In Bloom: League of Legends Arrives in Japan

By Cameron Gilbert, Web Content Developer for Evil Geniuses

Nearly two years after its premature unveiling, the League of Legends Japanese server is finally approaching launch. As the country has been passed over by nearly every major esports developer since the original StarCraft, Riot’s plans to attempt to break into a market considered not impenetrable were as exciting as they were quixotic. Known both for producing the greatest fighting game players in the world from Daigo Umehara to Ogawazato, and for being a near dead zone for PC competition, the announcement was met with quiet apprehension.

That feeling grew from apprehension to confusion, to frustration, and finally to anger over the past year and a half. After the initial announcement by then-president of Riot Japan, former Square Enix executive Ichirou Otobe, the company had fallen completely silent. No news, no progress, and no communication. Other servers had gone from announcement to live service in mere months, while Japan seemed no closer to launch than it did a year ago. Meanwhile, the small and dedicated group of Japanese LoL players on the NA and various Asian servers wasn’t holding their breath. They were moving forward, Riot or no Riot.

Going it Alone

Though Japan has never managed to build up a sizable esports playerbase on PC, it’s always had a core group of players find their way to the top of the leaderboard and LoL was no exception. They even sent a team to the 2013 World Cyber Games, where that team – Rampage – took out Brazil’s KaBuM! eSports. In 2014, SANKO Corporation and e-Sports Square established the League of Legends Japan League, which brought together Japan’s four best LoL teams to compete in a long-running league format. And something started to happen: even without a server to call their own, this event started to grow into something real. The esports explosion that’s changed the way we interact with games here in the West was arriving in Japan.

For the 2015 LJL, teams began raising the bar one right after another. One team established a gaming house. Another countered by becoming the first Japanese team in history to go full time. And Riot did not overlook this energy. They offered something unimaginable for a country without its own server: recognition as an official Wild Card region. The winner of Season 1 competed at a special international tournament for the chance to compete at the Mid Season Invitational. Japan buzzed with excitement, and the mainstream Japanese media started to take notice. And even though their representative, DetonatioN FocusMe, put in a relatively poor performance they still looked like they belonged there.

In Season 2, yet another team went full time and Korean players were brought in to bolster several teams’ rosters. Excitement continued to build. Players appeared on popular Japanese talk shows and adorned gaming peripheral boxes. LJL Season 2 showed a level of play that left Season 1 far behind, and when the LJL Grand Champion returned to the world stage for the second Wild Card tournament, people sat up and took notice. They took games off Australia’s Chiefs and the eventual winners the Bangkok Titans, and looked consistently strong all event. In many fans’ eyes, Japan’s surprise performance was a bigger story than that of the winner.

Disaster Amid Glory

But while all of that had been going on – at the height of this new esports excitement – tragedy struck. On August 25, Riot switched the North American server location from the West Coast to Chicago. This was done in order to make ping more equal across the region, but it had an unfortunate side effect: making ping from Japan to NA go from “uncomfortable” to “unplayable.” The majority of the existing LoL community in Japan played on the North American server due to ease of access and familiarity with English. The professionals were able to receive Korean accounts directly from Riot, but everyone else was left with a completely unplayable game. And Riot Japan still wouldn’t say a word.

“This is the end for us,” the fanbase bemoaned, “If we don’t get news at Tokyo Game Show, I’m quitting.” This was the sentiment as September rolled around. Tokyo Game Show was the last hope for Japanese LoL. It’s impossible for a pro scene to exist without a casual fanbase to support it, and every day without news saw the exodus of more and more fans. All of the money invested into growing the professional scene, all of the growth we’d seen: it was all going to be for nothing. The last time there had been any news was at the 2014 Tokyo Game Show, and there were LoL events scheduled at various sponsor booths throughout the week. It was now or never.

Tokyo Game Show rolled around on September 17th. No news. The next day came and went. Nothing. Nothing again on the 20th. But on the final day, during the last event, something happened. There was an awkward pause, and a man walked up to the stage. He handed the Japanese broadcasters a small envelope with a Riot logo on it. Confusion all over his face, the caster opened it and read the short message inside: a closed monitored alpha of the Japanese server will take place in November for those who sign up on the official Facebook page. No fanfare, no countdown, and not even a representative from Riot to announce it formally, but no one cared. It was here.

A Dream of Spring

The announcement came with the opening of the official Japanese LoL Facebook page. Soon after, a Behind the Scenes video was released that unveiled several of the Japanese champion voices and their actors. Events are being held as a “countdown” to the server launch in Akihabara. And the newly appointed Director of Riot Japan finally, at long last, gave the community an answer: “The server will launch after the start of the 2016 LJL, before the cherry blossoms bloom.” The server will be here by Spring. At long last, the community will finally have its day.

League of Legends in Japan is a story of perseverance and love from a dedicated community. In spite of having a full deck stacked against them, they kept going and grew the community to the point of international relevance. At the International Wild Card All-Star event last week, the Japanese mid laner Ceros was universally recognized as one of the best players at the tournament. And now, almost two years later than expected, Japan finally has a chance to join the rest of the world in having a server to call their own. With a star-studded voice cast bringing the Japanese translation alive, and a thriving esports scene to back it up, it’s going to be thrilling to watch Japan take its next steps forward. If they could get this far without any help, who knows how far they can go with a little help from their friends.