It’s hard to think all the way back to the ancient history that was early 2020. The first few months of the year were so full of hope and momentum for the esports industry. That all came to a screeching halt for Europe’s LEC when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, preventing Riot Games from utilizing its Berlin broadcast studio to produce the weekly League of Legends league.
Maximilian Schmidt, RIot Games head of esports for League of Legends in Europe and MENA, recalls the day the decision was made to cancel the broadcast. “That was probably the hardest day for me at Riot. It felt so disheartening to have to cancel the show for the first time ever. It was the right call, obviously, but it still felt incredibly bad.”
For the esports and production team, the eventual solution was to produce the broadcast remotely with teams playing from their own homes or facilities. This decision forced the LEC team to face something it had treated as a major challenge in the past.
“Whenever [online play] came up before there were concerns regarding ‘how do we do this, how do we actually have the same quality of show, how do we ensure the competitive integrity is still intact in that online environment.’”
Now more than a year later, with a full season of remote competition under his belt, Schmidt reflects on the things his team has learned during the pandemic. “A big lesson that we learned is that online is not this big goliath that you have to be afraid of.” Indeed, the LEC returned to competition quickly after that dark day of cancellation and has continued largely unabated, even bringing the players back to the studio for the 2021 Spring Playoffs. “I’m so proud of what the entire team on the broadcast has been able to achieve since that day.”
The LEC has now reached a state where it operates an offline production for an online competition. While the online league has certainly been a success in many ways, Schmidt is eager to return to a state where the players can compete in-person on a regular weekly basis.
“We’ve seen so much added value from the players being there [in person], and the quality of the product increases so significantly when you get their raw emotions, when you’re able to talk to them, interview them live on stage. These are things that are naturally different if you do them face-to-face.”
Still, the online era has allowed the LEC to evolve its broadcast. Previously, the league would have been hesitant to bring on remote guest analysts. However, even with the rest of the on-air talent in-studio, the league has utilized remote guests frequently this season, adding new perspectives and dynamics to the show. Schmidt said that this practice is likely to continue even in a post-COVID world. In essence, while the core of the LEC will remain offline production and offline competition, the pandemic allowed the league to safely experiment with new techniques, and with some of the stigma of online play removed, there are new tools in its toolbox to enhance the broadcast.
In addition to broadcast innovations, the LEC was able to retain its large portfolio of brand partners throughout the pandemic, working with sponsors to create new activations where initial deliverables could not be achieved in a remote broadcast situation.
“I’m very impressed both with the [business development] team that is working directly on these subjects with our partners, and also frankly with parts of our on-air talent team that are heavily integrated in these partnerships.
That is something I think is incredibly unique for the LEC, where we actually have a very high level of integration between us and our sponsors. We really see our sponsors as partners of the ecosystem and the LEC respectively, and we also treat them as such and work together with them to achieve these common goals.”
Throughout the league’s experimentation and creative problem-solving, the LEC has continued to grow its audience. Many esports leagues saw an initial spike in viewership in 2020 due in part to the absence of other content to watch, but the LEC’s metrics keep going up.
“I’m super excited about our viewership stats. Going into online it was part of the concern…how people are going to perceive it and how much they’re going to care…Over the course of the  Spring Split we actually had incredible increases throughout all of the viewership metrics. Even in the finals we had a significant increase in our peak audience.”
Schmidt notes that the numbers for the Spring Finals are particularly encouraging as it is the first time in years that the finals did not feature either G2 Esports or Fnatic, the league’s two most successful and most popular organizations. Rogue and MAD Lions, who upset the perennial contenders to face each other in the finals, are relatively new brands to the LEC stage. Despite the lack of the league’s biggest stars and most recognizable brands, fans still tuned in — an encouraging sign for Schmidt.
“I think it bodes very well. We actually have a wider array of teams, we now have these upstart teams like Rogue and MAD Lions that are challenging for the throne. MAD Lions are now defending the throne, which is crazy to think about.”
The LEC Summer Split kicks off on Friday, June 11.
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