League of Legends Column; Esports faces coronavirus-related challenges in 2021

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2021 has begun, and with it, many of the biggest esports in the world are beginning their 2021 schedules. Dota2’s Dota Pro Series has returned following an absence last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Spring Split for League of Legends is starting in the various regions and CS:GO’s year is beginning with the BLAST Premier Global Finals.

The challenge of trying to return to a semi-normal competitive schedule with a pandemic still raging is something that every esport is trying to deal with. This increases in difficulty when you consider that the pandemic’s current level of severity varies across regions. The precautions North America must take are different from the precautions that must be undertaken in China or Korea or Europe.

It’s still a few weeks until the start of the Spring Split for the LCS, though teams are currently competing in the Lock-In tournament, which is a kind of pre-season tournament for prize money and charity donations but has no impact on the actual season, and two teams have already had to deal with Coronavirus cases.

Since the LCS takes place in Los Angeles, a state that is currently suffering heavily from the COVID-19, the news last week that two different teams had positive test results is not shocking but does very easily outline the reason that the LCS will continue to be remote this split.

CLG confirmed last week that at least one player on their team had tested positive, although they made no changes to the roster for Lock-In based on that, and reports surfaced that Dignitas was also dealing with COVID-19 cases, a fact the team has yet to confirm or deny. The fact that before the season has even begun one to two teams are already dealing with COVID-19 cases is not a great sign for esports for this year, particularly in North America.

In other places, like the LPL in China — which began its Spring Split already this month — games are back to being played in person with both teams on the stage, the way most regions typically run. The LCK, like the LCS, has continued to be remote, with most teams playing from team houses.

The biggest issue is that with COVID-19 being an evolving situation it is impossible to tell what the rest of the season will bring. Last year, it was easier for esports to adapt to the ever-changing situation when compared to traditional sports like basketball and baseball. This was enough to keep esports functioning well during the pandemic. Now, the focus will and must be on how tournaments and leagues continue to implement safety protocols and ensure that players are staff are safe even a full year into this pandemic, even as we slowly begin the arduous process of vaccinating the world.

There are also potentially indirect impacts of COVID-19 which are also going to be bad for teams. A number of teams signed new international players during the off-season; Cloud9 signed Perkz, CLG signed Finn and Broxah, Team Liquid signed Santorin, TSM signed Swordart and more. This, of course, means that as usual teams must deal with issues relating to visas, which has become a staple issue in the off-seasons but which is likely exacerbated by travel restrictions and quarantine requirements due to the pandemic.

Finn, Broxah and Santorin have all had visa issues, though Finn and Santorin have both confirmed that they’ve received visas and Santorin made it to California after only missing a few games of the Lock-In tournament. Broxah, on the other hand, has seemingly not received his visa yet, another bad sign for CLG, who has not had the best month.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging in Los Angeles, time will tell if this is the end or just the beginning of the struggles the LCS will have to face this year with COVID-19.

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