LoL’s Live / Play doc director David Roth on telling personal stories via gaming’s universal language

Live / Play League of Legends documentary

Countless numbers log on every month to fight on Summoner’s Rift, but the anonymous nature of solo play means that players of League of Legends rarely see into each other’s lives. It’s a global community, but sometimes an atomised one where usernames and champion picks are the only visible part of an iceberg that goes much, much deeper.

Related: get more personal with the best League of Legends players.

Live / Play attempted to fill the void last year with a highly personal 40-minute insight into League culture from across the world. Now the series is back with a brand new cluster of episodes with an even greater plurality of subjects. The 2016 version is travelling to Korea’s PC bangs to meet ordinary players, and peeking behind the curtain at the lives of League’s YouTube celebrities. There’s a real sense that this second round of Live / Play is trying to capture the plurality of League’s following, and show us what wonderful variety of people drift within the game’s orbit.

I talked to David Roth, the series’ director, about why his take on Live / Play chooses to discuss the finer points of noodles in PC bangs as well as the backstage nail-biting of pro competitions. “It wasn’t a deliberate shift” Roth says of the first new episode of documentary, “it just sort of came together that way. We knew when were talking to people in Korea it would be fun to just show up and see what happens in PC bangs. What games are they playing? Are they just playing League of Legends or are they playing other games? And if they’re playing other games, what do they ask about?”

Live / Play League of Legends documentary

The short segment of Live / Play’s first episode focuses on the habits and motivations of young South Koreans in a communal space which doesn’t really exist in the west. It’s something which is unknown to many viewers. “The PC bang was a mix of people who are die-hard League of Legends fans, they’re there for 6 hours just playing game after game. And there’s people that just came for the food.” These snapshots are free from hard-hitting questions and rising tension, but are full of heart and still manage to intrigue. You’ll struggle not to let out a wry smile as one player imitates his mother and begins slapping his friend around the head. “It’s about getting to know someone and what they like, what they dislike, and why they came there that day.” says Roth. “Sometimes it was even really fun just to ask “Why are you here today?” Players would be like “oh I’m here because my mom was occupying the computer and I needed to just come here and chill out.”

Live / Play travels the world in search of these stories, and Roth and his team have been across the globe picking up League-based narratives from numerous continents. “I just always love learning about other cultures through the people who live there” says Roth. “It’s always about the people, I think that what excited me the most once we got the research going and we honed in on the stories. That’s the part that I enjoy: the opportunity to meet different people and be immersed in their lives.”

Meeting a plethora of players from around the world isn’t as easy as hopping on a plane and rolling the cameras; Roth has to gain his subjects’ trust and overcome numerous barriers, language often proving the steepest, to establish that necessary rapport.

Live / Play League of Legends documentary

“Our story about Bruce is coming out in the next episode and he didn’t speak English. There were times when we were hanging out that we didn’t have a translator, so we would use photos and things on our phones to try and talk to one another.” Roth speaks with a genuine warmth about the time he’s spent with each of his subjects, becoming animated with each tale. You get the sense that he sincerely misses their company, regardless of how difficult communication may have been. “I actually feel like we got to be pretty close – I still text him. There’s an app called WeChat which is sort of like WhatsApp except it will also translate. We’d be sitting next to one another texting each other. It was funny when I was trying to direct Bruce to do something highly specific and I’d say “no no no, walk here” and he’d look to me with his head cocked to the side, so I’d get my WeChat app out and text him instead.”

Translation apps aside, Roth also found that League itself is a kind of universal translator which transcends the cultural barriers he and his team were constantly traversing. “If I went to a PC bang and sat in front of the counter and started playing, I would meet friends that don’t speak English, and I don’t speak Korean. But the way we communicate within the game is all the same; we use pings and other things and there’s a certain language that we all speak. I think that is what’s great about the series – it kind of shows how much we have in common through this knowledge of the game.

Live / Play League of Legends documentary

“It’s exciting for me to see how far we’ve come over the course of the production and as a global gaming community. If you were to find yourself in Chile or Guatemala and you came across a League of Legends poster you can say ‘oh, I play Jinx’ and the locals might not understand ‘I play’ but they all understand Jinx. There’s something really awesome about that.”

Not everyone who makes documentaries about videogames also counts themselves as a player, but Roth has a deep experience of League which he sees as key to making a genuine, in-depth piece. “I like to say that I know League well enough but I can’t play it well.” Welcome to the club, David. “I was Bronze 1 at the beginning of the season. I mostly main bot and switch between support and ADC. I have to play the game so that when someone says ‘Oh I’m going to the river to gank bot’, I know what that means and how to respond to it.”

It wasn’t always this way for Roth, who was less clued-up when he was producing Patch Rundown for Riot a couple of years ago. “That was my foray into the game” he says with a gentle tone of self-deprecation. ”If you were to interview me two years ago I would have been like ‘yeah, I am totally lost’. But I’ve been playing the game for quite a while now so I like to say that I’m halfway decent at it.”

Live / Play League of Legends documentary

It’s clear David’s knowledge of the game, and ability to talk candidly about himself is having success with his interviewees. In the latest episode of Live / Play he talks to popular YouTuber Foxdrop, who talks intimately about his anxieties and the death of his mother. “It’s almost like a two way street with trust – the more personal you get, the more you build. They have to trust me, they have to know stuff about my life. I have to share stuff about me, my approach, what I like and what I dislike, because the more they get to know me the more they trust me.”

It can’t be easy for interviewees to open up about their deepest and darkest to a worldwide community, but according to Roth, the team takes the greatest care to ensure that their subjects are comfortable with the proceedings and the result is never exploitative. “We are very cognisant of people’s physical and mental health” he tells us. “There are going to be stories in episode three and episode four where we reveal something that even the person’s parents and best friend didn’t know about them and they’re nervous to let out in the open. Being trusted with that information is a monumental task, and we’re always double-checking, always triple-checking. We constantly ask if they are comfortable sharing these stories with us.”

Live / Play League of Legends documentary

“With Foxdrop we talked about his anxiousness. We were like, ‘Are you comfortable with this? We want you to take the train in, do you think you can take the train in?’ And he was told us he would do it, but when he got there he was like “I’m feeling really nervous, I don’t know if I can take the train any more.” It may not seem like a big deal to us but that’s a big deal to him. So it’s always a case of give and take. At the end of the day we need to be really happy with how our edits come together, but viewers still need to get a peek into their lives so it doesn’t feel forced or fake.”

So far, the Live / Play series is so person-focused that often it feels like League’s inclusion is incidental, but Roth feels that some distance from the game is necessary. “This is not a documentary about League of Legends, this is a series about players. I truly mean that and that’s how I pitched it [to Riot]. Are we going to have people playing the game? Yeah, of course, you can’t avoid that because if it’s a documentary about players.”

One gets the impression there were some internal discussions about the series and the focus of its content, but Roth is adamant about its player focus. “What makes Foxdrop’s story so interesting is him, not him playing League of Legends. It’s the personal stories you connect with. League of Legends was naturally a part of that story we never had to shoehorn it in. If you want to watch gameplay footage there’s tonnes of other content out there that both Riot community members make. We wanted to shed a different light on League, not just gameplay, not eSports, but on people who celebrate the game in unique and different ways.”

Live / Play League of Legends documentary

In this mode the Live / Play miniseries will continue over the coming weeks, bringing the stories of an amateur conductor, an aspiring pro player and even a photographer at the LCS in front of the camera. In all of these scenarios, it’s the personal relationships that have surprised Roth the most, and how League has come to shape lives beyond the stars of eSports. “I’ve come to appreciate how deep some of these relationships go.” he says. “ I like to say that I knew about it going into it. I was like ‘Oh, I know, people make friends.’ I’m sure you’ve heard before of people who’ve met their wife on League of Legends and got married because they started playing together. But when you hear those stories first-hand it’s a different thing. I don’t think I truly had an appreciation of that dynamic until I was sitting down with people and was taken aback by how deep those relationships went.”

The next episode of Live / Play airs on YouTube on Thursday, when more of these meaningful relationships will go on display to millions.