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How to train your (AR) dragon: Inside the design of the League of Legends World Championship Finals opening ceremony

Giant AR dragons, hundreds of performers, thousands in the audience, millions of viewers: welcome to the League of Legends World Championship Finals opening ceremony, the first eSport-related event to win a Sports Emmy. And New Zealander Robin Rawstorne had a key role in putting it all together.

It’s a sight one does not easily forget: an enormous, fearsome dragon, flying down into a stadium smack in the middle of Beijing that’s packed full of people. Even more terrifying, the thousands of people in attendance can’t see it; they have no idea of the danger they are in.

Fortunately, the dragon isn’t real – it’s a massive augmented reality (AR) element that forms a key part of the 2017 League of Legends World Championship Finals opening ceremony in the famed “Bird’s Nest” (which, of course, also hosted the opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics) in Beijing.


Behind the spectacular opening ceremony – which was watched online by millions of people worldwide (eSports are a huge entertainment draw, especially in Asia – the entire tournament drew around 60 million unique viewers) – was New Zealander Robin Rawstorne.

“The exposure is enormous,” he says while back in Aotearoa before heading off again for work in China. He adds people have an innate love of watching things live, a tradition that goes back to the spectacles of the Roman Empire and even earlier. “There’s something special about it.”

Also heavily involved in the 2011 Rugby World Cup opening ceremony here in Aotearoa and one of the key forces behind the eponymous Rawstorne Studio (established in 2007 by Rawstorne and creative producer Sarah Johnson, and recognised for work in the fields of exhibition design, installations, performance, live events, advertising, production and interior design while establishing working partners in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong and boasting clients including museums, advertising agencies, theatre, dance and opera companies, local government, art trusts, festivals, corporate and private companies), Rawstorne says the League of Legends performance incorporated no fewer than 200 human performers, as well as singers including Taiwanese megastar Jay Chou.

But despite all that going on – and all those moving parts and technology and the sheer size of the venue (the Bird’s Nest, also known as Beijing National Stadium, can fit more than 80,000 people) – Rawstorne says the ceremony still needed to be a “human” story people could feel a closeness and connection to. “This is a movie we’re making effectively,” he says. “There’s a very large volume of space. The scale isn’t the issue – it’s how you use the space. One of the great challenges was how we put humans and AR together. It’s an interesting dialogue. We’re constantly learning and evolving.”

Of course, there is that dragon – which is what most people have been buzzing about. Yet the AR dragon – made by Passion Republic and modelled after an Elder Dragon that appears in the League of Legends game (because let’s be honest: having Smaug or Eragon from the famous books but much less famous film swoop down from the sky just wouldn’t make sense) – was only visible to broadcast audiences. Needless to say, the design process took months. “We know people have used AR, but is hadn’t been used like this before,” says Rawstorne. “It really has the potential for magic. That’s what’s so exciting about this technology. We can merge the live and the virtual.”


But the technology in designing the opening ceremony also went far beyond the dragon, as jaw-dropping as the moment was for audiences. According to Rawstorne, laser scans of the Bird’s Nest were made about six months before the opening ceremony (which took place on November 4), allowing the creation of a 3D map that could be used to help better coordinate who and what would be where at certain times inside the venue – and what exactly would be happening. “The show was literally built inside a computer,” says Rawstorne. “It’s about being seamless with the technology.”

With teams in Aotearoa, China and the United States, being able to seamlessly work across great distances with the technology was key. “It was months and months of development.”

It certainly paid off. Not only did the opening ceremony garner rave reviews, but it also won the Outstanding Live Graphic Design category at the 39th Sports Emmy Awards – the first time an eSport-related event has won a Sports Emmy.


Rawstorne says the win means a lot for the entire team behind the opening ceremony. “It was a team-wide effort. I take it as incredible validation of our hard work.”

As fantastic as the technological advancements have been – particularly the development of AR – Rawstorne is quick to point out that there’s still a need to have a compelling human element in live performances, which can be integrated with technology but should still also be able to stand on their own. “Live still brings something very special to the human consciousness.”

It just maybe feels extra special when there’s a giant dragon flying about.

Some of Rawstorne's previous work as a senior stage designer with the renowned McDonald Studio London.

Some of Rawstorne's previous work with the McDonald Studio.

Some of Rawstorne's previous work with the McDonald Studio.

Some of Rawstorne's previous work with the McDonald Studio.

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