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An insider's view of the League of Legends World Championship

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

October is a great month for sports. Baseball's playoffs are at a fever pitch. The NFL and NBA seasons are revving up. And one of the biggest events in esports is also underway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: They've got 'em (ph) on top. And (inaudible) is going for the kill, but he did half the damage, needs to rest, gets the shots down (ph). Wow. JackeyLove steals the dragon and, with Elder Knight, goes off.

SUMMERS: League of Legends is one of the most popular video games in the world. And right now, during its world championships, the game's best players are competing for a piece of the more than $2 million prize pool. Emily Rand is an analyst and commentator with the League Championship Series, and she's here to tell us more about the growth of esports, the appeal of watching them and how this often male-dominated space is striving to be more inclusive. Hey, Emily.

EMILY RAND: Hello.

SUMMERS: So these games have a huge viewership. Millions of people are tuning in. But for people who do not play this game or follow it as closely as you do, give us a sense of what they're tuning in to see.

RAND: League of Legends is a fantasy video game with all sorts of weird creatures, but then the characters themselves are really fun and creative. You know, if you want to go in and play a cool frost archer, you can do that. If you want to ride a wild boar around, you can do that. As for the game itself in a competitive way, there's essentially kind of a heavily stylized fantasy map. And the objective ultimately is for you and your four teammates to take down the opponent's base that's on the other side of the map.

SUMMERS: Esports can be difficult to follow if you're not already plugged in to how a specific video game works. It's closer to watching, like, high-speed chess rather than, say, a soccer match. As an analyst and commentator, it's your job to get across the emotional core of what's happening. How do you do that?

RAND: The trick to making someone care about a traditional sports player is very similar, right? You just have to tell their story in a compelling way. If I am talking about the heartbreak of JackeyLove - that's his gamer handle. He is a player on the Chinese team called Top Esports that actually, despite really high expectations, failed to qualify for the upcoming playoff round. And he had this heart-crushing interview on stage where he kind of choked up and apologized to his fans.

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JACKEYLOVE: (Non-English language spoken).

(APPLAUSE)

RAND: I think the ultimate core of why anyone follows any sport, regardless of whether it's an esport or a traditional sport - they want to connect with the players. They want to see themselves in a player or they want to be able to follow a player's story. So I think in that way, it's very, very similar.

SUMMERS: League of Legends players, fans, even casters are overwhelmingly male. What do you think can be done to grow the diversity in the sport?

RAND: I think a lot of that can be at least mitigated to some extent by some sort of social outreach, creating different programs. I know internally I've offered to reach out to, like, junior highs and high schools and stuff like that to try to get a little bit more of a grassroots program started, both with getting access to PCs and just making it seem more socially acceptable, I guess, because I know growing up, for example, I played a game called Starcraft, and my brother also played it. We played it together. And the big difference for the two of us was that my brother had a lot of friends that played it, whereas none of my friends played it. And I couldn't, like, hang out with my brother and his friends and play it because they were like, we don't want you to play with us. That's kind of a dumb story, but there are a lot of, like, social factors, I guess, that start really young. And so that's why I think that, like, any sort of outreach or just seeing that women do exist in this space is obviously going to help.

SUMMERS: Emily Rand is an analyst and commentator for the video game League of Legends. The World Championships wrap up on November 5. Emily, thank you so much.

RAND: No, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF GINGER ROOT SONG, "OVER THE HILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
James Mastromarino
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.