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‘League of Legends’ champs crowned

Winning team claims $1 million prize

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LOS ANGELES — It had all the makings of an Olympic event: an indoor arena, play-by-play announcers, 7,000 enthusiastic fans, uniformed competitors from around the globe and swarms of cameras capturing every angle of the action. However, when the crowd erupted into a screaming frenzy each time a player met his demise, it felt much more like "The Hunger Games."

The dizzying world championships of the online battle arena game "League of Legends" concluded Saturday night inside the University of Southern California's Galen Center, which typically hosts basketball — not video — games, with underdog Taiwan's Taipei Assassins defeating South Korea's Azubu Frost in three of four championship rounds to win the tournament's $1 million grand prize.

The contest served as the latest example of the increasing popularity of competitive gaming — or e-sports, as it's called. Unlike most multigame e-sports competitions, such as the World Cyber Games and Major League Gaming, the second-season world championships of "League of Legends" were organized directly by the game's developer, Riot Games Inc.

Brandon Beck, the Riot Games CEO who co-founded the studio with President Marc Merrill in 2006, acknowledged that "League of Legends" always was designed to be more like a sport than an interactive film or virtual amusement park. He said there are no "turnkey solutions" for organizing e-sports, so Riot Games decided to hold the contest itself.

E-sports have been around for more than 15 years, but the genre has not achieved mainstream success in North America, though it's practically a national pastime in South Korea. That has shifted over the past few years as technology has evolved, Internet speeds have become faster and more reliable and a generation of spectating gamers have grown up.

"If you lump North America and Europe together, e-sports are dramatically on the rise," Mr. Beck said. "They're starting to catch up, but it's nowhere near as mainstream as they are in some of these other territories. It's not uncommon to have a large, single-digit percentage of the Korean population watching a 'League of Legends' final on TV."

Although e-sports have been broadcast on U.S. television, it has not caught on. Organizers have forgone the old-school medium in favor of streaming matches online, where they can sell their own advertising and charge subscription fees.

Each match of "League of Legends" features two teams of five players picking superherolike characters with special powers called Champions from a list of more than 100, then attempting to slaughter each other and destroy their jungle arena bases. Riot Games makes money with the game, which is free to play, mostly by selling virtual items and characters.

The studio recently declared "League of Legends" as the "most played game in the world." It said 70 million players from 145 countries have registered for the game since it debuted in 2009. Riot Games said an average of 12 million players are logging on each day, more than "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3," "World of Warcraft" or any Facebook game.

It's a massive reach when compared with other games — free or otherwise. "FarmVille 2," the most popular game on Facebook, has 8.5 million daily users. The online role-playing saga "World of Warcraft" has 10 million subscribers. "Modern Warfare 3," the successful first-person shooter for game consoles, hit its peak at 3.3 million daily players.

"We were newbs at the starting-a-studio thing," Mr. Beck said. "As you might imagine, we dramatically underestimated a lot of the execution challenges along the way. We founded it out of a lifelong passion for competitive games. We made countless mistakes along this journey — so many, in fact, we incorporated the idea of making mistakes into our culture."

Other game makers seem to be taking notice. "Call of Duty" publisher Activision Blizzard Inc. has announced new features, such as a picture-in-picture mode, for the upcoming "Call of Duty: Black Ops 2" that would make it friendlier to e-sports, and Microsoft Corp. is making "Halo 4" available at a Major League Gaming competition prior to its Nov. 6 launch.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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