In 2017, Adam Mackasek helped summon a dragon in Beijing. During the annual League of Legends World Championships at the 80,000-seat Beijing National Stadium — better known as the Bird’s Nest — Mackasek and the rest of Riot Games’ e-sports events team created an augmented reality spectacle when a virtual dragon modeled after an in-game monster flew around the stadium. Mackasek wasn’t able to enjoy the moment for long: just a few minutes after the event ended, his boss came up to him and asked “‘How are you going to do that bigger next year?”
“It was a tongue-in-cheek question, but we got together soon after that ceremony and we talked really seriously about that,” Mackasek says. “And what we came up with was, we don’t want to think about it that way. We don’t want to think of it just being bigger. At some point that’s going to give you diminishing returns. We’re going to think of what is the best show that we can create for this year.”
Last year, the team followed the dragon with an AR K-pop group that became a viral hit. This past weekend in Paris, they did something similar with a lengthy, three-song ceremony that included a virtual hip-hop group. The difference was technology. This time the performance was powered by holograms that helped further blur the line between the real world and the virtual realm of League of Legends. “Everyone always asks, ever since Beijing in 2017, ‘Oh, what augmented reality is Riot going to do this year?’” Mackasek says. “And we wanted to do something that’s even more of a surprise.”
The Paris event was powered by a technology called 3D Holonet, created by a company called Kaleida. Essentially, it’s high-tech metal gauze, which can be stretched out in a translucent screen where you can project holograms and other 3D effects. (It’s the same technology that allowed deceased artists like Michael Jackson and Tupac to posthumously “perform” at events.) “The Holonet allows us to do different types of effects that weren’t necessarily possible with augmented reality,” explains Mackasek.
In between the first two songs, for instance, a giant holographic bubble appeared, masking the performers going on and offstage. And when the hip-hop group True Damage performed, the real-world performers were accompanied by their in-game counterparts. (Like K/DA before it, True Damage is a group that includes five real-world performers, who each represent an in-game character that has all been redesigned with a new streetwear-inspired look.) Using some clever choreography and technical wizardry, it was sometimes hard to tell which was real, as both the human and holographic performers warped across the stage in impossible ways. (This was achieved by filming the performers on a green screen earlier in the year, and then projecting that onto the Holonet.)
Planning for an event of this scale takes a long time. Mackasek says that Riot’s e-sports events team works on the Worlds opening ceremony all year round. In the beginning, they don’t have much to go on. There’s no new musical anthem yet, nor new characters to put into the show. But they have to start designing the event before those hard details are in place.
“What we start with is two things in parallel,” Mackasek explains. “We think about what are the known factors we’re dealing with. Are we outdoors? In daylight or darkness? Things like that. And that informs the tech decisions that we have to make, and sets our constraints in that way. Similarly, we don’t usually have the music in January. Same with art. So what we can do is we talk about the emotional journey that we want our audience to go through. What do we want a viewer to feel throughout the show? What do we want them to feel at the end? We map that out. That’s how we start our creative process.” In this case, the main emotion they wanted to elicit was excitement. “We want people to just be foaming at the mouth, ready to watch these games.”
This process also involves wrangling together multiple teams. There are the actual performers and choreographers designing the performance, the art teams creating new versions of League characters both for the ceremony and in-game, and Riot’s music group putting together the songs. There are also outside elements. Riot partnered with famed lighting designer LeRoy Bennett, who has worked with everyone from Paul McCartney to Beyoncé. Even Louis Vuitton helped out. The fashion house designed a case to house the Worlds championship trophy, and it featured five LCD panels that reflected what was happening during the opening ceremonies. It was featured prominently in the center of the stage for much of the event.
There’s also a narrative element to the event, which ties it together to the 2018 opening ceremony. In the game’s fiction, Akali — one of League’s most popular heroes — left her K-pop group K/DA to find new collaborators, which led to her forming the hip-hop collective True Damage. “What you’re seeing is the continuation of this universe that we’re building around music,” says Toa Dunn, head of Riot’s music group. It’s one that fans are clearly interested in; the music video for K/DA’s song “Pop/Stars” has more than 280 million views on YouTube to date, while True Damage’s “Giants” was viewed more than 5 million times in its first day.
For many fans, the Worlds opening ceremony is akin to the Super Bowl half-time show. Even if they don’t necessarily care about the competition — for those interested, Chinese club FunPlus Phoenix dominated Europe’s G2 to take home the Summoner’s Cup this year — they’ll still tune in to watch the spectacle. In fact, the Super Bowl is one of the biggest inspirations for Riot. Mackasek says that whenever there is a big event like the Super Bowl or an awards show, Riot’s events team will hold a viewing party where they analyze every detail in hopes of finding new ideas. Throughout the year, they attend plenty of concerts and are constantly sharing clips with each other. “It’s not just us eating popcorn and hanging out,” Mackasek says. “It’s work. We sit down and we break it down. We talk about it and think about it all year round.”
In fact, discussions for the event generally stretch out to longer than a year. When I spoke to Mackasek ahead of the Paris ceremony, his attention was already in part on Shanghai, which will host the 2020 edition of Worlds. Details like music and art are still in flux, but that hasn’t slowed down the planning. “We’re already talking about China next year,” he says.