Below the main streets of Sydney lies a subterranean gaming locale – a dimly lit hall populated by snooker tables and high-end gaming gear. With a weird mix of old school charm and new age technology, it has an essence of Bladerunner meets Star Wars rebel outpost. I wouldn’t be surprised if Harrison Ford was lurking in the corner, involved in some shady deals. To satisfy my curiosity, I glance over. It could be him. Or it could be a group of University students splayed out on leather couches. The shadows play tricks.

I weave through the snooker tables, dodging pool cues and squeezing past players watching relaxedly from the aisles. Behind glass to my left, separated from the low hum of the main hall, are many rows of PC monitors. Some of the desks are unoccupied but most host a hunched headphone adorned figure with lights flickering across their face, eyes reflecting their game of choice- Starcraft, or more commonly DOTA 2. At some desks, the occupier is sleeping. It’s 1pm.

At the far end of the hall are the private gaming booths- home to quality leather gaming seats and PCs, and for some, the lingering smell of pee. You can’t pause online games, I’m told.

I am ushered to the doorway of the “VIP room” of the professional eSports team that I am here to interview, League of Legends team Sin Gaming. It’s a small booth set up with two rows of three computers -each computer is occupied by a player with headsets on, mics at the ready. They have their backs to each other, and a tall figure- their coach- paces between the two rows, occasionally stopping to look over a player’s shoulder and examine their screen. It’s quiet but for the sound of a mouse clicking and the pressing of keyboard buttons. The players are largely unmoving.

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Once the game is finished, I’ll have an opportunity to interview one of the players. Following the interview, the team will be “scrimming” (practicing against other professional teams) for 3 or 4 hours straight, then will take a short break for dinner, then scrim for another 3 or 4 hours.

When are you leaving the venue?” I ask, unwilling to accept the math. “1am,” replies the team owner, as though this is the most natural thing in the world. “We need to get as much practice in as possible- OPL Split 1 is only 4 days away.”

The OPL (Oceanic Pro League) is the highest professional league for League of Legends in the Oceanic region- if League of Legends was soccer, the OPL would be the A- League.

Founded in March 2015 and co-ordinated by League of Legend’s developer and publisher Riot, the OPL is run twice yearly in 10-12 week independent blocks, with each block known as a split. Each of the 8 teams in the OPL competes for prize money and an invitation to the International Wildcard Invitational tournament. A win at an International Wildcard Invitational tournament allows them to compete at the League of Legends World Championships. No team from Oceania has ever qualified for the World Championships, though the Chiefs eSports team came close in 2015.

OPL matches are an untimed best of three games throughout the round robin stages, moving to a best of five format for the semi-finals and grand final. Each match is broadcast live over three weeknights through Riot’s Oceania Twitch account, with Riot broadcasters providing in-game commentary and post-game analysis of gameplay and decision making. It is a remarkably professionally appearing set-up, and a stark contrast to the dingy gaming locale I find myself in.

But this is not the usual situation for the Sin Gaming 5-man line up. The players, who hail from Sydney, Brisbane, Gouburn, Melbourne and New Zealand (made possible by the online nature of the game) and coaching staff have been flown to Sydney for the Riot player summit- a pre-OPL split player meeting in which Riot discusses their expectations for player behaviour and social media use, and provides details about the upcoming season. Sin gaming have extended their stay in Sydney to hold a bootcamp (intense practise sessions in person). And distribute player contracts.

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“Contracts? Is there money involved?”  The team owner nods in assent. I find out later from another source that players earn $300 per week base pay to play in the OPL, even more if they are privately sponsored.

“So do the players have real jobs? How do they have time to practice so much?” The team owner seems uncomfortable for a moment, then shrugs. They don’t have other jobs, I’m told, This is their job.

I, perhaps brazenly (in retrospect, naively), comment that playing League of Legends 20+ hours a week cannot be considered a job because eSports do not really contribute anything to society. “Esports can be considered a form of entertainment- they are similar to physical sports in that way,” is the reply. And it’s true. Thousands of people tune in every week to watch OPL matches, with hundreds of thousands tuning in to watch matches in other regions of the world. Just as you would watch your favourite football team play every week, League of Legends fanatics tune in to see their team dominate Summoner’s Rift.

There are sponsors, fans, competitive leagues, a governing body, a playing wage, player transfers, intra and inter- team politics, coaching and management staff… and it is easy to draw other parallels between League of Legends the eSport, and physical sports.

The most obvious similarity is the number of hours per week that elite athletes and eSports professionals spend honing their craft- approximately 15 to 30 hours per week. At the beginning of 2016, Legacy eSports moved all their players into a gaming house in Sydney (made possible by their involvement with a self-proclaimed ‘serial entrepreneur’ and their sponsors ASUS), so that the players could dedicate their time to League of Legends practice without distraction.

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You can also compare the training approach of OPL teams and elite sports teams. Principles of sport and exercise science, such as post-game analysis and deliberate practice, are routinely applied to training and competitive matches by all OPL teams. Legacy eSports even have their own sport psychologist, and were in contact with the New South Wales Institute of Sport pre- OPL Split 1 to help prepare for the pressure of high level sporting competition and facilitate an improvement in their in-game performance.

It is quite clear that the fans and players treat League of Legends like a professional sport. And what’s interesting is that the rest of the world is starting to catch up. In 2013, it was announced that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services would recognise League of Legends professional players as professional athletes, making it easier to obtain a US visa. Further, as of November last year, at least 5 US colleges offer League of Legends scholarships.

This brief article was not intended to be an in-depth analysis of League of Legends, rather it was intended to provide a glimpse of eSports in Australia, in particular the OPL, beyond the stereotype portrayed by the mass media. Hopefully it has informed or challenged your ideas about the nature of competitive eSports.

I acknowledge that I have only scratched the surface of what is a deep and multifaceted world- if you would like to continue the discussion about the OPL, League of Legends, or eSports in Australia, send your carrier pigeons to my Twitter page. And keep your eyes peeled for my OPL 2016 Split 1 wrap-up article, and inter-OPL Split summary article!

If you would like to stay up to date with all OPL news, check out the League of Legends Oceania twitter page.

Ellis Longhurst

Ellis Longhurst

Staff Writer at GameCloud
When not patting cats, eating excessive amounts of fruit, and failing the Battlefield 4 tutorial, Ellis spends most of her time cycling around the inner west of Sydney and blatantly disregarding Professor Oak’s words of advice.