League of Legends World Championship Finals at AccorHotels Arena on November 10, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Bartosz Plotka/Riot Games)

While there are esports with larger prize pools, or big network TV deals, League of Legends continues to be the largest organized esport in the world. So conventional wisdom would say that its championship final should match its scale. Traditional sports has spectacle on lock, and the NFL championship’s (I can’t name it or we get sued) halftime show might be the best example of that. But the esports space hasn’t always proven mature enough to handle what many would consider the proper pageantry for a world final. But Riot Games and League of Legends began to change all of that and have created the closest thing that esports has to the halftime extravaganza during the largest Bowl of them all.

False Starts

Let me be frank here, to me, esports almost never gets its ancillary entertainment correct. Its the big collective eye roll before the match starts. Outside of an EDM DJ set, the musical accompaniments to some of these big finals often fall flat. Gamers, and by proxy, esports fans are notoriously hard to win over. And when something feels off-brand they will not respond positively. Take DJ Khaled’s performance at the OWL Finals last season. I was in the Barclays Center as the rotund troubadour demanded that all in attendance to “Overwatch me”. Facepalm.

DJ Khaled at OWL Finals in 2018. Let’s not do this again.
Photo: Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

Its totally believable that finding a big name musical act that also has context for esports would be difficult, but there had to be some sort of way to synchronize the identity of the game and the performances to celebrate its grandeur. Part of why the NFL seems to have at least passable halftime shows at the Superb Owl (lets not get sued) is that it may be the first or only time some people see these massive artists in a live performance. Enter Riot Games in 2017.

Riot’s In-House

Riot and League of Legends had already established a legacy of big time live events by the time 2017 rolled around. But more than that, their music department created a litany of original content that directly tied into the game. The made an in-universe metal band for League of Legends called Pentakill, and created themes for each Worlds tournament since 2015 (Phoenix in 2019, Rise in 2018, Ignite in 2016, etc).They wouldn’t have the issue of the music lacking association because it would be associated by its very existence. Its like how no one thinks of (or even knows the real name of) “Bugler’s Dream” the outside of the lead up to the Olympics. You can thank John Williams’ arrangement for that. In the same vein as the Olympic theme, Riot created their own musical trope in Silver Scrapes which ONLY plays in a do-or-die, game 5 situation.

They would later begin to experiment with augmented reality elements in 2016/17. And at the Opening Ceremony for the 2017 finals, they unleashed a breathtaking AR version of the Elder Dragon which took flight and circled Beijing National Stadium before landing right in the middle of stage.

Then they struck geek gold. In 2018, Riot games created their second in-universe musical group, KDA (standing for kills, deaths, assists). The group made up of four female characters from the game and voice by a cadre of K-Pop artists, exploded into the greater internet zeitgeist. The music video for “Popstars” by KDA currently has over 250 million views on YouTube and set the standard for game/music collaborations moving forward. The Opening to the 2018 Finals took Riot’s AR tech to the next level. KDA would appear in AR next to their human counterparts and perform bits of “Popstars” along with them.

It was a mind blowing achievement for League of Legends but this year they made the experience even more engaging for the live audience viewer. True Damage is the latest group in the League of Legends multiverse, this time made up of a selection of singers and rappers. Rap, in my opinion, isn’t nearly as interwoven with esports as K-Pop or EDM, so I was skeptical if True Damage would be received warmly. And in the immediate aftermath, the jury is still out, but their performance at Worlds 2019 just might be the most visually impressive thing that Riot or any game company has made for a performance or brand activation.

In a very oracle-like way, Riot painted themselves into having the perfect live performance context. Music that the audience would love because they love the game. Performances and characters that they would love because they love the game. Perhaps, in the near future, there will be artists that will look to Worlds as a way to endear themselves to a new fanbase. Either way Worlds is now the very high bar for which all live esports events will be measured. If esports continues to grow, these types of ceremonies are part of what people will tune in for. But more importantly, what they will pay live venue ticket prices for.

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