It’s hard to think of something that the spread of COVID-19 didn’t upend. Gathering in any sort of crowd was severely restricted; so many of the cultural events that we all love were canceled. And yet, in September and October of 2020, Riot Games held the League of Legends World Championship (“Worlds”) in Shanghai, China, in front of a live audience. Worlds 2020 set new records in viewership, including a 23 million Average Minute Audience (AMA), our main measurement of success. Most importantly, no new COVID cases were traced back to the event.
This was only possible with contributions from many teams at Riot: Global Esports, our China teams, Legal, People, Finance, Information Security, Travel, the LoL development team, and many of our publishing groups. I’m still amazed that this collective Worlds team managed to do it. What gave them the confidence to try, and then to triumph, was their commitment to three core pillars: Riot’s player-focused values, collaborating as one team, and excellence in both tech and operations.
The Original Plan
Coming into 2020, the Worlds team planned to execute an ambitious, multi-city tour of China for the tournament. Every year, they aim to go bigger and bolder than ever before to produce not just an event, but a cultural moment that will make fans proud.
But when COVID hit, it presented a host of challenges. The disease first spread in China itself; and once it went global, travel and logistics became very complex. Regulations started changing fast, lockdowns were implemented, and safety protocols were being established. In such conditions, how could Worlds be produced in a way that was both safe and still high quality? If international sporting events like the Olympics and Wimbledon were getting canceled, would Riot’s Worlds suffer the same fate?
Driven by Values
The pandemic required the team to reassess the plans for Worlds. Riot is a company deeply rooted in our values, and since nothing is more important to us than players and fans, we started there. As important as Worlds is to our business, Riot would simply never go forward with a show that was not safe, either for them or for Riot Games employees, crew, and pro players. And yet, promises were made to fans about what Worlds would be in 2020: bigger, bolder, and better than anything Riot had ever done before. Worlds 2020 was, after all, the 10th anniversary of the pinnacle event for League of Legends Esports.
The Worlds team cycled through a number of possible scenarios. Should the event be moved to another country? Should it take place with teams virtually competing from different locations? Should it be canceled altogether? There were good reasons to consider each of these. But in the end, the Worlds team rallied and found a path to deliver on the promises made to our fans.
The path to delivering Worlds was complicated. There was an ocean between the Global Esports team in Los Angeles and the China teams; travel would have to be kept to a minimum. Plus, back during Worlds 2017 (which was also in China), these same teams had run into a few challenges working together.
In 2020, there was a stronger spirit for collaboration, something that Riot has been prioritizing across all our teams over the last few years and a key focus for me personally as a leader. For all intents and purposes, the many teams planning and executing Worlds were one team, working together in the face of a pandemic.
Only by embracing a one-team mentality and collaborating deeply could all obstacles be overcome. As hard as it was, the team conceded that a multi-city tour would not be possible and that Worlds would have to be focused exclusively in Shanghai, the city originally intended for the Finals. Navigating dynamic safety regulations, the team figured out a way to go audienceless for the majority of Worlds, although the plan allowed for the possibility of a small live audience for Finals. These adjustments dramatically increased the probability of operating a safe event and gave the leadership team and me the confidence to give the new plan a thumbs-up.
Now the team had to figure out how to get professional players to Shanghai, run a safe competition for all involved, and produce the Worlds broadcast. We owed it to the fans.
Operational and Technical Expertise
Even with strong collaboration, each team had specific strengths to bring to the table. In Los Angeles, the Global Esports team had the creative vision, established the competitive format and schedule, managed production, and coordinated with vendors and partners. Changing to a one-city event with no audience did not change their commitment to bringing fans a show that combined top-tier competition, bleeding-edge technology, and uncompromising quality.
Global Esports embraced “XR” technology, a recent innovation used in shows such as The Mandalorian, to combine augmented, virtual, and mixed reality and create physically impossible sets for the broadcast in real-time. And then we pushed that technology even further, inventing multi-camera solutions in real-time. You can check out the video below to see how this blended live performances and virtual wizardry in real-time to create something no one’s ever seen before. I’m still amazed by it.
The only way the event could actually happen, however, was with the China teams’ operational leadership on the ground in Shanghai. Where they had fulfilled more of a support role for Worlds 2017, this time around, they managed and led the relationships with the local authorities and handled logistics with local vendors. Since the Los Angeles-based Global Esports team couldn’t travel to China easily, the China teams negotiated hundreds of travel visas, accommodations for pro teams, ensured the Finals venue was ready, and sourced and managed Chinese vendors on the ground working the show.
In terms of safety, the Global Esports team took an analytical approach to COVID risk management and contingency planning by partnering with a full roster of expert international agencies, keeping up with changes in travel restrictions, policies, and protocols. In turn, the China teams synthesized all this information with the requirements of the Shanghai government. Together, the combined team translated it into a massive logistical plan, involving thousands of COVID tests, temperature checks, and other mitigation steps.
Results: Quality, Uncompromised
Despite all odds, Worlds ran as scheduled, featuring nearly every league from around the world (except for Vietnam, which sadly didn’t compete due to travel restrictions). The matches were incredible, some of the best ever played, I think. The broadcasts went off without a hitch, the XR sets and live performances made for a better viewing experience than anything Riot had ever done before, and new viewership records were set. Six thousand-plus fans were also able to attend Worlds Finals, drawn from a pool of 3.2 million who registered for tickets. And best of all, even after many weeks of players and crew working in close proximity, the health and safety plans resulted in no new COVID cases being traced back to the event.
Even just a few years ago, Riot probably could not have executed Worlds in a pandemic, let alone still push boundaries and break records. But a continued focus on a globally aligned set of player-first values, on collaborating globally as one team, and on best-in-class technological, strategic, and operational capabilities globally, put us in a position to succeed. I am so proud of what our teams accomplished; it was truly a demonstration of the power of Riot’s worldwide footprint.
I believe the lessons of 2020 will propel us towards an even bigger, bolder, and better Worlds 2021, and the opportunity to deliver on the original multi-city tour plan for China. Good ideas never die: they just adapt. As do we.