PastryTime nervously paced through the third-floor halls of Boston’s TD Garden. As game 4 of the EU LCS third place match dragged on somewhere in the background, Pastry’s eyes flitted restlessly between the cue card in his hand and the floor in front of him, each time looking straight through them. As if the perfect words to cap off his preparation were in his own hands, or just out of sight below the smoothed concrete of the arena.
Pastry passed our small cluster of people four, maybe five times, with Rivington peppering him with compliments on each pass. “You’re the best.” “Lookin’ good.” Short and sweet, the kind of compliments that slip through your thoughts and improve your mood before you even realize it. Big enough to make you feel good, but small enough not to be a distraction. It was the tactic of a man who’s experienced more than a few nervous pre-show paces of his own.
When PastryTime was called to the stage, mere moments after Fnatic’s Nexus exploded in Europe’s fourth game, we took it as the perfect cue to begin our tour.
One of the things that’s easy to miss, when you’re sitting at home and watching the broadcast or in the occasionally cynical press box, is the context behind the parts of the LCS we most often take for granted. What was once a passion project that relied on Rioters with hobbies like video or audio production and play-by-play commentary — to produce a show broadcast to a couple hundred people — has transformed into something else entirely.
Now, it’s a real production. Dozens and dozens of people work tirelessly through the weekend of Finals to put together a seamless broadcast that goes out to hundreds of thousands of elated fans. Riot invited The Rift Herald to head backstage with Riot caster Rivington Bisland III to get a glimpse of the hard work, incredible talent and thousands of man-hours that go into making the NA LCS finals one of the most special events in esports.
We stepped out of the Garden into a bright Boston afternoon. The nearly cloudless sky gave the sun a chance to counter the cold breeze coming in off the nearby Charles River.
“Perfect sweatpants weather,” said Riv with a massive grin. Only a few minutes earlier, before the arrival of fellow caster Julian “PastryTime” Carr, Riv had been explaining the wardrobe snafu that left him showing up to our tour in a matching 2016 Worlds sweatshirt and T-shirt, along with a pair of gray sweatpants.
His understanding was that the wardrobe department had brought him a second set of clothes to go along with his hosting suit for Sunday’s Grand Finals. Instead, they had only brought him a second pair of pants. So he figured he was better off being comfortable, lovingly referring to his look as his casual LCS attire.
With his grin still firmly in place, Riv rounded the corner to the north side of the arena and presented to us “the trucks.”
In front of us were four massive white trucks, with at least eight people laying the finishing safety measures on the thousands of feet of fiber optic cables that crisscrossed the area. What some at Riot loving call “internet trucks,” Riv explained as the broadcast trucks: the central location where the video producers take in the feeds from each of the arena’s nearly 20 cameras, and piece them together into what will become the broadcast that’s sent to the world.
The cables, according to Riv, were transmitting something either to or from the trucks, be it video feeds from one of the cameras, audio from the microphones or video back out to one of the many backstage monitors Riot had set up around The Garden. Some were just standard fiber optic internet cables to serve as contingency plans.
The spectacle was at once exciting and banal. In truth, it was no different from the production setup you might find behind TD Garden during a nationally televised Celtics game on ESPN. But in the context of an esports event, the fact that the setup was nearly indistinguishable from that of a professional sports telecast was a good reminder of how far League has come.
The earliest tournaments were almost miraculous, said Riv. He seemed struck with a wave of bittersweet nostalgia, thinking back to the game’s infancy seven years ago. The broadcasts themselves were run on setups that Twitch streamers today would scoff at. A single, often underpowered computer would run the stream and soundboard for commentary, while another machine would be the game’s only spectator, back before League had the wealth of spectator slots available today. If any link between the 12 computers — 10 for the players — went down, so did the whole broadcast. Sometimes, that’s exactly what happened. The broadcast just ... went away for a while. No contingencies, no fail-safes.
Riv was careful to note that this wasn’t due to a lack of expertise. While most of the people who were working on those events at the time were Riot employees who did production as a hobby, they weren’t exactly amateurs. Riv said that Riot has always been a company that loves finding ways to highlight the interests and cultivate the talents of its employees, even if they aren’t expressly related to the job they do every day. That’s how the earliest productions at Riot were born: Meetings about tournaments were suddenly turned on their head upon the discovery that a writer had video experience, or an animator had a background in sound engineering. In more than a few cases, Riv said, these people have been able to turn a hobby into a new role at Riot.
Some of Riot’s most high-profile employees are perfect examples of this. In an interview Rift Herald did with caster David “Phreak” Turley just a few weeks after the Finals, he reminisced about starting as a community intern back in 2009. Turley quickly got into video content and eventually casting games, which had been his true passion and goal all along.
Listening to Riv talk about the game’s humble beginnings, it dawned on me just how well Riot has scaled these events over the last eight years. Even setting aside Worlds, which has progressed to a level no one could have imagined back at the first one in Stockholm in 2010, League of Legends events have gone from hosting less than a hundred people in folding chairs to selling out 20,000 seat arenas.
When I asked Riv, a little later in the day, how exactly that happened, he laughed.
He said the boring answer is hard work and a lot of time, but seemed thankful that the public sees the results and not the process. Riv told me that a few hours before the third-place match, Riot held a fan meetup on the third floor of the arena — in the room we were standing in, actually. The empty room looked like a maze.
That design had come from one of the company’s Thunderdome hackathons, Riv said. One of them was focused on finding a way to scale up fan meetups to accommodate larger crowds. Riot created a scale model of the room, then split people into teams and asked them to devise a better meetup system. In the end, a member of the esports team came up with the room layout before us — a plan that Riv said produced Riot’s smoothest fan meetup yet.
Riot uses this method often as a way of not only solving problems, but of helping to push to the forefront the different personalities, people and voices at the company. Listening to what new people have to say, according to Riv, is crucial to Riot’s ability to keep up with League of Legends’ exponential growth. Turley echoed his sentiment, saying, “Riot has done a really good job of putting the right people in the right places.”
Back outside, as we stood in front of the trucks, my mind turned to something Riv hadn’t touched on. Much of the production side is indeed handled by the incredible talent that Riot found within its walls, the enthusiasts and hobbyists turned professionals. But it seemed to me that another key was knowing when it was time to look outside of esports, and bring in someone with broadcast expertise who could learn the esports part second.
As we climbed the stairs to the video truck, Riv proved that I wasn’t far off when he gave us a small pre-introduction to Ariel Horn. Horn is a tried-and-true live event professional with experience in a variety of sports, including the Olympics. Riot hired him to push its broadcasts to the next level. Riv said that each step up in video, at least in the early days, made the team nervous. Riot first brought in a broadcast truck at PAX Prime 2013 in Seattle, where the company used to host the Summer Split Finals. At the time, people on the team didn’t think it was necessary — couldn’t they just use the multi-computer stream setup they had been working with? They were proven wrong when the broadcast quality improved in more ways than they had ever expected.
It was the same way, Riv said, when the company hired Horn. With an outside voice coming into the world of League, there was a serious fear that the world of traditional sports would stomp into Riot with a holier-than-thou attitude, and complete obstinacy for the way that esports works. It turned out that Horn was nothing like that. He came in with a completely open mind, according to Riv, looking for a new way to apply his years of producing experience and ready to learn a new sport.
Most of Riot’s production today is Horn’s brainchild; he has a hand in almost every angle of every broadcast, according to Riv. While Horn was more than willing to start small and work at whatever level fit Riot’s specific needs, his true value was in his expertise and knowledge of when and how to scale things up whenever necessary.
As we entered the truck itself, I got my first real look at something that would come up again and again on this tour: the talent and professionalism of every person who helped make the event itself happen. Listening to Riv’s descriptions of people moving from development jobs at Riot into production, it was easy to mentally fill in the blanks with a person who looked out of place or seemed to lag a step behind the considerable number of career broadcast professionals Riot has also hired. But standing in the truck, I could see that wasn’t the case.
Amid the bright white LED lights that shined on the faces and workstations of the nearly 10 people in the small truck, I never caught a trepidatious glance or a look of momentary confusion. Even the two people who had once been professional League of Legends players, including Clark “ClakeyD” Smith, seemed perfectly at home in some of the most important roles on the team: using competitive expertise to ensure that the most important plays on the map happened on camera.
When you step into the truck, the first thing to hit you is the cold. As you might expect in a vehicle filled with computers that need to be kept cool, it’s critical to the production that the truck never gets above a certain temperature. Riv’s unfaltering grin turned toward us as he said, “I should have casual LCS days more often” — almost boastfully, as if his wardrobe for the day had been carefully planned for the chilly environment. Without any context at all, Horn laughed at the joke and shook our hands. He was jovial and seemed genuinely excited to show us what he did, but that was cut short when someone reminded him that the recording of the MVP ceremony was about to begin. Horn’s expression quickly shifted from warm and friendly to confident and determined.
The entire room changed completely as everyone prepared to go to work. I had only glanced at the wall of monitors at the front of the truck, and I suddenly saw them for the puzzle they were. There were something like 20 different constantly shifting images of our caster/host PastryTime, holding the same cue card from earlier, looking like he’d found the perfect words he had been searching for backstage. As he prepared to announce Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg as the Summer Split MVP, the monitors shifted between crowd shots, the tunnel that Bjerg would enter from and Pastry himself, with each camera angle and transition expertly choreographed by Horn.
As PastryTime took his first breath, Riv said to no one in particular, “His throat’s dry. No worse feeling onstage. Gotta wet that whistle!” Just a few sentences and one slightly slipped letter in “MVP” later, Horn broke his intense concentration just long enough to look back at Riv and give a slight nod and a small laugh. A tiny acknowledgment of his prediction that Riv seemed to think was hilarious.
The segment ended with congratulations to everyone in the truck on a job well done: The first parts of their broadcast from TD Garden had gone smoothly. As they began to settle in for the fifth game of the series over in Europe, our tour exited the truck, and we made our way back to the arena.
As we wound back through the maze of hallways inside Garden, and bumped into more production folks along the way, a common theme began to develop. Riv greeted each and every one of them by name, usually with a few warm words. Then he immediately turned to us and explained what exactly each person did and how much he liked them. It’s the kind of small but striking gesture that sticks with you.
Rivington Bisland III has been with Riot since 2011, and is one of the company’s most recognizable, and popular, on-air personalities. Every time we went to a public area in the arena, he got screams of recognition and requests for hugs, fist bumps or photographs.
Between preparing for casts as a play-by-play commentator, meeting fans and other responsibilities, Riv has plenty on his plate. It’s not unreasonable to think he wouldn’t have the time to keep up with everyone around him and what their roles are, that he’d occasionally need to be reminded of a name. But that never happened. He knew everyone and seemed to genuinely care about the work they were doing, specifically reminding each person that they were important to the broadcast and to the event as a whole.
It was a manifestation of what Riv had said about the importance of each person’s input as Riot expanded its events. I saw one of Riot’s most public personalities have a personal interaction with everyone around him. It’s not a stretch to believe that each person on the events team can feel confident that their voice will be heard. Each person was doing their job well, and in one way or another, someone took notice of that.
Our tour ended with a front-row seat for the opening ceremony. As we stood around the halls talking, Riv glanced up at a TV showing the EU LCS match, just as the Nexus fell.
“Only 10 minutes now.”
Suddenly, the entire production staff took on the same confident smile I’d seen on Horn’s face in the truck. The preparation was over; it was time to go to work.
The once-still halls were now all business and commotion. Team members held four or five different conversations in parallel without anyone missing a beat. As we walked toward the arena floor, we tried to stay out of the way of the people moving with purpose from one area to the next. The Garden’s entire third floor was suddenly filled with the adrenaline drip that only a live event can bring, it’s water constantly simmering at the top of a pot without ever boiling over.
We made it to our seats just behind the caster desk with a few minutes to spare. As the players from Counter Logic Gaming and Team Dignitas took their places on stage for the introduction, TD Garden erupted into cheers from the tens of thousands of fans gathered to watch the two teams compete. In the grand LCS tradition, as the broadcast clock wound down to the final 10 seconds, the crowd began to count with it, getting ahead in their excitement. They reached “one” long before the official clock, and there was a brief and icy silence.
As I looked at PastryTime standing on stage, waiting for Horn to come into his earpiece and give him the go-ahead, I turned to Rivington and asked him what exactly went through his head in those few moments before kicking off an event.
He turned to me and smiled. Not the same grin he had before, but a warm and content look, like there was no place on earth he would rather be.
“Let’s fucking do this.”