League of Legends could very well be the undisputed king of eSports—the final match of League‘s 2015 World Championships attracted more viewers than select World Series games—but it’s also notoriously unwelcoming for newcomers. The MOBA deathmatch has a simple premise (destroy the enemy’s base before they destroy yours) but it’s not a simple game, and while it’s that depth that makes League an excellent spectator sport, it also makes League’s barrier to entry very, very high.
Thankfully, there’s help—as long as you’re willing to pay for it. As League has grown in popularity, an entire market has sprung up around it: professional League of Legends coaches who will, for a fee, teach you how to win.
Paying money for video game lessons feels just as strange as it sounds, and many League players are understandably skeptical of the process. Adam Isles, one of the top-rated coaches on League Coaching, a site that teaches players the ins and outs of League of Legends, gets it. “A lot of people will be like, ‘Oh, you got a coach for a video game. That’s very strange,'” he says.
“But then again, people get coaches for chess,” Isles continues. “People get coaches for tennis, so what’s the difference? People want to learn their favorite hobby or activity, and the best way to learn is to talk to someone who has more knowledge than you about it.”
The kind of one-on-one, private coaching that Isles and his peers offer is a new phenomenon, but there is precedent. Before the internet, magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly promised to reveal gaming’s deepest secrets for the price of a yearly subscription. In the 1980s and mid ‘90s, Nintendo’s Game Counselors were just a (long-distance and premium-priced) phone call away.
Still, professional video game lessons are a hard sell. Can a few bucks and a couple hours of your time really turn you into a League of Legends powerhouse?
The numbers seem to say so. Every League player has a rank, which changes based on how he or she plays. Winning games moves you up the ladder; losing knocks you back down. Joshua Hilton, who runs League Coaching, says that on average, players’ ranks rise by 135 League Points (enough to propel users into the next division) after receiving a lesson. Many claim that they saw immediate and measurable improvement in their game. More than one booked additional training sessions right away.
Andres Lilly, one of Isles’ clients, reports even more impressive results. From 2014 to 2015, Lilly bought 13 coaching sessions with Isles, and he claims that his game improved dramatically. In terms of skill, Lilly estimates that he started somewhere around the Silver level; by the end of 2015, he says he was Platinum, which is two tiers higher.
Lilly tried other League coaches, including one who charged upwards of $200 a session, but claims that Isles was the best, thanks largely to Isles’ comprehensive understanding of the game. League of Legends has over 120 Champions (that’s what League calls its player-controlled characters), each of whom has unique abilities, and winning means understanding how to both handle your character and counter your opponents’ avatar.
Says Lilly, “There were so many match-ups that I had wrongly considered instant losses, but Adam knew exactly how to play those to come out ahead.” That knowledge helped Lilly play better, and that translated into wins. Still, the gamer warns that students need to practice.”If [Isles] were to coach me now, I feel like I would improve way more, simply because I now put in the work, and back then I relied almost only on coaching,” he says. “It’s definitely effective, but only if you put in the effort on your own.”
Professional coaching has a dark side, too, however. Many League “coaching” companies are really just fronts for “boosters,” or skilled players who log into other players’ accounts and rack up a string of victories to increase the customer’s rank. Boosting is an easy way for skilled League players to make a quick buck, and it lets less talented players enjoy the perks of winning without doing any of the actual work.
Yu “XiaoWeiXiao” Xian, a popular professional player, once received $1,300 to boost another user’s account. For customers, the allure of boosting is a little more complex. Every year, League’s developer Riot Games offers special cosmetic enhancements to players who reach Gold rank or higher. According to informal polls and interviews, roughly half of the players who hire boosting services do so because they want those special items but don’t have the time or skill to earn them the traditional way.
Other players use boosting because they don’t trust Riot’s ranking system. When League of Legends kicks off a competitive season, every player needs to compete in qualifying matches, which determine his or her initial rank. Some people feel like the qualifiers don’t rate them correctly, and turn to boosters to “fix” their rankings. At higher tiers (Platinum, Diamond, Master, and Challenger), competitors lose League Points if they don’t play regularly. Occasionally, busy players use boosters to maintain their ranks when they don’t have time to log in themselves.
According to Riot, boosting is cheating. Boosting devalues the accomplishments of players who rank up the normal way and “endangers account security,” thereby undermining Riot’s finely-tuned matchmaking algorithm and making the overall game unbalanced. The penalties for boosting include two-week suspensions, removal of all special cosmetic items, and permanent bans from the game.
However, while Riot occasionally hands out boosting-related punishments (Xian was banned from competitive play for seven months after he admitted to boosting an account), many boosters operate with impunity. Isles says that it’s easy to spot a boosted account, but reporting it is a long and tedious process, and Riot rarely takes action. Den of Geek reached out to boosting services and clients who turned down comment for this story. Requests to Riot for comment on its policies went unanswered.
Joshua Hilton founded League Coaching to create a site that both customers and coaches could trust, and which was free from the stigma of boosting services. As such, League Coaching’s staff focuses on spreading knowledge, not providing players with shortcuts. “The thing that makes a good coach is being able to identify a player’s problems, and then give him tips on how to improve,” Isles says. A real coach doesn’t play for his clients; he just helps them play better.
Anyone can sign up as a coach on League Coaching, and the site is designed to police itself. Hilton will step in to resolve billing disputes, but he’s more interested in coding features, such as the site’s free Adopt-a-Newbie program or its upcoming League of Legends analyst competition, than vetting its users.
However, this does not mean that there’s no accountability. Prospective students can sort League Coaching’s instructors by user ratings, League of Legends ranks, and their “Coaching XP,” a metric that measures both skill and coaching ability. After a session takes place, students can leave reviews, which help future users know who’s worth hiring and who they should avoid.
At $25 an hour, Isles is one of the more expensive coaches on the site, but his experience justifies the price tag. Isles has been coaching League of Legends for about two years. Before that, he was an aspiring eSports athlete. Isles started by playing Blizzard’s real-time strategy game StarCraft, but as that community began to cool down, he started to look for something else. League of Legends, which was growing both in popularity and as a potential revenue stream, was exactly what Isles was looking for. Before long, he was a top-ranked amateur player.
While the best League of Legends players earn around $1 million annually, most aren’t that lucky. At the height of his eSports career, Isles was earning about $500 a month at what was more-or-less a full-time job. That wasn’t enough to live off, and Isles started looking for an extra source of income. He signed up for League Coaching, and hasn’t looked back since.
Coaching League of Legends is enough to pay Isles’ bills, but he still holds down a part-time job at a local restaurant. Despite Isles’ dedication to the game, he knows that when it’s time to show proof of income—when paying taxes, for example, or while applying for a new apartment—a gig waiting tables looks a lot more legitimate than a job as a video game coach.
Signing up for a training session with Isles couldn’t be easier. Registering a League Coaching account and linking it to a League of Legends “Summoner Profile” only takes a couple of minutes. From there, all you need to do is find Isles on the list of coaches (on League Coaching, he goes by 54bomb99) and select an open time on his schedule. League Coaching handles the rest. Isles asks students to fill out a brief questionnaire, which he uses to put together a custom lesson plan. Payment is due via PayPal six hours before the lesson begins.
Naturally, I had to see what League of Legends training was all about.
I’m a beginner, but Isles took me through training as if I were slightly more advanced. To start, Isles asked me if there were any Champions (that’s what League of Legends calls its player-controlled characters) I was particularly interested in learning.
Based on my experience with other games, we settled on Lux, a light-wielding mage. A standard League of Legends match pits two teams of five against each other, meaning that there are over 46 quadrillion possible match-ups. That’s more than anyone can conceivably cover in an hour, and Isle’s lesson stuck mostly to the basics: what Lux’s abilities do, the best ways to use them, her strengths, her weaknesses, how she stacks up against other Champions, and that sort of thing.
League of Legends characters earn gold as the game progresses, which can be used to buy ability-boosting items, and Isles went on to describe some of Lux’s best options. Along the way, he also dropped some general advice.
For example, League characters can hold up to six items at a time, and many players put together builds designed to pay off later. However, most League sessions only last for about half an hour, meaning that most games are decided on three to four items, not a full six. Instead of focusing on an endgame that may never come, Isles recommends buying items that are most applicable to the current situation. After all, if you need to clear inventory space, you can always sell your items back to the vendor.
Next, the coach went into an in-depth explanation of “Warding,” or the process of putting markers around the map to improve your team’s visibility. This also served as a brief introduction to Summoner’s Rift, League of Legend‘s main map. Summoner’s Rift consists of three pathways called “lanes” (top, middle, and bottom), which are separated by a wilderness known as the jungle. Each lane requires a different strategy to control. Lux thrives in the middle lane, which provides the fastest route between the game’s two bases, and Isles spent a lot of time pointing out parts of the map where mid-laners often run into trouble.
A brief discussion of Runes (which I hadn’t unlocked yet) closed out the first half of the session—after an hour, we still hadn’t played the game. Isles always splits his lessons into two parts: first, he covers the client’s particular issue in a lecture-like format, and then he asks his students to put their new knowledge into practice. “Most of the time, what a coach does is help someone know what to execute. It’s up to the person to be able to do it,” Isles explains.
For the second half of the lesson, I fired up League of Legends and dove into a match, while Isles watched via Twitch. As I played, Isles discussed general strategy, and offered advice on how to handle situations that came up. After the match ended, Isles launched a private game and demonstrated a few moves that I was having trouble with. He assigned me some homework, sent over the notes he took during our session, and said goodbye.
As a new player, the entire process was exhausting. There’s a lot going on in a game of League of Legends, and playing a game while talking on Skype and taking notes proved too much. Even against computer-controlled opponents, my team was quickly overwhelmed, and I’m pretty sure that it was my fault. Isles was patient and friendly, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would’ve gotten more out of the experience if I’d had a little more practice beforehand.
And yet, when I played League later that afternoon, I had my best game ever. I’ve only played a handful of times since then, but I haven’t lost any of them. I’ve had more fun watching League games too. I’ve started thinking about the game differently, and I’m confident that, with time, I can improve—as long as I’m willing to put in the work.
Isles didn’t teach me any top-secret strategies or reveal any shortcuts, and everything he covered was fairly elementary. Sometimes, that’s all you need. When asked why people might want to coach a video game—besides the money, of course—Joshua Hilton said that the best way to learn anything is to teach it. When I asked Isles what he’d learned from coaching League of Legends, it all came back to the basics.
“I don’t always realize that some of the things that I feel like are very basic are not,” Isles says. “A lot of the times when I’m playing and I’m on a loss streak, I’ll have a coaching session. I’ll have to re-do the basics for someone, and I realize that was my own problem all along.” A League of Legends coaching session won’t make you an eSports superstar—that’s not the point—but all things considered, it’s not a bad place to start.
Christopher Gates is a freelance contributor.
A version of this article appears in our print edition. You can read the entire magazine right here…