Before the cancellations came the jokes.
Humor is often a more-than-adequate shield for dealing with a surprising amount of bleakness and situations beyond our control, and the competitive gaming community's response in the face of coronavirus was no exception.
Self-isolation? Good luck getting a professional League of Legends player to go outside on a good day. They're already prepared for social distancing. This will be the time of the gamer. Across the world, esports leagues have converted from live, ticketed events at a variety of venues to fully online operations.
The competition continues, but it's not as simple as the memes make it seem.
"Obviously it's the main topic of discussion," Team SoloMid general manager Parth "Parth" Naidu said of the ongoing pandemic, "so when the U.S. became the highest number of cases, everyone was kind of talking about it. People like to assume that gamers like to stay in all day and don't do anything, but there are a lot of amenities that players and orgs are used to, such as the food being taken care of and general connection with each other, that they just don't have. All of the players on our team are responding slightly differently to the dynamic."
Playing online might be the norm for most players, but it is a completely different environment than usual for the pros in North America's League of Legends Championship Series. Ping becomes an issue. Communication isn't as easy. Currently, LCS teams and players are just trying to do what they've always had to do in-game on a much greater, real-life scale: adapt.
"It definitely felt weird," Golden Guardians support Choi "Huhi" Jae-hyun said. "Because nobody has had something like this before. We had to go home, and we were told to buy some groceries and stay at home. It was definitely nerve-wracking and just a new experience. Seeing my teammates on the webcam and having a review like that is still a pretty weird feeling."
The LCS is usually based out of Riot Games' state-of-the-art production studio in Santa Monica, California. The league took a week off when California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order for the state, but the LCS was back up and running the next week as a fully online production. The League of Legends European Championship followed the same trajectory in Berlin. In Shanghai, the LoL Pro League took a lengthy hiatus starting at the Lunar New Year holiday and returned with teams playing out of their team houses. Some LPL players are just now making their return trips to team houses from more affected areas such as Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei Province.
Like the majority of the workforce fortunate enough to be able to work from home, LCS players and staff rely on video conferencing and screen-sharing capabilities within a variety of communication software to emulate being in the same room. It pales in comparison to discussing in person as a group.
"The biggest factor is not being able to see each other when we're scrimming," Immortals bot laner Apollo "Apollo" Price said. "Having those scrim discussions online is just a lot. It's less engaging. You can get distracted a lot easier if you're by yourself and in your room scrimming after the actual game. Being at the office with everyone practicing is a much better environment, obviously."
That goes for management as well. Even higher-ups at TSM have had to change their approach, Parth said; it's not just a game-centric problem.
"In terms of just practice schedule, the schedule stays pretty much the same, but it's hard because you're no longer in person," Parth said. "You have to do everything over video conferencing, and it's a new dynamic. You're not talking to the player face-to-face, so the entire dynamic of coaching and players is different. If you're scrimming in an office, everyone is there: You eat food together, you have conversation between games, just the dynamic of practice is entirely different online. It just feels more relaxed and not as buttoned-up."
Matches themselves carry a similar weight to stage games, but players' reactions, especially postmatch, are dulled due to the lack of teammates, staff or fans nearby. FlyQuest jungler Lucas "Santorin" Larsen said teams were definitely still taking the games seriously, and he was personally excited that he and his team made playoffs, but said the lack of human connection dampened the emotional rush after an important victory.
"We just won a game. We just made playoffs. I'm not hyped at all," Santorin said, laughing. "I'm just sitting in my chair going, 'Hm, OK.'"
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The reason is obvious. Being around teammates lets players feed off their energy. There are people, from fellow competitors to fans, to actually celebrate with after a big win.
"Actually playing the stage match, it really is just a middle ground between playing scrims and playing onstage, like actually playing onstage," Apollo said of online play. "I'm more comfortable, but I'm still just as engaged as I usually am when I'm playing onstage. I still get the same kind of nerves as I normally do, not in a bad way, but just the standard. There's a little bit less adrenaline, a little bit less energy, obviously, because there's no fans and it's a little bit different. I'm still glad that we get to play, but it's a little weird. I obviously haven't experienced anything like this since I started playing."
More than half of the professional players in the LCS are not from the United States. That means that there's a looming possibility they won't be able to return to their home countries for a long time, especially with a mere three weeks between the LCS spring finals and the start of the summer split. It's not nearly enough time for a quarantine period, even without considering the web of travel bans across the world.
"Everyone doesn't really like it, but it's preferable to continuing to play onstage while all of this is going on," Golden Guardians coach Nick "Inero" Smith said. "I think people are pretty fearful overall of anything with it, especially our guys coming from overseas. They're not the biggest fans of potentially being stuck somewhere else because they got sick and can't go home."
Santorin, who is Danish, is one of the players who wants to leave the country but knows he can't take the risk. Even if all went well, the off chance that he wouldn't be allowed to come back to the U.S. or wouldn't be able to compete is an unmanageable roadblock.
"I'm not a big fan of being here right now, and I know that it's only going to get worse for a bit too," Santorin said. "This is going to last for many months, so I'll probably be stuck here for a while. When we were supposed to have offseason, I'm not sure if I'm allowed to go to Denmark or Canada or wherever is available. I'm pretty upset about that. If someone actually gets corona during playoffs, I don't know what they're going to do about that. Suddenly just one team can't perform."
Teams are trying to accommodate players who would be more comfortable away from the Los Angeles area. As of Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 7,000 coronavirus cases in California, the third most in the country. Parth said that, for example, Team SoloMid Academy mid laner Jackson "Evolved" Dohan had requested to return to Canada and play from his home there.
"We just won a game. We just made playoffs. I'm not hyped at all. I'm just sitting in my chair going, 'Hm, OK.'" Lucas "Santorin" Larsen, FlyQuest jungler
"Absolutely, it's trying for everybody involved," 100 Thieves general manager Christopher "PapaSmithy" Smith said. "We've tried to provide all the resources we can to provide that support. It's just about making sure that every player understands that they're being listened to.
"There's no correct way to process what's going on. You need to acknowledge the reality, and how you process it is going to be super individual. We let everyone know that they're loved and valued and that there's people to talk to."
Travel issues and other concerns about the virus were underlying reasons that nearly two-thirds of the LCS player base had expressed that they would rather cancel the spring split entirely than play it out.
"I already mentioned it, but I feel like they should have canceled the split," Santorin said. "I know it was really late into the season but know a lot of players would have preferred to be ready for summer instead and be where they want to be. Especially since, let's say a family member of mine got sick from coronavirus, it really sucks not being able to see them, and they could potentially pass out and die. And I wouldn't be able to be there for anything, not even the funeral."
Last year, Santorin's grandfather died while FlyQuest was in the hunt for a playoff spot. Santorin was torn between staying in the United States and finishing out the split and ultimately decided to stay.
"Having the possibility of something like that happen again is definitely not something I want to think of too much," Santorin said.
With the split continuing, the main concern for team managers and staff is ensuring that players' lives are as normal as they possibly can be under the circumstances.
"The reality settled in quickly," PapaSmithy said. "I think the thing it really tests is the level of harmony and just how strong your processes are without optimal setup. It rips out a lot of band-aids and forces you to exist in one reality and tests you on that.
"I think a lot of people have wondered what our strength is as a team. Our strongest quality is how close the group is. The fact that they're willing to confront problems. It's a close-knit group that's happy to problem-solve together and happy to call each other out."
100 Thieves went 5-1 in the final three weeks of the LCS, continuing to improve week by week, regardless of whether they were onstage or online. PapaSmithy credited the team's steadiness to the fundamentals. "We just have a group that has their eyes on the prize, and in these trying times those things are actually so important."
Apollo's team, meanwhile, narrowly missed the cut for the spring playoffs, but the roster and staff recognize that there are more important things to consider going forward: for one, keeping everyone safe going into this brief break and preparing for the summer split.
"Our org is taking care of us," Apollo said of Immortals. "They're really the heroes, our management, just making sure that we're fully provided and we don't have to worry about anything else. All they ask from us is to not go outside and not interact with anyone."