The hot sun beamed down on Los Angeles, California on April 10. Somewhere in Griffith Park, it was easy to hear the electrifying voices of shoutcasters David “Phreak” Turley and Sam “Kobe” Hartman-Kenzler bringing life to the historic Greek Theatre for the first time since 2019.
The League of Legends Championship Series 2021 Mid-Season Showdown losers’ bracket finals were underway. TSM had just clutched out a game three victory against Team Liquid to stay alive in the series. Before I took a break ahead of the next game, the camera feed focused on the thick woods surrounding the arena.
The broadcast had caught a deer grazing by the venue during the downtime. Neat.
Phreak and Kobe began playfully commentating over the surprise guest’s dinner. But, as people weren’t present to laugh at their jokes, the weirdness of an LCS roadshow without fans finally started to set in for me.
A similar event occurred during the LCS 2017 Spring Finals in Toronto when a pigeon landed on stage during an analyst desk segment. I’ll never forget the uproar from the crowd when the camera acknowledged it; everybody went nuts.
Moments like these were a part of what made LCS events an in-person viewing experience unlike any other. I sat in front of my monitors adorned with Twitch and Twitter tabs and longed for the unfiltered cheers of thousands of passionate fans.
The first day ended after four games with a Team Liquid win. In a surprise twist, they’d advance to the Grand Finals against Cloud9 on April 11 despite starting substitute jungler Jonathan “Armao” Armao. Their victory cries were met by empty stands. As TSM’s members hung their heads in defeat, the chilling silence was palpable.
A colleague watching along with me in Discord let out a sigh. “The crowd would be going ballistic right now if this was in person.”
“The new normal” in Mid-Season Showdown Finals
When Riot announced the return of live shows for the Mid-Season Showdown Finals, I was relieved but sad. It would be the League of Legends Championship Series’ first live event since March of 2020. However, in compliance with standard COVID-19 protocol, it would still be unable to accommodate an audience.
The recent wave of vaccinations and re-openings have signified a light at the end of the tunnel for many; one step closer to a “new normal.” A year of quarantine and lockdown orders have stopped the world in its tracks. However, while we’ve been frozen in time, League of Legends esports has persisted.
The deep and intricate stories of its players have continued on since then. New talents have risen up and rivalries have been born. The things we love most about watching professional League, and the LCS, have moved forward without us.
In May, the 2020 Mid-Season Invitational was canceled. However, Riot was able to execute a 2020 World Championship in Shanghai, China with players on stage. The Grand Finals even had a limited live audience.
Since then, Europe’s League of Legends European Championship moved its broadcast back to its iconic studio in Berlin, Germany. With surging COVID-19 cases in North America, the LCS made the best out of an unfortunate situation. It continued with a fully remote broadcast in 2021 until playoffs.
Even though the last LCS final in the Summer of 2020 was entirely remote, I preferred that to watching from behind a screen while players and broadcast talent were on-location. It was like listening to an orchestra perform from the auditorium lobby or celebrating your significant other’s birthday over long-distance. The ability to share the moment with others, by being physically present with them, makes it all the more special.
If you win LCS and nobody’s around to hear it, did it really happen?
Sunday, April 11, was the day of the main event. I felt as though I’d become a bit more used to the vacancy and I went in excited to watch the games. When the opening ceremony rolled around, however, the feeling of missing out hit me like a truck.
Have you ever seen a metal band play their hearts out in a pyrotechnic-filled set in front of a virtually zero-person audience on a beautiful spring day?
Well, now you have. And, as a keyboard player myself, I remember shouting at my computer as PENTAKILL keytarist Joe Atlan walked up to the center of the stage mid-song to casually deliver a face-melting keytar solo in front of rows of unfilled seats. Who wouldn’t want to be there in person to hear that? Who wouldn’t want to watch a sea of people lose their minds over someone effortlessly shredding while surrounded by flames?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to witness one of the most hype finals I’d seen since I started watching pro League 10 years ago. It had everything: a hype musical performance, high-level gameplay, Silver Scrapes and gripping storylines from both teams. Cloud9 was looking to finally attend MSI after missing it in 2020 due to COVID-19. Team Liquid were performing well. Armao was on the brink of pulling out a win for their bedridden starter Lucas “Santorin” Larsen.
It was clear that the teams were evenly matched. Team Liquid turned the first game on its head and pulled out a win from behind. From there, the series was competitive, with each team going blow for blow. Cloud9 ultimately ran away with the fifth and final game. This was off the back of a cheeky lane-swap strategy in the early game.
The LCS’ MSI representatives were decided. We’d finally see a dominant Cloud9 at MSI. Luka “Perkz” Perković and Jesper “Zven” Svenningsen won their first domestic title together since they were teammates on G2 Esports in 2017. The prodigious and dominant two-time MVP Robert “Blaber” Huang would finally have the chance to test his mettle against the best junglers in the world.
Watching these storylines come full circle in isolation felt unreal. It was an entertaining series; both TL and C9 played at the highest level we’ve seen from either team all split. This match deserved to be backed by a roaring crowd. At the end of the day, however, this was the safest way to hold the event live.
In the winner’s press conference, I asked Zven how he felt about winning such an important match without an audience to celebrate with him. His frustrations lay more with gameplay issues caused by the outdoor environment. But, he acknowledged the importance of prioritizing the health of players and staff by not having an audience.
“I didn’t mind the empty field so much because it is what it is, right?” he stated. “I think it was a fun experiment, but if we had lost I would’ve been really tilted because I think the environment wasn’t fit for competitive integrity.”
Made by many
At the beginning of 2021, the LCS unveiled a rebrand with the league’s fan-centric roots as a focal point. “Made by Many” was the key slogan in honor of all of the people—from fans and players to media partners and streamers—that over the years have helped shaped the LCS to what it is today.
The Mid-Season Showdown Finals weekend reminded me of how true that slogan’s message really is. Finals can never be the same without an arena of fans. At the same time, the hardworking people behind the LCS have continued to deliver a functional and engaging product throughout a pandemic. This finals weekend was the culmination of the hard work of countless individuals behind the scenes over the past year. LCS host James “Dash” Patterson said it best, ahead of Sunday’s marquee match.
“There are a lot of things I miss this year, but there’s nothing I miss more right now than being with all of you,” he said.
The 2021 Mid-Season Showdown Grand Final was one of the most fun and exciting days of League that I’ve experienced in a long time. I can only hope that I’ll celebrate the next finals with the community that helped make it happen.