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I rolled up back to my old home at 4:30 a.m. on the dot. Usually, I run a bit late, but today, not only was I watching the 2021 League of Legends World Championship final, but I was doing so at the League Championship Series Studios. So it may have been early, but I was right on time.

I eagerly grabbed my backpack and my camera bag, almost skipping toward the front door. My best friend and coworker, Nick Ray, was by my side, and we were greeted by a few old friends who had just arrived themselves. After a quick security check, I went off to re-explore the LCS studio before the games began.

The LCS Studio sign
Even after the sun began to rise, the sea fog kept the morning dim. | Photo by Parkes Ousley/Upcomer

It’s been 20 months since I was last in the home of the LCS, and seeing again for the first time was nearly breathtaking.

But the magic didn’t last.

An empty LCS studio

Back in January of 2018, I entered that arena for the first time in my life. I had been doing remote esports work for quite a while, and I’d been a long-time fan before that. I still remember walking into this place I had only seen on my computer screen, knowing that I was taking the next big step in my career and in my life.

From 2018 to 2020, I went to the LCS Arena weekly during the season, interviewing players, hanging with fans, networking with team staff and more. For those few years, I spent nearly 20 hours a week there. Over time, I became one with the crowd, and let me tell you, attending LCS in person is entirely different than watching the games on a screen.

At the end of 2018, I went and covered the entire World Championship in South Korea, from the play-in stage all the way through to the final. I spent almost seven weeks there. It was completely unreal. The crowd was amazing, there were iconic players everywhere and the final, from the opening ceremony to Invictus Gaming’s 3-0 sweep of Fnatic, was mesmerizing.

But the series today, as incredible as it was, felt empty. The hype five-game series with an unexpected underdog win was accompanied by a sort of slowness from the absence of energy where we were watching it.

Before we could even settle in, that small group of friends who greeted us had to leave. Something came up for them that required a trip back home, and they weren’t making a return. I looked around, and the venue was empty; there was only a small handful of media present. No casters, no players, no coaches or fans or LCS pets or anything.

I got slapped by reality. Returning to the LCS studio sent me back in time to “Before.” For some reason, I had expected everything to be normal again. But that isn’t the reality in 2021, when an ongoing pandemic has locked up travel worldwide and prevented that in-person magic that esports events can have.

An empty LCS Studio during Worlds 2021
There’s a sea of chairs in place of a crowd, with only four press members at the venue. | Photo by Parkes Ousley/Upcomer

As Edward Gaming and DWG KIA took to the crowdless stage halfway across the world in Iceland, Nick and I became the crowd for our own empty stage amidst the palpable void that was the LCS studio. There were about eight people in the entire arena, including media, PR and other Riot staff. It was surreal.

It’s almost as if the studio itself wanted more. I have seen some incredible games in that place. The Cloud9 vs. TSM semifinal series in the summer of 2018 where the “Swole Bros” came back from a 2-1 deficit to overtake TSM. The Clutch Gaming/Dignitas series to reverse-sweep TSM in 2019 to qualify for Worlds. And so many more.

The LCS Arcade sitting empty during Worlds 2021
Fans typically occupy all of the LCS Arcade computers for ARAMs during the season. | Photo by Parkes Ousley/Upcomer

This place is used to life and energy and noise. It’s used to a swarm of fans huddled under a giant Team Liquid tent in the parking lot while FlyQuest reps hands out boomsticks and save people from the (rare) Los Angeles rain.

This arena is nachos and “Donger Dogs” and fans cheering in the stands as 100 Thieves take down CLG. It’s loud countdowns as the teams take to the Rift, the casters competing with the crowd beside them.

But today, there was no crowd. The Red Bull fridges were nearly empty. The stage was barren.

An empty Red Bull fridge at the LCS during Worlds 2021
There are tiny Red Bull fridges all over the press room, but today they sat empty. | Photo by Parkes Ousley/Upcomer

Even the legendary playlists in the LCS bathrooms were gone. It was no longer a trip down memory lane. No 90s jam, no Harry Potter theme song, no early 2000s video game classics, just a silent, tiled room. It was eerily quiet, but as I washed my hands, music finally started playing, almost as a soft apology for its absence.

I guess maybe it’s my fault for expecting more, but before arriving, I really felt like this was going to signify the start of a new beginning. In my head, this was a sort of rebirth for the LCS and my own personal League esports journey. But that was just a figment of my imagination, just as DK winning Worlds was.

Celebrating Edward Gaming

“It’s like a curse,” said Xander Torres of Nerd Street Gamers, the only other press member to attend the event in its entirety. “We have our best final yet, and there’s no one here.”

And he was right.

Across the globe in one direction, EDG celebrated their record-breaking series with no crowd. And in the other, China celebrated with no stage, though fans found their own way to come together with Worlds celebrations across the country. And in Los Angeles, everyone just slept, it seems.

“We miss seeing you in person,” James “Dash” Patterson said in the closing moments of the Worlds broadcast. “But hopefully we’ll be back together in arenas next year, because nothing beats the roar of the crowd and feeling the stadium shake as we share in great moments together.”

A mural of the LCS 2021 Summer MVP, blaber
Fans will likely never see the LCS MVP mural commemorating Blaber’s 2021 spring performance in-person as new art overtakes it in 2022. | Photo by Parkes Ousley/Upcomer

And that’s what I missed. That shared experience with friends and strangers alike, watching something we all believe in, and cheering ’til our lungs give out.

My feeling on Saturday wasn’t bad, necessarily. And if the world continues healing, we’ll all be back in that studio with pros on the stage and a crowd in the stands in just a few months. Los Angeles just passed a COVID-19 vaccine mandate; the virus’s spread, we hope, will continue to slow, and we’ll eventually return to something close to that normal I wanted as I walked through the doors this morning.

But for today, it was just a shame that after one of the best Worlds finals of all time, EDG couldn’t celebrate their victory with the crowd by their side. That empty LCS studio was just another reminder that we’ve still got a ways to go.