Imagine Dragons and Riot Games worked together on a rallying cry for the League of Legends Championship Series. The song, which can be downloaded here, accompanies an animated video charting the journey from amateur to flashing light in the sky. Riot Games and LoL organizations all over the world have been trying to get eSports recognized by the mainstream sporting press as a “real” sport and break into the greater consciousness. Is this video helping them out?
I’m pretty much the perfect crossover audience for something like this. I like video games, and play them regularly, but I don’t play League of Legends. I occasionally watch sports, but don’t watch Twitch or similar outlets for playthroughs. I have a natural human interest in competition, but have not committed that attention to any current forum. So, with an already healthy interest in video games and a free berthing in my brain, I should be close to the viewer that something like this is trying to convert.
Now, the stated intent of this video is not specifically to gain a new audience, but the direction of everything happening in eSports right now is towards crossing over into the mainstream. Every piece of media should be, and almost certainly is being, considered in that light. It is in this light that I’m considering the video and my reactions to it.
The song itself is strong. It starts with a simple piano riff that puts me in mind of 16-bit console video games without sounding like a joke or direct reference that I’m supposed to “get” in order to appreciate what’s coming. It’s not long before Imagine Dragons rolls out their trademark epic, rolling drums. The vocals are soaked in drama. I’m ready for the journey that’s coming, and if this is the noise my vehicle makes, then all the better. The lyric is relentlessly repetitive and the guitar meltdown comes at exactly the right time.
I doubt I’d queue this track up on purpose, but if it played on the radio I wouldn’t be too upset. Good job Imagine Dragons. Good job Riot Games for choosing Imagine Dragons (who are apparently fans of the game themselves).
The visuals really aren’t doing it for me though. The idea seems to be to create a shadowy, be-hoodied every-man that embodies the journey and struggle from player to professional. In theory, that’s a good idea. It’s the ploy that’s launched a dozen YA books onto the movie screen, but this video takes the idea into Twilight territory. It’s a visual tabula rasa that we aren’t compelled or interested enough to fill in.
Painters and directors alike will tell you that the old cliche that eyes are the windows to the soul is 100% correct, and we almost never see anybody’s eyes in this video except in extreme close-up or in the deep shadows. Faces are kept intentionally shaded at every turn. By the end of the video they actually feel sort of headless. Not a recipe for my identification with a character.
The characters from the game are likewise hidden as shadows in the clouds or barely illuminated fallen statues. In fact, nothing about this says “League of Legends.” It could be the trailer for any generic fantasy video game on the market.
It’s a good song coupled to a video that conveys absolutely no information when viewed out of context. There’s little branding, a weak message, no real connection to the championship itself. It’s entirely too “high concept” and dependent on a knowledgeable audience. It might be working for the fans already looking forward to the championship, but it isn’t doing much for me.
The NFL and MLB used this kind of advertising for awhile and it bugged the shit out of me then. They had animated, mechanized players running around shiny cyber-fields with indistinct videos of gameplay whizzing by. There are real people playing a real sport in all cases. Show them!
Every animated scene in this video has a real world analog that someone has on video. Use some of it! You can cut in the animated stuff. The video is about two and a half minutes long; you have time.
Compare this to how the NFL, the most effective modern sports organization in America, advertises. First, you always, always, always know that you are watching NFL promotional material. Whether it’s a YouTube video or a commercial or anything else, you never have to look outside the media itself to find out what it’s about. Without a title or anything else I will always know that I have seen an NFL advertisement.
There are a few snippets of gameplay, and the logo appears reflected in an eyeball, but it needs to be explicit. World’s most popular video game or not, the current struggle is to get people interested who have little to no prior knowledge of the game. Would someone who has never played the game be compelled to watch a match because of this video? Would they even be certain what they were meant to go and watch? I’m not particularly convinced. Someday that cup might be as iconic as the Stanley Cup, but until then Riot Games can’t rely on symbols with only cult recognition, no matter how big that cult is.
The NFL has also focused on fan participation and creating and promoting personalities within the game. Fans connect with the teams that they love. They follow them and feel like they participate in their team’s wins and losses. The NFL’s advertising and image enhances and reflects this aspect of the sport, and it works. It works really goddamn well.
The LoL eSports channel actually does a good job of highlighting the human side of the competition, but it should be permeating everything. Competition is exciting because of the human factor, not the cool graphics. Potential players are exciting by graphics and animation, not potential viewers.
What’s really baffling is that no other sport has players that are anywhere near as available to their audience as eSports, and they don’t seem to be harnessing it at all. Players livestream practice sessions, give lessons, and might even play with fans. If ESPN has proved anything it is that once people are hooked they will consume absolutely anything relating to their sport, no matter how trivial and no matter the quality.
One of the barriers to my entry to watching eSports is that I don’t see the human element. It’s all gameplay. Again, this is counter to what the modern sports broadcasts are doing. The average NFL game lasts more than 3 hours, but if you watch it at home, the amount of time that the ball is actually in play comes out to 11 minutes. Part of that is the nature of the game. There’s lots of standing around in football, but it’s also a testament to how important the trappings around the game are to drawing in and keeping viewers.
Now, do I want to see eSports go down the bloated path of the NFL? Not exactly, but they could learn some lessons and apply them in moderation. Fans in attendance are dressed up. They’re celebrating. Show it. The players themselves aren’t super interesting to watch most of the time, but figure something out. Like it or not the machinery that surrounds the actual game is what’s interesting to a large part of your audience.
Before you decry anything I’ve said here as ignorant, remember, I might be wrong, but I’m wrong in ways that are similar to the rest of eSports’ potential audience. If you want to attract people outside of the video gaming audience to eSports you must bring the focus on the human element, and this video does the opposite. It might be a leap for me to think that lots of people out there think like me, but if they do, then Riot Games is dropping the ball in reaching them.