The stellar first impression wasn't a huge surprise. DesignStudio has worked for a number of big brands in the past, including Airbnb, Deliveroo, Evernote, Logitech (now known as just "Logi") and Twitter. It also spearheaded the colorful and once-divisive rebrand for the English Premier League in 2016.
DesignStudio also had a bunch of employees who used to love playing video games. "We were gamers when we were younger," Ng said. "But, obviously, adult life got in between it. We still play games, but we just slowly drifted away. So, when this job came in, a lot of us got exposed back into this world."
There's a link, of course, between esports and traditional sports. Game developers like Riot are trying to cultivate leagues that have the same rivalries, passion and heart-stopping moments as soccer or basketball.
Pecchia saw the Premier League rebrand as both an advantage and risk for working with DesignStudio. The work was definitive proof that the company could visualize a competition with charismatic stars and a young, fervent audience. Esports, however, has unique characteristics that should be recognized and accentuated in every part of the branding. "It's taken me a while to learn that," Pecchia said. "It's easy to let outside agencies who have worked in the traditional sports space come in and say, 'Oh, we've done FIFA or UEFA,' or whatever. While that's great, just because you've done traditional sport [doesn't] mean you can work in esports. That's not always the case."
"They were backstage with the broadcast guys, the full works."
DesignStudio was officially given the job last April. At the time, Riot was wrapping up the first half, known as the Spring Split, of the EU LCS. Before touching a document or opening Adobe Illustrator, DesignStudio undertook an "immersion phase," according to Ng, where it soaked up everything to do with Riot Games, League of Legends, and its top-level competition in Europe. The team worked out of Riot's offices and attended games at the EU LCS studio, a permanent venue that hosts all of the regular season matches. DesignStudio employees also played the game using a small LAN (local area network) set up in their own office.
"That's the way to really immerse yourself in League, right? You've got the play the game," Pecchia said.
The design agency spoke to as many people who worked on the broadcast, social media, set design and roadshow events as possible. It also chatted with players, the game's designers and Riot management. "They were backstage with the broadcast guys, the full works," Pecchia said. "They really tried to understand how every single cog in the machine works before putting pen to paper." Of course, DesignStudio also spoke with fans through a variety of channels, including Reddit, Twitch and dedicated interviews at EU LCS studio. "Because they're the ones who love this league," Ng said.
Unsurprisingly, Riot and DesignStudio looked at other esports, including Fortnite and the Overwatch League. The pair didn't want to copy them -- the games are vastly different and the LEC is a strictly European competition -- but simply to understand their approaches.
The immersion phase was necessary because Riot needed more than a new logo, or mark, for the league. It required a visual identity that would be part of the physical studio in Berlin and cover every frame of the broadcast, including match previews, champion select (a pivotal sequence where players choose their characters) replays and post-match analysis. The new brand would also be used on social media and, potentially, all-new merchandising. "It's a full 360," Pecchia explained.
That "360" should envelop the viewer from the moment they open a live stream on YouTube, Twitch or the Riot Games website. Even if they're joining mid-match, the fan should know from the visuals and commentary that it's an LEC joint.
The new branding, of course, had to appeal to existing League viewers and players. To grow the LEC, however, Riot needed a style that would appeal to casual viewers too. It also had to stand on its own so that Riot could offer the LEC as a product, or clearly defined opportunity, to potential sponsors and advertisers.
The latter might sound dull, but it's important to the long-term viability of esports. More revenue means more resources for the teams in the LEC. The extra cash can also be fed back into the production side, entertaining fans with flashier venues, stages and opening ceremonies. The bottom line, though, is that money makes esports sustainable. The industry is growing, but Riot Games has admitted it needs more revenue to maintain its current levels of investment. "If revenue does not pick up enough, our budget will need to decrease by some amount," the company said on Reddit last August.
This year, the LEC is introducing a franchise model similar to the NFL. The NA LCS went through the same process last year, formalizing a 10-team league that can neither be promoted nor relegated. The system should, in theory, encourage LEC organizations to make long-term investments -- training facilities, coaching staff, team houses and more -- and help them build larger fan bases across the globe. These teams paid a large sum to join the franchising setup -- €8 million for existing teams and €10.5 million for new entrants, according to the Esports Observer -- and no doubt want to see Riot reinvesting that money.
What better way to reassure them than with a jaw-dropping rebrand?