This past weekend, Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, the most famous pro gamer in the world, captured his fourth League of Legends world championship as his team, T1, defeated rivals Weibo Gaming in front of a home crowd at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. It was an impressive display but, as always, one of the most exciting parts of the experience happened before the matches even began.
The opening ceremony for Worlds is a chance for developer Riot Games to mash up bleeding-edge tech with performances from some of music’s biggest names. This time around, the event featured K-pop stars NewJeans and some impressive augmented reality. But the biggest star was also, well, the biggest: a 110-meter-long LED display featured throughout.
“Using that surface, we’re aiming to create really immersive environments,” says Carrie Dunn, Riot’s creative director for global esports. “So it’s not just about portraying information. It’s about making the audience feel like they’ve been transported.”
The 13-minute-long ceremony (which you can watch above) was split into a few different sections. It started with a prerecorded cinematic in which a League player made their way from playing the game in their bedroom to being transported through a portal to the Worlds stage. From there, the musical aspect began with Heartsteel — a newly created virtual boy band made up of alternate versions of popular League characters. First, there were real singers and rappers performing the song “Paranoia.” Then, a (virtual) car crashed into the huge screen, shattering it, while AR versions of the group appeared onstage.
It was a chance for Riot to utilize techniques it had already made use of in the past. At the opening ceremony in 2021, for instance, the entire performance was a cinematic of Imagine Dragons performing on an elaborate set since in-person events weren’t possible at the time. The year before, in Shanghai, the virtual K-pop band K/DA made an appearance onstage via AR. “We’re kind of remixing [these ideas] and applying them in different ways,” says Dunn.
The difference this time was the massive display, which wrapped around the stage and allowed Riot to create a convincing virtual backdrop. The stage itself was pretty simple; there wasn’t much to it other than some rocks embedded around the base of the display — which, Riot notes, were hand-carved — meant to blur the transition from the real world to the fantasy world on-screen. Because of this, the screen had to do a lot of the heavy lifting, depicting large, detailed fantasy settings ripped right out of the League universe. “It just creates the sense of realism,” explains Dunn. “It helps us transport the audience and make it feel like this isn’t just something happening onstage.” Think of it like the virtual sets for shows like The Mandalorian or the upcoming Avatar: The Last Airbender. (In totally unsurprising news, Riot has also utilized that tech in the past.)
Last year in San Francisco, Riot used holograms to make it appear as if a gigantic mech was lifting Lil Nas X into the air. This year featured a similar spectacle but with a shift to AR. Following Heartsteel’s performance was a surprise rendition of “Rise” — a popular Worlds anthem from 2018 — which was accompanied by a 90-foot-tall version of League character Mordekaiser standing in the crowd. As the screen behind showed an expansive ruined landscape, a character onstage fought against the AR villain with some clever choreographed dance moves.
Image: Tina Jo / Riot Games
And then came NewJeans. The K-pop group was an interesting choice for an event like Worlds; while they’re popular, they are also known for laid-back ‘90’s-style pop and R&B. That’s pretty different than the epic-sounding anthems that have accompanied the opening ceremonies over the years. When you mash those two styles together, you get a track called “Gods,” which closed out the event.
“I really enjoyed the process of trying a new sound, precisely because it was different from the style of music that our listeners now associate NewJeans with,” says NewJeans’ Minji. “The lyrics also resonated with me more strongly once I learned about the stories behind them. Through the lyrics, we could feel the intense efforts players put into League and their competitive spirit, both in the professional scene and in everyday life, so we did our best to capture and reflect that same spirit in the song.”
“It really is brought to life in a different way”
Onstage, the band was set against the backdrop of ancient ruins before the camera zoomed high in the sky, revealing a glowing moon. As they sang, the AR battle continued, with Mordekaiser ultimately being defeated in a bright explosion before the two competing teams — and the trophy they were fighting for — were revealed. For NewJeans’ Hanni, it’s that combination of sounds and style that makes a collaboration like this really work.
“I strongly believe that music and visuals not only complement each other, but also go hand in hand,” she explains. “The League of Legends universe is inherently immersive, but when music comes to support the specific elements of it, like the champions, the world, or the pro players, it really is brought to life in a different way. And personally, I think the history of collaboration with many different, amazing artists adds another layer of richness to the listening experience for fans.”
As for Dunn, as soon as the event was over, her mind had already shifted to what was next, with the 2024 edition of Worlds kicking off in London next year. “As soon as last year’s show is over, even at the after-party, all of us start talking amongst ourselves,” she says. “How are we going to top this one?”