League of Legends eyes US boost with 'Esports 101' show

Jake Seiner, AP Sports Writer

FILE - In this Sept. 23, 2014, file photo, Robert Morris University Illinois freshmen, from left, Sondra Burrows, Brian Rodonis and Alex Chapman practice playing the video game "League of Legends" with their collegiate teammates at their on-campus training facility in Chicago. Die-hard esports fans are gathering by the thousands in South Korea this month to watch the world’s top League of Legends players show off their skill and expertise. In the United States, the game’s publisher is hoping to draw a more casual crowd by starting with an important question: What is League of Legends? (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Esports fans are gathering by the thousands in South Korea this month to watch the world's top League of Legends players show off their skill and expertise.

In the United States, the game's publisher is hoping to draw a more casual crowd by starting with an important question: What is League of Legends?

TBS will air a one-hour "Esports 101" special about the world's most-played PC video game Friday night in conjunction with League of Legends developer Riot Games. Turner Sports is publicizing the production as a "lighthearted, accessible introduction" to the game, which boasts 14 professional leagues and over 850 salaried athletes worldwide.

The show is part of an effort by Riot to increase the game's presence in America. League of Legends, a fantasy-based multiplayer online battle arena game, has been the world's most popular esport since its introduction in 2009. But interest in the U.S. has recently slumped a bit.

"We're trying to find ways to demonstrate that League is still here, League is still a great game to play," said Chris Hopper, Riot's North American head of esports. "Our esport is incredibly competitive and has a lot to add to anyone who wants a deeper experience out of their game or esport of choice. For us, this piece fits right into that."

The game's professional ranks have always been dominated by Asian clubs. Two Asian teams have met in every world championship final since the tournament began in 2012, with South Korean franchises winning all but one of those titles.

No team from North America has ever advanced beyond the quarterfinals, though Cloud9 could become the first this weekend.

North American team owners identified the U.S. amateur system as a concern when they met this summer, especially at the lowest levels. Part of addressing that includes attracting more young players. Airing an introduction to the game on TBS might help encourage curious teens to give the free computer game a try — and generate some interest ahead of the Nov. 3 world championship final in Incheon, South Korea.

The show will focus on the game itself, plus the culture and history surrounding it. The show will air at 11 p.m., which Hopper believes is a good time for the target audience of college and high school students. The program eventually will be available on Twitch, Amazon's online streaming platform that has much of the world's top esports content.

Esports fans are accustomed to using Twitch for gaming content, but game developers and television networks are eager to bring some programming to more traditional outlets. Craig Barry, the chief content officer at Turner Sports, calls esports a "monster niche" and thinks TBS can play a role in its growing ecosystem. TBS' ELEAGUE programming has included popular games like Counter-Strike, Street Fighter and Overwatch, but this will be its first production with League of Legends.

"We're using TBS as a portal for the casual fan," Barry said. "For someone who might be too intimidated to get on Twitch."

The North American League of Legends Championship Series signed a nonexclusive, multiyear deal this summer to stream events on ESPN+, the streaming service created by the traditional sports network. ESPN has also aired some previous League of Legends content.

Airing gaming content on television isn't just good for attracting new viewers. Hopper has noticed some advertising partners are hesitant to jump into digital-only partnerships, but Riot can lure bigger sponsors by presenting some content on traditional mediums.

"We certainly haven't solved exactly how we want to be in that linear space, and frankly I'm not sure any linear partner has a firm idea, either," Hopper said. "But all parties are interested, which is really the compelling sign. Then we'll figure out the right way to do it."

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