It has been quite a year for Riot Games Esports’ broadcast-engineering team. It deployed a trailblazing cloud-based–production ecosystem early in the pandemic for remote League of Legends tournaments, debuted a state-of-the-art “extended reality” (XR) experience at LoL Worlds 2020 in Shanghai, and launched a brand-new set at LCS Arena in Los Angeles last month. And, this month, Riot’s North American esports operation made its biggest move yet with the first in-person LoL tournament since the pandemic began: the LCS Mid-Season Showdown Finals at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.
Although the event (held without an audience) marked Riot’s first return to onsite events, the North American broadcast-engineering team continued to leverage the remote-production workflows it had cultivated over the past year-plus, including use of the public internet for transmission.
“Having done so many shows [remotely] at this point gave us the confidence to know that we could pull this show off using the public internet as well,” says Riot Games Broadcast Engineer Kris Johnson. “We’ve been doing many shows over the public internet and took a lot of those lessons with us to Mid-Season Showdown.”
Although the return to IRL (in real life) events was months in the making for Riot, Johnson and company faced an extremely tight timeline to develop the production plan. Typically, an event of this size could require six months or more of planning, but the Mid-Season Showdown plan had to come together in a matter of weeks and was further complicated by the constantly changing safety guidelines in California.
“We’re used to a lot of challenges on a normal REMI production,” says Johnson, “and we know how to get over those. But this gave us a whole new set of hurdles, primarily around COVID-safe production and how to make sure everyone was safe.”
In the end, the production was split between the Greek, where the Opening Ceremony and gameplay took place, and the LCS Arena studio, where casters called the action and analysts broke down the gameplay. All camera feeds and desktop feeds from each player (totaling more than 40 livestreams in all) were sent to Riot’s production facility in Santa Monica, CA, where a limited production crew was located. Crew members were also scattered around the country.
“Because we had been leveraging all the stuff we learned,” Johnson explains, “our VC [video-control operator] was shading the entire show from his house, the robo ops were in our [production] facility, and the physical cameras were at the venue. Talk about social distancing — we’ve got ops all over the place. And our VC was ecstatic about being able to shade studio cameras completely remotely. It worked out great.”
With the remote-production workflow, there was no truck onsite at the Greek for the livestream (available on Twitch, YouTube, and LoLEsports.com), and the broadcast crew was located either at the LCS Arena studio or at home. However, given the large size of the Opening Ceremony production (which included a performance by League of Legends in-game heavy-metal band Pentakill), two trailers were onsite, housing the team responsible for that show: one for audio and one for the producers/graphics operators powering the LED boards.
“Normally, we likely would not have that big of a footprint onsite,” says Johnson, “but, because of COVID and social distancing, we can’t have everybody in the same room sharing the same monitor. So we had to build out a little bit more infrastructure just to keep everybody safe and spaced out.”
Riot deployed a custom-built transmission kit featuring an Evertz router along with encoders and decoders for the various feeds coming in and going out. Typically, for a high-profile in-person event like this, Riot would use a point-to-point circuit on its Riot Direct dedicated network. However, after using the public internet to produce dozens of tournaments over the past year, Riot opted for a 10-Gbps DIA (dedicated internet access) public-internet connection (with a secondary line for backup) and heavily used SRT video-streaming protocol.
“We had been doing [shows over the public internet] for a year but not at this scale,” notes Johnson. “We had the confidence that we were going to pull this off, but, until we actually did it, we couldn’t be 100% sure. We definitely had a lot of lessons learned there, and I think, overall, we were very happy with the entire show.”
Riot deployed 34 cameras — 31 at the venue, three in the studio — for the Mid-Season Showdown, including a multitude of PTZ and robotic systems to reduce the onsite headcount.
“Everybody’s safety is very important to us,” says Johnson, “so we leveraged a slew of PTZs and robos on the show. In places we would normally have camera operators with handhelds, we put robos to help increase the social distancing, especially for our players. Because we had the robos, we didn’t have to put any camera people on the actual deck with the players, but we could still get the shots we needed.”
The camera complement was headlined by a heavy-lift drone outfitted with a Grass Valley LDX C82 compact camera. Provided by Beverly Hills Aerials, the camera played a major role in the show open and coverage of the Opening Ceremony.
“The drone worked wonderfully, and the Grass Valley camera looked great,” says Johnson. “Beverly Hills Aerials worked out RF, and [then] it was pretty much like shading any other camera. The VC had full camera control and loved it because he wasn’t constrained to whatever signal we could give him. He had full control over the image he was receiving.”
With the first IRL event under his belt, Johnson is primed for more. Although no future in-person North American events have been announced yet, he says the response was extremely positive from both in-house and the esports community.
“Overall, the response was fantastic, especially having Pentakill play our Opening Ceremony,” he says. “We put on a real rock show at the Greek in the middle of a pandemic; that’s pretty amazing. The game community is definitely a hard group to please, but I think, overall, the sentiment was very positive for it. And, [internally], I think everybody was extremely happy with what we produced, especially considering the time constrictions and challenges around a pandemic production.”