Whether you follow esports or not, whether you’re a fan of gaming or not - you will have heard about the League of Legends Professional League (LPL). The Chinese league has grown and matured into one of the most popular, globally. Boasting 135K+ followers on Twitter and partnerships with global brands such as Nike and Hyperice, we explore the key reasons behind the LPL’s internationalisation success.
All about LPL
LPL is the only PC franchise league among Tencent's three major esports leagues (KPL of Honor of Kings and PEL of Peacekeeper Elite are the others). It’s also the esports event IP with the longest history and highest commercial value in China. Independently operated by TJ Sports - a joint venture between Tencent and Riot Games - LPL boasts a high level of competitiveness. Since the LPL officially launched on March 16, 2013, it’s grown to include 17 top Chinese esports organisations and attracted 18 sponsors such as Mercedes-Benz, KFC, and Nike. In 2019, TJ Sports signed a four-year exclusive apparel sponsorship deal with global sportswear brand Nike, for a total reported value of RMB 200M ($31M), according to Lanxiong Sports.
At a press conference on the second anniversary of TJ Sports, the LPL officially announced total revenue exceeding RMB 1B ($154M). In April, Huya, a Chinese live streaming platform, received exclusive media rights to the LPL, League of Legends Development League (LDL), and LPL All-Star events for the next five years, worth RMB 2.013B ($310M).
Each year, Huya will pay more than RMB 400M ($61.9M) to TJ Sports as indirectly acknowledging the commercial value of LPL. In comparison, the CSL, the Chinese men's football professional league, signed a three-season broadcasting sponsorship deal with Tencent in April 2021, for a total value of over RMB 240M ($37.15M). Under the huge negative impact of the pandemic last year, the Chinese traditional sports leagues, such as CBA and CSL, are facing unprecedented difficulties and challenges, while esports competitions can continue operations as they are based online, which makes the copyright of esports competitions gradually become the star of all major platforms.
Compared with the traditional CBA and CSL league in China, the LPL not only focuses on the domestic market, but also attracts high popularity overseas.
The Big Four
I’ve identified four key factors for LPL's internationalisation achievements so far:
1. One of the most important and fundamental factors is the league’s achievements. Whether in traditional sports or esports, performance and achievements are the most important index to measure how attractive the league is in the competitive arena.
One of the fundamental reasons why so many people all over the world pay attention to the NBA is that the NBA not only represents the best American basketball, but also represents the top level of basketball in the world. Starting from 2018, LPL has shown dominating performances in the League of Legends international events, winning the 2018 and 2020 Mid-Season Invitational (MSI), and the 2018 and 2019 League of Legends World Championships by Invictus Gaming and FunPlus Phoenix (FPX), respectively.
LPL has proven itself in terms of achievements. Of course, it’s undeniable that South Korea’s top League of Legends competition, League of Legends Champion Korea (LCK) is still strong, and the professional league of the Korean League of Legends also has a high influence overseas, which further confirms the conclusion that the results in the competition area have played a vital role in promoting the internationalisation of a league.
2. Compared with the LCK, LPL players are more diverse. LPL includes not only Chinese and Korean players, but also a player from Vietnam - Suning Gaming (SN)’s “SofM.” Never underestimate the regional commercial value represented by foreign players.
In the LPL Summer Split Third-Place Final in 2020, SN's match against LGD exceeded 100K live viewership on YouTube in Vietnam, and reached 130K for the third game, breaking the record of watching the competition in Vietnam. Chris Tran, the head of Riot Games Southeast Asia Esports, stated that the Vietnam esports market has great potential, with a wider audience and younger community. Compared with the history of the NBA, SofM is just like Yao Ming in China. Yao helped the NBA open a multi-billion market (China) for the NBA.
3. TJ Sports has performed well on overseas social media platforms and in fan engagement. In 2019, LPL began to team up with American WWE stars on social media.
WWE stars Cesaro and Austin Creed were also invited to commentate the LPL regular competitions. TJ Sports also created some “special names'' for LPL's competition, such as "IG vs TES" which is called “Ninja War.” This year’s Ninja War attracted the attention of Richard “Ninja” Blevins, one of the biggest streamers and influencers on Twitch. He recorded a video and sent it to LPL, hoping to learn some gaming skills from LPL players. Ninja has over 16.8M fans on Twitch and 24.2M followers on YouTube. Although Ninja usually focuses on FPS games like Fortnite and PUBG, he is also a massive League of Legends fan.
4. LPL also takes the responsibility of showing off Chinese culture to the world. During this year's Dragon Boat Festival, LPL celebrated the "Chinese Hanfu Day" for the first time. Hosts, commentators, and even some players from the LPL wore Chinese culturally-inspired Hanfu clothes during the event. And some popular commentators overseas also took part in this campaign, such as former LEC and LPL English commentators Indiana “Froskurinn” Black, C9 League of Legends professional player Zachary “Sneaky” Scuderi, and Brazilian streamer Mayumi, as they also wore Hanfu clothes and interact with the LPL. It highlights that the overseas audiences have interests in Chinese culture, and at the same time, it is in line with what China often says now: "It is necessary to publicise and strengthen the soft power for China to the world.”
Although there are some controversies between China and South Korea about Hanfu on Twitter, these disputes still represent the high influence for the LPL itself and its capability to export Chinese culture internationally.
From October to November this year, the League of Legends World Championship will return to China, and be hosted in five Chinese cities: Wuhan, Shanghai, Chengdu, Qingdao and Shenzhen. The four LPL teams will absolutely attract more Chinese brands and sponsors with increasing commercial value. We will also expect to see more brands embrace and recognise LPL.