeps us on our toes to deliver the best gaming experience we can.

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