Less than two weeks before the start of China's League of Legends Pro League spring season, the first reports of a cluster of pneumonia cases emerged from Wuhan, China.
What we now know as COVID-19 or the coronavirus was a mystery then, with officials taking notice of the Wuhan cluster on Dec. 31, 2019, and the first death from the new virus on Jan. 9 making international news.
On Jan. 13, Invictus Gaming and FunPlus Phoenix faced each other in the first LPL match of the 2020 competitive season. That same day, the first case of COVID-19 outside of China was reported in Thailand. What followed was a complete shutdown of play in the LPL and its developmental league, the LDL, and League of Legends competitive esports became just one of myriad sports that have been affected or temporarily shut down because of the pandemic.
Just as traditional sports have returned thanks to the creation of limited entry bubble-style environments and attempts at social distancing and limited crowds, so too has the biggest esport on the planet. The League of Legends World Championship, held in Shanghai, will begin Thursday with 22 teams from around the world going through quarantine and participating in one of the only international sporting events of 2020.
League of Legends developer Riot Games' tournament will take place at the Shanghai Media Tech Studio. What was planned to be a multi-city tour through China as part of a lavish 10th anniversary celebration of League of Legends as a global competitive esport will now be an event taking place in a contained environment in the country's biggest city.
Bringing those teams together and creating a way for worlds to go on in 2020 was, Riot executives said, the biggest logistical challenge the company has faced.
Despite all major and minor regions shuttering their offline environment operations and moving to online play throughout 2020, for Riot, the idea that worlds wouldn't happen wasn't an option. Jarret Siegel, the global head of events for esports at Riot, said the company began planning multiple scenarios to host a world championship almost immediately after the scope of the coronavirus pandemic was understood.
"Fairly early into the planning process with the onset of COVID-19, we realized that there would likely be significant changes to worlds," Siegel said. "As the landscape around the globe was constantly changing, our event evolved almost daily during contingency planning. Our team met regularly during the nights on Pacific Time in the U.S. in coordination with our teammates from Riot China, who would join us immediately upon waking up to busy days in Shanghai."
After the first week of competitive play from Jan. 13 to 19, China's LPL took its usual break from competitive play for Lunar New Year celebrations. Players returned to their homes to spend time with their families over the holiday, and competitive play was scheduled to start after a two-week break. With virus cases multiplying rapidly in China, the LPL was the first league affected. On Jan. 25, the LPL and the semipro LoL Development League were postponed indefinitely. The English-language casters for the league were flown back to their homes while the LPL decided how to continue.
That same weekend, in Europe and North America, the League of Legends European Championship and League of Legends Championship Series kicked off their competitive seasons. These competitions began in their respective studios with live audiences as in any other competitive year. In South Korea, League Champions Korea announced that matches would start as scheduled on Feb. 5 in the Jonggak LoL Park Venue but would not have audiences.
But as cases continued to climb worldwide, safety concerns rose. On March 11, the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
"In March, we were very much in a wait-and-see mode for Worlds 2020," said Tom Martell, the global director of operations for esports at Riot Games. "We still were learning to what degree normal business operations would be disrupted. We were cautiously optimistic that by late September the situation would be under control and we would be able to move forward with worlds in some form. But we had no idea how things would evolve in the business of sports and entertainment, particularly in the global sports space in which worlds operates."
While the global team was already thinking ahead to the scheduled Mid-Season Invitational and world championship, regional leagues had to make some tough decisions on their own. The situation in China was improving, and the LPL organized an online scrimmage event as a test for what would eventually be the LPL's online return on March 9. LCS and LEC finals were moved from their planned locations in Frisco, Texas, and Budapest, Hungary, to their respective studios in Los Angeles and Berlin. Then those plans changed too: Both leagues ceased in-person events on March 13.
"In the eleventh hour, we had to stop," Riot Games executive producer David Stewart said of the LCS broadcast. "We'd taken the crowd out, we'd taken a lot of elements out that we thought we had something that may work, and we hit a bump at the end."
Both leagues returned a week later, fully online, with teams playing from their individual gaming houses or homes.
At that same time, the global team was well into formulating multiple contingency plans for the upcoming MSI event, none of which could come together in a little more than a month. MSI was canceled on April 23, and Riot redirected all of its resources into ensuring that worlds would still not only be played but also be as competitive of a global event as possible, regardless of the circumstances.
"In July, in order to minimize the risks associated with the event, we adjusted our plans from a multi-city tour to hosting the entire event in Shanghai," Martell said. "This allowed us to reduce travel over the course of the event and gives us the ability to more closely control the event environment to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved. We will be following best practices established by other sporting events in consultation with medical experts."
The first sign of hope for what would become the worlds setup was an audience-less but still live LAN final for LPL's spring season between JD Gaming and Top Esports. Shanghai wasn't fully back to what people considered normal, but it was safe, provided that necessary precautions were taken and players and teams adhered to strict guidelines.
Those practices will be in play at worlds too, including limiting venues and transportation while ensuring that rigorous testing is available for all teams.
"Within Shanghai, all early stages are being held in one venue with the finals set to be held at Pudong Football Stadium," Siegel said. "By limiting the number of venues, Riot is able to create a more controlled environment and a safe ecosystem for all participants. Transportation to and from the venues is highly coordinated with strict safety protocols, and the venues have thorough cleaning and disinfection procedures."
Venue and regulation planning were the easy part, though. Riot's next challenge was its greatest one. According to team owners, staff and Riot personnel, the most difficult part of organizing the 2020 worlds event was not reorganizing the venue or the spectacle but actually ensuring that teams could fly from their home countries to Shanghai after qualifying for the tournament.
Unlike the bubble environment of the NBA, the League of Legends World Championship involved flying nearly two dozen teams from various countries around the world, some of which have dealt with COVID-19 a lot better than others, to a central location. Exposure during travel was an obvious risk, and government regulations of travel between countries would play a role too.
"During planning, many international flights were not operating or were at diminished capacity, which required us to be nimble with our travel logistics and find routes that would get the teams safely to Shanghai," Siegel said. "The visa process, travel policies and COVID-19 testing requirements for flights were also varied by country, and we were actively monitoring and analyzing the situation as it evolved, even as policies changed literally daily right up to departures."
This is on top of what was already a yearly quagmire of securing multiple international travel permits for teams attending worlds.
"The biggest challenge was visas," said Tricia Sugita, the CEO of North America's second seed for the event, FlyQuest. "We're in a very unprecedented time, and Riot has been an amazing partner, honestly, to make sure that we're able to travel there and work with the Chinese government and allow us to solo queue in China."
She added that players have been making the most of China's aggressive "super-server" during solo queue practice, and that FlyQuest have even been streaming and casting some of their games as players grind through the competitive ladder while in quarantine.
"For us, from the beginning, we wanted to be in Shanghai," said Gen.G chief operating officer Arnold Hur, whose team is representing South Korea as the LCK's third seed. "We actually boot-camped there before the season even started because we knew that's the level we wanted to be at with this team."
Teams traveling to Shanghai were all placed in the same hotel and forced to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine. The LPL teams, who were already in Shanghai at their respective gaming houses, recently traveled to the team hotel themselves and will remain with the other teams from around the world.
However, not all of the qualifying teams made it. On Sept. 1, Riot announced that both Vietnamese teams, Team Flash and GAM Esports, would not be at worlds due to domestic travel restrictions. The format for the world championship was changed and reorganized for 22 teams instead of the planned 24.
"We thought about giving some of the slots out to some of the bigger regions," Riot Games global head of esports John Needham said. "But for competitive integrity reasons, we just went down to 22, and the competition works. I think it holds up still."
Team Flash and GAM Esports weren't the only teams with visa troubles. LoL Continental League champions Unicorns of Love nearly missed their chance to play due to visa issues, and Riot even flew second-place Gambit to Shanghai in case Unicorns of Love would not be able to attend.
"They remained in quarantine for 14 days, preparing to compete, Martell said of Gambit. "Fortunately, we were able to get UOL to Shanghai in time, and they are prepared to compete. GMB will be awarded a share of the prize pool as though they had participated in the event. They are preparing this week to return to their home country, and we thanked them for serving as our standby team, as we were prepared to move them into the draw if any other team was not able to be ready by Sept. 25."
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With the travel secured and teams in place, Riot will lean on the technical achievements from the past two world championships to provide as stunning of an experience as possible, even without live audiences. Needham didn't rule out the possibility of having a live audience at the finals at Pudong Football Stadium but said that it will depend on health guidelines and the situation in Shanghai. The final is scheduled for Oct. 31.
"The exciting element of taking this approach is we're effectively unconstrained by physics or the bounds of reality, and what we bring to life in this reimagined broadcast is powered entirely by our imagination and creative ambitions," Martell said. "This new virtual show opportunity is being led by the same core leads and creative partners who deliver our epic opening ceremony every year. This tech-driven approach also has provided us with new opportunities for partner integration in addition to the broadcast and in-game opportunities that will be delivered throughout Worlds 2020."