Amid a global pandemic, Riot Games flew 22 teams from across the world into Shanghai for the 2020 League of Legends World Championship. The tournament, commonly abbreviated as Worlds, concluded late last month with the South Korean team Damwon Gaming (DWG) defeating the Suning team from China 3:1 in the final.
Favourites DWG had won consistently prior to the World Championship, beating the two other teams from China during the tournament.
DWG’s victory means the League of Legends title is heading back to Korea for the first time since 2017. Teams from China have won the previous two finals but in total, Korean teams have won six of the 10 League of Legends world championships.
Backed by the Chinese retailer of the same name, Suning’s team member Zhang Kangyang called the competition a “glorious defeat”. Despite losing, the underdog made a record-breaking “five kills” in the finals, strong performance as an eSports team representing the Chinese league for the first time.
From the popularity of the Asian Games in Jakarta to the Worlds, eSports has become a global phenomena that continues to draw in more fans. Overcoming the disruptions created by the pandemic, Worlds 2020 has also provided a template of how eSports tournaments can operate under socially-distanced circumstances.
Tencent-owned Riot Games, the developer of League of Legends and the company responsible for hosting Worlds, held this year’s tournament in China. According to its CEO Nicolo Laurent, Shanghai was “the only city that could host the League of Legends global finals at this time”.
Worlds 2020 had to undergo several changes due to the pandemic. Riot Games had originally planned to host a multi-city tour through China in July, celebrating the 10th anniversary of League of Legends as a worldwide eSport.
Instead, the tour was cancelled and it was decided the entire tournament would take place in Shanghai without spectators.
Tom Martell, the global director of operations for eSports at Riot Games, spoke to ESPN about the change of plans. “This allowed us to reduce travel over the course of the event and gave us the ability to more closely control the event environment to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved,” he said.
While venue adjustments presented challenges, the main difficulty was bringing the qualifying teams into Shanghai.
Flying in from countries’ with different Covid-19 infection levels, the teams were vulnerable to contagion during travel. Therefore, their flights were routed on paths with the lowest risk, and all teams were required to quarantine for 14 days in the same hotel upon their arrival in Shanghai. In total 22 teams arrived safely, with the exception of the two Vietnamese teams – GAM Esports and Team Flash – both of which were unable to attend due to domestic travel restrictions.
Players were free to leave their hotels following a 14-day quarantine.
As hosts Shanghai came up with activities to drum up excitement for Worlds 2020 – and to make up for the lack of a live audience. The city hosted a light show, livestream events and erected an augmented reality viewing platform under the Oriental Pearl TV Tower.
Although Worlds 2020 was able to adapt to the pandemic, the eSports industry has seen its previously rapid growth somewhat checked by Covid-19.
Analytics company Newzoo estimates that 2020 global eSports revenue will be $950.3 million, a slight decrease from $957.5 million a year earlier. The minor loss in revenue comes as some eSports events have either been postponed or cancelled. Live tournaments would regularly draw income from ticket sales as well as on-site merchandise purchases.
While events have faced delays and cancellations, the organisers and audiences – the supply and demand in the sector – for eSports has not diminished. When the pandemic eventually subsides, Newzoo predicts that revenue growth for eSports globally will reach $1.5 billion by 2023, a roughly 50% rise.
Martell also sees opportunities in fully virtual experiences – where the entire audience watches tournaments via livestreams. “The exciting element of taking this approach is we’re effectively unconstrained by physics or the bounds of reality,” he remarked.
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