The final moments of the opening ceremonies for the 2022 League of Legends World Championship featured star performer Lil Nas X seemingly lifted into the air by the hand of a giant mech while a championship trophy floated around him. It was an impressive display of artistic vision and technical expertise — and it’s also the reason Carrie Dunn, creative director for Riot esports, has been a little stressed of late. “Any time you hoist a cultural superstar in the air for your finale,” she says, “there’s anxiety in that.”
Worlds is the highlight of League’s competitive calendar, with the finals pitting two teams against each other who have worked all year for a chance at the trophy. This year’s edition featured the return of the legendary Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok — known by the incredible nickname the “unkillable demon king” — and his team T1 facing off against fellow Korean side DRX. But as appealing as the actual games are, often, the opening ceremony steals the show.
In the past, League developer Riot has employed holograms and augmented reality for its live events. Over the last few years, with covid-related restrictions in place, the team has had to get a little more creative. 2020 featured a mixed reality stage to make the crowd-free competition feel more exciting, while last year eschewed a live show altogether for a gigantic music video tied to the release of Arcane on Netflix.
This year, with the promise of a return to a packed arena at the Chase Center in San Francisco, the team wanted to create a spectacle that would work both for those in the audience and fans watching at home. That ruled out AR, which is only really cool when you’re staring at a screen. Instead, they decided to utilize multiple technologies, including a massive jumbotron-style display at ground level and a stage covered with thousands of LED tiles. Arguably the highlight, though, is the impressively huge holograms.
In 2019, Riot utilized a technology called a 3D Holonet, essentially a high-tech gauze that images can be projected onto to create a holographic effect. That’s how the members of the fictional hip-hop group True Damage were able to perform on stage in Paris. This year, the team is using the same tools but on a much larger scale. There are three Holonet panels, which stretch as tall as 48 feet, which is how they were able to pull off the massive mech moment.
But it was also utilized for much smaller and more complex moments. At one point during the opening ceremony, League character Pyke showed up and appeared to use his trademark move, the “bone skewer,” to pull a real person toward him. It was an effect that required multiple elements: a hologram to bring Pyke to life, precise lighting cues to create a sense of movement, and multiple performers capable of hitting those cues perfectly. “The technical complexity and ambition this year is, in my experience, a new peak,” executive producer Nick Troop explains.
In addition to all of the holographic mesh and LED stage, pulling off this year’s ceremony required 55 cameras, a nine-story-tall lighting truss, 24 30K projectors, and a media center setup “capable of driving up to 600 million pixels,” according to Troop. All told, more than 470,000 pounds of equipment were required for the event. “That is more than double our last Worlds final in an arena,” explains Troop.
It also required the right people. According to Dunn, even before the team had secured Lil Nas X, they knew he was exactly what they wanted. “Lil Nas X was the mood board,” she says. “He was the vision. It took us a while to actually land him, but we knew that we wanted him for some time. So we built the vision around the hope that he would fill it.” She adds that she “definitely cried a little bit” when he finally signed on. “It was both relief and excitement and also the realization that we have to get to work because he’s actually on board.” Fans got a taste of what to expect when Lil Nas X released the single “Star Walkin’” in September, which he performed onstage at Worlds. That video included a mech version of the League character Azir, the same one who would appear to lift Lil Nas X on stage during the performance.
The Worlds opening ceremony was split into three “acts” this year, each with its own song. It started with “The Call,” the 2022 season anthem sung by Edda Hayes, which led into “Fire to the Fuse,” performed by Jackson Wang, with Lil Nas X closing things out. Finding a performer for that middle section was particularly important because of its complexity. Dunn says she happened to see Wang performing at a festival and realized right away that he’d be a perfect fit.
“His charisma and presence on stage is so undeniable,” she explains. “His choreography ability is unmatched, and this section of ‘Fire to the Fuse’ is very nuanced and very technical, and we needed somebody who… it’s not just that they can dance, it’s that they can dance no-holds-barred at a fast pace while hitting very precise and technical cues. His section is so tightly linked to the technology and the Holonet that there is zero room for error.”
“His charisma and presence on stage is so undeniable.”
The other star of the show wasn’t a person or in-game character: it was a brand-new trophy. In the lead-up to the Worlds finals, Riot revealed a newly designed version of the iconic Summoner’s Cup, created by Tiffany & Co. It was a prominent feature during the ceremony, and, as Dunn points out, the team lucked out in that mech Azir’s eye happened to be a very Tiffany shade of blue, making the reveal fit well visually. She says it’s a moment that required a lot of thought and care.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s the Summoner’s Cup until it has that moment on stage at finals and then being lifted by our pro players,” Dunn says. “We took this moment very seriously as our chance to induct it into the sport.”