This esports giant draws in more viewers than the Super Bowl, and it's expected to get even bigger

Key Points
  • Over 10,000 "League of Legends" fans descended upon St. Louis, Missouri this weekend.
  • More than 600,000 people watched the event online.
  • The massive audience for esports events like this is expected to grow, drawing in massive sponsorships from companies like Nike.
Visitors cheer for international teams during the tournament of the computer game 'League of Legends' on May 8, 2014 in Paris.
Lionel Bonaventure | AFP | Getty Images

Over 10,000 "League of Legends" fans descended upon St. Louis, Missouri this weekend for one of the biggest annual esports events in North America: The North American League of Legends Championship Series Spring Split Finals.

Though still a far cry from the stadium attendance numbers hit by many traditional sports leagues, online viewership for the NALCS finals brought in a total of 600,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch and YouTube combined during the final game, which saw esports team Team Liquid take home the title after over four hours of competitive play.

Go back to November, and viewership numbers from the "League of Legends" World Championship finals — held in South Korea and also hosted by the game's publisher, Riot Games — showed that almost 100 million unique viewers tuned in to the event online. For comparison, last year's Super Bowl had just over 98 million viewers, the smallest viewership number for the event since 2008. This was after viewership for 2017's Super Bowl LI had dipped to 103 million from just over 111 million the year prior.

Tickets for that "League of Legends" world final sold out in less than four hours upon their release, prompting Riot to release an additional 3,000 tickets on top of an initial batch of 23,000. The world finals in 2017, held in Beijing's Olympic "Bird's Nest" stadium, sold out to a crowd of 40,000, the total number of seats made available for the game that day.

While esports have long been popular in many Asian countries, the space has grown worldwide over the past few years, including in North America. "League of Legends" is just one game driving the esports industry, which will top $1 billion in revenue this year, according to research from Newzoo.

Over a third of that revenue will be generated out of the North American market as many publishers and esports companies re-organize and re-invent their league operations, Newzoo projects.

Beginning in 2018, Riot implemented a franchise-based structure for their North American league, led by the company's head of esports in North America Chris Hopper, with a buy-in fee of $10 million.

"I think a lot of last year was spent figuring out how franchising would work, what decisions required consultation with what groups [and how] would things like revenue sharing work when put into practice," Hopper told CNBC in an email. "Now that we have had a full season under our belt, and have solved a lot of those small pain points, we have a greater ability to look to the future."

Over a third of that $1 billion industry revenue stream will come from sponsorship deals, which have also been a big driver for Riot's "League of Legends" franchise. The publisher landed Mastercard as a global sponsor last September, and Riot's Chinese "League of Legends" league signed a partnership deal with Nike in February.

"There is certainly a lot of interest around nearly every esports property right now, and we are doing a lot of work to understand which opportunities make the most sense for us and also our fans," wrote Hopper. "We want to make sure that any brand partnership is one that we are not only proud to bring to our audience, but is one that can provide value directly to those fans themselves."

Hopper emphasizes, however, that the league is looking beyond sponsorship and partnership deals to expand the "League of Legends" ecosystem. The esports chief revealed that not only is Riot near to closing a deal with another title sponsor for the summer North American finals, but that "a variety of digital opportunities" were coming down the line to enhance the viewing and fan engagement experience.

And at a time where more companies, teams and colleges are establishing a smoother "path to pro" for current amateurs, Hopper mentioned that the league is also seeking to invest more in potential esports athletes.

"We're thinking through ways to build out our competitive pipeline beyond just the [League Championship Series]," he said. "As a kid growing up, I had countless leagues and clubs to play soccer or basketball or baseball, and we think that our work in building out the collegiate competitions and scholarship offers, as well as our partnership with PlayVS to make League of Legends an official high school varsity sport, will pay great dividends in the future."

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