GameCentral speaks with esports host Eefje ‘Sjokz’ Depoortere on the everlasting appeal of League Of Legends and grappling with fame.
A decade after release, League Of Legends is still the biggest esport on the planet. The game has 8 million peak concurrent viewers logging in every day, according to September statistics from developer Riot Games, and was deemed the most viewed title on Twitch in the first half of 2019 – surpassing even Fortnite.
Someone who has seen this rise first-hand is Sjokz. After gaining notoriety on YouTube show Whose League Is It Anyway?, she was hired as the host of the European League Of Legends Championship Series in 2013. Today, she’s one of the most recognisable faces in the League Of Legends scene and won Best Esports Host at last year’s The Game Awards.
Born in Belgium, the nickname ‘Sjokz’ derives from her favourite weapon, the shock rifle, when she played Unreal Tournament competitively. Despite growing up playing games, and getting involved as a professional player, her journey into esports broadcasting was largely a happy accident.
‘I started gaming when I was pretty young, like 12 or 13-years-old, so it was something I always interested in,’ Sjokz tells GameCentral. ‘In that sense I’m really happy I got to make it my job, but it wasn’t that straight-forward.
‘As you can imagine 20 years ago, my parents and my friends were like, “What are you doing? Why are you playing games all the time?” But I still pursued it after university and I just kind of rolled into it. Esports completely exploded and grew very, very fast, and I was lucky enough to be a part of it.’
Now aged 32, Sjokz names her hosting career highlight as the 2013 League Of Legends World Championship at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles – a watershed moment where viewers from the previous year ballooned from 8.2 million to 32 million on Twitch. For Sjokz, she was faced with 12,000 screaming fans in the arena. ‘That was definitely a moment of holy sh*t,’ she says.
Achieving fame in the League Of Legends scene, however, might be seen as a double-edged sword. The game has a long-standing reputation for toxicity among its community, something Riot has tried to control with honour systems to help welcome beginner players. Having been ingrained in the community from the beginning, however, Sjokz has acclimatised to fame alongside its growth as an esport.
‘It’s pretty crazy sometimes to think about it. I was just in Japan and people were asking for autographs and I said, “What is this life? What is going on?” But I think for me I adjusted to it follower per follower,’ Sjokz says.
‘When I started out there were 200 people following and 2,000 people watching, and the next year it was triple that, quadruple that, so I got to adjust to it step by step. I think it might be more difficult for people who jump into it now and they’re immediately exposed to millions of people. It’s gone step by step [for me] but that doesn’t make it less intense sometimes.’
The League Of Legends World Championships 2019 takes place on 10 November in Paris; the next host city of the Olympics after Tokyo 2020. There’s been speculation over whether esports could be introduced as an Olympic sport by 2024, although issues like video game violence, broadcast licensing, and the lack of an international governing body are all major hurdles. President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, previously cast doubt on its chances, branding ‘killer games’ as ‘contradictory to Olympic values’.
There’s still promising signs though. Esports was featured in the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia for the first time, while Tokyo is hosting special tournaments for Street Fighter V and Rocket League ahead of the 2020 Olympics in July. Recognition from the Olympics is perceived as a goal to legitimising esports as a ‘sport’ to the masses, although Sjokz doesn’t believe the industry necessarily needs their badge of approval.
‘From my personal standpoint, I couldn’t care less if esports was in the dictionary next to “sports”,’ Sjokz says. ‘To me it doesn’t matter because esports is awesome the way it is and it is a high level of competition.
‘I get that because it’s so relatively new, it’s something that’s hard for people to wrap their heads around and understand. So I don’t mind the conversation being brought up because that’s also what gets more mainstream attention.
‘But I think if you look at esports independently, it is super successful, lots of sponsorships, fantastic tournaments, super passionate fandom. It’s going well regardless of it being considered a “sport” by, I would say, more older people perhaps. I think we’re doing fine regardless.’
Asked if she’d like to host Olympic coverage if esports was included, Sjokz said: ‘I do think it’s important for the political side of things, visas for athletes and financials and all that. I would love to be a part of it, anything to show people how cool this is on a big scale.’
While there’s an expectation League Of Legends will eventually be superseded as the top esport, Riot have started laying the groundwork to expand the game’s legacy. The developer recently announced a batch of new spin-offs, including a fighting game, digital card game, and an animated series all set within the same universe.
Asked about why she thinks League has lasted for so long, Sjokz puts it down to the core gameplay and the escalating competition from all over the world.
‘When we look back at the beginning I think it’s just a really fun game and it was free to play, so it’s very accessible for everyone. Secondly, I think Riot from the start invested a lot into making esports grow and attracted a lot of people who used to work on traditional sports shows like the Olympics. From very early, [they put] a lot of weight into the esports scene because obviously it brings a lot of attention back to the game.’
‘It has just evolved over the years and never really gotten stale or boring and the championships have only gotten more interesting, especially in the last couple of years’, she adds. ‘After Korean domination for years, the West has risen up also, so I think a lot of those factors are helping.’
During the timespan she’s been presenting, the casting profession has become a viable career path many fans aspire towards – but what advice would Sjokz give to newcomers?
‘In general, just put yourself out there,’ she adds. ‘There’s so many ways now. I think esports is really unique and in general things are very intertwined with social media that you can get your face and your brand out there very easily. So I would recommend people just do that.
‘Go interact with the community. There’s so many esports and esports show being developed all the time that you can definitely get a chance. Just put yourself out there.’
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