PARIS -- Since Carol Channing became the first celebrity to perform at the Super Bowl in 1970 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, the Super Bowl halftime show has been a staple in not only American sports but pop culture as well. Over the years, the stages have become grander and the stars have become brighter, with the halftime show establishing itself as the undisputed king when it comes to the intersection between the sports and music worlds.
The NBA, NHL and other sports leagues around the world have attempted to replicate the spectacle of the Super Bowl halftime show, but none has come close to matching the scale, viewership and innovation in the production of the year's biggest sports concert.
Riot Games' League of Legends pro games are the most watched video game competitions on the planet. Each year, Riot hosts the League of Legends World Championship, pitting the best teams in the game from across the globe in a monthlong tournament to crown a champion. Like the FIFA World Cup, the world championship is hosted in a different location each time.
The 2019 edition is taking place in Europe, with the group stages being held in Berlin, the quarterfinals and semifinals in Madrid, and the final between Europe's G2 Esports and China's FunPlus Phoenix happening at AccorHotels Arena in Paris on Nov. 10. The 2018 final, a clash between Europe's Fnatic and China's Invictus Gaming, brought in 99.6 million unique viewers, shattering previous records.
Viewers aren't tuning in to watch only the games, though. Starting in 2014, Riot Games began collaborating with musical artists to create anthems for every world championship that would be performed in an opening ceremony before the final. That year, with the final held at Seoul World Cup Stadium in South Korea, Imagine Dragons performed their anthem "Warriors" in front of a packed crowd.
Three years later, Chrissy Costanza and her band, Against the Current, performed "Legends Never Die" in front of nearly 50,000 fans at the Beijing National Stadium in China. During the concert, an augmented reality dragon descended from the top of the stadium and soared through the crowd before taking center stage, growling at the stunned audience trying to piece together how this all came together. Riot Games was awarded a Sports Emmy in Outstanding Live Graphic Design for the production, and the performance changed Costanza's life forever.
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"It was wild," Costanza told ESPN. "I perform on stage almost every day now, so I don't get stage fright or things like that, but [the opening ceremony] was a moment that was different from anything else. I definitely felt charged. There was so much energy in the room, it felt like there was too much energy in the room. It was like, 'How do you stabilize it?' So for the whole performance, I was just trying to center myself and actually tune out the crowd because I had never been in a situation like that."
Riot decided to expand its opening ceremony in 2018, partnering with Mastercard to be the official sponsor of the show. Riot also found a way to connect the performance to the game of League of Legends itself. Along with the annual worlds anthem, "RISE" featuring The Glitch Mob, Mako and The Word Alive (with a remix version centered around South Korean musical artist Kim "Bobby" Ji-won), Riot Games created its own League of Legends pop group by the name of K/DA.
K/DA starred American singers Madison Beer and Jaira Burns along with pop idols Cho Mi-yeon and Jeon "Soyeon" So-yeon of South Korea's all-woman group (G)I-DLE with their song "Pop Stars." The innovation? Each of the four artists was transported into the League of Legends world, with characters inside of the game becoming their avatars for the music video. So-yeon transformed into the neon-soaked ninja Akali, Mi-yeon into the flashy, fox-tailed Ahri, Burns into ranged hero Kai'Sa and Beer into the mysterious, purple-haired assassin Evelynn.
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Riot Games debuted the band with augmented reality at the 2018 final in Incheon, South Korea, the four animated characters dancing and singing together with their real-life counterparts. The outfits for K/DA were also made available for purchase inside the game.
"It's a pretty amazing experience to pull in all this different kind of talent together to create one specific experience in kinda our version of the Super Bowl halftime," Toa Dunn, head of the music department at Riot Games, said. "For us, it's really about how we can go bigger, better, but also how to stay core to our authentic experience for our fans and our players and what things they want to see."
For 2019's festivities, Riot Games is back with a slew of international acts for the opening ceremony. Costanza returned to partner with Cailin Russo for this year's anthem, "Phoenix." In terms of a successor for the smash hit K/DA, Riot is once again creating a group inspired by characters within the game, this time a hip-hop collective known as True Damage, with Soyeon reprising her role as Akali.
"[The Super Bowl halftime show] can take a lot from [the worlds opening ceremony] just from the diversity and inclusion of different cultures," Umar "Thutmose" Ibrahim, one of the members of True Damage, told ESPN. "You have Soyeon from South Korea. You have Becky G who is from [America], but she's also from the Latin world. I'm from Nigeria, born in Nigeria, and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. You [also] have [Jared] "Duckwrth" [Lee] and Keke Palmer. It's the diversity and inclusion [in True Damage] of two guys and three females embracing all different kinds of cultures. ... It's not just entertaining with fireworks and a bunch of stuff, it's what we can do that hasn't been seen before and take it to the next level."
True Damage's debut single, "Giants," will be performed during Sunday's opening ceremony, with a music video for the song also being released. The 2019 world championship final between G2 Esports and FunPlus Phoenix is currently one of the hottest tickets on the sports market. As of Saturday, the lowest-priced tickets to get through the door on third-party sites are over $200 with the most expensive tickets near the stage being offered for over $2,000.
"I'm not going to take away from the production levels of the Super Bowl [halftime show]," Duckwrth said. "I've always been thoroughly impressed and some of my favorite artists have performed at the Super Bowl. But I feel like this is just a different vein. They're both very grand productions, it's just this one is more around the realm of gaming and 3D, but I feel like technology-wise, this is a little more innovative."
The one area in which Riot Games has continually outdone itself and all other musical acts at sporting events has been the technology.
In 2017, it was the swooping dragon flying down from the heavens above.
Last year, it was an augmented reality South Korean pop group, with fans able to play the game as those same characters that night.
Riot Games won't spoil what's coming for Sunday's showcase, but has assured it won't be resting on its laurels -- something new and innovative is coming for the show in Paris and the millions of fans watching the broadcast around the world.
"This year, it's going to be a pretty insane and exciting performance," Dunn said. "We're about to use a medium that we really haven't used before to showcase the different artists and music for this year's True Damage and [opening ceremony] performance."