What's Going on With Squad?
Six years ago, I was sent to cover the LCS World Championship semi-finals at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Within the bowels of America's foremost sports stadium — where Knicks and Rangers mingle on game days — the rosters of SK Telecom and ROX Tigers prepped for one of the biggest matches of their lives. Bang, Faker, and Smeb were all in tow, grinding away at their strategies before ascending to the main stage in front of a packed house.
As a reporter, I had become numb to the muted, media-trained pablum dispensed by professional athletes; the filibusters at the podium that nobody seemed to enjoy. But this was different. Esports was different. These kids were affable, unscrupulous, and more than happy to say whatever was on their mind. Pro gaming is a young industry, unburdened by the decades of baggage that has calcified and isolated the NBA and NFL, so here I was, among some of the best League players in the universe, who were more than happy to take me behind the scenes.
Connor Tapp, senior video editor at Team Liquid, has been capturing that same euphoria across five seasons of SQUAD — a documentary serial filmed in conjunction with Liquid's League of Legends franchise. His camera goes everywhere; from high-leverage, white-knuckle title matches to the long, monotonous training sessions back at HQ. He'll corner Bjergsen for an interview in a beige hotel room on the eve before a bout, or catch the team unwinding in a neon-drenched afterparty or a fluorescent promotional photoshoot — the natural habitat for anyone who's ever made a career in esports. All throughout, Squad never feels hackneyed or contrived. It's a living document of the Team Liquid League of Legends brand, warts and all, as told by those who've never been afraid to share their thoughts.
"Certain players are more willing to talk and others are more quiet. They're all pretty young, and they grew up in this scene. Back in the day there was no HR, no PR training, it was pretty grassroots," says Tapp. "So Peter [Doublelift] is trash talking everybody. Everyone was saying whatever they wanted. It was pretty raw."
Tapp began his work on Squad on season two in 2018, a year that has been rendered retrospectively unrecognizable by the Covid calamity. It's worth watching if you've never dug into the back catalog, if only because it reveals just how transient the esports business tends to be. In one early episode, Doublelift and Olleh break bread over the former's, erm, aggressive candor during games and practices. We watch as the two world-class teammates patch up their relationship, and attempt to get on the same page ahead of a crucial split. It is a crucial therapy session in Summoner's Rift, because competitive League of Legends requires a fluent, empathetic mindmeld throughout the roster. ("I told him that I'm really sorry and that I'm going to fix it. He's way nicer to me. I'm an asshole," says Peter. "[When] Peter says sorry my heart will be fine," adds Olleh.) Squad captures all of the mechanical intrigue of pro gaming — draft orders, ban lists, team fights, and so on. But for the bulk of it, this show is about disparate personalities getting on the same page.
Of course, just a few short months later, neither of these players would be playing together for Liquid. That is one of the greatest challenges for Tapp. The LCS churns onwards indefinitely — roster turnover is an inevitable, ever-present reality — and if you're producing a television series about a team in the crucible, you'll constantly be introducing brand new faces to the audience.
"It's hard at times. Luckily we've held onto one or two of our players over the course of the years, so we keep that attachment to the fans. We've never had a massive five-man roster change, but it's hard to get fans attached to new additions," he says. "We want to get them invested in the whole scope of Team Liquid. Especially with bigger names like Bjergsen. We want them to fit into our brand, and our values, and show how they're fitting in with the team."
Tapp tells me that he's been able to create that intimacy with the roster through unconventional means. Ask any reality-TV producer; lining a mansion with whirring cameramen and expecting the cast to act natural is hard. Nobody feels like themselves while under surveillance. So how does he make sure Squad is able to document Team Liquid at its most candid? Simple, he hands off the cinematography duties to producer Mayron Baptista. The person hoisting the camera already has implicit trust among everyone within the Team Liquid family, and the roster doesn't hold anything back.
"He loves to get in their faces, he loves to really connect with them. In these really tense moments, they don't mind him being there filming some of the more personal struggles. There's been other times where we've done more fly-on-the-wall stuff, there's definitely a balance that needs to be struck. But overall, it depends on what they want. But if they're willing to actually interact with the cinematographer, that's the ideal."
This is the promise that Squad makes with the audience. No, you're not going to see everything. There are certain tender spots in every esports roster that are ought to be kept private to serve the best interests of the parties involved. But Tapp is happy to keep pushing the envelope as far as he can. One memory that stands out? A video from MSI 2019, when former Team Liquid coach Cain chucked a keyboard during a particularly lifeless scrim. "You don't see it, but you hear it. You hear him curse the team out in Korean," says Tapp. "That's the level of spiciness we try to tip-toe around. You want to make it dramatic. You want to make it entertaining."
Of course production of any kind is difficult when a pandemic is rolling across the country, especially a show that attempts to stay close with a League of Legends roster through international flights and tightly packed arenas. So, in the febrile months of March and February, as quarantine became a stark reality, Tapp was forced to think on his feet to keep the Squad alive and well. "It was pretty damaging and shocking to our production. At first we were like, 'Okay, we'll be back in a couple of weeks,' but obviously that didn't happen," he says. "So we had to quickly scramble. How do we still make content and document the season as it continues online?"
And so, Squad pivoted to an all-digital format. Gone were the visceral one-on-one interviews with the Liquid roster; instead, the production team had to talk to everyone through Zoom calls to seal off any contagions. Tapp remembers collaborating with a cinematographer to capture the eerie, abandoned streets of Los Angeles so the production team could place us right in the middle of that nervy, apocalyptic period of time. "We really wanted to document what it felt like for them to go home," says Tapp. After a few months, the team made its first tentative steps back towards in-person contact, replete with daily testing and social distancing. These aren't the ideal circumstances to shoot SQUAD, but frankly, nothing was easy in the dark days of 2020.
"It was a lot of balancing. How are we going to get this content while being safe? We came into the Alienware Training Facilities, so they were able to practice and play out there," says Tapp. "It stunk that we basically only saw them there, but it was nice that we could at least film them there instead of only talking to them over a webcam."
By and large, Team Liquid fans understood these precautions. After all, when bars are closed and restaurants are serving entrees in brown paper bags, esports tends to take a back seat. But when the League season revved back up in 2021 and 2022, some avid viewers were miffed that Squad didn't match the same relentless pace as it did before. There were fewer episodes, spaced out more infrequently, instead of the constant barrage of exclusive content that fans had gotten used to. Was this a result of budget cuts? A dearth of resources? A strategic pivot away from the show? Or worse, was the roster in the midst of an ugly meltdown that simply couldn't be safely uploaded to the YouTube channel?
No, not at all. Tapp says the lack of updates can be blamed on a much more positive reorientation in the esports industry. Simply put, he was feeling burnt out.
"The esports mentality of always grind, grind, grind is outdated. We want people to avoid burnout. Before we were grinding out episodes in a week. It was a really tough turnaround, and a lot of late nights," says Tapp. "We decided to limit that by splitting Squad up into three different series. We have the main Squad once a month, but then we have Vibes which is about the guys going out and having fun. And we have Deep Dives, where we dive into the analysis of games during our spring split."
Tapp understands that this pivot is a work in progress. Specifically, he's aware that some fans didn't gel with the Deep Dive format, because there is a hard limit on how much Team Liquid can give away strategically. (You don't want Cloud9 and EG to have access to the playbook, right?) Tapp wishes he communicated those changes to the community earlier, but he reiterates just how much work the previous schedule asked of him.
"I really feed the passion for my team, my passion for esports. And I feel a little bit like that was detrimental to my mental health. I had that imposter syndrome. Like, if I didn't work super hard then I didn't deserve to be here," explains Tapp. "There were definitely some episodes where I would stay up to five or six AM in the editing bay. There were other rare incidents where I worked for 24 hours straight."
It's an archaic, outdated mindset. Tapp knows it, as does everyone else in Team Liquid. For too long, the esports industry has been mired in a relentless, startup-ish hustle culture; one that is undoubtedly mirrored by the all-night solo-queue sessions that has forged countless professional gamers. But ideally relics like coercive overtime will become a thing of the past as the business becomes more professionalized. Tapp believes that to be the most important sea change in the industry, for himself and countless other career grinders. Given the recent reports from staff at TSM and Blizzard, it’s not too hard to see where Tapp is coming from.
"We felt like we had to really prove ourselves. That was a huge part of esports in the beginning. I think now that esports is in a pretty good place, and much more mainstream, with the scene growing everyday," he says. "We know we have to be on track and above board, and not overworking our employees."
Tapp has high hopes for the future of Squad. Content will be coming out at a steady cadence, as the new Team Liquid roster finds its footing after a shaky start. "The team just went to a boot camp in Korea, and we're putting out an episode on that next week," he teases. "They're feeling a lot more like a team."
Esports is magical because of its mirror-like transparency; how the same emotion that flares up in a random pick-up group translates to the grandest stages in the world. Tapp is open about his struggles with burnout because, in the business of gaming, a part of the culture is sharing your journey and airing your anxieties. That's what Squad is about, for those on each side of the camera. A more well-rested production team will continue to bring fans new content, to explore the laughs, the jeers, the triumph, the devastation; as much of the beauty and the agony of esports as time and energy will allow them to show. This industry has undergone countless transformations over the last few decades. Surely we can stamp out burnout while keeping the camaraderie alive.