League of Legends returns to grassroots with Tyler1 Championship Series

Tyler "Tyler1" Steinkamp (third from right) doing analysis on his stream of the Tyler1 Championship Series last weekend. Twitch.tv

It's been almost a month since the biggest match in League of Legends history. At the Bird's Nest in Beijing, China, Samsung Galaxy upended defending winner SK Telecom T1 in front of over 40,000 fans. Millions around the world tuned in to watch the final. International superstar Jay Chou and American rock band Against the Current performed the tournament's theme song "Legends Never Die." A crew of dancers flanked from the sidelines to put on a true spectacle. A giant-sized replica of the Summoner's Cup erupted from underneath the stage and prompted a CGI dragon to swoop into the Coliseum. From top to bottom, it was the most polished esports has ever been, the casters in their finest outfits, a sea of fans behind them, reinforcing how far League of Legends and competitive gaming as a whole have come in the past decade.

In Missouri, there is no extensive production crew. Tyler "Tyler1" Steinkamp, in front of a green screen, jumps out to greet his viewers on Twitch. Wearing a suit with the sleeves cut off, he welcomes the growing number of fans to the final of his own tournament, the Tyler1 Championship Series, where the winner will walk away with $10,000.

Over the next five minutes, he interviews his younger brother -- who's dressed in TSM gear -- sings the national anthem, and even has his own CGI dragon interrupt the opening festivities. The numbers keep growing, and by the time the best-of-three finals even begin, the live viewer count is nearing 200,000, a number unreachable for most esports tournaments, even ones backed by multimillion-dollar companies and sponsorships.

The Tyler1 Championship Series doesn't have any other sponsor besides Tyler1's own website, where he sells personalized merchandise, including his very own protein powder "Blood Rush," which is promoted throughout the final in short comedic commercials. The two teams playing in the final, Stream Dream Team (formerly Delta Fox of the North American Challenger series) and Team MLGB, despite being in the middle of a one-man show, are no jokes. Stream Dream Team is made up from some of the most decorated players in the NA LCS, and MLGB features young standouts from the region's solo queue ladder looking to break into the professional scene.

Over the next three hours, the two teams would play a back-and-forth series, with the youngsters prevailing over the veterans in the end. In the postgame interview wrap-up, Tyler1 has to cut off the broadcast prematurely due to his Discord not working. MLGB, the winners, new to being interviewed, do not have much to say. The show ends with the host dancing in front of his various green-screen backdrops, throwing glitter into the air, and bemoaning how the two seconds of celebration was not worth the cleanup he'd have to do later.

It wasn't polished. It fell off the rails, got back on at times, and then careened off the mountain. It ended with the winners sounding like they couldn't care less in the world, the host blaming Discord for not working, and then telling his fans that he'll "see them around" whenever he feels like streaming next. At the same time, it was humorous and a breath of fresh air from the norm. While what Riot Games has done over the past half-decade is incredible, taking its competition from dingy corners at conventions to some of the biggest sporting venues in the world, it's also left behind some of the magic that made people fall in love with the game and the competitive scene in the first place.

The TCS functioned as a parody of the LCS and as a legitimate amateur tournament with a sizable prize pool at the same time. If you tune into a Riot broadcast now, you know what to expect: well-spoken analysts, clean graphics, fans chanting "T-S-M!" and a South Korean team winning in the end. There are no loose ends. Riot has tightened its broadcast so well it can cater to a new fan just as well as to someone who has been watching before the LCS even existed.

That's why we need tournaments like the TCS. We need off-the-cuff casting at times. Tyler1, who is indefinitely banned from the game for past transgressions, couldn't even spectate the banning phase due to his inability to log into the client. When he was rightfully banned over a year ago for negatively affecting games, trolling, and getting a laundry list of accounts banned, he could have given up his career of streaming and moved on. Instead, the TCS has been a culmination of his attempt to change his identity, allowing amateurs from a team like MLGB to get their name out to a viewer base larger than most regular-season weeks of the LCS. Tyler1 recently announced that Riot Games would take another look at his case in 2018; if his probationary accounts are cleared of wrongdoing, his suspension could be lifted.

Esports is changing at a rapid pace, and companies like Riot and Blizzard need to keep up with it. In turn, we get to see things like the Overwatch League, a new Blizzard Arena in Los Angeles, and finals hosted all across the world in state-of-the-art arenas. But sometimes people don't want that. They want a guy in front of a green screen, wearing a long blond wig, singing the national anthem like it's a third-grade talent show that was put on without a supervisor.

I'm not saying we should long for the days of the past, where players barely got by and had to have side jobs to even travel to tournaments.

I'm saying that once in a while it's OK to roll up (or cut off) your sleeves, not worry about everything being perfect, and revel in the rough edges that made many fall in love with competitive video games to begin with.

At the end of the stream, Tyler1 announced TCS would become an annual competition. I for one will be watching, and with a viewership that maxed out at over 200,000 -- including various Riot casters, professional players and even owners of the new NA LCS franchises -- I know I won't be the only one.