Coronavirus is disrupting esports domestically and abroad

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Whether it’s a global threat or a local fearmonger, 2019-nCoV (novel coronavirus) has invoked several tight security measures across China. With the local esports market worth more than $2B and international leagues including China into the schedule, those measures already hit the industry. Let’s look at the impact of coronavirus on esports both short-term and long-term.

Coronavirus situation

On January 28, China’s National Health Commission reported 4,515 confirmed cases and 106 casualties of the new coronavirus. There are also a few thousand suspected cases. Multiple confirmed cases were observed in practically every Chinese province, and there are singular cases in South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Here are some of the security measures relevant for esports:

  • China quarantined the entire city of Wuhan (Hubei province), on January 22. People could still leave the city on personal vehicles for another day and a half, but most highways are now blocked. 
  • On January 24, the government locked down another dozen cities surrounding Wuhan. This increased the number of affected people from 11 million to 33 million. EDward Gaming’s coach, Ming “Clearlove” Kai, confirmed to be stuck in Hubei. 
  • As of January 27, all non-essential business are not allowed to return from the Lunar New Year break until February 9
  • China’s General Administration of Sport advised all sport events organizers to postpone everything scheduled before April. Football, local Olympic committee (boxing qualifiers), tennis authorities have all complied regarding their winter events.

Short-Term Impact

For League of Legends, it is confirmed that the premier division, LPL, and the development league are suspended indefinitely. LPL teams played only one week before the holiday break and were scheduled to return on February 5. Even before the outbreak, the regular season was already set to drag into early April. Between playoffs and the Mid-Season Invitational (usually starts on the first week of May), there’s very little room for rescheduling.

What aggravates LPL’s situation is the tournament’s format. Most major regions have 10 teams and run on a double-robin schedule, which means that teams face each other twice in best-of-1 (Europe, North America) or best-of-3 (Korea) matches. LPL has 17 teams, so they play only one best-of-3 per opponent to save time. As a result, cutting the number of repeat matches (like NBA does after lockouts) is not an option.

League of Legends being played in LGD Venu in Hangzhou, China
LGD Venue // LGD’s home venue in Hangzhou | Source: Shanghai Daily

Another assault to China’s LoL injury is the broadcast schedule. Apart from Week 2, Tencent assigned matches to every single day of the week. Even if LPL resumed in early March, it wouldn’t be possible to run on the same schedule and wrap the split up before the MSI. The evident options are bad, each in their own way:

  • Moving some regular season to online hurts integrity and affects sponsors’ exposure
  • Condensing match days (normally, it’s just two series a day) guarantees long hours that may turn into extremely long hours. In Dota 2 and CS:GO, multiple events a year suffer from 12-hour match days after tournament organizers schedule four best-of-3 series and pray for 2:0s.
  • Running matches in parallel would hurt sponsors, dilute viewership, and require a second studio. LCS and LEC used this model to move from best-of-1 matches while keeping a low number of broadcast days but quit the idea within less than a year.

As Overwatch League weekends are now played on home arenas of each team, the tournament is affected as well. Blizzard intended to hold East Division matches for Week 2–4 (from February 15 till March 1) in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hangzhou. No decision has been announced at the time of writing this article.

Luckily, Overwatch League’s regular season is set to end in early August. In the worst-case scenario, Blizzard can sacrifice Week 13’s All-Star and Mid-Season competitions to host the outstanding matches. Condensing the playoffs schedule is also an option. Extending the regular season probably isn’t: the yet-to-be-announced Grand Finals venue must have been booked at least a year in advance.

Overwatch League prefers sports venue that are busy in late fall

Across other esports, WESG called off the APAC Qualifiers in Macau from February 16–18. Competitors in Dota 2, CS:GO, StarCraft II gather at a different location or play online. More details will be revealed after the Lunar New Year.

Medium-Term Coronavirus Impact

With the league’s schedule ruined and team routines shaken, LPL’s Spring Split will be a rather chaotic affair. Reducing the number of matches, should that happen, would benefit Royal Never Give Up among others. After all, the injury-prone star Jian “Uzi” Zi-Hao would be able to play a higher share of games. FunPlus Phoenix and Invictus Gaming would enjoy last year’s synergy, unlike revamped EDward Gaming and LGD Gaming.

Sending a less prepared team to the 2020 Mid-Season Invitational could affect China in later season(s). For example, a (somewhat unlikely) poor performance the region could contribute to LPL losing the privilege of sending their #3 team straight into Group Stage instead of Play-In. This is, however, a long shot, as Riot uses two prior years for seeding. 

Long-Term Impact on Esports

Trophy from League of Legends 2017 Worlds Finals at Brid's Nest in Beijing, China
Worlds 2017 Finals // 2017 Worlds concluded at Bird’s Nest | Source: LoL Esports

Unlike European and North American competitions, the LPL stuck to the concept of Championship Points. Teams can fast-track their Worlds qualification or earn a place in the last-chance gauntlet based on performances in both Spring and Summer. An awkward split may lead to an awkward Worlds slots distribution.

Most importantly, China will be hosting the 2020 World Championship in the fall. Most outbreaks do not last almost a year, yet it took China 8 months to contain the 2003 SARS outbreak. Remember that Riot would have to pull the plugin advance if it came to that.

Even if you’re not in China, please, follow these steps to avoid contracting the disease. Stay safe out there.

Coronavirus prevention and risk reduction advice from WHO
WHO’s Routine | Source: World Health Organization


by Simon Kaastrup-Olsen
January 28, 2020


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