Michal Konkol is a man who is always there, but who is never seen. The photographer has eternalized the most important moments in esports tournaments across the world for almost a decade. Although he’s most often found roaming the LEC studio in Berlin, Michal also covers titles such as Valorant and Counter-Strike, and he occasionally shoots content with esports teams as well. His fingerprints are all over the industry.

Shooting the perfect esports photos—Michal’s life revolves around it now. But at the start of his photography career, he never imagined esports would take over his life.

Into the League of Legends esports universe

“My first esports event was back in 2014. It was Gamescom,” Michal recalled. “Riot introduced the new Summoner’s Rift and they had recreated the map on the show floor. It was an amazingly detailed site.”

Michal had been playing games since he was six years old. When he started as a photographer, however, gaming was still just a hobby. In his home country, Poland, he focused on wedding photography and did occasional company event photography or concert photography in between. At Gamescom 2014, he discovered how many visual stories there were to tell in the world of esports.

“I was reading articles, looking for photos of players. I stalked all of the 50 players in the league.”

“The EU LCS Summer Split finals were held there too, behind a curtain. I walked around and tried to get some cool photos. Not even of the players popping off, but of people enjoying the game. Of couples hugging. You could tell that they were super invested”

His work at Gamescom piqued Riot’s interest. In December of that year, they reached out to Michal and asked him to try shooting some photos during EU LCS match days in the studio. The word ‘studio’ is particularly important, Michal noted.

“For a photographer, ‘studio’ means lights, a white backdrop, and so on. So, I came prepared for that studio shoot. When I came in, they showed me around the studio and I asked them where I would shoot. ‘Here,’ they said. That was the first moment I thought, ‘Holy shit. I’m completely unprepared for this.’”

Not entirely surprisingly to Michal, he didn’t receive the feedback he had hoped for. Surely this would be the end of the road for him, he thought. But he got a follow-up mail one day later. Riot gave him some pointers and he could come back one more time to work his magic.

Know your subject

This time, Michal threw everything else overboard and plunged himself headfirst into League of Legends esports.

“I barely slept for three days straight. I was watching VODs, I was making notes on every single player. What is their personality? What do people think of him? I was reading articles, looking for photos of players. I stalked all of the 50 players in the league.”

Michal also compared his work to that of other photographers in the scene. There weren’t that many, at the time, but a few inspired him and opened his eyes. People like Helena Kristiansson and Joe Brady taught him valuable lessons without ever needing to speak to him—their photos told the story. They captured the perfect emotion, the perfect moment.

“If I didn’t get an opportunity to talk with them, I look at how they act. When they are setting up, are they super focused? Are they joking with each other?”

In order to know when the perfect moment would arise in League of Legends esports, Michal had to do more homework. Michal turned to an unlikely source for the basics of the game: his twelve-year-old nephew. His nephew had been playing the game for a while and walked his uncle through the fundamentals of the MOBA. When Michal had the basics nailed, EU LCS analysts and casters provided additional information.

“Quickshot helped me immensely,” Michal said. “He explained different tactics, why teams suddenly go for Barons or fight for drakes, and why they sometimes don’t do anything and just farm. I learned that there is a much deeper strategy to the game than just running at each other and trying to kill your enemy.”

The homework paid off. One day after Michal’s second run at the studio, Riot sent him an email asking him to become their household photographer. It was the best email he could’ve asked for and it sent him on his long journey in League of Legends esports. But Michal is never done doing his homework. New players come and go, and at international events, he’ll meet players he didn’t have time to study beforehand. Media days help, and talking with team managers or sports psychologists informs him more about a player’s profile too.

“If I really didn’t get an opportunity to talk with them, I look at how they act. When they are setting up, are they super focused? Are they joking with each other? Just be very observant.”

Pulling the trigger

Being a good photographer in the end, of course, comes down to pulling the trigger at the right moment with the right equipment. Esports’ dark environments with flashing lights weren’t a challenge for Michal—he learned valuable lessons from shooting pictures at candle-lit Polish weddings and loud rock concerts. But mastering the craft itself took thousands of hours of work.

“I always say that I wasn’t born with an eye for photography,” Michal explained. “There are photographers out there that only know the basics of their camera, but they take one picture and it’s a masterpiece. It should hang in an art gallery.”

“I’m a very technical shooter. This is hard work and investing an insane number of hours to learn how to take a good photo. I love to go into the menu of my camera and explore every setting. Then I try to think about how I can incorporate it into my workflow.”

“I want the perfect hand placement. I want the perfect look in the eye. Some of my colleagues laugh at me, but I still don’t care.”

Michal’s approach comes from his background in IT. Whenever he sees a picture, he likes to deconstruct it to determine the angle, the lighting, the height of the camera, et cetera. During regular LEC days, he said, he shoots between six thousand and seven thousand photos. He shoots them on burst mode and dissects them all in order to find the perfect one.

“I want the perfect hand placement. I want the perfect look in the eye. Some of my colleagues laugh at me, but I still don’t care.”

On the topic of camera brands, Michal has an outspoken love for Sony, which he shot with for years. Recently, he switched to Canon, which caused a small riot among his esports photography peers, but allowed Michal to explore his job with renewed perspective—literally and figuratively. He also has an outspoken stance on the phrase ‘gear doesn’t matter’ in photography, which implies that a talented photographer can make any situation work with any given camera.

“Gear matters. If you have a crappy light situation and you don’t have proper gear, you will either get a terrible image quality or you won’t get the photo at all. Sadly, yes, gear matters. I’ve worked hard to be able to invest in the highest tier of gear available. It’s hard to surprise me with the conditions that I have to shoot in.”

What makes a Michal Konkol picture

So how does one recognize ‘a Konkol’? What makes a picture authentically his, and how does it stand out from other pictures taken at the LEC, League of Legends World Championships, or BLAST and ESL Counter-Strike events?

“My colleagues probably still think I’m a lunatic, but I love to shoot on a shallow depth of field,” Michal said. “This means that the background is very blurry. You can separate the subject from everything. Your focus instantly goes to that person.”

“I want it to be like how someone actually sees it. I want it to be true to life.”

In modern-day professional photography, finding an unedited picture is hard, if not impossible. Editing can be a great way to stylize pictures or emphasize the emotions that are caught on film. Michal has a nuanced approach to editing the colors of his pictures. He wants them to be as authentic as possible.

“I always want the photos to be as accurate on a color level as possible,” Michal said. “I’m not saying that other styles of editing are bad, but this is my style. I don’t use any special effects on the photo. I want it to be like how someone actually sees it. I want it to be true to life.”

But more than anything, a photo needs to tell a story. The phrase “a picture says more than a thousand words” rings true in every facet of the golden standard Michal sets for himself.

“You’re capturing the emotion of the competition. One of my all-time favorites is the photo of Uzi hugging the MSI trophy. If you know Uzi, you understand why this is such an important moment for him. After so many years of being second or third, he finally won his first international trophy.”

“But there are winners and losers. The one gripe that I have with photographers is that we do not focus enough on the losing team. You can get amazing losing photos. Some photographers have an ego and only want to go for the cool winning shot. That’s the one you’ll see everywhere. But you have to tell the whole story. I’ll happily take them, but I hope more photographers will do it too.”

Body images via Riot Games, BLAST, and ESL.