The beginning of the coronavirus pandemic impacted virtually every sport in some way. Basketball and hockey were suspended, baseball was postponed, the NFL faced massive concern over what would happen in the fall and being forced to move the draft virtual, etc.
The same thing happened in esports. The first big thing was IEM Katowice, the yearly tournament held in Katowice, Poland. It’s one of the biggest tournaments of the year, but in 2020, Katowice refused to allow an audience because of COVID-19. The Mid-Season invitational, one of two international events in professional League of Legends per year, was cancelled. So was Dota2’s The International, the tournament with the highest prize pool out of any esport.
While esports was, in many ways able to continue in 2020 by moving tournaments and leagues to an online format, it still wasn’t the same. Even ignoring the lag and other issues that can come from playing online, the atmosphere is very different when there isn’t a live event. There is no crowd cheering after every play, no chants, no team walking up to take the trophy after a successful run.
Slowly, the threads of pre-2020 have crept back in; both the LCS and LEC had live finals for their leagues. MSI is being held this year in Iceland, and while it won’t have a live crowd — similar to how the 2020 Worlds didn’t until the finals — that’s still a major step toward a so-called return to normal.
The absence of crowds is perhaps the most striking feature of these coronavirus-era leagues and tournaments. Esports crowds, like for other sports, are loud. Listening to the crowd’s reaction, especially to the big moments, has an emotional charge that cannot be achieved in a virtual format.
That charge doesn’t just impact fans, but it also impacts the players. Many players live for the roar of the crowd, for the energy of performing in front of all of those people — especially if it’s a situation where you have the majority on your side. But it can also be intimidating, especially for younger players and serious underdogs.
Would G2 have lost with a crowd? Would Gambit have won? There is truly no way of knowing; even if the second half of the year is all live tournaments — which seems very unlikely — there is no way to compare it to the first. The question of what would have happened if the pandemic wasn’t this year will always remain an asterisk in the history books by the name of every team who rose and fell in this unprecedented year.
In a few years, some sports show will ask if this year counts for the history books. Did these teams really win, they’ll ask, in circumstances so very different from what any other team that won that title faced? This is perhaps less the case in esports, since many of their matches would’ve been online anyway, but it’s still a question worth asking. How will the legacies of these teams, of the Los Angeles Dodgers, of DAMWON Gaming, of the Tampa Bay Lightning be changed because they won this year?
With more than half of Americans at least partially vaccinated and a quarter totally vaccinated, we are slowly moving back to a point where sports here can be in person again, even though many parts of the world are not quite at this point yet. As sports continues to move away from this year and the uncertainty and changes it forced, maybe the only question left is what the legacy of the teams that were the best in that unprecedented season will be.