A League of Legends
Professional gamers attempt to legitimize the electronic sport
By Chris O'Neal 05/17/2012
On a bright Saturday afternoon in East Ventura, Chris Minsoo Shim concocts a frozen Thai tea behind the counter at Green Forest Cafe. With a scoop of boba — miniature pearls of dark tapioca — resting near the bottom, his drink resembles a nest for tadpoles more than it does a smoothie. His girlfriend, Jacqi Dillon, taps his shoulder and takes over as a customer approaches.
Chris disappears into a forest of PCs in the back, a woodland of connected machines hosting many of the cafe’s customers, many of them eating miniature doughnuts and drinking coffee while logged in across a wide variety of online role-playing games. The potential reach of the 35 gaming-engineered PCs is enormous.
From their hub in the CVS shopping center, brothers Chris and Sean Seong Soo Shim and Chris’ girlfriend, Dillon, aspire to make Green Forest Cafe ground zero for a cultural revolution, one that would see electronic gaming be a serious contender for prime-time television, drawing crowds of hundreds of thousands as it does in their native South Korea.
Wrapped in darkness near the back of the PC room, Sean shifts his attention from an endless assault of messages via Skype and Facebook to gaze upon his Team Green Forest (TGF) — a collaboration of four high school friends and one Canadian playing from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“I don’t think they’re practicing very well for tonight,” says Sean as he steps away from his computer to pace the aisle. “I think they have maybe a 20 to 30 percent chance to win.”
For Team Green Forest, Saturday night would mark a big opportunity for the young team: a spot in the Reign of Gaming International Invitational, a tournament pitting 16 North American teams against 16 of their European counterparts hosted by Team Curse, a nationally recognized LoL competitive team. The game: League of Legends. At stake: bragging rights, respect, but more coveted, up to $20,000 plus potential for an unknown number of sponsorships. Team Green Forest sits at the No. 1 spot of ranked North American teams, a hard-fought title that earned them an invitation.
League of Legends (LoL), released in 2009 by Riot Games, quickly became the premier “sport” for online battles. Teams of three or five face off against each other in ranked or unranked matches that last anywhere from 15 minutes to upward of an hour. Unlike the hugely popular game World of Warcraft, players choose from pre-made characters, tweaking them with points in different categories and in-game purchases to better deal or take damage.
By January of 2012, World of Warcraft had a known active subscriber base of roughly 10.3 million users. When Season 2 of Riot’s League of Legends tournament season began, with it came the announcement that LoL had surpassed World of Warcraft by close to 1 million active subscribers with 11.5 million monthly players, 4.2 million of whom play on any given day.
Kea Kanamu, Simon Wong and Kevin Enario wait idly as Zosimo “Zo” Geluz plots a strategy for their next scrimmage. Their teammate, Canadian Ben DeMunck, can be heard faintly through the players’ headsets. Before the match against team Counter Logic Gaming (CLG), Zo was team leader; the following day, he was not.
Against CLG, TGF made several critical mistakes, costing them a battle in the first round and crushing them in the second. To progress, the team would have had to win two out of three matches, wins that required split decision calls to be made that never materialized.
PHOTO BY MATTHEW HILL PHOTOGRAPHY
An intensely focused Nick Ranish, second place winner of the Msi Battlegrounds Starcraft tournament.
Chris, Sean and Jacqi turned Ben DeMunck, a 15-year-old high school student with an aggressive play style, into Team Green Forest’s new leader.
Sean had been right to be pessimistic — their first-round opponents, CLG North America, are known throughout the competitive gaming community as being one of the best LoL teams. At 2010’s World Cyber Games grand finals in Los Angeles, CLG beat international opponents to win a $7,000 purse.
In 2011, LoL team Fnatic won $50,000 at the Dreamhack event in Sweden, a tournament that captured 1.6 million viewers via online streams as players from multiple continents flew in to participate. This year, at Riot’s Season 2 tournament finale, $5 million worth of prize money and merchandise will be distributed among the finalists of the LoL championship.
This is in addition to the monthly income from sponsorships and individuals tuning in to online streams. Team Green Forest’s scrimmages garner viewers in the hundreds who are subjected to advertisements, each earning the team a fraction of a cent or more. Every member of Team Green Forest uses an MSi gaming-built laptop, a gift from their major sponsor, MSi – a PC component and laptop manufacturer based in Taiwan with branches in Europe and North America.
Reid Allen Melton, also known as “RAPiD” to his fans, is a shoutcaster, a John Madden of the competitive gaming world, making play-by-play calls during LoL matches.
“They [TGF] would beat the best teams in the United States,” said Melton. “They’ve beaten CLG, TSM (Team SoloMid). Anyone who can do that is pretty good in my book.”
Melton, who casts via his YouTube channel, is a member of the Collegiate Starleague (CSL), a network of college-age players and teams.
“People love watching someone do something that not everyone can do,” said Melton. “Once you establish bonds between the players and the fans it gets people emotionally involved. They’ll come back to the game. They’ll spend money on the products."
The following day, the four local team members sat in front of their respective monitors — Zo eating his lunch while Kea monitored the screen. After a loss in a scrimmage match, Kevin removed his headphones and turned briskly to his teammate Simon.
“Do you have a problem?” he asks. Simon mutters under his breath, and the two lower their voices in a somewhat heated argument.
“As you can see, it can get pretty tense around here,” said Kea.
Kea’s decision to become a competitive gamer came at the cusp of his educational future. As the former president of the student body at Ventura College, Kea developed a fondness for political science that he took with him to UC, Santa Barbara (UCSB.)
But as budget cuts loomed and the allotment of quarters that UCSB allows transfer students dwindled, the decision to put his education on hold to pursue a professional gaming career sprung into mind, though his mom had her reservations.
PHOTO BY MATTHEW HILL PHOTOGRAPHY
South Korea’s Kim Dong Hwan (Empire_viOLet) receives his spoils from shoutcaster Sean Plott for taking first place in the Starcraft II championship.
“He never told me he was going to quit school entirely,” said Rose Kanamu, who is pursuing an education at both Ventura College and CSU Channel Islands to become a registered nurse. “I wasn’t really thrilled. He only had three quarters left.”
“If I was going to do it, it had to be 100 percent,” said Kea. “I spoke with my counselor, who thought it was a great idea.”
“I think that’s what helped me,” said Rose. “He could have stayed, but after the three quarters, I would have had to fund everything. Everyone I talked to, men and women alike, were telling me that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and he could always go back to school.”
Kea and his mom have taken classes concurrently at Ventura College. Kea’s first political science class pitted him and his mom against each other in debates; she was the only one of his classmates unafraid to debate him.
“The money is out there, and he wants to make that money, but he has enough common sense to know that if it’s not working . . . he’ll know when to stop and get his bachelor’s,” she said.
Green Forest Cafe wasn’t the Shim brothers’ first foray into business ownership. Upon arrival in California from South Korea, their parents bought B&J Drive-In in Saticoy. When Sean arrived to follow in his brother’s footsteps, the duo took over management of the restaurant until selling it to focus on the cafe.
The weekend of May 12 and 13, however, would prove too big an opportunity to divide responsibilities; that weekend, the team would host the MSi Battlegrounds tournament, the brothers’ second such event.They closed the doors to the café for an entire week to prepare.
At stake: a prize pool of more than $6,000 in merchandise and grand prizes for the winners — all donations from sponsors MSi, Cooler Master, Kingston Technology and others.
With their potential major sponsorships, Chris, Sean and Jacqi rented a home on Ventura’s west end dedicated solely to team practice, a place where team members, current and new, can sleep, wake and think LoL, Blizzard’s Starcraft II or any other number of competitive games. Chris hopes to collaborate with MSi on the monthly upkeep.
The recently acquired home is a gamer’s paradise: sponsor banners hang from the walls, rooms are individually numbered, and gaming equipment sits in closets where clothes would otherwise be found.
“There’re about six rooms on the first floor so gamers can live and sleep here,” says Dillon in a video posted to Team Green Forest’s YouTube channel. “Upstairs, there’s a large living space where we’re going to put about 15 computers so players can practice together.”
In South Korea, where e-sports attract prizes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, players are celebrities and, more often than not, live together. One Korean Starcraft II competitor, Lim Yo-Hwan, also known by his handle SlayerS BoxeR, took a break this year from competitive gaming due to a problem with his shoulder that prevented him from practicing. His fan club, with more than 1 million members, anxiously awaits his return.
“In Korea, the gamers live together, train together, play together for eight to 10 hours a day,” says Brian Durrand, content director and manager of European staff for CLGaming.net, an e-sports-focused site and forum founded by members of team CLG. “I would say that the life of a competitive gamer is harder than a professional athlete,” he said.
The following Thursday, Sean sat in Los Angeles traffic on his way to LAX. Arriving at roughly the same time were three of the weekend’s biggest draws: Ben DeMunck, newly crowned leader of TGF; Shoutcaster Reid “RAPiD” Melton, from Dallas; and Kim Dong Hwan, better known as “Empire_viOLet,” straight from South Korea.
Currently a highly ranked Starcraft II competitive gamer, Empire_viOLet was the heavy favorite for the Battlegrounds tournament.
“I think right now, no one can beat him,” Sean said back in the Green Forest Cafe on a Friday evening, flanked by members of Team Green Forest and staff hired by the brothers to help facilitate the tournament.
Outside in the parking lot shared by CVS, Vons and various other neighboring restaurants and businesses, Chris pointed in frustration to his newly erected stage, which was large enough to accommodate an outdoor concert.
Sean attempted to pull power from the cafe only to find his cord unprotected from the traffic in and out of the shopping center. By morning, the problem had been solved with several blocks of wood and duct tape, leaving Chris to worry about the next problem, the cafe’s projector being too weak for viewing outside during the day.
After an hour of frustration, 50 to 100 spectators gathered around a large-screen television sitting on the stage.
Professional shoutcaster Sean “Day” Plott began casting the Starcraft II grand finals. In front of him sat a large golden trophy waiting for the Starcraft II champion. Inside the cafe, novelty-size checks not seen since Publisher’s Clearinghouse awaited the winners: $3,000 for the Starcraft II champion, $1,000 for LoL.
Several top-tier players were invited to the tournament. Both Kim Dong Hwan (Empire_viOLet) and Ryoo Kyung Hyun (SeleCT) had come from South Korea, while others, such as one of the few female professional players present, Florence “Quantic.Flo” Yao, flew in from Portland, Ore. All of the arriving Starcraft II competitors had their travel, hotel and expenses paid for by Chris and Sean in collaboration with MSi.
Sunday night’s Starcraft II grand finale pitted Hwan “Empire_viOLet” against Nick “isaxslav” Ranish, a surprise finalist. Empire_viOLet swept the match with four straight wins.
The crowd was slightly smaller than expected. Empty seats stretched back to the barriers. Online, however, was another story. An international crowd of 12,000 viewed from the comfort of their homes.
Vincent Chen, MSi marketing specialist, stood in front of a row of his company’s merchandise.
“Competitive gaming is becoming more mainstream,” said Chen, alluding to the multibillion-dollar gaming industry that last year alone was reportedly worth $74 billion. “Some of these tournaments get as many viewers as a broadcast baseball game. It’s just a matter of time.”
Dillon only laughs when asked how she’s doing behind the counter on Sunday evening. All available chairs are filled; LoL spectators watch as RAPiD and Kea Kanamu narrate a match between Dirtnap Gaming and Team Purple Forest. Dirtnap Gaming — consisting of members from UC Irvine — would later win the LoL championship, taking home $1,000.
The following week, Team Green Forest embarks on a three-month-long tournament schedule, beginning with qualifiers for the GIGABYTE eSports LAN (GESL) League of Legends tournament in Pomona, an invitational with a prize of $10,000.
“When we get the gaming house, I could move down here,” said Ben DeMunck as he turned his attention to a qualifying LoL match with a sly smile. “If I switch to home schooling.”
Sean sat behind his computer in the PC room, marking wins and losses as he ate a small pizza.
“This is my breakfast,” he says, watching the evening sun dissipate through the front window. “I’m exhausted. Only part of my goals have come true. Only a part.”
The weekend had been plagued with power, lighting and scheduling conflicts. More walk-in players showed up than expected, keeping the tournament from starting on time. Chris hardly had time to watch the tournament, running in and out of the cafe, maintaining order.
Sean turned his attention to the PC room at Green Forest Cafe, in which a large crowd gathered in the aisle watching the LoL and Starcraft II finalists go head to head.
“But I know, and I am very confident, that everyone who has come here today has been happy. Everyone. That means more to me than anything else.”
Follow Team Green Forest and keep up to date on Green Forest Cafe news on its website at greenforestcafe.net.