League of Legends Worlds 2020 in Jeopardy Due to China Coronavirus Sports Ban
League of Legends esports fans were dismayed this morning to learn that China had banned all international sports competitions in the country for the remainder of 2020 due to the non-improvement of conditions around the coronavirus outbreak. With Worlds 2020 set to take place in Shanghai later this year, Worlds is potentially at risk.
While Riot Games has yet to comment on the issue, as late as yesterday Tencent stated that plans were still in place to run the event in Shanghai. This was before the news broke this morning, however.
What Are the Options for Worlds Without China in 2020?
With the ban in international competition due to COVID-19, Worlds likely won’t be allowed to go ahead in its traditional form. There are a few options that Riot could employ to ensure the competition still goes ahead as scheduled to ensure that there is still a World Champion in 2020.
The first option would be to relocate Worlds. However, due to the late-in-the-game nature of China’s decision, the clock is ticking for Riot. They are likely scrambling to have meetings and decide this very issue right now – options for relocating include Europe or Korea, both areas where the coronavirus has largely been controlled and contained. What is not at all an option would be the U.S., where the coronavirus has been allowed to more or less grow unchecked and unrestrained due to poor policy decisions and a lack of adherence to social distancing and mask-wearing.
Should Riot choose to relocate to Europe or Korea, it would be seen as a huge boon for either the LEC or LCK, the former hosted last year, and the latter next year. However, it’s unlikely that even if the event does relocate, it would be held in a large stadium venue, despite its fans’ wishes. While some sporting events have indeed resumed in Europe with spectators, it’s getting to be a bit late for Riot to secure the proper venue for an event at the scale of League of Legends Worlds, especially for more than just the finals. If they were to secure anything this late in the game, it would likely be for one day, just for the Grand Finals, with the rest of the event taking place in a studio, with or without spectators.
This also could prove problematic for teams traveling from North America. However, there is currently a travel ban in place due to the prevalence of coronavirus. As of yesterday, the U.S. set a single-day record of new coronavirus cases with over 66,000. Europe at the same time barely crested 10,000 collectively, with some countries down in the hundreds range. This fact alone could make Worlds difficult to host in any country, regardless of whether it is hosted traditionally.
Another option would be to move the event to the UK, which does not currently have a travel ban on folks from the U.S. There is a catch. People traveling from the U.S. must self isolate for 14 days. That’s two weeks without scrimming in person, meeting with their team, being able to scrim against other teams, participating in media shoots for Worlds, the list goes on. While it’s certainly doable, as there is a window between the end of the LCS season and Worlds, usually for preparation. It could leave LCS teams at a serious disadvantage compared with their brethren from other leagues. Of course, when faced with that or the prospect of not competing in Worlds at all, teams might not choose.
There are only a few places in the world that have defeated coronavirus: Japan and New Zealand. Japan does send a Worlds representative so that the event could be hosted there in a small studio, and the same with AUS/NZ. Of course, this means that players will have to self-isolate for 14 days, but it’s better than the alternative. It would also be a unique opportunity for these regions to host Worlds, as they have never been big enough to be considered. Japan comes with its host of challenges, most notably dealing with the Japan Esports Union, but that’s a hurdle to cross when and if the decision comes down.
With EU out, and the UK only being a suboptimal choice, that leaves the third option, and it’s one that no one wants to consider: Online.
Could Worlds 2020 Be Run Entirely Online?
Given all the difficulty around COVID-19 and the massive impact it had on the esports industry, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if Riot did decide to pull the online event card. After all, it would ensure that the event could happen at all, and would surely be safer for fans around the world and players and staff to play from either the comfort of home or some solution Riot sets up in the same region.
The only thing that Riot has to worry about is whether online play should count the same as an offline event, due to lag, the lack of stage pressure, and many other factors that go into making an online event suboptimal for judging who is the best. There are also integrity concerns. It’s a lot less possible for Riot to referee matches with these players if they are not standing directly behind them or have the ability to inspect machines for potential cheats that Riot’s anti-cheat software might not detect.
Even if the event is run online, the broadcast would not be the same. The fan experience, something that Riot prides itself on every year, would not be remotely the same. In the middle of a pandemic, it’s probably not supposed to be, though. Is maintaining the status quo of having a world champion in a year where almost every league was playing online anyway important enough to jeopardize the integrity of the entire competition in the first place? If the answer’s no, there’s only one solution: delay the entire event.
What a Delay into 2021 for Worlds 2020 Might Look Like
Riot’s direct competitor, Valve, delayed The International 2020 into 2021, essentially creating a long break between competitions and inserting itself where the first leg of next year’s DPC went.
Should Riot follow the same model, something similar could be done and replace the Spring Split, a split traditionally seen as far less important than the Summer and Worlds season, with 2020’s competition. Of course, this would create a scenario where there are two Worlds competitions in 2021. Still, it could also lead to one of the best years in League of Legends history, as there would be perhaps the most international competition seen in a single year in quite some time.
League of Legends has been the top dog in esports for quite awhile. Riot’s grasp on this title has been mostly solid, but always tenuous because it would be challenging in the form of other games, like Dota 2 and others. However, should they not host an event this year, or attempt to host one and be subpar, Riot could lose their grasp on this title – something they’ve been desperately trying to avoid for years now.