In front of a rapt audience in a Los Angeles film lot, Krepo hooks an enemy with his scythe and harvests virtual souls with a signature move called a “death sentence.”
The grim scene played out time and again as Krepo and his Evil Geniuses team battled to victory in a League of Legends computer game match broadcast to viewers around the world.
After the triumph, Krepo — a 23-year-old Belgian whose real name is Mitch Voorspoels and plays the game as the dreaded character “Thresh” — was swarmed by fans hungry for autographs and photographs.
Welcome to the booming world of “eSports,” where seemingly sun-starved players compete with their wits and a few mouse clicks.
“Professional gaming has been trying for years and years to catch on and now it is suddenly spreading like wildfire,” said long-time game analyst Scott Steinberg, now general manager of Phoenix Online Publishing.
“League of Legends draws a die-hard crowd, constantly hungry to learn more,” he said.
League play with characters such as mages, assassins and marksmen is so visually compelling and action-packed that it is a natural for online viewing, according to Steinberg.
League of Legends is the king of the hot trend in videogame play as a spectator sport, complete with sold-out stadiums and fans camping all night for tickets to matches.
“Playing League has earned us a bit of celebrity status,” Voorspoels said after stepping away from a sea of adorers. “I don’t think that is something any pro player dreamed of at the start.”
Voorspoels began playing League while at university in Belgium because it is free, and online bouts — in which teams of five players each battle to capture opponents’ bases — last about as long as a decent study break.
“Basically, it is a 30-to-40-minute slaughter of people trying to kill each other to get to the other base,” Voorspoels said.
“On the best level, it becomes a chess match — you want to outsmart your opponents,” he added.
The diversion from studying engineering became a priority. Voorspoels quit school to play League for a living.
His team’s sponsors include Monster Energy drinks and high-performance computer gear maker Razer.
Coca-Cola recently became a backer of the League championship series run by Riot Games, the company behind the eSport sensation.
“Some games are like movies, and some are like amusement parks,” Riot Games co-founder and chief Brandon Beck said in a statement. “League of Legends is like a sport.”
Last year, the US Department of State began letting League players train and compete in the US under the same type of work visas provided to athletes in soccer, baseball and other pro sports.
Voorspoels’ international team lives in a house on the Los Angeles coast, not far from the headquarters of Riot Games. A live-in coach keeps them battle-ready.
“The first years, it was rough, a risk, but as time has gone by it has exploded,” Voorspoels said of going pro.
League seasons culminate with top teams from North America, Europe and Asia fighting for the crown and a top prize of US$1 million.
Players and fans depict the South Korean teams the best at eSports.