Crimson lights flashed and announcers yelled in shock as a star athlete pulled off a miraculous feat: leading his team to an upset victory in the semifinals of a world championship tournament.
The setting was Shanghai, and the championship was for League of Legends, a video game. The enraptured crowd of thousands treated the frantic mouse-clicking with the same gravitas given to a traditional sport.
At the center of it all was Hu Shuo-Chieh, a decorated Taiwanese superstar who soon followed up his standout moment (his team would fall short in the finals) with an even more surprising move. In November, Mr. Hu, known in gaming as SwordArt, announced that he was leaving his base in China, the hub of global e-sports, for a backwater in the world of competitive League of Legends: the United States.
America is accustomed to dominance in global sports, but in League of Legends, the highest-profile video game played by professionals, U.S. teams lag far behind their counterparts in Asia, where e-sports are a way of life. In countries like China and South Korea, gamers start competing as children, and professionals train up to 18 hours a day.
To keep up, U.S. teams have dangled increasingly large salaries in front of these superstars, akin to Major League Soccer’s luring famous European footballers stateside. Aided by an influx of cash and big-name sponsors, these teams have recruited at least 40 players from Asia since 2016, according to a New York Times analysis, and a similar number from Europe.
Many professional gamers are simply looking for a big paycheck, fueling the perception that the United States serves as a retirement community for players who are past their prime. Others are drawn to a comfortable lifestyle in places like Los Angeles. And some claim to be the player who will finally put America on the map by winning the first world championship for the continent.
“They can be the hero for an entire region,” said Chris Greeley, the commissioner of League of Legends’ North American region, called the League Championship Series. “They can be onstage and lift that trophy and deliver that to a region that’s superhungry for it.”
Mr. Hu, who signed a record-breaking two-year, $6 million contract with TSM, a U.S. team, said a sense of adventure had drawn him to the United States.
“I’m not a person who wants to feel very comfortable every day — I want to challenge myself,” Mr. Hu, 24, said in an interview.
Just like traditional sports, professional leagues devoted to video games like League of Legends, Overwatch and Call of Duty feature teams vying for coveted championship trophies, rabid fans shelling out money for jerseys and multimillionaire players searching for glory.
Competitions are strategic, five-on-five cage matches, in which players match wits and mouse-clicking speeds as they guide their avatars through a colorful jungle, slaying fantastical monsters and rushing to destroy the opponent’s base. International competitions began in 2011 and are operated by Riot Games, which is owned by the Chinese internet giant Tencent.
Interest in e-sports leagues surged among U.S. audiences in recent years. In 2015, 38.2 million people in North America watched at least one e-sports event, according to Newzoo, a gaming analytics firm. By 2020, that number had jumped to 57.2 million.
League of Legends, a team-based title released by Riot in 2009, dwarfs its competitors in viewership. Nearly 46 million people watched at least part of the world championship event in October.
Despite League of Legends’ growth in the United States, North American teams are still routinely outclassed by their competitors in Asia, where ubiquitous internet cafes in many countries make playing computer games cheap and easy. Nine of the 10 annual world championships have been won by a Chinese, South Korean or Taiwanese team.
“When I was really young, I would look up to the top pro players — I wanted to be the same as these guys,” said Jo Yong-in, 26, a South Korean-born League of Legends player known as CoreJJ.
When he was growing up on the island of Hwado, “there was nothing else to do except play games,” said Mr. Jo, who moved to Los Angeles in 2019 and now competes in the United States for Team Liquid.
Mr. Hu, considered one of the most charismatic, vocal leaders in a sport where communication is paramount, said maintaining the high standards he set for himself and his teammates would be key in the United States. With Suning, his Chinese team, he often practiced from noon to 5 a.m.
“I’m not a person to want to hide something,” he said. “Sometimes, a very kind team can’t improve. You need to fight, talk a lot, and then your team can improve.”
But until a U.S. team earns worldwide acclaim, questions will persist about whether importing players can lead to success. Riot has tried to foster homegrown talent by expanding American developmental leagues and tightening rules governing how many players per team can be from other countries. Even so, stars from Asia — and from European countries like Denmark and Spain — still abound in the League Championship Series, as they have since competition began in 2013.
“There have been other players of comparable stature who have come to America with similar intentions who have amounted to nothing,” said Jacob Wolf, a former ESPN reporter who writes for DoT Esports. Some foreign stars struggle to assimilate, encounter insurmountable language barriers or leave before their contracts are up because of homesickness, he said.
Still, athletes from other countries enjoy perks in the United States, players said. They can live in sunny, multicultural Los Angeles and practice in state-of-the-art facilities like TSM’s. That sleek, $13 million, 25,000-square-foot training center offers access to the same chefs and physical therapists as the city’s two National Basketball Association teams.
And salaries are growing in North America. The average for a player in a team’s starting five has climbed to $460,000 from $300,000 since 2018, Mr. Greeley said. The highest-paid players in the United States, Mr. Wolf said, might make up to $500,000 more than their elite counterparts in a country like South Korea.
Many of the League Championship Series’ 10 teams are backed by billionaires who also own traditional U.S. sports teams. But the sport has not yet become a cash cow. To get in on League of Legends, teams had to pay Riot $10 million to $13 million.
Riot declined to say how much it made from League of Legends, and analysts do not think it is profiting directly from e-sports. But SuperData, a research company, estimated that the game itself brought in more than $1.8 billion in revenue last year.
Just a few blocks from Riot’s headquarters in western Los Angeles — where matches are normally played — is Sawtelle Boulevard, where e-sports stars frequent ramen restaurants and boba shops. Korean transplants often spend their weekends in Koreatown, where they can find food that reminds them of home, said Genie Doi, an e-sports immigration lawyer.
The work-life balance in the United States is another draw for players who are weary of putting in 18-hour practice days and even developing wrist injuries, said Kang Jun-hyeok, a South Korean-born League of Legends player who is now Team Liquid’s coach. Though South Korea and China have made strides in recent years, he said, the culture is that of “working hard, grinding until you collapse,” Mr. Kang, 31, said.
North American teams pitch these benefits to prospective players as they engage in a delicate courtship to woo the best free agents before other teams do. Once a player decides to sign a contract, Ms. Doi helps the team apply for a visa, which she said was usually granted despite the unusual profession.
She said the arrival of so many international stars aligned perfectly with the continent’s history of immigration.
“It’s just really fitting that North American e-sports is this melting pot of global cultures,” Ms. Doi said. “I think that’s what’s eventually going to make North America a strong contender.”