A sold-out crowd watches the first semifinal matchup for the League of Legends World Championship between the ROX Tigers and SK Telecom T1, a repeat of the 2015 finals matchup between two powerhouse Korean teams. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
A sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden watches the first semifinal matchup for the League of Legends World Championship between the ROX Tigers and SK Telecom T1 on Oct. 22, 2016.Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
A sold-out crowd watches the first semifinal matchup for the League of Legends World Championship between the ROX Tigers and SK Telecom T1, a repeat of the 2015 finals matchup between two powerhouse Korean teams. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
Fans cheer during the first semifinal match between SK Telecom T1 and ROX Tigers on Friday night at Madison Square Garden. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, second from right, likely the greatest player in the history of League of Legends, waves to the crowd ahead of his team, SK Telecom T1's, semifinal matchup against Korean rivals ROX Tigers. Comparisons have been made by professional journalists inside and outside eSports between Faker and Michael Jordan. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
Konstantinos “FORG1VEN” Tzortziou tries out an unusual strategy with his teammate Oskar “VandeR” Bogdan, not shown, after seeing ROX Tigers handily beat SK Telecom T1 just minutes before with the same approach. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
Oskar “VandeR” Bogdan, center, highfives teammate Ryu “Ryu” Sang-ook as the final plate of their Korean barbecue order arrives. Bodgan remarked as they ordered that the meal was going to cost them over $100 between the two of them to which Ryu just replied, "it's ok." Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
Michael "Veteran" Archer, head analyst for H2k-Gaming, watches passing traffic as he and other teammates take a cab from Madison Square Garden to a late team dinner at Benihana in New York, NY. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
Members of H2k-Gaming stand for a photo as they walk through Times Square in New York, NY at 2AM, the day of their semifinal matchup with Samsung Galaxy for a chance to play in the League of Legends World Championship Finals. The team plays in the European region which has a friendly rivalry with North American teams, so they took this opportunity to "troll". Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
A clock counts down to the start of the League of Legends World Championship semifinal match between European team H2k-Gaming and their opponents from South Korea, Samsung Galaxy. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
Rivington Bisland III, the emcee for the League of Legends Worlds semifinals, speaks during the opening of the tournament's stop at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY. Rivington, as he's known in-game, has one of the longest eSports commentating careers, going back to 2000 for other organizations. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
Oskar “VandeR” Bogdan reassures Andrei “Odoamne” Pascu as they take the stage for what would be the team's third and final match at Madison Square Garden. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
A League of Legends fan wearing a cosplay outfit heads to her seat in Madison Square Garden. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
Fans cheer as H2k-Gaming is introduced before their semifinal matchup against Samsung Galaxy at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
H2k-Gaming's champion selections are show on screens behind the team as they choose their team line-up for their first game at Madison Square Garden. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
Fans of H2k-Gaming cheer for the team after they take a surprise first kill off of their opponents Samsung Galaxy in the first game of their best of five match at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY on Saturday. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
A member of the Madison Square Garden staff watches the League of Legends World Championship semifinal match between H2k-Gaming and Samsung Galaxy on Saturday. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
A sold-out crowd watches the second semifinal matchup for the League of Legends World Championship between Samsung Galaxy and H2k-Gaming. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
H2k leaves Madison Square Garden after taking photographs with a few fans after their loss to Samsung Galaxy. The team decided to go get Korean barbecue, one of their favorite meals, and splurge on a more expensive meal for one of their last nights together before heading to their respective home countries. Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
A sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden watches the first semifinal matchup for the League of Legends World Championsh
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Mark Kauzlarich for TIME
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I Went to a Massive E-Sports Tournament and Was Blown Away

Oct 25, 2016

Madison Square Garden, in the center of New York City, bills itself as "the world's most famous arena." And for good reason: It's where Frazier beat Ali, Marilyn Monroe sang happy birthday to John Kennedy, and Wayne Gretzky laced up his skates for the last time. As a New York sports fan, I've been going there my entire life, mostly for hockey and basketball games. But this past weekend I experienced something there unlike anything I've seen before.

I was at the Garden for the second night of the semifinal round of the League of Legends 2016 World Championships, among the premier events in the competitive gaming, or e-sports, world. Sixteen teams from around the world competed in the tournament, with four making it to the semis in New York. More than 15,000 fans each night, both sellout crowds, spent anywhere between $57 and $75 to watch in person as their favorite teams and players duked it out in best-of-five matchups that could last hours on end. The players sat alongside their teammates in a row of throne-like chairs in front of souped-up computers. A massive jumbotron hung above for the crowd to watch. Their prize: A chance to continue on to the finals in Los Angeles, with a top prize of $1 million, split amongst the team. (TIME tagged along with European team H2K before and during the tournament, see those photos above.)

I went mostly out of curiosity. I've been a gamer my entire life and once, briefly dabbled in competitive play. But I've never been to one of these arena-scale tournaments in person. I could not have anticipated what I found—or felt.

When the teams and players were first introduced, the crowd went nuts, with a volume on par with a playoff hockey matchup. No surprise. It got quiet during slower moments, more like a weekend afternoon game at the beginning of the season. Also no surprise. But every big turn—kills, mostly—sent the place into a craze repeatedly. Even for a novice, it was impossible not to get carried away by the energy. I found myself cheering the players on as if I'd been following them their entire careers. (That's normally a big no-no in the press box at pro sports games. Thankfully, nobody seemed to notice or care.)

Many video games are like romance languages: Once you master one, your knowledge can make it easier to understand another. But League of Legends is one of those rare titles that's a universe all to itself. Called a "multiplayer online battle arena," or MOBA, League is free to download and ties together elements from a wide range of genres, mostly role-playing and strategy. (The game's creator, Riot Games, makes money when players purchase in-game gear.) Watching the tournament matches unfold felt like the first time I ever saw rugby. I vaguely understood what was happening, but only vaguely. Cheers would erupt for reasons I couldn't fathom. I bugged a nearby fan, a former U.S. Marine named Rich Sheffer, to help guide me along. And he tried valiantly, as I got lost in showers of lingo like "jungler," "meta," and "lanes." I felt like I was getting a glimpse of my future, stupefied by a game my kids adore that I'm just too old to understand.

"I was here last night," said Sheffer, 30, who was on his first visit to New York City along with longtime gaming friends from Canada and Mexico. "The stress of the five games, there wasn't a person in here who still had a voice after game three."

After the first match, I took a walk around the arena to get a feel for the crowd. Many seemed to be high school- or college-aged. There were more men than women, but probably not as tilted a gender ratio as you might expect. The broader audience numbers are staggering: Nearly 10 million people every day visit Twitch, a popular game-streaming service Amazon acquired in 2014 for nearly $1 billion. Those numbers and demographics are drawing the attention of people like Scott O'Neil, CEO of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers. His organization recently bought and combined two e-sports teams, in a trailblazing move that drew attention in both the e-sports and "stick and ball" pro sports worlds.

"The space is growing like mad," says O'Neil. He argues that e-sports has the potential to make far more money per fan than it's currently pulling in. "It hasn't been monetized, it has a huge audience, it's fun, it's a space we know," he says.

E-sports doubters might wonder why anybody would watch other people playing video games, even if they're the best players in the world. But there's clearly a growing interest in doing so, as evidenced by those growth figures. Once you understand how a given game works, watching the world's best players go at it isn't that much different from watching anything on offer from the NFL, NBA or MLB. Skill is skill. And a crowd who's enthusiasm is being fed by its display is just as enticing.

Another big advantage: E-sports leagues are born of the digital world, meaning they carry none of the television baggage of pro sports. That makes them far more accessible, especially for younger viewers. "The way we consume media is changing," says O'Neil. "This is very consistent with the way millennials, the cord-cutters and the cord-nevers, are experiencing media."

Where might the e-sports phenomenon go from here? Consulting firm Deloitte believes it will be a $500 million market this year, growing at an annual rate of 25%. Yet questions remain. Yes, big events are selling out massive arenas, but a larger number of events might dilute attendance. The biggest advertisers seem to be gaming firms rather than larger brands, like Coca-Cola or PepsiCo, whose interest would signal mainstream adoption. And the game creators' relationships with leagues, teams and players can be fraught.

And yet, the e-sports movement is in early days. And it has one critical ingredient for success as a sports league: A growing, passionate and diverse audience. That seems reason enough to keep watching.

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