With 32 million viewers, last October’s World Championships for League of Legends boasted an audience about as big as your average NFL’s wild-card playoff game. The tournament’s final, which saw Korean side SKT defeat China’s Royal Club, was played in front of a sold-out crowd at Los Anegeles’s Staples Center.
After a three-month offseason, the biggest tournament for the biggest eSport in the world is back. The League Championship Series (LCS) starts tomorrow, and it promises to be even bigger and more exciting than before. Over the next 10 weeks, teams will compete regionally to claim a spot in the playoffs. Then, in March, those at the top will duke it out for cash, spots in the next season, and at the end of the year, placement into the prestigious World Championships. Last year, winners SKT took home $1 million.
Matches begin today at 3pm ET, which you can watch on Twitch. Here’s everything you need to know about the season to come.
Arguably the strongest team in North America, Cloud 9 has had a relatively quiet offseason to get ready for the new season. The sqaud’s only real public appearance was at Riot’s Battle of the Atlantic in December, where they swept Europe’s top side Fnatic. Cloud 9 finished last season 25-3, marching through the playoffs without dropping a game. The question at this point isn’t really whether Cloud 9 can win—it’s whether any other team can even come close to making them lose.
Cloud 9’s strategies to success—a stable roster and a professional support structure—have worked so well, in fact, that many sides are now emulating them. That’s meant something of a standardization of training and organization, making practice sessions as efficient as possible and preparing for each new opponent with fresh strategies and killer counters.
While players are going to be asked to do a lot more, their teams are finding new ways to ease the burdens of a 24/7 job. As such, the big names are equipping their teams with chefs, trainers, and even therapists. Many teams have also sought to reduce travel concerns by creating new team houses in as close to the LCS studio as possible.
More big news from the American teams over the offseason came from veteran side Team Solo Mid. Owner Andy Dinh decided to bench himself during December’s Battle of the Atlantic and brought in a world-class mid-laner from Europe, Søren Bjerg. Bjerg’s early performances excited fans and have left them eager to see more. The team looks ready to recover from its slump and return to winning ways.
And then there’s Velocity, which disbanded after three members jumped ship for Evil Geniuses. Joined by two North American semi-pros, the new Evil Geniuses now seek to carve out a space for themselves in the LCS and put to rest Velocity’s horrible 5-21 record from last season. In fact, a lot of teams will be looking for redemption this season—Cloud 9’s near-perfect record meant that many teams ended with losing seasons.
Meanwhile, over in Europe, roster changes have wreaked havoc. The biggest news was Evil Geniuses’ dissolution into two teams on both sides of the Atlantic. The European remnants, rebranded as Alliance, have managed to snag up some of the best players in the region, including the former team captain of rival SK Gaming.
There are big changes among the other teams as well. In the summer 2013 season, European side Gambit Gaming lost support player Edward Abgaryan to America’s Curse. But Abgaryan has since returned to his former team and they’re playing better than ever. Some teams have been more affected than others. Lemondogs’ instability has led to their removal from LCS, replaced by newcomers Supa Hot Crew XD. Team Alternate‘s players, on the other hand, have decided to change organizations and will now be competing under the Millenium brand.
There is also some new blood looking for a kill. The Copenhagen Wolves have re-earned a spot in the LCS after their former roster left the organization. The Wolves are joined by Team Roccat, an all-Polish roster that stunned the community with a 3-0 sweep of sixth-place Ninjas in Pyjamas at the Battle of the Atlantic. Both Roccat and the Wolves feature young, ambitious players who are looking to take down the biggest names of the European scene.
All that said, it may come as a shock that the biggest news of 2014 for LCS might not even come from within the LCS. One of the biggest complaints about the League pro scene since its inception has focused on its poor record supporting rising players and teams, especially in terms of structure and prize money. In this regard, Riot has stepped up markedly in the offseason, announcing a partnership with Coke Zero that will provide a much-needed stepping stone into the big leagues by providing regular, substantial cash prizes to the top challenger teams. Joining this Challenger Series will be the North American Collegiate Championship, announced just last week, where aspiring college teams will have a chance at $100,000 worth of scholarships.
Correction: This article originally stated that Edward Abgaryan left Gambit Gaming for Counter Logic Gaming, and not Curse. We regret the error.