Eric Piispanen, left, poses with Alex Ich, middle, and Genja, members of competitive League of Legends team Gambit Gaming.
By Alex Ferri
Eric Piispanen thinks of competitive League of Legends as a game of chess.
“Your goal is basically to predict and outplay your opponent, not through mechanics, but through being in the right place at the right time,” he said.
Piispanen is coordinator for the League of Legends teams of the Arizona State University eSports Association. League of Legends, the massively popular online battle arena title from Riot Games, is one of several games played competitively at ASU and across the globe.
When Riot Games announced its North American Collegiate Championship on Jan. 7 that would pit the best college teams against each other for a chance at a $100,000 prize pool of scholarship funds, Piispanen, summoner name iamanelf, started putting a team together.
The first stage of the championship launches Jan. 25 and will be played over the course of a week. It’s open to any team of students from an accredited university, and as of this posting almost 500 teams had signed up. Those teams will be randomly seeded and eventually weeded down to the top four to face off for the title.
The size of the tournament doesn’t intimidate Piispanen.
“We’re playing to win,” he said, “Whether it be 100 teams or 1,000.”
Piispanen admits the team isn’t ranked as highly as the very top competitive players individually, but as the tournament is open to everyone, not every team will be top ranked.
He’s Platinum ranked, and while that puts him in the top 7 percent of players, the top competitive teams are made up of the top 1 or so percent of the game’s player base.
His secret weapon, he said, is teamwork.
“It’s a team game,” Piispanen said. “If you look at University of Arizona’s team, they’re not the highest in solo queue, but they have a Challenger team in fives.” The Challenger tier is made up of the best 50 players and teams in the region. The tier below that, Diamond, consists of the top 1 to 2 percent of the game’s 30 million monthly users.
He said solo queue builds an important base skill level, but what really makes a team great is its ability to work together.
“Teamwork plays a huge role,” he said. “That’s why for this I’ve tried to get people I know and that I’ve played with a lot.”
Another possible wild card is the tournament’s random seeding format.
“You could get a team of Challengers and Diamonds in the first bracket, or you could never see someone higher than Plat all the way to the top eight,” he said.
Riot Games and esports
Piispanen is thankful for the support Riot Games has given the collegiate scene, he said. The company has sponsored multiple tournaments for the ASU eSports Association by providing prizes and various giveaways, which increased the popularity of the events significantly.
“Our first tournament [was] with 40 people, and it was really hard to get to 40,” he said. “Now probably a half an hour to an hour after signups … there’s 40 people signed up already.”
That turnout reflects the massive popularity of League of Legends and the esports scene as a whole. The recent world championship for League of Legends drew more than eight million viewers worldwide, a number that fueled the debate over whether competitive gaming should be considered a sport.
It’s encouraging to see foreign players receive visas to come and play competitively in the U.S., Piispanen said, but some people might be taking the argument too far.
“Even though pros are practicing 10-12 hours a day, it’s a whole different thing to use your mind than your whole body as a tool,” he said. “When esports is considered a sport, what else is considered a sport too?”
He added that it isn’t necessary for the success of esports for it to be recognized as a sport.
“It already has millions of viewers,” he said.
Those millions of viewers support (and idolize) a select group of players trying to make a living from playing a video game at the highest level. That level of competition has caused some players to retire before their 24th birthday, which has sparked debate over the legitimacy of competitive gaming as a career.
Piispanen thinks eSports shouldn’t be viewed in such a way.
“I don’t think anyone can necessarily expect to play League for the rest of their life, even if they are the best,” he said. “Most of these people have gone to college or can resume going to college. It’s not as harmful as some people think … it’s great as a temporary thing.”
He added that League of Legends probably won’t even be around in its current form in 4-5 years. So he’ll enjoy playing and competing while he can, because while League of Legends might play like a game of chess, one thing it doesn’t appear to have is its longevity.