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How it's made: Bringing the LCS back online

Behind the scenes at the League of Legends Championships Series, the scramble to produce an online-only broadcast was intense but rewarding. Photo by Oshin Tudayan/Provided by Riot Games

When the countdown timer reached five seconds, the preview screen faded to a flicker of red and the Riot Games logo animation. A familiar montage of teams and players flashed across animated screens, accompanied by the League of Legends Championship Series music.

Yet instead of cutting immediately to a panning camera over LCS desk host James "Dash" Patterson Riot's LCS studio live in Santa Monica, four individual shots appeared of the broadcast analysts, each seated in their own homes. Their live portrait shots were organized on an overlay that read, "State Farm Analyst Desk." After a second-long pause, Dash spread his arms wide. They were cut off by his video frame.

"Hello everyone, and welcome to Week 8 and the first-ever at-home LCS broadcast," Dash said.

Last Thursday, as coronavirus cases swelled across the United States, California Governor Gavin Newsom held a press conference and followed up his March 4 declaration of a State of Emergency with an executive stay-at-home order for all non-essential businesses, effective that evening. The Overwatch League immediately released a statement canceling their online matches that weekend, pivoting to go fully remote in every aspect of the broadcast.

League of Legends fans watched social media channels to see if the LCS, which was scheduled to return on Saturday, would be next. North America's premier League of Legends tournament had been postponed on March 13 alongside the League of Legends European Championship.

Riot Games Executive Producer Dave Stewart and his team had already been doing a large amount of prep work the previous weekend for upcoming live studio shows on March 14-16 that were then canceled hours before that Saturday broadcast.

"In the 11th hour, we had to stop," Stewart said. "We'd taken the crowd out. We'd taken a lot of elements out that we thought we had something that may work, and we hit a bump at the end, and we couldn't."

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Newsom's latest announcement didn't change the format: The LCS was prepared to go online-only, after all. But the plan was to have production crews in the studio, at least, with their hands on the state-of-the-art equipment used to produce North America's premier League of Legends broadcast.

"The idea of playing remote at all was so foreign two weeks ago, three weeks ago," LCS Commissioner Chris Greeley said. "Then time started to meld together. If you have a good option and a bad option, you can never imagine taking the bad option. If you have a bad option and an awful option, then the bad option doesn't seem so bad."

Greeley and Stewart had previously met March 13 to discuss the postponement, and the broadcast went down over the weekend with planning for the coming weeks starting at 9 a.m. on March 16. If the LCS was to continue, every aspect of it would have to be fully remote. They met with player management groups, referees and team staff to compile a comprehensive list of concerns for an online broadcast and how many of those issues they could fix. They, then took that list to team operators and managers individually by team for feedback.

"It was essentially 48 hours before Academy started on Thursday and maybe 72 hours before we were up on LCS," Stewart said. "We made that call Monday night.

"We fanned out and vetted among our teams what we could do and whether or not this was feasible. Chris took his role of getting with the teams, seeing what the teams could do, whether or not we were committed to playing. I was checking with the broadcast teams, with our tech teams, whether this was even possible should we want to."

The answer from both sides was yes, they did want to, despite later reports that nearly two-thirds of players from LCS and Academy had voted to cancel the split.

"Ultimately, Chris made the call," Stewart said. "He and I got together. We talked it all through, and he made the call to go for it."

At noon this Monday, Greeley reached out to the head of the LCS Players' Association, Hal Biagas, and said the league was considering two options: taking the LCS completely remote or cancelling the spring split entirely. Biagas and the Players' Association were already scheduled to meet later that night at 6 p.m.

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At 9:30 p.m. on Monday, Greeley made the decision that the LCS would go ahead with an online broadcast. The league reached out to all 10 LCS teams with their decision. The Players' Association responded 45 minutes following the decision that they had polled all the pro players with the two options, and of the 90 players that responded, just under two-thirds said they would rather cancel the split than continue online.

"If you have a good option and a bad option, you can never imagine taking the bad option. If you have a bad option and an awful option, then the bad option doesn't seem so bad." Chris Greeley, LCS Commissioner

Greeley admitted he and his team should have given the Players' Association a clearer idea of what their timeline was for the decision and been more specific about how much detail they needed from the PA.

"We don't know what the breakdown was between Academy and LCS players," Greeley said. "We don't know what the breakdown was per team, whether the teams that were towards the bottom of the standings wanted to cancel, whether the teams towards the top voted to continue -- we didn't have any of that. And then we started to go through some of the individual feedback that Hal had received from players. We had, at that point, no indication that if we cancelled the season, players were planning to leave L.A. We had no indication that there were any particularized safety concerns in a remote world."

Greeley told Biagas that they were going ahead with their plans. Biagas was disappointed. Greeley said his decision has likely eroded some trust with the Players' Association, something that he committed to working hard to fix going forward.

That said, the decision to move forward with the spring split stuck. Now, it was time to figure out how to make that happen.

As soon as the decision was made, Stewart went to his broadcast team leads with the proposal. By Tuesday morning, preparations for a completely remote broadcast were in full swing.

"They absolutely crushed it," Stewart said. "The buy-in was immediate, figuring out what we could scale, what we could scale back, what was important to our fans, what we needed to prioritize in real time, at times cutting things out, at times saying, 'I know we're pushing it, but we can add that back in.'"

Challenges included how in-game observation would work as well as graphics packages and casting. Previously, Riot has remotely cast international competitions in China, South Korea and Europe from their Santa Monica studio, but that was still with the production team inside a state-of-the-art production facility. This was an unprecedented scenario where everyone would be working from their homes.

According to Stewart, the most difficult challenge that the production team had to solve before the weekend was audio communication between all parties involved, including producers and directors alongside the faces of the broadcast themselves.

"We're good at remote production," Stewart said, "but we're good at remote production with a lot of tools. And this team came together, they went through every single thing."

The LCS broadcast aired on Saturday and Sunday as a completely remote production with a surprising lack of hiccups.

"There was a healthy dose of luck," Greeley admitted. "You're relying partially on your own systems and your own people but on the other side you're relying not even on team facility computers but for the most part, player PCs and player peripherals and all of the variables that we can't touch and can't control."

The next challenge for the LCS broadcast will be imbuing a fully online setup with something that comes close to the weight of an LCS final. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the LCS final has also been moved online, taking away the spectacle and crowd of a live arena event.

"Part of the mystique around finals is being in an arena with eight or 10,000 people who are screaming and cheering and creating that atmosphere," Greeley said. He cited the energy of the Miami spring finals in 2018 and the surrounding narratives. "Losing some of that magic is hard."

Preparations are already underway for how to make a virtual event match an experience with a crowd, Stewart said. Although it's unclear how that'll work, the LCS team hopes to use the coming weeks to tweak and brainstorm.

"The final is the most important thing that we're going to put up there in the next five weeks," Stewart said. "Playoffs, we're hoping to make some incremental gains as we go. Just because we're isolated doesn't mean we can't celebrate together."