The 2018 League of Legends World Championship set a ton of milestones. A Chinese team finally won the event, no Korean team made the final, and Western teams had their best showing since season one. One of the biggest developments was that viewership records were absolutely smashed. According to data from Esports Charts, the championship match between Invictus Gaming and Fnatic reached a peak of over 200 million viewers—nearly double the peak from Worlds 2017. Average concurrent viewership also increased 41 percent over last year.
The big numbers are driven by a huge amount of Chinese viewers. It makes sense that an LPL team winning the final would drive a surge in interest from League’s most populous region. The ability of the game to reach viewers in multiple regions has also been one of its selling points, but it also makes Worlds highly dependent on the Chinese fanbase for growth.
Excluding Chinese viewers and peak viewership for the final actually dropped just over three percent from last year’s final. The drop is likely attributed to decreased interest from the Korean crowd, who didn’t have a team in the final for the first time since season one. The Korean decline was partially offset by an increase in other viewers as a Western team—Fnatic—made the final for the first time in years. The English stream increased 12 percent from last year likely as a result of Fnatic’s fantastic showing.
The reliance on Chinese figures is troubling because of the historic difficulty of getting reliable numbers from Chinese websites. Because popular streaming sites like YouTube are banned in China, Chinese viewers watch Worlds through Chinese sites like Panda TV. Some analysts are skeptical over the reported Chinese figures as those sites have been dogged by allegations that they use bots to artificially increase viewer count. And companies in multiple sports have struggled to figure out how to monetize their Chinese audience.
But even if the overall figures are to be taken with a strong dose of salt, they still paint a picture that Worlds is growing at a strong rate. There’s still a lot to gain on the World Cup, which reportedly reached over 900 million viewers in 2018. But Worlds is already bigger than any other major sporting event. And if the growth trajectory continues, it could one day become the biggest sports spectacle in history.