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 across 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 to win the tournament's $1 million grand prize.
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Taipei Assassins members Chen "MiSTakE" Hui Chung, Kurtis "Toyz" Lau, Alex "Lilballz" Sung, Cheng Bo "Bebeisadog" Wei and Wang June "Stanley" Tsan bested Azubu Frost members Jung "RapidStar" Min-sung, Lee "CloudTemplar" Hyun-woo, Hong "MadLife" Min-gi, Jang "Woong" Gun-woong and Park "Shy" Sang-myeon in three of four championship rounds.
The contest served as the latest example of the increasing popularity of competitive gaming -- or e-sports, as it's called. Unlike most multi-game 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, acknowledges that "League of Legends" was always designed to be more like a sport than an interactive film or virtual amusement park. He said because there's no "turnkey solutions" for organizing e-sports, Riot Games decided to hold the contest themselves.
While e-sports have been around for more than 15 years, the genre has yet to achieve mainstream success in North America, though it's practically a national pastime in South Korea. That's 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," said Beck. "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."
Each match of "League of Legends" features two teams of five players picking superhero-like 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 mostly makes money with the free-to-play game by selling virtual items and characters.
The studio recently declared "League of Legends" as the "most played game in the world" with 70 million players hailing from 145 countries registering for the game since it debuted in 2009. Riot Games noted an average of 12 million players are now 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 to other games -- free or otherwise. "FarmVille 2," the current 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," said Beck. "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."
The mostly young male crowd inside the Galen Center was clearly rooting for the Taipei Assassins, showering them with repeated "T! P! A!" chants and standing ovations each time the group took down Azubu Frost, who found themselves mired in controversy last week after they were accused of peeking at overhead displays to gain an advantage during the playoffs.
"We never fancied ourselves as league commissioners," said Beck, who graduated from USC with Merrill. "I don't think it was on anyone's Top 50 list of things they wanna do, but as you probably saw this past weekend, we've already had to make some very challenging decisions. We get it. We're creating a professional sport. It's part of our job."
Riot Games fined the team $30,000, about 20 percent of their semifinal winnings. It wasn't the only glitch at the playoffs, which were also bogged down in connectivity issues that forced some of the remaining matches to be moved from the LA Live entertainment complex in downtown Los Angeles to Riot Games' offices in Santa Monica, Calif.
Dustin Beck, Riot Games' head of e-sports, said the developers toiled away after the playoff fiasco to create a platform for the world championships that would remain live even if the Internet went down in the Galen Center. It worked, and the teams competed behind curtains, outside the view of the monitors that broadcast their positions to the audience.
Saturday's world championships went off without any issues, both in person and online where they were live streamed. While e-sports have been broadcast on U.S. television in the past, it never 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.
"We lose a lot of money on e-sports," said Merrill. "It's not something, currently, that we do to drive return or profitability or whatnot. It's bringing value to our players. Maybe, down the road, that will change. This is something that we believe, as a company, philosophically, if we bring value to our players, they'll reward us with engagement."
Other gamemakers seem to be taking notice. "Call of Duty" publisher Activision Blizzard Inc. recently announced new features, such 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.