The League of Legends European Championship is in the middle of the offseason. After nine weeks of the regular Spring Split and three more for the Playoffs, the action is on hold until the Summer Split commences on June 12. It's a much-needed, well-deserved break. Whereas normally the LEC competition can already be hectic, this year the competition was shaken up even more. When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Germany the LEC shut down, and was rebooted in an online format.
Even for Eefje "Sjokz" Depoortere, a veteran in the esports business, the situation was unprecedented. We spoke to the LEC host about the turbulent Spring Split. She reflected on her expectations heading into the year and shared what it was like to adapt to the emergency situation.
Let's start by talking about the LEC as a franchise itself. The first year went incredibly well, so heading into the second year, did you have high expectations?
The first year was such a resounding success, that it did put even more stress on our shoulders. I don't want to say that it's harder to stay on top once you've made it there, because we've definitely struggled to get on top in the years before the LEC. I think a lot of people identify the European scene doing better competitively with the LEC. But I think you could also see what we were trying to make our show look like in 2018. For the longest time, we had people working on the show from the LCS studios in Los Angeles. At the beginning of 2018, everything fell into place. We had our own control room in Berlin, et cetera. We were well set-up for the big LEC reveal in 2019.
There were a couple of things that worked well for us. We found our own voice, we embraced showing our more silly side, or "cringe" side. [Laughs] But we also put more stock in player stories, and we helped develop those. That's not just through casts and storylines, but also how interviews are conducted, how we do the video pieces, the direction we take on social media.
We want to highlight the players in good ways, and that's not always easy. The most memorable players are often those who are very good at playing the game, but who are also good in interviews, good on social media. That's not always the case. Sometimes you'll have a player who is amazing but just doesn't want to do interviews. You'll have to find other ways to highlight them.
"The rivalry between G2 and Fnatic is just a gift to fans, the broadcast, and the region as a whole."
So, how was that experience translated into making the LEC in 2020 better?
There is always a tendency to think that you have to go even bigger, even wittier. It's something that can be dangerous, I think. I mean, sometimes we still make mistakes. Sometimes we do segments that we think are going to be funny, but when we watch them we think "oof.." [Laughs] It was fine, you know, but it wasn't great. But I would rather we do that than not do it at all, and have the show be very cookie cutter. We continued at the pace we set in 2019 but gave ourselves a bit more room to explore.
Also, behind the scenes, there was a bit of an 'overworked' problem in the last two years. As you can see, a lot of the content is driven by a small group of people. There is the ideation of content, there is the writing process, there is the taping, there is the video editing. Then there are all those little clips you see, the ads...there is a lot going on.
Many people were feeling the pressure because of the excitement. You know how it is when you work on something exciting, and you just can't say no? You say: "Oh it's fine, I'll do this, and this, and that!" You end up doing all these extra things, and at the end of the week, you realize you realize you have five projects due for the next week. The LEC is full of people like that, but we've been trying to distribute the workload better.
Heading into the Split, many rosters were changed. Teams acquired new players, or even swapped positions within the team. What potential storylines excited you at the start?
I remember being very excited about the Origen lineup. It's weird, with them. They have exciting elements, but you never really think of them as the most exciting team. Even though you respect their work ethic, the grinders on that team, and the people that are involved with it. We all, as the talent group, were excited about the roster moves they made heading into the Spring Split.
The rivalry between G2 and Fnatic is just a gift to fans, the broadcast, and the region as a whole. It is very exciting to see how these teams keep evolving and keep changing their lineups. But it's also great to see them throw punches at each other on social media—especially from the side of G2. It keeps everything interesting.
I was also looking at the MAD Lions at the start of the Split. Would they be another rookie squad that could upset the reigning powers? And look, they did it!
It must be great for you as someone who's not only heavily invested in the LEC, but who gets to tell the stories of it that a team like MAD Lions rises up.
It's really great. A phrase we use so often is "the rookies of Europe" when we talk about new player talent. But there is truth to that statement! For several years now, we've seen it. There are always a few rookies that rise up every year. Be it in a team context, or be it individually—look at Selfmade, for example. But there are always a few that go above and beyond.
I like to categorize them. There are the "yes, the new rookie class is there, doing its thing" players. And then you have the rookies that absolutely break shit, to put it that way. [Laughs] The first year of Vitality is a great example. They got into the Playoffs, they got to Worlds and put up a fight in one of the hardest groups. G2, in their first year, won the title coming in as rookies after fighting to get into the EU LCS for so long.
And MAD Lions are in that second category for you, of breaking the league.
I think MAD Lions definitely fits into that second group. They have gone above and beyond. What's so magical about them is that they have incorporated a style that has been successful in EU for a few years now: go ham, and take the risks—do not wait for the enemy to make the mistake. That style has a high risk, high reward nature, and we did see it backfire a few times. But by the end of the Split, they had really figured out that, by playing this way, they could gain advantages even in games they were behind in. We called them the comeback kings not because they weren't doing anything in the early game, but because sometimes in the early game they'd go for plays that didn't work out, and then they'd fight themselves back into the game.
I do think they had a perfect storm on that fateful day versus G2, when they beat them in the Playoffs. I know it was hard for us to approach that upset. We have the moniker of being 'G2 apologists' already. But it's a very fine balance to find. You want to report on what people say. If someone on a team says they're sick, we would mention that. So we can say that GrabbZ told us G2 wasn't prepared. That doesn't mean that we endorse it. In fact, we condemned them for it. It was disrespectful, wasn't it? The fact of the matter is that MAD Lions were better than G2 that day. Even though the series was messy, it's unfair to say it was just G2 that underperformed. The celebration of the winner should always come first. But we wouldn't be good broadcasters if we didn't mention the mistakes that were made on G2's end.
Also, the story of Humanoid is so great. He was such an unlikely hero to me, I have to say. It's so nice to know that he was that crucial cog in the machine of the MAD Lions. The backstories of him and Carzzy having fun backstage...I think this roster is such a good change for him. It's a good environment for him to be in, with those rookies. I guess he's still kind of a rookie, but it's more a sophomore year.
"There is always that lingering thought of one team that will be there to step up. That's the charm of casting the LEC."
The LEC had two favorites, G2 and Fnatic. Origen has found its footing again after the last Summer Split, and now MAD Lions is also contesting. Do you think this will continue to expand in the LEC?
I think, if you're a ten-team league, ideally you'd have five-ish contenders. Realistically, you'd have three that could fight for the title, and four that maybe also could put up a fight. But it's not outside the realm of possibilities, you know? We have a Misfits that started great, but kind of lost steam. Obviously they've brought in Kobbe now, so we'll see what happens there. I can see Origen that keeps evolving, I can see MAD Lions growing even stronger. I hope to see Rogue evolving as well.
There is always a possibility there. We've always Fnatic and G2, and then Origen who could put up a fight but unfortunately haven't been able to do so in the final. There is always that lingering thought of one team that will be there to step up. That's the charm of casting the LEC. You just don't know which team will be the one to step up.
Right in the middle of the Spring Split, the COVID-19 pandemic reached Germany and the LEC had to be put on hold abruptly. What went through your head when you heard the news?
People can be mean to me, saying I cry a lot and that I am emotional, but I definitely cried then. Everything was happening around us, and it was getting so bad. I know how much I looked out to esports broadcasts to get my mind off things, and I know we also took that place for a lot of viewers. So yeah, there was that initial panic.
You couldn't write this more Christopher Nolan-esque. We had the show, and we knew that it could happen at some point. But not on that day. We were all in the studio, we had our makeup done, we had eaten...we were all ready. Twenty minutes before the show we get this message: "Hey, we have an announcement to make." That's when we heard that the show got canceled, and that we would move to an online format for the safety of everyone involved. Then they said: "Sjokz, we need you to make this announcement." And all I remember thinking was: "f****ck."
The announcement itself was part of my job, so sure, I'll do it. But the realization that it was actually being canceled...you never expect this constant in your life to disappear. But we're all professionals, so we picked ourselves up, did what had to be done, and went home. Now that is where the real headaches started. We had to figure out how to do the show online.
Can you walk me through what it was like to shift gears so quickly, and producing the LEC online?
It was mayhem to try and arrange getting the equipment everywhere, but the beauty of our crew is that we, as casters, didn't notice much of it. We were on the backing call of everyone for an entire week because something we ordered could be shipped to us anywhere from 7 am to 10 pm. It wasn't like Amazon delivery or something, it was actual broadcast members getting in their cars and driving stuff around. Then they'd leave it on my porch or whatever to comply with the social distancing...it was a mess. The project was dubbed 'Arcane Shift'. [Laughs] It was very apt.
Luckily, we had a couple of producers, who had run remote broadcasts for other projects in the past. He was the head of this project, and he immediately had ideas about how to do things online. Then there was the matter of not being able to use our own PCs for stuff like that. If something goes wrong, and someone has to tap into our computer, that's just not optimal. So they shipped out a couple of computers from the studio very quickly. They had a query set up to get an indication of our equipment at home, the light situation, the mic situation, the webcam situation, the internet situation.
That was a whole different can of worms. As you may or may not know, the internet in Berlin is notoriously bad. When the COVID-19 crisis hit, all the internet infrastructure was tested to the limit. They're supposed to be able to handle it—they sold us one gigabyte down, one gigabyte up. But as it turns out, when everyone starts to use the internet, it doesn't work like that. So we had to ship out LTE solutions, which was really difficult. Some people live buildings that just block the signal. There were so many things that were working against us, but in record time everything was set up.
I live in a small, one-room flat. My room is still full of lights, the microphone, webcam, the green screen. There's an extra chair—obviously, we couldn't have non-sponsor chairs on the broadcast. But I was very impressed by the speed with which it all came to be.
"We went from the most exciting thing ever to this soundless void where you couldn't even see the emotions of the people we were talking to."
How do you look back on that first online broadcast?
I think we made it difficult for ourselves in the first week by trying to replicate all the things we did in the studio. All the graphics, all the videos, stuff like that. I think the better approach would've been to just make sure the show was running, and then insert all those extra elements. But it's part of our dedication to the level of product that we've put on the broadcast. In the studio, we have all these big machines, cameras, lighting, and now we were just trying to run this from our home PCs.
Normally you have your desk in the studios, you have a backstage area where you can go to in between segments et cetera. Now you were thrown back into your room like it's esports 2013. Did you have to adapt a lot to the online broadcasts?
Oh, so much. It's weird. You never want to say "it sucks," because I was so happy we could do the show. It was very difficult for us to stay hyped and stay as motivated for the long show days. Especially the first ones, where so much was going wrong. We looked at thirteen-hour broadcasts, which is also very vintage esports 2013 by the way. [Laughs]
Especially without the cameras, not being able to see someone in the first weeks, not being in the studio to hear the chants, it gets hard to replicate the excitement. We were just staring at a screen. We didn't even have the audio in the first week—we had the game on a different feed, without audio. We were listening to each other on Discord talking about the game. It was just so different. We went from the most exciting thing ever to this soundless void where you couldn't even see the emotions of the people we were talking to. So it was hard to get into, but it got better each week. The better the show got, the better it was for us.
In weeks seven and eight of the Split, it's sometimes hard to get excited about teams that are playing for nothing anymore. But as it went on, we got more and more excited.
If you now look back at that experience, did you learn anything from that situation?
I learned things on many levels, I think. On a technical level, I learned how to set up everything for a broadcast! I learned a lot about many programs that are involved with that, which I liked. When you're just a voice behind a picture, as we were a few times, you have to use a lot of intonation when you're speaking. You have to make sure everything you say really comes across. There was also a lot of filling, which is always helpful for talent to make sure that you can tap into different things.
We had to improvise a lot. In the studio, everything is perfect most of the time. Having to cast over Bwipo's technical issues was such a unique experience. The extended technical break where we were on the analyst desk with Froskurinn and Vedius, who couldn't think of Hextech Revolver...all that stuff was fun. I think that made us remember a lot of the vintage esports style, which had its charm. I think in the LEC specifically, we will try to tap into that. There were a lot of learning curves there.
I hope we can get back to the studio on the twelfth of June. We're not sure, but hopefully. But if not, we'll give it our all from home too.
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Storyteller by heart. If something is competitive, I am interested in it.