Two teams of amateur players will square off against the pros starting this week thanks to a first-of-its-kind challenger series launched by Riot Games and Coke Zero.

Their gateway to the Riot Games’ League of Legends League Championship Series (LCS) -- the pinnacle of competitive play -- came courtesy of the new Challenger Series. A total of 16 teams from Europe and the United States competed weekly between January and April, moving through a points-based ladder system. All matches were broadcast live with analysis and commentary on, generating hundreds of thousands of views each week.

The top six teams from the Challenger Series squared off with the bottom six teams in the LCS. Two of the Challenger Series squads -- LMQ and CompLexity Black -- played their way into in the professional ranks just before the start of Riot Games League of Legends All-Star weekend in Paris. Now, they’ll compete on a bigger stage for higher stakes. This film, produced by Coke Zero, captures the story of the first Challenger Series season:

"The Challenger Series gives amateur players a shot at going pro through a first-of-its-kind structured league,” said Matt Wolf, Coke's global head of gaming. “We're delighted that at the end of this first season, two teams achieved their ambition of becoming pro by playing their way into the LCS professional league. This is a potentially life-altering moment for these players, as they turn their passion into their professional career and inspire the millions of players and fans who follow them.”

Wolf says there’s more to celebrate than the two newly minted pro teams, however. “We also applaud the other players who came so close,” he added.

Riot Games

Matt Wolf, Coke's head of global gaming

The next cycle of the Challenger Series kicked off May 20 in Europe and begin today in the U.S.

"When we first set up the Challenger Series in partnership with Coke Zero, our goal was to create a clear path for aspiring pros," said Dustin Beck, vice president of esports, Riot Games. "It's been an awesome journey to see the top challenger teams rise up to take their place among the pros, and we're excited to kick off our summer series with new Challenger teams hoping for their own rise to glory."

The fast-growing culture of competitive PC and console gaming known as esports (electronic sports) currently boasts more than 200 million active players globally. Over the last five years, esports has grown from a pastime shared by a passionate community into a cultural phenomenon. League of Legends – a multiplayer online battle arena game which challenges teams to take control of an enemy’s end of the battlefield in an intense, highly strategic contest – is the world’s most-played PC game with more than 67 million monthly players.

Riot Games

Fans take pictures inside a Coke Zero photo booth during All-Star Weekend in Paris.

Spectators get in on the action, too. Fans pack stadiums to watch esports tournaments presented with elaborate staging, floor-to-ceiling LCD screens and live color commentary. More than 32 million viewers tuned in online to stream the 2013 LCS World Finals from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where thousands of fans watched teams compete in an electric atmosphere rivaling any pro sporting event.

In 2013, the U.S. State Department recognized League of Legends as a professional sport. Players around the world -- including LMQ from China -- can train and compete stateside under specific work visas provided for professional athletes.

Wolf, a game industry veteran, said the esports community has embraced the Coke Zero/Riot Games partnership. “Fans genuinely appreciate the fact that a brand as big and powerful as Coke Zero is supporting them; it helps propel their sport into the mainstream,” he said. “They’re excited that their favorite sport has our attention and that we’re here to add value to the experience.”

Coke Zero will continue to engage fans and players alike in the months to come, he added, through social media, experiential programs as demonstrated during All-Star Weekend in Paris and “other opportunities and platforms that have, to this point, not been available.”

Follow the action on Twitter at @CokeEsports.