After a relentless victory against Korean team Gen.G, the five members of Europe’s G2 Esports stood by a pool of sparkling clear water to bow down and celebrate their victory. Two members then took their star teammate, Rasmus “Caps” Borregaard Winther, and held him above the water, as if to throw him overboard. Good thing they didn’t – despite the reality of water in the eyes of viewers, it was just pixels.
Directory League of Legends The World Championship is currently underway in Shanghai, and like most major events, it had to be redesigned in order to be possible in our new reality dominated by the pandemic. Typically, the early stages of the tournament are a sort of traveling road show, with different games taking place in different cities. In 2020, things had to change.
With travel restrictions in place and fans no longer able to attend matches, the League developer Riot tried something different. They built a set consisting of massive LED screens in a technological setup similar to what Disney used to create. The Mandaloriansci-fi landscapes. It was used for a surprising effect. The matches appear to have taken place in a cloudy, cyberpunk Shanghai skyline or in the middle of a flooded landscape. What could have been a lackluster competition in the absence of fans has perhaps turned into the most impressive Worlds in recent memory.
“There are a number of days where we come on set and say ‘Wait, I don’t think this has ever been done before.’ You get used to it after a while, ”says Michael Figge, Creative Director at Possible Productions, who partnered with Riot on the event.
The achievement is all the more impressive considering the compressed schedule. Typically, the producers of Riot and Possible spend well over a year planning the Worlds, but that just wasn’t possible this year. It wasn’t until May that the decision was made to use this technology in a studio without fans.
Setup is a powerhouse, and Riot says LED screens – there are over 900 LED tiles in total – display visuals at 32K resolution and 60 fps. These visuals were made using a modified version of the Unreal Engine, and in total the team is made up of 40 artists and technicians. Nick Troop, executive producer of the 2020 Worlds at Riot, describes it as “a creative tool that indeed gives us infinite power to manifest whatever our collective imaginations put forth. And he says one of the most important elements of the whole installation is the way things are filmed, fed by four specialized cross-reality cameras.
“Rather than having a single camera perspective projected, we actually have two running simultaneously, effectively all the time,” he explains. This allows the broadcast team to work in a more traditional way; they can switch between the two simulated perspectives at will, using four cameras to film the action on set. “It means the broadcast team can do what they think looks like a ‘normal TV show,’ but in this beautiful set of organized environments,” Troop says.
For viewers watching on Twitch or YouTube, the LED soundstage transforms into a sprawling fantasy world, with AR technology being used to ensure that images extend beyond screens. You still see players sitting at a desk and playing, but their environment is quite elaborate. At a glance at the current state of League of Legends, where four elemental dragons are crucially important in a game, each of the Worlds’ four preliminary rounds has been designed with a different element.
Initially, there were a lot of crumbling rocks and mountains to represent the earth dragon; this was followed by the cloudy skyline of Shanghai for the air dragons; later the whole thing seemed to be inundated with water that stretched out forever. This weekend, during the two semi-final matches, things will go to fire.
Although this technology has been used before, especially on The Mandalorian, this is the first time that it has been done live. “Almost all [cross-reality] the expression that was aired at this point has not been live, ”says Figge of Possible, whose company has worked on everything from Super Bowl halftime shows to Justin Bieber concerts. “It was pre-shot, like a lot of AR stuff for awards in North America. It’s risky to live. We do up to 10 hours a day of live television on this stage. There is no second chance.
One of the challenges was balancing the desire to make things cool without interfering with players. Everyone on stage – teams, coaches and support staff – has a somewhat different visual experience than spectators at home, as the RA elements only appear to spectators at home. This turned into a benefit for the broadcast team.
“When we do these games, it’s really important for the competitive integrity of the sport that the players can’t see the game on the Jumbotron or something like that. It’s a really tough design problem, ”says Figge. “With this stage, anything above a certain height level on the stage is completely virtual. It is augmented reality. So we have the game in the background and the players can’t see it. “
That said, while gamers didn’t get the full viewer experience, it was still important that being on stage felt special. It’s the World Championship, after all, something that teams around the world have been fighting for all year. Without the roar of a crowd to exaggerate the players, the spectacle of a fantastic and vibrant backdrop is a solid second option. Those on stage cannot see the AR elements, but they can see the graphics on the screens around them. “It helps to anchor the player,” says Troop. “They can still get an idea of the [game] world is reacting, in a way that I think helps with their experience of worlds. There is a certain state of mind that comes from being on stage, and we wanted to preserve it.
Most years, the technical showcase of the Worlds is reserved for the opening ceremonies of the finals. In the past, this included an AR K-pop concert and a holographic hip-hop performance. It’s still unclear what this year’s big show will look like (although it will likely involve K-pop again), but you could argue that the early rounds have already stolen the show thanks to this new technology. Each tower even opened with its own mini ceremony, featuring choreographed dances taking place in the fantasy realm; artists jumped across crumbling stone bridges and twirled with magic spells. Despite the circumstances, Riot turned what could have been a low-key edition of Worlds into a surprisingly memorable edition.
“It has been more educational than frustrating,” Troop says of the experience so far.