THE CORONAVIRUS’ HUMAN IMPACT ON ESPORTS
Ashley Kang was getting ready for another day covering the League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) in late February. She had devoted her career to bringing content from Korean players and teams to an English-speaking audience, quitting her job as a software engineer and moving to Seoul so she could be on the ground where the action happens.
She had regularly stayed up until 6 AM editing videos for her Youtube channel while keeping up with the North American and European League of Legends leagues, putting in countless hours to earn more than 100 new subscribers a day. The momentum she had built wasn’t showing any signs of stopping — until she couldn’t go to work anymore.
On March 2nd, Riot Korea announced that the LCK would be suspended after March 6th when more cases of coronavirus were confirmed in South Korea. “It has been so frustrating since my brand has been built from covering the LCK,” Kang told me over a Discord call from South Korea. “I had a job, a life here. All that momentum is gone.”
Riot Korea, the organizer behind the LCK, had already been on high alert for weeks after the new coronavirus had become more serious throughout the region. There were extra security precautions at LoL Park, the studio where league games take place. Everyone who entered the arena had to get their temperature taken and wear a face mask at all times. A week before the league announced it would halt operations, the press room closed down for Kang and other journalists.
“The coronavirus was very stable for a while, it was increasing slowly,” Kang says. “It looked like South Korea had it under control. Before the press room was closed, it looked like the LCK was getting a live audience back. But a few days before there was a massive outbreak, with hundreds of new cases per day.”
Once the South Korean government changed the national threat level from orange to red, the highest level, Riot Korea couldn’t let the LCK operate any longer without forcing players to take serious health risks. Since Kang has been unable to make new LCK content, she’s gained fewer than 10 followers a day. It’s affected other journalists covering Korean esports as well. “It’s almost impossible [to cover the LCK]. With no broadcast interviews, no one-on-one interviews, and no press room interviews, reporters can hardly write creative articles about the LCK,” Inven Global managing editor Joonkyu “Lasso” Seok says. “It adversely affected our website traffic and it has the same negative effect on our YouTube content.”
The LCK suspension is one of many examples of how the coronavirus outbreak has sent shockwaves throughout the entire esports industry. Tournaments and events across Overwatch, League of Legends, PUBG, Dota 2, Counter-Strike, the fighting game community, and many more have been postponed or canceled outright. Players, casters, coaches, journalists, fans, and others have lost opportunities and money, and they don’t know when they’ll be able to get back to work.
It was February 28th, the day the Masters Championship of IEM Katowice began in the esports capital of Poland, and Patrick Brady was excited to attend his first major Counter-Strike tournament as both a fan and a freelance content creator. He boarded his plane in Scotland, checking his phone to see if the tournament was still on, as other events around the world were getting canceled left and right. It was only a two-hour flight and the event was set to begin before he set foot on the ground in Poland. Everything seemed to be right on track.
“I was on the plane and everything was fine,” Brady, who has worked to support the local Counter-Strike scene in Scotland, tells me. “When I landed I jumped on my phone expecting to see the results of the 100 Thieves game, but instead saw that the event had been canceled for fans.”
The Polish governor of Silesia had ordered ESL, the organizers of IEM Katowice, to close the tournament to the public, including fans like Brady. It’s a decision that most fans understand as the outbreak has only gotten worse. But they wish the Polish government didn’t wait until the event was about to start to make the announcement.
“I don’t have a grudge against the ESL, because at the end of the day, they can’t do anything about it. I am upset at the governing body of Poland,” Brady says. “The event may not be open for us, but we’re all still in Poland. All of these esports fans are still going to be mingling, no one is going to be sitting in their hotel rooms. It’s not just the fans,” he adds, saying that the local government was getting the best of both worlds, fans were still spending money in the city even though the event was canceled. “It’s the staff, players, everyone is blindsided.”
IEM Katowice’s partial cancellation is a prime example of how poorly some esports organizations and local governments have handled the outbreak. While Riot Korea took precautions long before they were required to, other organizations have waited until the last minute. “There’s been little communication,” Brady says. “A few days would have been better, even a couple of hours earlier for me personally. That would have meant not getting on the plane.”
The new coronavirus didn’t just start affecting those looking to compete, cover, or attend international tournaments now. It’s been causing cancellations and postponements for weeks, including some major live events that players were relying on for income.
Nicholas “Nick101” Elliot was pumped: his team of four battle-tested Australians wracked up 101 points in the Oceanic PUBG online qualifier, finishing in second place. They qualified for the Americas Championship, scheduled for late March in Los Angeles, with the hope of eventually making it to the first major PUBG LAN of 2020 in Berlin in April. Their plan didn’t last long, though. In early February, PUBG Corp announced that PGS Berlin would be postponed due to the coronavirus. It does not have a scheduled replacement date.
“The tournament getting delayed is really irritating,” Elliot, who plays for Athletico Esports, told me over a Twitter message. “As a player from the Oceania region, prize pool winnings are our only income. There are barely enough other tournaments to play in; there [has] only been one so far this year.”
To make matters worse, Los Angeles County declared a state of emergency over the outbreak on March 4th, after confirming six new cases in 48 hours, meaning that the Americas Championship could be canceled as well. If it does happen as scheduled, the postponement of PGS Berlin makes things more chaotic for teams like Athletico Esports.
“I definitely think it has to [affect how they perform] even if just a little,” says PUBG commentator and analyst Clinton “Paperthin” Bader. “It’s added chaos and uncertainty to schedules for teams. That makes it harder to coordinate scrims/practices and lives in general. I don’t think it’s a huge impact, but it’s something for sure.”
Elliot doesn’t know what will happen to events like the Americas Championship in the coming weeks, but he’s still training as if it were happening. Most players I spoke to said they were frustrated due to the cancellations, but didn’t have anyone to point that frustration toward. “It’s a massive health issue on a national scale in China and on an international scale,” PUBG analyst and caster Martin “Avnqr” Gøth says. “There are a lot of big teams, and investors, coming out of China and you want to have them represented. It’s unfair if they aren’t.”
It’s difficult to be angry with any tournament organizer or publisher for postponing or canceling their events when the outbreak is completely out of their control. Every player, fan, and journalist I spoke to agreed that this isn’t something that organizers encounter often and have to make difficult judgment calls on quickly. ”It’s out of PUBG Corp’s control,” Gøth says.
The impact on thousands of players, fans, coaches, casters, and journalists has been significant and most believe it will only get worse. It seems likely that the Americas Championship in Los Angeles will be postponed as experts grapple with the size of the outbreak in the United States. “I think it will [still happen], but it’s possible if things get bad enough the local organizers or even the local government might block the event from happening,” Bader says. “However, you would see a bunch of other esports based out of LA follow suit or get ahead of PUBG if things get bad enough.”
We don’t know when the next LAN will be held with the threat of the coronavirus growing each day. For many people I spoke to, online tournaments don’t work for the competitions due to connection issues. Tournaments need to happen offline and that doesn’t seem possible right now.
The main concern for Kang, Bradley, Elliot, and thousands of others is about how much worse the situation will get as the outbreak spreads. “The last time the threat level went this high [in South Korea] was during Swine flu in 2009. I looked at how much time it took to drop back to orange, it took five weeks,” Kang says. Other instances have taken longer. In 2003, the first case of severe acute respiratory syndrome, also known as SARS, was reported in the Guangdong province in southern China in mid-November. The World Health Organization didn’t declare the outbreak contained until July 2004. “It took three or four months until it started slowing down then,” Gøth said. “PUBG has announced that they still plan to have four major tournaments in 2020, but that depends on when the problem gets under control.”
Kang has started considering her next moves, including whether she can still produce quality content in South Korea. “I’ve been thinking about traveling back home to New Zealand where I am a national,” she said, hoping to go to Europe or elsewhere from there. “I’m a content creator, my type of work is based heavily on live events. That doesn’t work if there are no live events in South Korea. There are some international events coming up and I’d love to cover them, also to keep my work going. But at the same time, I don’t know whether they will take place or if there will be travel restrictions.”