Fans have been welcomed back to international League of Legends for the first time since 2020 at MSI 2022. It’s not the same as it once was, but at the same time, esports was not the same without the crowd.
The last time there were fans at an international League of Legends event it was Worlds 2020, almost two years ago. 6,000 fans — out of 3.2 million who reportedly registered for a seat — poured into Shanghai’s Pudong Football Stadium.
It was a different affair from usual. It was nine months on from the start of the pandemic, and as such there were only limited tickets available in the 34,000-capacity arena. The fans were solely Chinese, getting behind Suning in their fight against DAMWON Gaming (now DWG KIA).
There was no interaction, the players were in a bubble, and it just didn’t feel like a Worlds final.
Since then, the game has changed. Fans have been out of the picture for more than a year — two years, arguably, outside of that one exception in October 2020. However, as the saying goes, things are going back to “normal”.
What that means for League of Legends esports is that fans are now returning, in droves, to watch their favorite teams. Domestic leagues like the LCK have had limited seating on LAN. The LCS 2022 Spring Playoffs were played in front of a passionate Houston crowd.
And, for MSI 2022, it truly feels like they’re here to stay as thousands get up close and personal with the players — although with some health protocols in place — for the first time in what feels like an eternity.
What the fan experience is like at MSI 2022
On the first day at Busan Esports Arena, there were a handful of cosplayers — a pair dressed up as Spirit Blossom Ahri and Riven got the attention of plenty as they lingered in the lobby.
The lingering wasn’t just people moseying around, checking out the Riot merch store or the Liiv SANDBOX pop-up selling jerseys of the local team, though. Many had a much bigger purpose: waiting for hometown favorites T1 to exit the elevator on Level 15 of the Samjeong Tower.
Fans, with cameras primed, were preparing their cheers for Lee ‘Faker’ Sang-hyeok and co. They would be taking to the stage in less than an hour. A barrier was placed between fans and players for health protocols as much as player safety. The roar when they finally emerged was deafening.
They then rushed up the stairs to the 16th floor to get seated in the 300-person arena — two blocks either side of the stage. The media, split into two boxes, had a birds-eye view of it all. There was a stop-off at the tables to pick up some thundersticks and make signs. Most of them were in support of T1, some had caricatures of the players. Others swung by the cafe, picking up a coffee, some dessert, or the very appropriately named “HP” and “MP” energy drinks.
As the games started, the applause shocked me. My last in-person event dated back to February 2020 with the Six Invitational. Since then, I had barely left my house, let alone my home country of Australia. It was surreal, to say the least.
Some players definitely played it up for the crowd. RED Canids’ AD carry Alexandre ‘TitaN’ Lima dos Santos was one such star, who you could hear screaming as he netted kill after kill. Saigon Buffalo were another example, with mid laner Bùi ‘Froggy’ Văn Minh Hải leaning deep into his chair after the side booked their spot into the Top 6.
Nothing, however, beat the passionate screams of T1 fans every time they took to the stage. Whenever Faker emerged from the dugout, you couldn’t hold a conversation with the person next to you. Every kill, every death, the Korean fans were animated whenever the red-and-black were on stage.
The energy was shared from both sides, and bolstered the entire experience.
While the audience was majority-Korean, and quickly deserted the stands when T1 were off-stage, there were some super fans in the crowd from across the world. Father of G2 Esports’ Rasmus ‘caPs’ Winther, Michael, was a celebrity to say the least — although he professes to just be “a little wind behind the big star”.
Last time he was in Korea, he was consoling caPs after being smashed 3-0 by Invictus Gaming in the Worlds 2018 final.
Having followed his son across the world for years before being abruptly stopped by the pandemic, it was special to share the moment once again.
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“I like to see the people on stage,” he told Dexerto. “I like to go to the studio or the gaming house [over in Europe]. I can see them eye to eye, I can feel the energy. When I see the synergy on stage, I know how the game will end before it even starts [off their personality].
“For me it’s very difficult to understand the game compared to football, but it’s still rather amazing to me.”
crowd buff secured @CAPS_dad pic.twitter.com/QyB9SxSNsp
— LEC (@LEC) May 10, 2022
As the weekend dawned, full-time workers from Seoul made the trek down to Busan for a couple of days to watch the games.
“It’s been wonderful,” Tyler, a 24-year-old English language teacher living in the capital, said. “I love seeing all kinds of people. Everyone is really friendly. I missed that kind of atmosphere in the crowd.
“I always love holding up the signs, getting to say hi to the players, and getting to meet people from all around the world at these international events.”
It wasn’t his first international event — he was at the very first MSI back in 2015 in Tallahassee. He managed to sneak away from work to watch Evil Geniuses qualify for the Rumble Stage. Depending on whether he can get tickets for this week, he’ll be back at BEXCO.
For the Oceanic crowd, there was a sole ORDER fan who showed up every day, no matter how badly the team got battered, and cheered full-throat. Emma, who was cautiously optimistic of a win on Day 4, felt the pain as the LCO representatives got swept 0-8. It felt more sour watching the players on stage go through the emotions in person versus online.
How fans give esports its spark
The moment wasn’t lost on the players either. Saigon Buffalo’s Trần ‘BeanJ’ Văn Chính, in his first international event overseas, said the crowd gave him extra energy. They were feeding off the hype.
“We definitely feel a bit of pressure because we aren’t just playing in front of a crowd, but an international audience too,” he told Dexerto after qualifying for the Rumble Stage. “However, this also gives us more motivation to play better and be more explosive.”
It’s special having the fans back at international events. The cheers you can not just hear, but feel, on the ground are mesmerizing. There’s no more bottled applause on broadcast, although the slight delay early on in the event could have fooled those at home.
It generally leads to a more enjoyable experience for all too. Photographer Colin Young-Wolff, who has shot some of League of Legends’ most iconic moments, said the pandemic really took away from the big storylines.
“If they win and there’s no fans cheering, it’s a different reaction. We had to create the reaction like ‘hey guys hold up the trophy,’” he laughed. “If they win and the fans are going crazy, it comes naturally.
“Getting back to that helps us tell those stories. It’s why we do what we do. Hearing fans, seeing fans — this is what we were missing. Anyone who is at the event, they feel it.”
With an audience in the thousands expected at BEXCO during the Rumble and Knockout Stages, the atmosphere is going to ramp up ten-fold to what it was at the Busan Esports Arena. Although the game has changed, and the experience is still gated behind health protocols, nothing beats the iconic “fighting” chants bleeding through the mics.
Everyone on the ground agrees — League of Legends esports isn’t the same without the fans.