LOL = League of Legends!

League of Legends (LOL) is currently the most popular video game in the world with over five million users playing globally at any time and over 12 million per day. Chances are high that you know at least one, if not many more, people who are active players.

If you asked anybody what the acronym “lol” stood for five years ago, most people would say it was Internet slang for “laugh out loud.” Fast forward five years and those three letters have taken on a completely different meaning. LOL now stands for League of Legends. In fact, LOL has a strong social dimension since many people play on teams with their friends against other players online.

Riot Games, which created LOL, was first founded in 2006 by Americans Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill who then went on to release LOL three years later. What most people don’t realize is that since 2011, Riot has been a Chinese company. Chinese Internet giant Tencent saw the potential in Riot early on and bought the company for $400 million dollars. Unlike with most other multi-million dollar deals, however, Tencent allowed Riot to run as before while quietly supporting them. This allowed the company to develop at an explosive pace – and the gamer base is still growing.

While most of the players hail from North America, LOL also has a very popular following in China. In fact, LOL recently surpassed World of Warcraft to become the most played video game in Chinese Internet cafes. In a recent poll of around 400 Internet cafes in China, the game was played over 83,000 hours in the month of March alone. The ease of accessibility for the game has also helped to develop its following in China. In order to play here, all you need is a QQ ID number, which almost everybody in China has.

But there is another important reason why LOL has become so popular both in China and around the world – it is totally free.

In the past, the industry has been dominated by games that require fees and payments to unlock things like new maps or modes. In LOL, players can spend money buying cool things such as special character artwork and other in-game aesthetics. However, there’s nothing that a player can buy that will give him an advantage over another player who hasn’t bought anything. Because of this, Riot has been cited as a leading example for other game companies to follow. Its success creating LOL with a free-to-play model has started an exciting new trend in gaming.

The popularity of LOL has spilled over into real world as well. The first LOL-themed restaurant, where guests are served by waiters dressed as characters and all the dishes on the menu have an LOL design, opened earlier this year in Chongqing, China.

While many see the game as merely a form of entertainment, others take LOL more seriously. Much like professional sports, Riot broadcasts weekly matches where the best teams in each region compete for a shot at entering the World Championship. This year the LOL World Championships has a top prize of a million dollars and will be held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where up to 18,000 people are expected to come watch.

Many of these professional teams are sponsored by tech firms eager to use the players’ popularity to attract attention to their products. Additionally, Riot has even started to provide professional gamers with a salary to keep them playing and attract potential new pros.

Being a Chinese company, the first ever “all-star” event for any video game ever was hosted in Shanghai in May 2013. It drew an all-time high of over 18 million unique viewers (read more). At the event, five players from each region were chosen to compete for a shot at the World Championships for their region. I had the pleasure of attending and being able to meet many of the professional players as well as several Riot employees including CEO Brandon Beck. Even two years ago nobody would have considered the idea of an “all-star” weekend, but by hosting it Riot has effectively announced the dawn of the e-sports era.

No longer dismissed as something for geeks, the sheer popularity of LOL has ushered in a new perspective on e-sports. From a fan’s perspective I can only hope that as the game continues to gain popularity, the e-sports industry as a whole will also continue to grow in mainstream popularity.